Job – Fact or Fiction?
This paper will present a general introduction to the book of Job, considering briefly issues relating to the authorship, dating and the text, and literary and historical contexts, and the purpose and themes of the book.
What is the book of Job all about? Is it, as Richter suggested, the record of a lawsuit with the various stages represented by the various sections of the book? Is it more like Westermann’s idea of it being a dramatized lament which uses legal language and dispute to great effect?
The original Hebrew text has proved very difficult for scholars. Also, as Hartley points out, an understanding of parallelism and meter, which have a significant impact on translation and interpretation, are needed to fully interpret the text, since Hebrew poetry does not use rhyme.
The authors of the original LXX (Septuagint) found the text so difficult that almost a quarter of the book was missing, and so many unique words were used in the text that some scholars believed that Job was originally written in Arabic or Edomite, and then translated into Hebrew. Other scholars such as Irwin hold that Job was written in a Hebrew dialect different from that usually found in the Old Testament.
Scholars’ opinions vary widely as to the integrity of the text of Job, and various theories have been proposed. For example, some scholars think that the Prologue, Epilogue or both are later additions to the book, while others believe that the Prologue and Epilogue are older than the Dialogue. Rowley discusses these issues in some depth. Many scholars such as Rowley hold that the book was compiled from various sources and at various times, and that chapter twenty-eight is a later addition.
THE DATE AND AUTHOR
Where did the book of Job originally come from? Was an older prose folktale broken up and used as a framework for the book of Job, and were some of the speeches and poems later additions? Some scholars believe that the tradition was maintained orally; others have favoured Duhm’s theory that the prologue and epilogue are fragments of a popular book (Volksbuch) where the story of Job appeared.
The book cannot be dated with any real conviction. The historical background provides no firm clues for the date of the composition. Though some have dared to date the book as early as the period of Solomon or the eighth century, others have placed it as late as the third century.
The unknown author avoids using the divine names YHWH and Elohim in the dialogue, but rather employs such names as El and Shaddai, a fact discussed by Rowley, among others. It is also significant that the book does not contain a single allusion to any event in Hebrew history.
Some have said that the whole tone of the book suggests that it is not specifically Hebrew, but rather that it fits in to the common literature patterns of all ancient civilised nations, and the Hebrew language of the book has been heavily influenced by Arabic.
Nevertheless, the author reveals some familiarity with the prophetic and wisdom literature of the Old Testament. For example, compare Job’s dirge in chapter 3 with Jeremiah 20:14-18 and Psalms 38, 88 and 102. Compare also Job 15:35 with Isaiah 59:4, compare Job 16:10 with Isaiah 50:6 and 53:3, and compare Psalm 8:4 with Job 7:17. For a complete comparison of the text of Job with other Old Testament books, see Hartley, pages 11 and 12.
The author also has familiarity with the language and culture of Egypt. For example, Job chapter 31 is reminiscent of the ‘negative confession’ of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The author complements his expert knowledge of folklore with a remarkable understanding of the natural world.
The author was clearly intelligent, well educated, widely traveled and Godly. Hartley regards the author of Job as an ‘ancient wise man’ of Israel, while Driver & Gray call Job a ‘sheikh of ancient times’. Certainly a Jew according to some scholars such as Heavenor, but almost certainly not a Jew according to others; the author or authors are unknown.
An early Jewish tradition has the book written or rewritten by Moses. In the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra, 14b, 15a) on the origin the books of the Old Testament, it is stated that “Moses wrote his own book, and the passages about Balaam and Job”. This and other sources are referred to in greater detail by Driver and Gray.
The book of Job is not unique in its literary style, and it belongs to a family of literary works of the ancient Near East that were usually dialogues permeated with complaints about suffering. For example, the Babylonian psalm ‘I Will Praise The Lord of Wisdom’ is often referred to as the Babylonian Job. It tells a story remarkably similar to that of Job, in which the god Marduk rescues one who is wrongfully persecuted and falls into ill-health. There is also other similar literature that frequently addressed the problem of innocent suffering and how belief in God squares with the existence of evil. This is discussed by Anderson and Driver and Gray.
The book of Job was therefore in the tradition and outlook of other writings, though this does not necessarily mean that the writer was dependent upon them. Nevertheless there are theories that Job was an old epic reworked to fit the dialogue by an editor, and that the book does not have textual integrity. See Hartley, pages 20 and 21 for a discussion of this.
Job is similar to other ancient Near Eastern writings, for wisdom literature is known across international boundaries. Furthermore, the question of suffering is a common theme across religious writings, and even those who claim to have no religion grapple with this issue. Sumer, Egypt, Babylonia, Ugarit and India all provide us with similar writings.
Nonetheless Job is widely recognised as one of the noblest works of world literature. According to Hugh Anderson it should be classed with the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, with Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Goethe’s Faust.
While other writings are similar to Job, there is nothing precisely like it. It is something of a ‘wisdom debate’ about suffering and God, but raises the question without providing the expected answer. It simply concludes that God’s wisdom is higher than man’s wisdom.
The atmosphere of the prologue is patriarchal since the plot seems to be set in that period, and Dillard and Longman suggest that Job seems to be a gentle patriarch much like Abraham. Heavenor points out that wealth was reckoned in cattle in those days and that Job appears as his own priest because he offered sacrifices, an act unthinkable after the formal priesthood was established at Sinai. Furthermore, Job’s age exceeds those of the patriarchs. He lived 140 years after his renewal. According to Dillard and Longman, Job is probably best understood as having lived before the Abrahamic covenant, which narrows the covenant community to a particular family.
