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I have often struggled with the book of Job, wondering what rubric should guide my interpretation as I read through the speeches of Job's "friends". They say so much that is "true" (so much that squares with the rest of Scripture), but clearly they are not to be trusted (hence, the Lord's rebuke of them in Job 42:7). So how can I interpret what they're saying?

Then the thought occurred to me: perhaps these speeches represent the voice of Satan (= "the Accuser"). I had always assumed his voice ended in chapter two. But doesn't it make sense that the one who is named "the Accuser" would continue to accuse his target throughout the duration of the "test"?

Reading the book in this way really opened my eyes to the Slanderer's shrewd and cunning schemes: mixing truth with lies so craftily, as he always has. Thought of in this way, the accusations sound quite familiar to the lines he still uses today against God's children: "You brought this on yourself" (4:8) "You think you're so godly, you think you're so wise—you're nothing but a witless loser!" (11:12) "You're a foolish sinner!" (15:2-6) "You're evil and there's no hope for you!" (18:5-21) (All my loose translations, of course.)

If this is an accurate interpretation, Job isn't a book about navigating adversity and hardships as much as it is about how to respond to the lies & accusations of the evil one. And note that Job's responses are less often directed at the accusers as much as they are directed at God. Speaking anachronistically, Job is demonstrating how to put on the "armor of God" to take his stand against the fiery darts of the enemy. He underscores clearly the importance of responding to the accusations by putting our hope in the Advocate (9:33-35, 16:19-20, 19:25)

So what do you think? Am I stretching it? Is this eisegesis? Or could this be what the Author had in mind?

(Richard had some good thoughts in this related question, but he doesn't address my question specifically.)

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Wow. God bless all of you for your insight. I was reading ch.15-16 and felt lead to search out if his friends were really totally wrong because I too felt they were saying a lot of truthful things. What great wisdom to apply now as I continue reading this. I'm very thankful – user446 Feb 23 '12 at 15:21
+1 This is an extremely good question. With I could give you about five more upvotes. – Kazark May 25 '12 at 22:29
up vote 13 down vote accepted

This is an intriguing interpretation, but there are a couple things that I think militate against it:

First, Job 32:2-3 seems to frame the discussion that precedes it in terms similar to the traditional interpretation as concerning theodicy. Elihu is angry because Job has taken up the cause of his own justice rather than that of God's. He is also angry because Job's friends, in the name of justifying God, have condemned a righteous man. These themes don't fit well with an "armor of God" type framework.

Second, if Job is to be understood as an example of one who fights off well the lies of the Adversary, it is difficult to make sense of God's rebuke of Job at the climax of the book. Why would God, after Job has so valiantly fought off the Adversary, then take the time to expose Job's lack of knowledge regarding the operation of the world?

Lastly, in the epilogue in 42:7-9 we see Job's friends offer sacrifices for their folly, with God appointing Job as a mediator for his friends. Both of these actions would seem uncharacteristic if we were to understand the three friends as Satan.

In my opinion, it's better to see the three friends as representing a particular (malformed) worldview concerning suffering and the justification of God. They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not backed by knowledge.

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Thank you for taking the time to give such a considered and reasonable response. I had already thought that the Elihu discourse didn't really fit well into my suggested schema. But your second point about God's rebuke of Job is even more poignant in this regard. I'm still left with the frustration of not being able to really understand how to read the friends' speeches. It's like reading Ecclesiastes -- ("is the teaching of this verse something I'm supposed to accept or something to reject?") But that is a discussion for another day. Thanks again for your reply. – kmote Jan 25 '12 at 4:29
Concerning point three, I don't think it is necessary to understand the three friends as Satan. Rather, it remains plausible that as accusing voices they speaker from the Accuser rather than from God. +1 for valuable contribution to the discussion. – Kazark May 25 '12 at 22:42

While I agree with Soldarnal's analysis, this question is interesting enough that I would like to play devil's advocate. I've been mulling over the issue all week so bear with my (overly-long) answer.

God's Accuser

The setup of Job is the Adversary looking for a way to discredit God:

The Adversary answered the Lord, “Does Job not have good reason to fear God? Why, it is You who have fenced him round, him and his household and all that he has. You have blessed his efforts so that his possessions spread out in the land. But lay Your hand upon all that he has and he will surely blaspheme You to Your face.” —Job 1:9-11 (NJPS)

On the surface, the charge is that Job only fears Gob because he receives material blessings (and in chapter 2, because he is protected from physical suffering). But close under the surface stands the charge that God bribes His people so that they will love Him.

The text tells us explicitly what Job might have done to cause the charge against God to be found true:

Then Job arose, tore his robe, cut off his hair, and threw himself on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

For all that, Job did not sin nor did he cast reproach on God. —1:20-22 (NJPS)


His wife said to him, “You still keep your integrity! Blaspheme God and die!” But he said to her, “You talk as any shameless woman might talk! Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?” For all that, Job said nothing sinful. —2:9-10 (NJPS)

Job's wife's suggestion is that he throw in the towel on a relationship with God and give up on life. But Job easily rises to the challenge and does not sin.

