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The Book of Job - Introduction

Roger Hahn

The book of Job is part of the Old Testament collection of Wisdom Literature, along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Like the other Wisdom books Job is primarily composed of poetry and Job 28 consists of a hymn to Wisdom. Yet Job stands in strong contrast to Proverbs. Many scholars believe that Job was written to correct a possible misunderstanding of the message of Proverbs.

Job is different from Proverbs in another important way. Most of Proverbs could be read in one or two verse segments and the full meaning would be clear. To understand the full impact of the book of Job the book must be read and understood as a whole. In fact, some scholars believe that Job requires and understanding of the book as a whole more than any other book of the Old Testament. Whole chapters of the book are devoted to speeches by Job’s counselors. Then Job rejects their claims and advice. One can be left wondering what is safe to believe in any given chapter or verse of the book. Not all that Job’s "friends" said was wrong, though some was. To understand the "message" of the book the whole book must be read and understood. Yet, each chapter and section contains important and true perspectives on life though they must be carefully evaluated. In that regard Job is quite representative of the Wisdom Literature.

In some ways Job can be an upsetting book. James 5:11 holds Job up as an example of patience. Yet as we read the book itself Job frequently seems impatient and even angry. Most Christians have considered claims of sinlessness as dangerous and even sinful! First John 1:8 and 10 provide all the Scriptural backing needed for a strong sense of sin in one’s life. However, Job defends himself against those who suggest that it was his own sin that led to his troubles. In Job 7:20 he demands of God, "If I have sinned, what have I done to you?" Throughout the book Job demands to see God. He seems convinced that in a face-to-face confrontation with the Almighty he could win his case and be vindicated.

The climax of the book occurs when God does appear to Job and Job humbly acknowledges the divine sovereignty. Whatever else we might say about Job, it is not a typical book about being good. The questions it raises and the way in which differing opinions are presented can be confusing and even frightening. A reader of Job must "stay with it" throughout the whole book and then ponder what all the speeches and answers mean.

Such an effort is worthwhile. Throughout Jewish and Christian history Job has spoken powerful words of hope and comfort to people who have suffered or who have found faith difficult. For people who are not satisfied with simple answers Job rings a word of truth. One measure of the power of the book of Job has been its influence outside the spiritual communities of Christianity and Judaism. A recent work on Job describes it as "one of the classics of Western culture" with "manifold influence. . .on theology, philosophy, art, and literature" (Perdue and Gilpin, p. 11). Clines (pp. cviii-cxii) lists over four pages of works of literature, art, music, dance, and film inspired by the book of Job.

Historical Background of Job

It is not surprising that such a profound book might be difficult to understand. It is surprising that we know so little about the historical background of Job. There is no book of either Old or New Testament for which we have less idea about the author, the date, the place of writing, and even the context of writing.

The book of Job makes no mention of its author and gives no clue to his (or her) identity. The Jewish rabbis held to the tradition that Moses was the author of Job. The basis of their tradition is not clear. In some ways Job fits in the period of the patriarchs. Some traditions claim that Job married one of Abraham’s daughters.

However, no historical figure we know from the Old Testament seems like a likely candidate to have written Job. We are left to describing what we can determine about the author on the basis of what we read in the book. The most basic statement that can be made is that the author was an Israelite, though even a few scholars suggest that he might have been an Edomite! Most believe he was part of the Wisdom tradition of Israel. He was competent with the literary techniques of Wisdom. Proverbs, rhetorical questions, riddles, and personification were techniques of writing that this author used easily. Hartley (p. 16) points out his extensive knowledge of plant and animal life. Five different Hebrew words for "lion" appear in Job 4:10-11. Chapters 38-39 reveal detailed knowledge of animals and their peculiar patterns of life. He must have been an "outdoors" man who hunted and trapped since he used six different words for traps in Job 18:8-10.

Thirteen different Hebrew words are used for precious gems and metals including five separate words for gold. Job 28:1-11 is the most detailed description of mining in all of ancient Hebrew literature. This author was aware of weather patterns and constellations. He was also knowledgeable about foreign cultures. Job 6:18-20 shows his awareness of the travel of caravans in the Arabian desert. Job 9:26 describes the speedy movement of the light skiffs made of papyrus that were used in Egypt in ancient times. His references to the hippopotamus and the crocodile probably also reflect travel in Egypt. Those animals were widely known in Egypt and we have no evidence of their existence in Palestine during the Biblical era.

