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A Few Notes on Readings from Job

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In the traditional form of the Divine Office, the Matins readings for the first two weeks of September are taken from the book of Job. The system of Scriptural readings assigned to the Office goes back to the 6th century; it originated in the ancient Roman basilicas, but we know nothing about how it was devised. When it was extensively revised in the Tridentine reform, the basic pattern of readings (Isaiah in Advent, St Paul after Christmas, Genesis in Septuagesima etc.) was not changed, but completed and expanded.

The readings of the first two chapters of Job contain a famously curious use of the expression “to bless God.” Job offers sacrifice daily for his children “Lest perhaps my children have sinned, and blessed God in their hearts.” (1, 5) When Satan challenges God by saying that Job only honors Him because of the material blessings he has received, he says “touch (i.e. destroy) all that he hath, and see if he blesseth Thee not to Thy face.” In the second chapter, Satan repeats this challenge in the same terms, after which he afflicts Job bodily “with a very grievous ulcer, from the sole of the foot even to the top of his head.” Job’s wife then says to him, “Dost thou still continue in thy simplicity? bless God and die.” (2, 9)

The Patient Job, by Gerard Seghers (1625-50)

Taken literally, the expression “bless God” makes no sense in this context, since when Job loses his children and all his possessions, he says “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord.” The Biblical author praises Job for this, saying “In all these things Job sinned not by his lips, nor spoke he any foolish thing against God.” (1, 21-22)

In point of fact, the expression “bless God” is here written as a euphemism for “curse God”, which was apparently felt to be too offensive for public reading of the Scriptures. A similar case is found in 3 Kings 21, 10, when a man called Naboth is falsely accused of “blessing” God, that is, cursing Him, so that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel can have him killed and steal his property. In his commentary on the book of Job, St Thomas Aquinas notes this, saying, “The crime of blasphemy is so horrible that pious mouths shudder to call it by its proper name, but signify it though its opposite.” (chapter 1)

The Septuagint translation of Job paraphrases the Hebrew words of Job’s wife “bless God” with “speak a word against the Lord.” The Greek text of this verse (2, 9) also contains a long and quite beautiful interpolation; only the parts underlined here are in the original Hebrew.

“And when much time had passed, his wife said to him, ‘How long wilt thou hold out, saying, “Behold, I wait yet a little while, expecting the hope of my deliverance?” For, behold, thy memorial is abolished from the earth, (thy) sons and daughters, the pangs and pains of my womb which I bore in vain with sorrows. And thou thyself amid the corruption of worms sittest down to spend the nights in the open air, and I am a wanderer and a servant, beleaguered from place to place and house to house, waiting for the setting of the sun, that I may rest from my labors and my pangs which now beset me: but say some word against the Lord, and die.’ ”

In the Byzantine Rite, this passage (Job 2, 1-10) is read at the Vespers of the Presanctified Gifts on Spy Wednesday, the first chapter being read at the same ceremony on Monday and Tuesday. At the Divine Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, which is joined to Vespers, the Lord’s first speech to Job is read from chapter 38, along with the beginning of chapter 42, which concludes the story. At Vespers of Good Friday, the rest of chapter 42 is read, with another interpolation at the end. After the last words of the Biblical text, “and he died an old man, and full of days.”, are added the following.

“and it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up. This man is described in the Syriac book as living in the land of Ausis (Hus), on the borders of Idumea (Edom) and Arabia, and his name was previously Jobab; and having taken an Arabian wife, he begot a son whose name was Enon. And he himself was (the son) of his father Zare, one of the sons of Esau, and of his mother Bosorrha, so that he was the fifth from Abraham.”

The reading of Job on Good Friday (preceded by a reading from Exodus 33, followed by Isaiah 53) from a Greek Triodion printed in 1586.

The liturgical reading on Good Friday ends here, but the Septuagint also adds the following to the end.

“And these were the kings who reigned in Edom, which country he also ruled over: first, Balac, the son of Beor, and the name of his city was Dennaba: but after Baac, Jobab, who is called Job, and after him Asom, who was governor out of the country of Thaeman: and after him Adad, the son of Barad, who destroyed Madiam in the plain of Moab; and the name of his city was Gethaim. And [his] friends who came to him were Eliphaz, of the children of Esau, king of the Thaemanites, Baldad son of the Sauchaeans, Sophar king of the Kinaeans.”

Lastly, we may note that in the Syriac Bible, to which the Greek text refers above, the book of Job is placed after the Pentateuch, according to a tradition that Moses himself was either its author, or translated it from Arabic into Hebrew.


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