Job's Accusers

At it's center, Job is a poetic dialogue with his three friends. Job pleads for God to answer why he must endure suffering and pain. He appeals to God for vindication since he is a righteous man. The replies from his friends are accusations that punishment came because of Job's sin, which the reader knows is the precise opposite of the truth.

So Job is stuck between a rock and a hard place: he's not going to cast reproach on God for taking away what he was given. But he can't accept the charge that his suffering was the result of sin either. Remember that in the first two chapters, God explicitly affirms that Job is "a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil." Accepting the charge would serve God's Adversary just as well as direct blasphemy. It would make God to be a liar.

The Trial of God

Along the way, Job's friends act as Job's accuser and since God has picked Job to be His champion, they are acting as God's accusers too. Now there's no indication that either Job or his friends are aware of the heavenly drama told in the prologue. But just as the Accuser puts God to the test in heaven, Job's friends put him on trial on earth. And Job acknowledges that he would like to put God on trial as well:

Indeed I know that it is so:
Man cannot win a suit against God.

If he insisted on a trial with Him,
He would not answer one charge in a thousand. —9:2-3 (NJPS)

And in his final speech, Job swears that he is innocent:

By God who has deprived me of justice!
By Shaddai who has embittered my life!

As long as there is life in me,
And God’s breath is in my nostrils,

My lips will speak no wrong,
Nor my tongue utter deceit.

Far be it from me to say you are right;
Until I die I will maintain my integrity. —27:2-5 (NJPS)

Elihu the clever

I disagree with the common belief that Elihu was essentially correct in his theodicy. Rather, Elihu cleverly reiterates the accusations of the three friends and supplements them with the assertion that God will not answer Job's case against him. In many ways, his arguments ring true: God does punish the wicked, uses suffering to discipline the righteous, and, even when He answers Job, God does not justify Himself. (God doesn't even explain what was going on in heaven!)

But Elihu's arguments come directly out of the Adversary's playbook:

Who placed the earth in His charge?
Who ordered the entire world?

If He but intends it,
He can call back His spirit and breath;

All flesh would at once expire,
And mankind return to dust. —34:13-15 (NJPS)

Elihu's argument might be summarized as:

  1. God's job is to create us and give us good things.
  2. If we disobey Him, He will use pain and suffering to punish and correct us.
  3. We can't expect Him to respond to our complaints since He is always just and we are never right to complain.

If you remember from the first two chapters, the Adversary hopes to discredit God by removing God's blessings from Job. He hopes to prove that the way God wins love for himself is by rewarding those He favors with good things and correcting those who stray with pain. Elihu's words are theologically correct, but they don't address the greater truth that God wants a relationship with people. If Job accepted the simple explanation that God is punishing Job for some unknown sin he'd committed, Job would be giving up on his relationship with God and thus winning the bet for the Adversary.

God has the final word

Finally, God speaks. I argued elsewhere that God finds Elihu beneath contempt, but here I note that while God does pass judgment on Job and his three friends, He does not explicitly deal with either the Adversary or Elihu at this time. Surprisingly, His speech does not seem to answer Job's charges either. He first asserts His dominion over the physical (Job 38) and animal worlds (Job 39). Then He prompts Job to make a short reply and proceeds to proclaim authority over the behemoth (Job 40) and then Leviathan (Job 40:25-41:26 in the Tanakh and Job 41 in most English translations).

Seemingly, the behemoth (a superlative beast) and Leviathan are part of the animal world that God already showed authority over in chapter 39. But a reasonable reading might be that these are mythical creatures that represent evil. Unlike their representation in Babylonian mythology, however, God made the behemoth:

He is the first of God’s works;
Only his Maker can draw the sword against him.—Job 40:19 (NJPS)

Unlike humanity (which does have dominion over animals), God has dominion and authority over the Leviathan and is able to capture him and bring him into submission. Job accepts these words as a proper answer to Job's charges against God, which only works if God metaphorically had declared His dominion over evil itself. Job 42:1-6 signals his acceptance of God's promise to tame evil. The conclusion of the book shows Job's trust to be well-founded as he finds justice for himself and his three friends.

God's justice against the Accuser is delayed

But we don't see God enact justice against the Adversary or against Elihu. I do not believe this is an oversight by the author. Rather, it seems we are, like Job, to trust that God will set all wrongs right in the end. The final end of the Leviathan is addressed in other Biblical texts such as:

In that day the Lord will punish,
With His great, cruel, mighty sword
Leviathan the Elusive Serpent—
Leviathan the Twisting Serpent;
He will slay the Dragon of the sea. —Isaiah 27:1 (NJPS)

If the author of Job truly equates the behemoth and Leviathan with the Adversary, it would seem that is also his fate. And if Elihu truly opposes God, it's not a stretch to identify him with the Adversary of chapters 1 and 2.

Good lies often include true statements

What makes Job a tough nut to crack is that Job's friends really don't stray far from the truth. Even Elihu presents ideas that are largely previews of what God will say in conclusion. There aren't a lot of verses I can find that seem to be theologically wrong (either to the Jewish understanding or my own Christian understanding). If the serpent in Genesis 3 and Satan in Matthew 4 are the same person as the Accuser of Job, we shouldn't be surprised to hear true, but not complete statements from his imitators. God is angry with Job's friends because they said things that are not true about God, but I'm hard pressed to identify anything they said that was wrong.