There are many specific parallels between Job and the Ugaritic literature found in Syria that can only be explained by the author Job having read those works or having traveled in that part of the world. He was also very aware of the Canaanite myths that permeated Palestine during the Old Testament era. These characteristics all point to a highly educated and well-traveled person from the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament.

The date of the book of Job is equally unknown. Some scholars believe the book comes from the patriarchal period (the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and thus they would date it to 1600 BC. The picture of life described in Job fits the patriarchal period better than it does any other period of the Old Testament. However, the assumption that the author was a part of the Wisdom tradition of Israel means that the book would not have been written before the time of Solomon.

The most common time frames suggested for the writing of Job are the time of Isaiah, about 700 BC, after the Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon around 550 BC, and in the post-exilic period, 300-400 BC. Partial arguments can be made successfully for each of these three time periods, but none can be conclusively ruled out by the historical methods and information available to us. The problem of suffering and wondering why would have been an especially important subject for Jews during the Babylonian Captivity (550 BC), but that does not constitute clear evidence Job was written then. Perhaps the best we can say is that it appears Job was written near the end of the Old Testament period, but we cannot be more precise than that.

Our ignorance of the author and date of Job also means that we cannot know where the book was written. Job is described in the first verse as a man of Uz. The location of Uz is uncertain. Biblical evidences for it falls into two patterns. There are several evidences that Uz was in or near Edom, south and southeast of the Dead Sea. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek done around 250 B.C. believed Uz to be in Edom. Other lines of evidences point to Uz being located far north of Palestine near Haran, the home territory of Abraham and Laban. The location of Uz in the area of Edom is strengthened by the fact that Teman, the home of Eliphaz the Temanite mentioned in Job 4:1, was the main city and district of Edom. On the other hand, the home of Bildad the Shuhite who is mentioned in Job 8:1 is not known. Likewise, we do not know the location of the city or area that was home to Zophar the Naamathite who is mentioned in Job 20:1.

This background of Job does not play a major role in the book. The book can be divided into three main parts and the background only figures in the first and third parts. The first, Job 1-2, is called the prologue (see The Literary Structure of Job). It introduces Job and the contest that sets up the dialogues. The second main part – most of the book – consists of Job 3:1-42:6 and is composed of dialogues between Job, his various friends, and God. The final section, Job 42:7-17, is the epilogue which returns to the context of the prologue and describes the restoration of Job’s family and possessions.

The question has been raised whether Job was a historical person and all that is described in this book really happened as described. Ezekiel 14:14 and 20 mention a man named Job along with Noah and either Daniel or Danel. Whether this reference to Job speaks of the same person found in the book of Job is not known. A few Bible scholars believe that character of Job of the Book of Job was an actual historical person described in the prologue and epilogue and who spoke all the words attributed to him in the dialogues. Some Bible scholars believe all the references to Job are literary or parabolic. That is, they believe the author of Job created a character to teach spiritual lessons as Jesus did in the parables.

Most Bible scholars believe that there was a historical person named Job who is reflected in the prologue and perhaps epilogue. This man must have had some spiritual reputation for righteousness and perhaps patience as reflected in Ezekiel and James. However, most scholars believe that the author of Job composed the dialogues to show the different theological positions used in Israel to explain suffering. The final dialogue between God and Job then reflects the way the author believes a personal encounter with God will move one past logical explanations of suffering.

In fact, the message of Job is not dependent on which position a person takes regarding whether Job was a historical person or not. The book is not about Job’s history but about Job’s life and the way we relate to God as a result.

The Structure and Flow of the Book

The book of Job opens portraying Job as a wealthy and righteous nobleman. He has a large family, many flocks of animals, many servants, a large home, perhaps an estate. His righteousness is carefully designed to protect his family. He even offers sacrifices for sin that might have been committed inadvertently during the feasts celebrated by his children.

