Book of Job on premortal existence of "first man"

One noteworthy Latter-day Saint teaching is that Adam, the "first man" (D&C 84:16; Moses 1:34; 3:7; 6:45; Abraham 1:3), had a premortal existence (Moses 3:5) and was present at the planning and creation of the earth (Abraham 3:22–26).1 This idea of the first man’s premortal existence is implicit in the book of Job.2

Job’s accuser Eliphaz challenges the suffering man’s claims to wisdom, asking, "Are you the firstborn of the human race? Were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council of God? And do you limit wisdom to yourself? What do you know that we do not know?" (Job 15:7–9 NRSV). Eliphaz’s point is that Job cannot lay claim to such heavenly wisdom because he was obviously not "the firstborn of the human race." This presupposes that the first man could indeed lay claim to heavenly wisdom. Several elements in the narrative lead to this conclusion and reinforce the related idea of the first man’s premortal existence.

First, the primal man is described in Job 15:7 as having been "brought forth" rather than "created" (bārāʿ, Genesis 1:27) or "formed" (yāṣar, Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew verb in this verse is neither "created" nor "formed," but rather comes from the root ḥyl in the polal form and means "to bring forth (through labour pains)."3 The usage of this verb seems to point to an event distinct from Adam’s mortal creation on the sixth day in the Genesis account. An interesting linkage of ideas suggestive of premortal birth arises here because the first human—described in Job as having "come into existence through natural means, that is through birth"—was also "thought to have been born before the hills."4

The phrase "before the hills" (Job 15:7) is also used to describe the feminine personified figure of Wisdom in Proverbs. Here wisdom is said to have been possessed by God "from the beginning, or ever the earth was"; and "before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth" (Proverbs 8:23, 25). This language, applied to both wisdom and the first man, seems to place the first man’s birth at the beginning of the creative period rather than at the end of the sixth day.

Moreover, the question "Have you listened in the council of God?" is informed by a context that places the first man in a heavenly council where he has access to heavenly wisdom. "According to Eliphaz, the wisdom of the primordial human came as a result of his presence within the council of God, and the fact that he ‘listened.’"5 "The first man was wise," notes Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker, "because he was in the council of God."6 The verbs in this passage may be "alluding to a particular divine council [compare Genesis 1:26] in which the plan of creation was revealed," or they may indicate continuing access, the literal meaning being "art thou wont to be a listener[?]"7

Finally, in Job 38–41 the Lord lists many things that Job, with limited mortal knowledge, could not know but that God does know by virtue of his wisdom as Creator. "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:4–7). The "First Man," notes Herbert May, "was present at the creation of the world when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy. . . . The theme is wisdom and knowledge which Job, in contrast with God, does not have; he was not there (as First Man was there) when God laid the foundations of the earth and the members of God’s council (the morning stars, the sons of God) rejoiced."8

In response to God’s questions, Job would have to admit that he did not know, but the first man, a figure often associated with the ideology of kingship in the ancient Near East, could have answered affirmatively since as one associated with God at the creation, he had access to divine wisdom about the creation of the earth.9 He "was present at the creation and by virtue of that fact possessed wisdom in its most intimate details. The divine speeches in [Job] chapters 38–41 make clear that the secrets of the universe lie within the primordium, the epoch of creation. As one who ‘was born then,’ he knew the deepest and most esoteric of knowledge."10 Having once stood in the heavenly council where he learned the wisdom of creation, "he is numbered among the sons of God" spoken of who shouted for joy.11

The idea that the first man was in some way born before the creation of the earth, took part in the divine councils, and was among those who sang together and shouted for joy will resonate with Latter-day Saints, who understand through latter-day revelation that not only Adam, but all humankind, shared a premortal existence before the foundation of the world (D&C 93:23, 29).

NOTES

1.  "The Priesthood was first given to Adam: he obtained the first Presidency & held the Keys of it, from generation to Generation; he obtained it in the creation before the world was formed as in Gen. 1, 26:28,—he had dominion given him over every living Creature. He is Michael, the Archangel, spoken of in the Scriptures." Joseph Smith Discourse, 8 August 1839, in The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1991), 8. For recent studies of the idea of premortal existence, see Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), with Job and Eliphaz mentioned on pp. 13–14; and Dana M. Pike, "Exploring the Biblical Phrase ‘God of the Spirits of All Flesh,’" in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, ed. Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2011), 313–27.

2.  Dexter E. Callender Jr., Adam in Myth and History: Ancient Israelite Perspectives on the Primal Human (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000).

3.  Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 1:310–11.

4.  Callender, Adam in Myth, 141.

5.  Callender, Adam in Myth, 175.

6.  Margaret Barker, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2005), 244n4.

7.  Callender, Adam in Myth, 147, citing Samuel Rolles Driver and George Buchanan Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Job (New York: Scribner’s, 1921), 2:96.

8.  Herbert G. May, "The King in the Garden of Eden," in Israel’s Prophetic Heritage, ed. B. W. Anderson and W. Harrelson (New York: Harper, 1962),  170, 172–73.

9.  Nick Wyatt, Myths of Power: A Study of the Royal Myth and Ideology in Ugarit and Biblical Tradition (Munster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1996), 269–70.

10.  Callender, Adam in Myth, 176.

11.  Callender, Adam in Myth, 176.