The Book of Job

I. Wisdom Literature

A. Introduction

        The book of Proverbs, together with Job and Ecclesiastes fall under the broad category of wisdom literature, a genre common in the Ancient Near East; wisdom literature consists of instructions for successful living or contemplations on the perplexities of human existence. By its nature, therefore, wisdom literature is intensely practical. Proverbs, especially, may be considered the "how to" section of the Bible.

B. Two Types of Wisdom Literature

1. Proverbial Wisdom (Proverbs): short, pithy sayings which state rules for personal happiness and welfare.
2. Speculative Wisdom (Job and Ecclesiastes): this type of literature may be further subdivided into a) monologues, like Ecclesiastes, and b) dialogues, like Job. These sorts of wisdom books delve into such problems as the meaning of existence and the relationship between God and people. Speculative wisdom literature is practical and empirical, not theoretical in nature. Problems of human existence are discussed in terms of concrete examples, for instance, "There was a man...whose name was Job."

C. Origin of Wisdom Literature

        The roots of wisdom literature are probably to be found in short popular sayings which express rules for success or common observations concerning life. Old Testament examples are found in 1 Kings 20:11, Jeremiah 23:28 and Jeremiah 31:29, as examples.
        The transition from oral to literary wisdom took place in Egypt about 2500 BC (as in The Instruction of Vizier Ptah-hotep) and in Sumer shortly afterward.
        Throughout the Ancient Near East, a class of scribes or wise men arose whose highly honored task was to create or collect or polish wise sayings, usually under the patronage of a royal court or a temple. The sources of these sayings may have been clan wisdom, instructions from school, or sayings circulated among the nobility. Two of Israel's kings are credited with important contributions in this area: 1) Solomon (1 Kings 4:29-34) and 2) Hezekiah (Proverbs 25:1).
        By the seventh century BC, the wise man (Heb. Hakam) had assumed sufficient prominence in Judah to be classed with prophet or priest (Jeremiah 8:8-9; 18:18), although there is still some question as to whether he was recognized as a professional or simply as an unusually wise citizen.
        As the phenomenon of prophecy faded in the Persian and Greek periods of Israel's history, the wise man gained in stature, as such important apocryphal works as The Wisdom of Ben-Sirah (Ecclesiasticus) and The Wisdom of Solomon, demonstrate.

D. Literary Devices

        The wise men employed several literary devises as aids to memory:

1. Comparisons (Proverbs 17:1)
2. Numerical sequences (Proverbs 30:15ff)
3. Alliteration and Acrostic Patterns (Psalm 37, Proverbs 31:10-31)
4. Riddles (Judges 14:12ff; 1 Kings 10:1)
5. Fables (Judges 9:7-15; Ezekiel 17:3ff; 19:1ff)
6. Parables (extension of comparisons: 2 Samuel 12:1-4, Isaiah 28:4)
7. Allegories (Isaiah 5:1-7)

E. Wisdom in the Rest of the Bible

        The sampling above of the literary devices used by the authors of wisdom literature testifies to the impact they made on the prophetic writings. H. Gunkel has categorized certain Psalms as also falling into the genre of wisdom literature:

Psalm 1, 37, 49, 73, 77, 112, 127, 128, and 133

        Others have noted elements of wisdom literature in the Story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), the Succession Narrative (2 Samuel 9-20; 1 Kings 1-2), Daniel, and Esther. In the New Testament, the book of James is a good example of proverbial wisdom literature.
        Wisdom's contributions are most readily discernible when its peculiar vocabulary, techniques, and didactic content are all present in the text. Such influences are apparent in the teachings methods of Jesus -- for instance his use of proverbs and parables.
        Though wisdom literature was an international phenomenon, as the Old Testament freely recognizes (Edom in 1 Kings 4:31; Obadiah 8; Jeremiah 49:7; and Egypt in Genesis 41:8; 1 Kings 4:30; Isaiah 19:11-15), Israel's wisdom was different in its stress that true wisdom comes from God.

F. Interpretation

        Wisdom literature has consistently been misinterpreted by evangelicals and non-evangelicals, taking a very consistent pattern, as expressed well and succinctly by J. Barton Payne in his book, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), pp. 55-56:

        The wisdom books are universalistic in outlook. They appeal to all (Prov. 1:20) and they cover a bewildering array of subjects. Their illustrations are frequently drawn from nature, which is the concern of men everywhere (1 Kings 4:33; Prov. 30:24-28); and their teachings are generally divorced from Hebrew national life and ceremony (with but few exceptions, as Prov. 3:9). The Proverbs are timeless, separated from the limitations of localization.