Having introduced Job, the author shifts the scene to the court of heaven where Yahweh (the proper name of God in the Old Testament) praises Job for his righteous character. The heavenly adversary, Satan, replies that Job acts righteous, but accuses him of doing so simply in order to receive all God’s blessings. Satan then challenges God to let him (Satan) afflict Job with the loss of all his material blessings to see whether or not Job’s devotion to God is genuine or not.

Yahweh accepts the challenge with the only stipulation that Satan not harm Job physically. We then overhear a series of reports to Job describing the loss of his children and all his possessions to natural calamities and/or enemy tribes. Job begins to grieve but the text notes that he does not sin. Satan then acknowledges Job’s faithfulness to Yahweh but claims that such faithfulness would crumble in the face of illness. Yahweh then gave Satan permission to afflict Job’s body with the restriction that he not be killed. Satan then attacked Job with "loathsome sores" from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. Job’s wife suggests that he curse God and die. Job refused and suffered in silence refusing to sin. The final scene of the prologue occurs when three friends of Job, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite got up to comfort him. However, they are so astonished by his losses and pain that they sit in silence for seven days.

The speeches begin in chapter 3. Job 3 consists of a lament or curse of the day of Job’s birth. This is an introduction to the dialogues but it is addressed to God rather than to his friends. The main body of the dialogue section consists of Job 4-27. There are three cycles of speeches. In each cycle Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar speak in that order and Job answers each one of them. The first two cycles are complete with each consisting of six speeches. The third cycle was either never finished or parts of it were lost in the transcribing and copying processes. Zophar’s speech is missing and Bildad’s has been cut short. Much of the argument of the book of Job is carried forward by these three cycles of speeches.

Eliphaz speaks first in Job 4-5. He represents what theologians sometimes call the doctrine of retribution as it came to be derived from the wisdom writers. He is convinced that no one can be righteous before God and Job’s calamities especially prove his guilt. Job responds to Eliphaz in chapter 6-7. He accuses his friends of not understanding his dilemma and of speaking theoretically rather than personally. He also complains to God again and asks for healing. Job 8 contains Bildad’s first speech. He fears that Job is speaking to accusingly toward God and so he defends God’s justice.

Job 9-10 consists of Job’s response to Bildad, although he does not answer Bildad’s comments. Rather, in these chapters Job argues for the right to argue with God about what is happening in his life. Such talk greatly disturbs Zophar and he replies in chapter 11 accusing Job of idle and foolish talk. Job’s final speech in the first cycle, chapters 12-14, defends him to his friends and appeals to God again for a fair hearing over this matter.

The second cycle of speeches begins in Job 15 with Eliphaz’s second speech. Eliphaz is now more upset by Job’s words and tries to persuade Job to repent by pointing to the doctrine of punishment. Job replies in chapter 16-17 that his friends are poor comforters and he again defends himself and his right to speak in the way he is speaking. Bildad responds in chapter 18 with an almost taunting description of the punishments the wicked must suffer. Without directly saying so he is warning Job that the same will befall him if he doesn’t repent. Job responds in chapter 19 by accusing his friends of attacking God when they attack him, as he continues to defend his righteousness and affirms his confidence in God. Zophar’s second speech appears in chapter 20. He also is appalled by Job’s claims of innocence and he calls on his friend to repent lest he suffer an even worse fate. Job brings the second cycle of speeches to an end in chapter 21. He argues that, in fact, the wicked often flourish and that he has a right to his lament and confusion.

Eliphaz begins the third cycle in chapter 22. He has lost his patience with Job and angrily tells Job that his suffering is deserved. Still he calls for Job to repent. Job’s response in chapter 23-24 ignores Eliphaz’s words and bitterly laments his condition. He desperately wants a chance to defend himself to God. After words from Bildad, Job again maintains his innocence and the third cycle of speeches concludes with Job 27.

Job 28 is a hymn to Wisdom. The role it plays in the book is debated. Some see it as a part of Job’s final speech. Others claim it is Zophar’s speech in the third cycle, while others see it as an editorial comment by the author. It fits strangely enough in the flow of the book that some scholars have argued that it was a later addition to the book, though they fail to explain why such a chapter was inserted at this point.

