A major book of the Wisdom literature of the OT, of unknown authorship, probably written during or soon after the Exile (6th cent. BCE). The book questions the justice of a God who was expected to offer protection and prosperity in return for loyalty and obedience. How then explain the suffering and pains of people who were pious, ‘blameless and upright’ (Job 1: 1)? Job was such a one in this dramatic poem. In a short time he lost children, property, and health. If God was just, why did he let this happen? The book of Job has a special poignancy in the age after the Holocaust (Shoah) of the 20th cent.—so many prayers answered by total silence.
The structure of the book is that of a prose prologue and epilogue, while chs. 3 to 42: 6 are the poem in which there is a dialogue between Job and three friends; there are three cycles of six speeches, with a reply to each by Job. This is followed by a further intervention (chs. 32–7) from a fourth friend, the young Elihu. Job’s ‘comforters’ (16: 1–2) explain why it is not unreasonable that he should be suffering such distress and they exhort him to endure it with fortitude and without complaint—much to Job’s indignation. Job rails against God, blasphemously, cursing with his mouth and proclaiming his innocence. The day of his birth should be deleted from the calendar (3: 3–7). He issues a challenge to God, even if he is killed by doing so. There is only silence. There is no one to act as umpire between himself and God. Then at last God does reveal himself and Job’s obstinate pride is brought low. He can no longer assert his righteousness in the face of God speaking out of the whirlwind (38: 2–4). What God says is very much what the friends had argued, but it reduces Job to repentance and God’s generosity responds—though it is rather a crude response in that it is simply that Job’s former prosperity is not only restored but doubled (42: 10), and his three new daughters are the most beautiful in the land (42: 15).
Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, would vindicate God by claiming that there is a correspondence between sin and suffering. In the epilogue God is shown to rebuke the friends for this naïve orthodoxy (42: 7) which in effect he has himself affirmed: he is inscrutable (38: 4) and the laws of his creation are just, regular, immutable, and magnificent, by no means to be questioned (40: 8).
The orthodox doctrine was that the good and the wicked receive their just deserts in life; the author of the book of Job felt that this was irreconcilable with the facts as he knew them. He has left a superb poem, but as the eighteen illustrations by William Blake (1825), influenced by Greek mythology suggest, the book is ultimately mysterious.
When in the NT Job is praised for his ‘patience’ (Jas. 5: 11) in the face of adversity, this may reflect the influence of The Testament of Job, a 1st cent. BCE commentary in which Job is said to decline an offer of help from royal physicians, and which inserts religious notes lacking in the canonical book. In this Testament Satan admits his lack of success in his temptations: and Job’s ‘patience’ is rewarded by an ascent into heaven.
Among modern readers of Job feminist theologians might admire Job’s wife and daughters; a liberationist reader will understand prayer wrung out of the anguish of poverty: a Jewish reader will resonate with Job’s first reply to Bildad (9–10) in complaining about God’s arbitrary use of power; a Christian reader might see in the story of Job an illustration of the triumph of grace through obedience, rather than ‘patience’, and of humility (42: 3) rather than arrogance (23: 6–7).