        This just is not the case. The proverbs are not timeless, they are not separated from the limitations of localization, they are not universalistic in outlook and they CANNOT be divorced from Hebrew national life and ceremony. To do so, would be to wrest the proverbs out of context. The Proverbs, as with ALL Hebrew scriptures, are founded ultimately on the five books of Moses. This is made abundantly clear from the consistent use of covenant language in the book of Proverbs. The promises given in the book of Proverbs are derived from the promises made by God through Moses in the Pentateuch. The blessings pronounced upon the righteous and wise in Proverbs are the blessing promised to the obedient Israelites in the covenant God made with them. To make these promises universal is to do a terrible disservice to them, and is to terribly misunderstand them. To assure Christians today that the promises God made specifically to the Jews are attainable and guaranteed is to mislead and misinform people, creating false hope.
        Even for the ancient Israelite, the promises in Proverbs did not necessarily have a quick, easy or immediate fulfillment. The delay in attaining the promises created a tension is Israelite theology, forming the basis for a book like Job or Ecclesiastes. The tension is alleviated by recognizing that God's wisdom and understanding are not always the same as our own. It is why, in the midst of Job, in the twenty-eighth chapter, a song to wisdom shows up; it expresses the fact, so necessary to understand, that wisdom and understanding come from God alone, and that however hard we search, unless God grants understanding to us, it remains unattainable. That too often we fail to understand or recognize the fulfillment of God's promises should not really surprise us.
        The story of Joseph is similar to the story of Job. Again, the narrative describes a righteous individual, a person in God's favor, who nevertheless suffers terribly. Anytime he seems to be achieving some small measure of God's promised blessings, he is hit with a sudden reverse. But in the end, all his misery was fulfilling God's ultimate purpose.
        Sometimes, as with Joseph, the righteous person sees the reason for the travail of his soul. But other times, his experience will more parallel the life of Job; the suffering soul will never comprehend why he received suffering instead of the anticipated blessing which should be his according to the divine covenant.
        One other item to note about the prosperity and wealth promised in the proverbs is that such wealth might not refer to material accumulations, but rather to a wealth of wisdom and a close relationship with God.

II. Title

        The book of Job is named after the principle character in the book; it is the same in Hebrew as it is in English.

III. Setting

A. Author

        The author of the book of Job is unknown. Various individuals have been proposed, including Job himself, Solomon, and Ezra. The Talmud ascribed it to Moses; the theory there is that Moses acquired the poem during the forty years he spent tending sheep, and that he added the prose prologue and epilogue; alternatively, it is proposed that he merely learned of Job while he was in Midian, and wrote the entire book himself.
        Some commentators have proposed that Elihu is the author, based on Job 32:16-17, but frankly that seems an awful stretch.

B. Date

        Traditionally, Job has been dated to the time of the patriarchs. The reasons for this position are as follows:

1. Job's sacrifices were according to the patriarchal pattern, with Job acting as the priest for his household.
2. Job lived to be nearly two hundred years old (cf. Abraham, who lived to be one hundred seventy-five).
3. There is no reference to Israel or the miracles accompanying the exodus.
4. There is no reference to the Law of Moses.

        Against this traditional argument, there is strong reason to suspect that Job actually lived sometime after the exodus, and after the people of Israel had entered the promised land.

1. The word Rahab occurs twice in the book of Job:

If he snatches away, who can stop him?
Who can say to him, "What are you doing?"
God does not restrain his anger;
even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet. (Job 9:12-13)

By his power he churned up the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the gliding serpent. (Job 26:12-13)

        Those two passages in Job can be profitably compared with some other biblical passages:

to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless.
Therefore I call her Rahab the Do-Nothing. (Isaiah 30:7)

I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me --
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush --
and will say, "This one was born in Zion." (Psalm 87:4)

You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. (Psalm 89:9-10)

Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength,
O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days gone by,
as in generations of old.
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?
was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over? (Isaiah 51:9-10)

        From these references, it seems clear that the word Rahab is a reference to Egypt; furthermore, it appears that it is used in Job to refer to the Israelites exodus from Egypt. Therefore, the book of Job had to have been written sometime after that event.
        Psalm 87 was written by the sons of Korah, dating the Psalm to the time of David or Solomon, according to 1 Chronicles 6:22, 31-46. Psalm 89 was written by Ethen the Ezrahite, who lived close to the time of Solomon, too, since Solomon is favorably compared to him in 1 Kings 4:31. Isaiah lived many years after Solomon. Therefore, an educated date for the time of authorship of the book of Job would seem to place it sometime between the time of David and Isaiah.
        But what about the time frame of Job himself? Since the words about Egypt and the exodus are put in his mouth, a time during the patriarchs is completely ruled out. However, if we compare Job's behavior, in serving as priest to his house, with the time of the Judges, we find definite parallels, because then, too, sacrifice was not exclusively the work of priests in a central tabernacle or temple (see for instance Judges 2:5, 6:25- 27, 11:31, and 13:19-21; see also 1 Samuel 6:14 and 11:15).