The speeches resume in Job 29. Chapters 29-31 consist of Job’s final defense. He argues his innocence and the correctness of his response throughout this trial. At this point Job’s three friends give up. Their arguments have only made Job worse, but an observer, a younger man named Elihu, speaks up. In Job 32-37 he makes four speeches passionately attempting to defend God. He is sure God is trying to teach Job something if he would only stop defending himself long enough to learn. However, Job refuses to answer Elihu and so his speeches are presented in order and he leaves the stage.

The climax of the dialogue section comes in chapters 38-42 with the speeches of Yahweh himself. In chapters 38-39 he speaks to Job out of the whirlwind asking about Job’s in creation and the course of nature. Now Yahweh demands that Job answer him. However, in Job 40:3-5 Job confesses that he cannot answer God. Yahweh then resumes his speech in the rest of chapter 40 and 41. He challenges Job’s call to argue his (Job’s) case before him. He challenges Job to move up to his (Yahweh’s) level and make his claims. He then moves into a description of Behemoth and Leviathan and his creation of them. In this way Yahweh claims his power over all evil. He alone is supreme and God.

Job then responds in Job 42:1-6. He confesses his unworthiness, lack of understanding, and weakness. He also confesses full confidence and trust in God and affirms his faith in God. The issues of his suffering and sin melt away in the power of the simple presence of God.

The final eleven verses of Job 42 form the epilogue. Yahweh speaks first expressing his anger against Job’s three friends for misrepresenting him. He demands that they bring a sacrifice for themselves and ask Job to pray for them. They obey and God accepts Job’s prayer on their behalf. He then restores Job’s fortunes by giving him twice the material possessions he had enjoyed before and new sons and daughters. After statements affirming Job’s blessings the author describes his death in the final verse of the book.

The Message of Job

It should be clear that the book of Job is not a simple story with a simple moral teaching. Accusations fly back and forth between Job and his "friends" defending and accusing God at several levels. Thus it should not be surprising that the message of Job has been explained in more than one way. Some have seen Job as the Biblical answer to the problem of suffering, sometimes called theodicy. "Theodicy" comes from two Greek words referring to the righteousness of God. The problem of theodicy is simply the question of how a righteous God can allow innocent people to suffer. At one level Job addresses this question by the fact that he innocently suffers. However, the book of Job does not answer the "why?" of innocent suffering. It only affirms that when one really meets God such questions fade into the background.

Some believe that the real message is not about suffering directly, but about why the righteous serve God. This was the question posed by Satan in the prologue. Is it possible for a righteous person to serve God only because of who and what God is rather than for the "rewards" the righteous derive from their righteousness? As Pope points out the values humans cherish – family, home, nation, wealth, and fame – all fade away (p. lxxxii). Only God abides forever, and God does not look as good in the face of tragedy as he does in the face of success. Is God himself, in all his holiness, all his terror, and all his grace, sufficient motivation to be righteous? Some believe the book of Job gives a resounding "Yes!" to that question.

Part of the greatness of the book of Job is its ability to raise several questions about life and relationship with God at the same time. Hartley identifies six themes that are part of the message of Job (pp. 47-50). One theme that is clear in Job is that righteous people can, do, and will suffer. Job’s experience does contradict a form of the doctrine of retribution (sometimes derived from Proverbs, sometimes derived from Deuteronomy) that teaches that suffering is caused by personal sin. Hartley also points out that Job explores a wide range of the meanings of human suffering. The pain is not just loss of possessions or of health. Job also suffers alienation from his family and friends. The crowds mock him, he is terrified and dismayed by his circumstances, and Job demonstrates many of the dimensions of suffering of which we are unaware until tragedy strikes us. Part of what we can learn from Job is what it means to suffer.

A special part of this suffering for a righteous person is the sense of abandonment by God. Job leads us through the range of feelings and thoughts that a righteous person experiences in the face of tragedy. Job maintains his own innocence throughout but in the presence of God he humbly confesses his trust. For a righteous person suffering will challenge that person’s sense of relationship with God but it does not need to destroy that relationship. In fact, in the midst of suffering God does come to the righteous and affirms his presence and grace.

Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses these painful questions. In life, tragedy and suffering are never simple issues. Faith is rocked and one wonders which way to turn. Seldom is there a shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering. Characteristic of most false comforters is that they give simplistic answer to life’s most painful questions. The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard and heard. Some people become exasperated with the book of Job. It seems to go on and on and on repeating the same arguments over and over and then never coming to a definitive answer. In fact, that is exactly the way the problem of suffering is experienced.

At various times in Christian history the book of Job has been interpreted specifically in terms of Christ. In both prologue and epilogue Yahweh describes Job as "my servant." That fact, combined with the prominence of suffering in Job, has led many interpreters in Christian history to interpret Job in terms of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. The sufferings of Job were then seen as a pre-figurement or even a prediction of the sufferings of Christ. Others have interpreted Job as symbolizing the tribulations of the church at various periods of history.

However, there is nothing in the book of Job that legitimately can be seen as pointing directly to Christ. What is true is that Job authentically reflects the pain and problems of human suffering. Jesus also entered into the pain of human suffering as he came to identify completely with us (John 1:14). As a result of a genuine Incarnation Christ experienced the fullness of the power of our pain. We can identify with Job and we can identify with Jesus. Both help us understand our suffering and they help us turn to the Heavenly Father for strength and grace. However, Jesus provides more than Job because his suffering was redemptive. As a suffering servant his death has bought and brought us salvation. Jesus shows us that suffering can be more than a painful experience to be endured or a philosophical problem to be solved. Suffering can become redemptive.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.

First Day: Read the notes on the Introduction to Job. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify something about Job that you would like to learn more about in this series of lessons.

2. What is your understanding of the problem of evil? Briefly write out why you think suffering comes to either the righteous or the wicked.

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you understand the book of Job. Ask him to reveal his mind to you as you study in the lessons that lie ahead.

Second Day: Read Job 1-2. Now focus in on Job 1:1-5.

1. How does verse 1 describe Job? Is it possible for a person to be as righteous as verse 1 implies? Why or why not? Do verses 2-5 confirm Job’s righteousness?

2. Summarize the indications of Job’s success and wealth. Using modern terminology how would you describe the equivalent wealth in our society? What kind of security and happiness should such success guarantee?

3. What picture of Job’s children do you get from these verses? What do you think of Job’s habit of offering sacrifices for his children after their parties?

Third Day: Read Job 1-2. Now focus in on Job 1:6-22.

1. Satan accuses God of placing a fence of protection around Job. Do you believe that God protects his people that way? Do you have examples of times you think God provided you with a fence?

2. Satan argued that Job only served God for what he could get out of it. Do you think that was true of Job? Is it true of anyone you have known? What evidence is there that it is true – or false- in your life?

3. Do you feel Job’s response to all his losses in verses 20-22 is realistic or not? How would you be tempted to respond to such loss? How do you hope you would respond to such loss?

Fourth Day: Read Job 1-2. Now focus your attention on Job 2.

1. What new argument does Satan introduce in chapter 2 to explain Job’s righteousness? Do you think physical suffering is more difficult to suffer than the loss of material blessings? Why or why not?

2. Describe the response of Job’s wife. How important is one’s spouse in responding to tragedy in life? How would you describe Job’s friends? How important are friends in responding to tragedy?

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you be the kind of spouse and/or the kind of friend that is most helpful in time of trouble.

Fifth Day: Read Job 2-3. Focus in on Job 3.

1. Was Job wrong in cursing the day of his birth? Why or why not?

2. What benefit does Job see if he had never been born? Why is that thought so attractive to him? Can you sympathize with him? Why or why not?

3. Job apparently speaks the words of chapter 3 in the hearing of his wife and friends. If you had been there and heard him speak chapter 3 how would you have responded?

Sixth Day: Read Job 4-5. Now focus your attention on Job 4.

1. What evidence do you see that Eliphaz answered Job kindly and gently? How does he affirm Job? What can you learn from this technique of Eliphaz?

2. In what ways does Eliphaz suggest that Job is in the wrong or has done wrong? Do you agree with Eliphaz? Why or why not?

3. In verse 17 Eliphaz questions whether any human being can be righteous before God. Ask the Lord to examine your heart and reveal any unrighteousness to you. Pray for his grace to forgive you and to change you into the image of his Son.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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