job’s perfection and paul’s objection
Job, we are told in the opening verses of the book which bears his name, was תם וישר וירא אלהים וסר מרע — “blameless and just, fearing God.” Much of the point of the book rests upon the veracity of this assertion. Job did not deserve to suffer as he did.
David Clines claims that this presents a somewhat difficult conundrum to Christian readers of the book. I’ll let him explain:
A Christian perspective on the Book of Job first attends to the very first sentence of the book, which depicts Job as “blameless and upright,” the first of these epithets also being conventionally translated as “perfect.” for a Christian reader such language, if meant literally and seriously, is inappropriate for any human being; Christian theology and culture takes for granted that no one is perfect and that even the best of people can never be wholly free of sin.1
To expand, the Christian claim is that all deserve death for “the wages of sin is death” and “all have sinned…” Thus any claim that Job was innocent faces this theological objection founded in the NT’s assertion that all are under sentence of death. Why, then, should Job (or his reader) be surprised by his suffering — on this view it is no longer unjust, is it? Further, this leads one to suppose that Job’s friends do have a point, for Job has sinned as all have sinned.
Where this reading fails, however, is in its incomplete understanding of the measure of Job’s righteousness within the context of the OT. Job’s prologue does not claim that Job was sinless, indeed it offers hints that he may have been sinful. In spite of this, however, it is not incorrect for the author to affirm Job’s blamelessness and hence the incongruous nature of his suffering.
What hint is there of these things? It comes in Job 1:5:
והשכים בבקר והעלה עלות מספר כלם
he would get up early in the morning and offer burnt offerings for all of them…
This verse highlights the fact that Job was a sacrificing man. Sacrifices were designated as the means by which the offence of sin was removed. They implicitly incorporated an acknowledgment of the sin and were provided by God as the means by which sin was atoned.
Hence Job did not need to be sinless in order for the description in Job 1:1 to be accurate, rather he had to be faithful in making atonement for sin. In this manner he fulfilled the requirements of the Law and in so doing could be described as “blameless and just” and consequently underserving of punishment for any sin.
Furthermore, it is worth examining the terminology in Job 1:1. First, the adjective תם which I’ve translated “blameless.” My electronic copy of HALOT says the following: “It should be noted in general that in accordance with the meaning of the root תמם to be complete, perfect, the general sense of the adj. is also complete, perfect, a sense which develops in different ways with different usages: a) physical perfection as applied to the body; b) socially perfect; c) correct in law; d) ethnically [sic] and morally correct.” (I assume that’s meant to read “ethically” not “ethnically”!) I do not think this compels us to see in Job some form of sinless perfectionism, rather, as I’ve argued above, it highlights Job’s diligent observation of protocol when it comes to maintaining his relationship with Yahweh. It is also noteworthy that the adjective תם is not used of God anywhere in biblical Hebrew.
Neither can the adjective ישר, which I’ve rendered “just” above, easily be understood to refer to sinless perfection.
Hence I think the problem Clines identifies is ultimately no problem at all. Doubtless it is a problem for some readers who fail to account for the fact that God had provided a means through which sin could be dealt with. What is important, however, is to recognise that the prologue clearly depicts Job as one who is blameless because any sin he may have been guilty of has been appropriately dealt with so that the claim of Job’s friends that he suffers for some sin is without merit (as is demonstrated conclusively in the epilogue to the book).
1. David J. A. Clines, Job 1–20 (WBC 17A; Word: Dallas, 1989) p. lv.