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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.



The book of Job receives high praise from critics of every persuasion—literary, philosophical, psychological, and religious—despite its flaws. One interpreter uses the phrase ‘a blemished perfection’ (Hoffman 1996 ), comparing the book to Venus de Milo and August Rodin's Torso of a Woman. Another appreciative reader observes that ‘Here, in our view, is the most sublime monument in literature, not only of written language, nor of philosophy and poetry, but the most sublime monument of the human soul. Here is the great eternal drama with three actors who embody everything: but what actors! God, humankind, and Destiny’ (Alphonse de Lamartine, cited in Hausen 1972: 145).


Such accolades persist partly because of the book's ambiguity, its capacity for ironic readings. A book at odds with itself, the combination of prose and poetry leaves numerous unanswered questions. The story depicts a blameless Job who patiently accepts grievous loss, persists in his integrity by worshipping the one who gives and takes away, and in the end receives everything back—with new children. The poetic debate presents an entirely different hero, one who lacks patience and openly attacks the deity for injustice. This section of the book rejects the hypothesis of a universe operating on a principle of reward and punishment, whereas the prose implies that YHWH does act towards the friends and Job on the basis of merit. Moreover, the names for deity differ in the prose, which uses YHWH, and the poetic debate, where the more general names El, Eloah, and El Shaddai occur, with a single exception, itself a stereotypical expression (‘hand of YHWH’, 12:9 ).


Other indications of disjointedness give the impression of imperfection. An Adversary (haśśāṭān) is featured in the prologue as the heavenly accuser of Job, but the epilogue proceeds without mentioning this character. YHWH's praise of Job for speaking truthfully about the deity suggests that the author of the epilogue had no inkling as to the nature of Job's speeches in the poetry. The youthful Elihu, whose expansive speeches delay the expected appearance of YHWH interminably, is ignored both by YHWH and by the author of the epilogue. This angry young man alone addresses Job by name, frequently quoting his earlier speeches. At the same time, Elihu anticipates major themes in the divine speeches, in a sense stealing divine thunder.


A poem (ch. 28 ) also offers a premature answer to the question it poses: ‘Where can wisdom be found?’ Having celebrated human achievement in prospecting for and mining precious gems, the poem denies access to wisdom, with the sole exception of God. Strangely, it concludes on a traditional note: God grants wisdom to faithful worshippers. In addition, this poem interrupts Job's final speech, necessitating a repetition of the formula in 27:1 (‘Job again took up his discourse and said’) in 29:1 .


This introductory formula differs from the usual one (‘Then Job answered’), suggesting that its initial occurrence in 27:1 resulted from textual dislocation, some of Bildad's final speech being attributed to Job and all of Zophar's speech dropping out. It has been suggested that the author used this subtle means of announcing that Job's friends have run out of anything to say; but Elihu's failure to discern the point makes this view unlikely. Job's unexpected comments in ch. 27 could be explained as sarcasm or irony; textual dislocation is more probable.


Even divine speeches indicate disjointedness. First, there are two divine speeches and two ‘repentances’ on Job's part, giving the appearance of browbeating. Second, the references to the ostriches and mighty war-horse differ markedly from the previous celebrations of wild creatures. According to 40:5 , Job vows to remain silent from this point, but 42:1–6 disregards this promise and has him speak once more.


Various theories have been advanced to explain these phenomena, but no consensus exists. The assumption underlying this commentary is that a poet used an existing popular story as the framework for exploring the possibility of disinterested righteousness and the different answers to the problem of innocent suffering. Removing an original section of the story that can only be implied now, that daring poet wrote three cycles of debate, the last of which became dislocated, and concluded them with Job's address to God (chs. 29–31 ) and YHWH's response (chs. 38–41 ). At a later time, someone added the poem in ch. 28 and the speeches of Elihu, along with the prose introduction to them (chs. 32–7 ). Alternative readings cannot be ruled out: ch. 28 retards the action and assuages human emotions; Elihu serves as an ironic foil to the deity, and his citations constitute literary foreshadowing and anticipation; stylistic variety is a mark of literary craft; the book abounds in irony; Job's first repentance was incomplete, requiring further rebuke by God; the breakdown of the friends' speeches declares Job the victor; Job's restoration was an act of grace entirely unrelated to his repentance.

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