There is some evidence that Job may be based on historical facts. The first verse of Job is similar to the opening verses of both Judges 17 and 1 Samuel 1, two passages with an indubitable intention to communicate historical events. It is difficult to believe, however, that the book of Job is a strictly historical document, though Lee defended that view. Since people did not routinely speak to one another in poetry nor in song, these poetic scripts may be seen to be dramatisations of conversations that took place, rather than word for word accounts.
The book of Job is a very well constructed and carefully thought out piece of work. The book is composed of prose, dialogue, monologue and epilogue in a highly structured form.
- Job 1 and 2 are a prose prologue that introduce the characters and set the plot.
- Job 3 to 31 record the dialogues between the three players.
- Job 29 to 31 record Job’s monologue.
- Job 32 to 37 record Elihu’s monologue.
- Job 38 to 42:6 record YHWH’s response.
- Job 42:7-17 are a prose epilogue that draw the book to its close.
The book has a prose ‘sandwich’ often called a prose ‘frame’. Some scholars believe that the prose frame is the oldest part of the book, and that it was later embellished with poetry and over time became the book that we have today. Job’s lament is contained in chapter one. Then come the exchanges of dialogue which are poetic and of a high literary nature as they take the form of three cycles:
CYCLE ONE CYCLE TWO CYCLE THREE
Eliphaz (4,5) Eliphaz (15) Eliphaz (22)
Job (6,7) Job (16,17) Job (23,24)
Bildad (8) Bildad (18) Bildad (25)
Job (9,10) Job (19) Job (26:1 to 27:12)
Zophar (11) Zophar (20) Zophar (27:13-23)
Job (12 to 14) Job (21) Job (28 to 31)
Zophar’s part in cycle three lacks a speech here in the text, and Job appears to contradict himself. Some scholars believe that there is a textual transmission error here and that Zophar’s speech should appear as noted. This is discussed in detail by Zerafa in The Wisdom of God in the Book of Job, Rome, Herder, 1978 and referred to by Dillard and Longman.
At first glance, the main theme of the book of Job is suffering. Yet, while the book of Job centres around the problem of suffering, and especially righteous suffering, it also gives great insight to the character of God; as well as revealing the personal nature of the enemy of YHWH and his people.
The suffering of the righteous is a perplexing issue and has the author who created Job done so to balance other Old Testament literature, which appears to suggest that the righteous should not suffer at all? In this regard, consider Ezekiel 18:20, Solomon in 1 Kings 8:32 and Proverbs 3:33, 4:18 and 10:3,6.
Retribution theology is represented by the three ‘comforters’ but Job argues against this and looks to a higher wisdom. There is also the theme of theodicy – that God will be justified through the temporary suffering of the righteous.
Elihu is the youthful and impetuous man who believes he has all the answers; but the issues at the heart of Job will certainly not be resolved in a hurry for him or for anyone else.
A study of the characters involved in the book increases the wisdom of the book, and reveals the skill of the author. Yet the issue of suffering is by no means a theme unique to the Old Testament. Suffering and a God of love, good and reward, evil and punishment, justice and honour, are issues that are found in many non-Biblical writings. What, then, sets the book of Job apart from the rest?
Having considered the evidence, I believe a number of things set the book of Job above all other comparable literature, and give it relevance for all peoples everywhere.
I personally believe the book of Job to be a dramatization that was based on an actual person and events, in exactly the same way that many films and books are based on actual events and actual people. The foundation of truth does not mean that every word or action should be taken as historically true. Just as in films and books, the story must not only transmit its purpose and message, but it must also entertain.
The book of Job was, I believe, written from life experience to address the theme of suffering. Perhaps a play in the style of Shakespeare, or perhaps the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a West End musical, the book of Job is a dramatic way to ask questions of life, while the format of a drama allows the questions to go essentially unanswered.
In addressing the common theme of suffering, the book of Job explicitly reveals that YHWH alone is God but without naming YHWH, and that the issue of suffering must be considered alongside the nature of YHWH himself.
Furthermore, the book tells of the adversary of God, who, though strictly limited by God, seeks to damage God by damaging his people. This aspect of the drama is hidden from Job himself, and he sees only earthly reasons for his suffering. Perhaps the author of Job is trying to balance the book of Ecclesiastes, which appears to have only earthly responses to the problem of suffering.
The dramatic story of Job lays to rest any thought that the righteous are excluded from suffering, and it may even suggest that the righteous may suffer more than the unrighteous precisely because they are righteous.
Perhaps the greatest theme of the book is one that is often passed over in favour of the more obvious themes. Job very clearly teaches that you cannot judge the heart of a person by the person’s outward circumstances or appearance.
Job may be an ancient book, but it speaks to the most sophisticated and modern person who has questions of life in his heart, and directs that person to God himself who alone is the answer.
Raymond B Dillard & Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament, APOLLOS (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press, Great Britain.), 1995
Hugh Anderson, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1971
E S P Heavenor, The New Bible Commentary Revised, London, Inter-Varsity Press, 1970
John E Hartley, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – Job, Grand Rapids, William B Eerdmans, 1988
Samuel Rolles Driver and George Buchanan Gray, The International Critical Commentary on Job, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1921
H H Rowley, The New Century Bible series on Job, London, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1970