A man named Job lived in the land of Uz. Job was “blameless and upright”—he honored God and resisted evil. Job had seven sons and three daughters, as well as huge flocks of livestock and lots of servants. He was considered “the greatest of all the people of the east.” Job’s sons often feasted in one another’s houses. After the feasts, Job would always offer burnt offerings on his children’s behalf, reasoning that they might have “cursed God in their hearts.”
The Book of Job opens with a prologue introducing Job’s exemplary character and, later, his afflictions. The setting—an ancient, foreign land with overflowing riches—give the story a folktale atmosphere, hinting that the story is going to address moral questions. More importantly, Job’s prosperity and piety (his reverence towards God) represent what the Old Testament views as an ideal life. The precise location of Uz is uncertain, but it might have been within the land of Edom (southeast of the land of Israel) or even further south, on the Arabian peninsula. Although Job doesn’t live within the land of Israel, he worships Israel’s God, and he is zealous about it, even atoning for his children’s hypothetical sins by offering sacrifices. This passage prepares its audience for the rest of the book by establishing that Job is undoubtedly a good person, no matter how others later try to contest this fact.
One day, Satan comes before the Lord. The Lord asks Satan what he’s been up to, and Satan reports that he’s been wandering the earth. The Lord asks Satan if he’s considered “my servant Job.” After all, there is nobody else like Job on earth—a “blameless and upright” worshiper of God. Satan replies, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” He points out that God has “put a fence” around Job and all that belongs to him. But if God touches Job’s belongings now, Satan argues, Job will “curse you to your face.” The Lord agrees that everything of Job’s is now under Satan’s power, but that Satan must not harm Job himself. So, Satan leaves God’s presence.
The prologue alternates between scenes on earth and in heaven. Here, the prologue introduces a conflict between God and Satan. However, the two figures aren’t presented as possessing equal power—God is clearly in charge, and Satan can only harm Job with God’s express permission. Given that Satan disappears from the story fairly quickly, it’s notable that though he is the figure who directly causes Job’s coming trials, he ultimately isn’t very important to Job’s life or, the book implies, to readers’ lives—when a person encounters suffering, it’s God, not Satan, they ultimately have to deal with. By calling Job his “servant,” God confirms that Job really is praiseworthy and blameless. Also, in the Book of Job, “Satan” isn’t a personal name for the devil, the way it becomes used in later religious literature; the Hebrew is ha-satan, which just means “the adversary” or “the accuser.” Though Satan doesn’t seem to be a total stranger in God’s presence—his sudden appearance in heaven isn’t resisted—he does have an adversarial stance toward God, as when he argues that Job only superficially serves God because God gives him good things.
One day, while Job’s children are feasting at the eldest brother’s house, a messenger comes to Job and tells him that the Sabeans have carried away Job’s oxen and donkeys; they have also killed his servants with the sword. Before the messenger has even finished speaking, another messenger comes up and tells Job that fire fell from heaven and consumed his sheep and servants. Then, yet another messenger interrupts with the news that a Chaldean raid has carried off his camel herds and killed his servants. Finally, a fourth messenger arrives and says that while Job’s children were feasting at the eldest son’s house, a massive desert wind blew in, collapsing the house and crushing Job’s children to death.
This section is what’s known as Job’s first test. Presumably at Satan’s instigation, Job is struck by a series of catastrophes. The disasters come from all directions: the Sabeans were a people from the south of Uz and the Chaldeans from the north; a fire comes from heaven, and the wind from the east. Piled on top of one another, the tragedies occur in shocking, relentless succession, destroying everything that had earlier marked Job as a righteous and rightfully blessed person: his livestock and his children.
When Job hears this, he gets up, tears his robe, shaves his head, and falls to the ground in worship. He says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this, Job does nothing wrong, and he doesn’t accuse God of wrong, either.
Tearing one’s clothes and shaving one’s head were gestures of mourning in the ancient Near East. Job’s words mean that no matter what God gives or takes away from a person, God should still be worshiped, even in the midst of heartbreak. Job’s worshipful attitude is what the book regards as exemplary for a faithful sufferer. Moreover, Job’s actions are the opposite of what Satan predicted would happen—instead of cursing God when struck with disaster, Job worships God. The Bible praises this behavior.