Job - Introduction
The book of Job is named after its protagonist, an innocent man who suffered loss and endured pain through no fault of his own. For many, Job is most well known through the cliché about “the patience of Job,” derived from the traditional translation of Jas 5.11 . The Greek term that is translated as “patience,” however, means not so much patience as “endurance,” “persistence,” or “steadfastness.” And, indeed, the Job that one encounters in the book that bears his name is not patient, but he is persistent in his claim that he has suffered undeservedly.
The provenance of the book is unknown. Its author is anonymous, while its date and place of origin are matters of debate. Most scholars place the bulk of the book, if not its final form, somewhere between the seventh and the fourth centuries BCE, although also recognizing that the final form is the result of a complex history of transmission. The prose framework, what are now the book's prologue ( 1.1–2.13 ) and epilogue ( 42.7–17 ), consists of a narrative that is likely based on an ancient folktale about the undeserved suffering and final restoration of the protagonist. The rest of the book consists of dialogues (written in poetic style) between Job and the friends who had ostensibly come to comfort him ( 3.1–31.40 ), and between Job and God ( 38.1–42.6 ). Intruding into this material are a poetic interlude on the inaccessibility of Wisdom (28.1–28) and the speeches of Elihu ( 32.1–37.24 ) that appear to have been added at a later time. Interpreters have called attention to certain linguistic and stylistic shifts, as well as occasional inconsistencies in the story line. Such discrepancies have been explained in terms of multiple authors, a single author with multiple sources, a primary work that was edited two or three times by others, or a single author who revised his own work over his lifetime. Whatever the truth, the book in its present form must be read as a whole.
Although the book of Job in its entirety is unique in ancient literature, it draws on a variety of traditions and genres that were known throughout the ancient Near East. The character of Job himself is presented as a non‐Israelite from the land of Uz (perhaps northern Arabia), and it is likely that versions of the story of Job were told by many of the peoples of the region. In the sixth century BCE the prophet Ezekiel mentions Job, along with Noah, the hero of the Flood story (Gen 6–9 ), and Dan’el, as heroes of antiquity who saved others by their righteousness (Ezek 14.14,20 ). This Dan’el is not the Daniel from the biblical book of that name but an ancient Canaanite king whose story is known from the tablets found in the ruins of the late second‐millennium BCE city of Ugarit in Syria. Similar to Ezekiel's setting of Job among the legendary figures of antiquity is the way in which the prose tale presents Job as someone who apparently lived in the remote ancestral period.
The influence of ancient Near Eastern literary forms and traditions is also evident in the poetic dialogues. The problem of enigmatic suffering was one that was explored in Mesopotamian literature in poetic compositions in which a righteous or emblematic sufferer described his sufferings, his confusion about the cause of his misery, and his passionate desire for restoration (e.g., “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” and the “Sumerian Job”). The most striking similarity, however, exists between the dialogue sections of Job and “The Babylonian Theodicy.” In this composition an unnamed sufferer and his friend speak alternately in a cycle of twenty‐seven speeches. The sufferer protests his misery, describing the injustice of the world and the unfairness of the gods. His friend attempts to defend the rationality of the world and urges his friend to seek the mercy of the gods. In contrast to Job, however, “The Babylonian Theodicy” ends without any appearance of the deity or narrative resolution.
Finally, the book of Job contains many allusions to mythological traditions known throughout the ancient Near East. Repeated reference is made to the cosmogonic struggle between God and the sea, especially as represented by the dragon of chaos, Rahab or Leviathan ( 3.8; 7.12; 10.13; 26.12; 38.8–11; 41.1–34 ). It is often suggested that the long descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan in chs 40–41 draw on Egyptian imagery from the myths of Horus and Seth. The descriptions of creation and of cosmic geography in chs 26 and 38 also evoke the mythic traditions common to Israel and the other cultures of the Near East.
Like other wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible (see pp. 721–22 HB ), the book of Job does not refer to specific Israelite legal or historical traditions. It does, however, make rich use of psalmic and other wisdom traditions. In the dialogues the characters often make use of proverbs (e.g., 5.10,17; 8.11; 12.11 ) or hymns (e.g., 5.8–16 ). Job is particularly adept at evoking a hymn or psalm only to parody it. Although the clearest example is his parody of Psalm 8 in 7.17–19 , he uses this technique often (e.g., 9.5–12; 12.13–25 ).
The enigma of the suffering of the righteous and the good fortune of the wicked was one addressed by Israelite literature, both in other wisdom texts and in the psalms. Although not prominent in the book of Proverbs, it emerges more strongly in the later wisdom books of Ecclesiastes and Sirach. Several Psalms also address aspects of these issues (Ps 37; 39; 49; 73 ), but they do not exhibit the radical protest and questioning that one finds in the book of Job.
Distinctive to the book of Job is the way it situates these issues. The book is neither a treatise on innocent suffering, as often supposed, nor an apology for God's justice in the face of inexplicable human suffering. Rather, the principal theological issue that the book raises is, ironically, the question posed by the adversary in the divine council (see 1.9 ): Will mortals be religious (“fear God”) apart from rewards and punishment? As the dialogue develops, however, the questions of divine justice that torture Job's mind are not satisfactorily met by the arguments of the friends. Job himself seeks to imagine a way in which he might go to trial with God for a vindication of his righteousness and perhaps an acknowledgment from God of God's mistreatment of Job (9.2–35; 13.13–28; 16.18–22; 19.23–27; 23.1–7; 31.35–37). Yet when God answers Job, it is neither as the friends have imagined God would speak nor as Job had hoped God would answer him. The meaning and significance of the divine speeches continue to be among the most debated issues in the book. Some scholars interpret the speeches as a repudiation of a human's right to question God. Others understand them as a necessary correction to Job's too limited understanding of the nature of the cosmos as a place where all suffering can be reduced to legal categories of guilt or innocence. All agree that the extraordinary beauty of the poetry is part of its meaning. Perhaps the very elusiveness of the divine speeches implies that no answer from God to Job's questions can satisfy the human intellect. Yet the ending suggests that there is a resolution to be found in the depths of a pious life lived before a mysterious God.