Worse, I see God repeating many of the same arguments that we'd already heard from Job's friends. The two things that God adds to the conversation (it seems to me) are His own voice and the description of the end of all evil (chapters 40 and 41). Job asks for God to answer him, his friends don't offer any hope that will happen, and yet God does come and reveal that all will be set right in the end.


Finally, I see Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar in much the same light as we see Peter in Mark 8:31-33 (HCSB):

Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and rise after three days. He was openly talking about this. So Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.

But turning around and looking at His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan, because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s!”

They aren't identical with Satan, but they are speaking his lines. Remarkably, Peter argues in a very similar vein to Job's friends: God doesn't require innocent men to suffer.

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Some interesting thoughts in here, especially the part about Leviathan. If I might make one suggestion - it would help your argument to substantiate this claim a little: "There are strong echoes of the Adversary in these lines and in other parts of Elihu's speech." – Soldarnal Jan 28 '12 at 5:14
@Soldarnal: I took a shot. That really was some hand waving and weakens the argument. What do you think of my additions? I'm happy to field any other criticisms since I'm not fully convinced myself. If there are major problems with the interpretation, I'd like to know it. :-) – Jon Ericson Jan 30 '12 at 22:46
Very thought-provoking Jon. I appreciate that you are wrestling with some of the same things that I am. ("Job's friends really don't stray far from the truth.") I am especially struck by your parallel with Peter (and with Matt 4). I believe you're on to something there. (On the other hand, I'm not as comfortable with the Leviathon stuff. I'll have to give that some more thought.) – kmote Jan 31 '12 at 4:57
@Jon: "I would like to play devil's advocate"...or in this case, devil's advocates' advocate. :-) – Bruce Alderman Feb 2 '12 at 18:08
@Bruce: To be honest, I started writing the answer in order to make the pun. ;-) – Jon Ericson Feb 2 '12 at 18:21

Are Job's friends the voice of the Accuser?

In my framework for understanding Job, in the context of justice, the men roughly represent:

  • Job: The wisdom of Ecclesiastes (mis-applied)
  • Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar: The wisdom of Proverbs (also mis-applied)
  • Elihu: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord"

Job identifies with the logic of Ecclesiastes (briefly summed us as "There is injustice everywhere but submit to God regardless"), for example:

22 It is all one; therefore I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’  ESV

Job mis-applies Ecclesiastes because he comes within a hairs breadth of using it's logic to judge God Himself. It is telling that God's eventual response contains no attempt at self-justification, rather a strong assertion that he cannot be judged by Job.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar follow the logic of Proverbs (briefly summed up as "do well and you will be blessed"), for example:

As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
    and sow trouble reap the same.  ESV

See also Proverbs 22:8:

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of his fury will fail.  ESV

The friends mis-apply Proverbs because they take (true) general principles and add in (false) assumptions about Job and his circumstances.

Elihu prepares the way for God's arrival by silencing Job and rebuking both him and his friends. His arrival coincides with the cessation of the back and forth debate, and his words are summed up early on:

Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God. He burned with anger also at Job's three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.  ESV

It is well worth noting that God does not even refer to Elihu once he arrives on the scene—this strongly suggests he is an agent of God rather than a character in the play like Job and his friends

In conclusion, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are not (directly) the voice of the Accuser—they are the people who should have been able to rebuke Job for his self-righteousness before God, but they get it completely wrong by mis-applying the wisdom of Proverbs.

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I've never heard that interpretation. It certainly seems to fit. Do you date Job later than Ecclesiastes and Proverbs? – Jon Ericson Feb 25 '12 at 18:11
It isn't entirely novel :-) I think at least the content of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes dates from the time of David and Solomon - it is hard to be sure when Job is from but I am assuming it was later, yes. – Jack Douglas Feb 25 '12 at 19:19
I surely read that section of the Wikipedia article, but it made absolutely no sense. Your explanation is much better. Have you read Michael Coogan's books? – Jon Ericson Feb 25 '12 at 20:06

It is obvious that Satan's greatest test of Job was brought to bear through the three friends. The over-arching chiastic structure begins and ends with a storm; what happens between is thus of most importance. If the Accuser's attack is viewed as complete before chapter 3, how is one to make any sense of the book? Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage; with chapter 3, the battle is joined. Read it with this perspective, and a narrative is found.

And what a battle! Job fails and falls, but resists and rises and makes the good confession; and Satan will have no satisfaction. Elihu displays a right-minded, zealous bewilderment that is known to all of us who ever charged into the fray in order to comfort a good man harassed by the devil.

While this understanding seems patently correct to me, I admit I never hear it advanced. I can only attribute this ignorance to the subterfuge of a most cunning foe. Not that Satan had a hand in the composition; but God gives us a portrayal of the cunning which would launch an covert, extended invasion under the preliminary cover of shock-and-awe artillery, and the portrayal itself is cunning in the way it escapes our attention.

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