C. Background

1. Job is unique, but not isolated.

        Job was not written in a vacuum; it is part of the genre called wisdom literature, and Israel's neighbors produced a good number of stories that fit into the same category. Several works from the Ancient Near East have been compared to the book of Job by scholars:

a. Keret

        An Ugaritic story tells about a good king; despite his piety, he is bereaved of all his family, but his fortunes turn around after he offers ritual prayers.

b. Ludlul bel Nemeqi

        The story of Ludlul bel Nemeqi has been called "the Babylonian Job." However, the work is actually a hymn of thanksgiving to Marduk for recovery from illness. The worshiper reviews his ordeal of horrible and unaccountable disease. While there are passages in Job in which Job describes his symptoms with equally gruesome detail, a piece such as the Babylonian composition properly should be placed in the context of what Job might have done after his recovery. Therefore, while a story of suffering lies behind the Mesopotamian poem, it is only a monologue and lacks the elaborate dramatic form of Job. Furthermore, Babylonian polytheism could never approach the questions raised by Job.

c. A Sumerian Poem

        An edifying tract intended to encourage a person in affliction to keep on glorifying his personal god (a minor deity), and by bitter wailing, whose volume should be increased by the assistance of his friends and the hiring of professionals, to move the god to pity -- or irritate him with the noise. While the Sumerian poem shares with Job a tragic sense of the burden of sin, the justice of the gods is never questioned or even expected. All a person can do is simply weep and hope for the best.

d. Dispute over suicide

        This Egyptian work is the debate of a despondent man with his own soul. He maintains that self-destruction is the best solution to the problems of life. (Cf. Job 3)

e. A Pessimistic dialogue between a master and his servant

        The problem confronted in this Babylonian story is simple boredom, not suffering. The effete and languid master knows nothing of Job's agony. There is no real debate, since the slave merely echoes his master's sentiments.

        In order for another work to be called a "Job", that work should resemble the biblical book in plot, form, and content. A passing similarity here and there is not enough. To call every story of human suffering a "Job" creates a false impression and obscures the uniqueness of the Israelite composition. Suffering is universal, and the discussion of the reasons for it is sure to arise in any reflective culture. The human response ranges from vehement protest through agonized perplexity to placid resignation.
        The literature of the Ancient Near East has not yielded another Job. There is a considerable list of writings from this region, and a few from further afield, which remind one of Job in this way or that. But none comes close to Job when each work is examined as a whole. Each shows more differences than similarities, and not one can be considered seriously as a possible source or model for Job.
        The primary difference between Job and the other writings, as is the case between the Bible and anything else to which it might be compared in its environment, is the simple fact that Job is written from a monotheistic standpoint. All the other cultures of the Ancient Near East were polytheistic.
        That polytheism is the primary reason that a book like Job would never have appeared among them. The question of suffering is not a problem unless one has only one, all powerful and all good God. If there are many gods, then the troubles of life can be explained as the conflict between opposing deities who usually were not all powerful and certainly were not all good. Humanity has simply the misfortune of standing between them.

D. The Question of Job

        Most commentaries will discuss Job in terms of the question of "why do the righteous suffer." Unfortunately, this is not the question of the book of Job. The real question comes in Job 1:9-11:

        "Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."

        The question which Job faced, and which we all must face, is a profound one: "Why do we serve God?" Is it for the good stuff we get from him, or out of fear of getting bad stuff? Or, do we do it simply because we love him?
        That is the real question!
        Job wanted to know why he was suffering, and his faith was wavering as a consequence of his pain. God's response was not to inform him of the wager he'd made with the Devil. Instead, God responds by listing various things that Job does not understand. The implication here, is thus: "Look at all the things you don't understand -- for instance the water cycle and the life cycles of various animals. Your lack of understanding in these areas does not in the least challenge your faith. So why, when you suffer and don't understand why, do you feel your faith any more challenged?"

IV. Outline

I. The Prologue 1:1-2:13
II. The Dialogues 3:1-27:23

A. Job's Complaint 3:1-26
B. First Debate 4:1-14:22
C. Second Debate 15:1-21:34
D. Third Debate 22:1-27:23

III. What is Wisdom? 28:1-28
IV. The Monologues 29:1-42:6

A. Job 29:1-31:40
B. Elihu 32:1-37:24
C. Yahweh 38:1-42:6

V. Epilogue 42:7-17

Questions on Job

1. What question is answered by the book of Job? What is the answer to that question?
2. Who or what is Rahab in Job 9:13 and 26:12.
3. Discuss Job 40:15-24 and 41:1-34. What purpose do these passages serve in God's argument? Who or what are Behemoth and Leviathan?
4. What is the underlying theology of Job's friends? Critique it.
5. Describe Job's first affliction and his response.
6. Describe Job's second affliction and his response.
7. Name Job's three friends.
8. Give a structural outline of the book of Job.
9. Describe God's response to Job; summarize its content.