An Introduction to the Book of Job
AUTHORSHIP AND DATE OF COMPOSITION
Job’s Place in History
The fact that Job was, indeed, a historical person is supported by the testimony of Scripture: reference is made to him three times in other books of the Bible (Ezek. 14:14,20; Jas. 5:11.) As Longman & Dillard point out (p. 207,) twice in the Ezekiel passage Job is mentioned along with two other historical figures from the Old Testament era, Noah and Daniel.
Based on the textual evidence, it appears Job lived in the time of the patriarchs. We find that Job’s great wealth is measured in terms of the number of cattle he possessed and the number of household servants he owned (Job 1:3; 42:12.) He is presented as being the head of a large family for whom he served as priest, as seen by the fact that he personally offers sacrifices on their behalf (1:5,) an act that would have been unthinkable after the instituting of the Levitical priesthood. Furthermore, Job’s age exceeds even that of the patriarchs: he lived for another 140 years after his restoration (42:16.)
Most significant is the fact that Job is a non-Israelite. We are told that he was from “the land of Uz” (1:1.) While it cannot be located with certainty, Uz is clearly not within the boundaries of Israel. Note: Some scholars (including R.K. Harrison, pp. 1027-1028,) based on such passages as Jeremiah 25:20 and Lamentations 4:21, identify Uz as being a part of Edomite territory.
In light of the textual evidence, Longman & Dillard conclude that Job was “a gentile patriarch much like Abraham” (p. 200.) As F. Delitzsch observes (pp. 7-8,) Job belonged to the patriarchal period—a period in which the revelation of the covenant God was still known among the Gentile peoples. (One may note Genesis 4:26, a passage that speaks of men even of the pre-patriarchal era calling upon the name of Jehovah.)
Who Wrote the Book and When Was It Written?
One opinion current among the ancient rabbis and even held by some of the Church Fathers was that Moses was the author of the Book of Job. But in opposition to this is the fact that at least parts of the book are written in the style of the Wisdom literature characteristic of the Book of Proverbs. Also, Job deals with the same subject as that which occupies the Book of Proverbs, the source and substance of true wisdom. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a book such as Job, a book that contemplates the relationship between suffering and the justice of God, would be written prior to the giving of the Law and its promulgation among the covenant people (E.J. Young, p. 320.)
In seeking to ascertain the author’s identity, it would be well to ask, What do we know about him? What does his writing tell us about him? For one thing, his knowledge of nature, both plant and animal life, was extensive (cf. Job 14:7-9.) The series of animal portraits presented in 38:39-39:30 is a magnificent piece, attesting to his extensive knowledge of the habits of wild animals. He was also familiar with precious gems, using thirteen different words to describe them in 28:15-19, (not to mention his graphic description of ancient mining practices also given in that same chapter.) Then, too, in a very picturesque way he describes the formation of a human embryo (10:8-11.) Furthermore, he is very observant of weather patterns (36:27-37:20; 38:34-38) and is quite familiar with the constellations (38:31-33.)
The author was also well informed about foreign cultures, particularly that of Egypt. He compares the passage of human life to the speed of the swift skiffs made out of papyrus that sailed the Nile (9:26;) he presents detailed descriptions of the hippopotamus (40:15-24) and the crocodile (41:1-34,) two creatures commonly associated with Egypt. His knowledge of other cultures is evidenced in his reference to caravan travel across the Arabian Desert (6:18-20.) Also, it is clear from his poetic portrayal of the crocodile as “leviathan” (3:8; 41:1-34,) that he was acquainted with Canaanite mythology (J. Hartley, p. 16.)
Hartley maintains that the author was a highly educated man and a devout servant of Jehovah; he may have been numbered among the great wise men of ancient Israel. These wise men served the royal court as counselors, scribes and teachers. It may be assumed that they held administrative posts in various cities throughout Israel, including foreign cities under the control of the Israelite or Judean crown (J. Hartley, pp. 17,15.)
In what era of Israel’s history are we most likely to encounter such a writer? According to J. Hartley (p. 20,) it is most likely that this man lived during the reign of King Hezekiah (715-689 B.C.) It was during this period in Judah’s history that there was a revival of interest in wisdom (note Prov. 25:1; where we learn that an additional collection of Solomonic proverbs was compiled and disseminated by the scribes who served in Hezekiah’s court.)
Other scholars are of the opinion that our author wrote during the reign of Solomon. E.J. Young (pp. 319-320) quotes F. Delitzsch’s remark: “[The Book of Job] bears throughout the stamp of that creative, beginning period of the Chokma [i.e.; Wisdom literature]—of that Solmonic age of knowledge and art, of deeper thought respecting revealed religion …—that unprecedented age, in which literature corresponded to the summit of glorious magnificence to which the kingdom of the promise had then attained.”
Indeed, the age of Solomon was one of prosperous leisure, allowing the royal court to devote its attention to literary pursuits of the highest order. It was an age that showed special interest in the genre of Wisdom literature and the pondering of the deep questions of life, (consider the Book of Ecclesiastes.) In Solomon’s time there was also the widest acquaintance with and interaction with foreign cultures—both by virtue of extensive commercial relations as well as by means of an exchange of learning (cp. 1 Kgs. 10:1-10.)
It does seem that the age of Solomon is the most likely time for the writing of the Book of Job. However, as E.S.P. Heavenor comments (p. 387,) “The question of date is not really important.” Quoting the Old Testament scholars Oesterley and Robinson, he goes on to say, “There are few poems in all literature whose date and historical background are of less importance than they are in the Book of Job … It is a universal poem, and that is one of the features that gives it its value and interest for us today.”
THE GENRE AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
Job and “The Babylonian Job”
“Israel certainly had no monopoly on suffering,” writes C. Schultz (p. 340.) “Likewise,” he continues, “Israel was not the only nation to respond to suffering in its literature. The wisdom literature of both Mesopotamia and Egypt is similar to Job in plot and structure.” (Note: Schultz mentions the similarities in plot and structure, but, as we shall see, the discussion of the problem, as well as the solution, is far superior in the Book of Job. It is a superiority that is derived from its source, divine revelation, as opposed to mere human wisdom.) We shall consider two examples of this genre taken from Babylonian wisdom literature.
The first of these Babylonian wisdom literature pieces we will consider is the Acrostic Dialogue, or, “A Dialogue about Human Misery” (ca. 1000 B.C.) This acrostic poem, consisting of twenty-seven strophes, is a dialogue between a sufferer and his friend who represents the orthodox piety of Babylon. The sufferer questions the justice of the gods. The friend cautions him against blasphemy, but in the end comes around to the view that the gods made man perverse and “they harm a poor man like a thief, they lavish slander upon him and plot his murder” (Longman & Dillard, p. 206.) The essence of the poem is that when it comes right down to it, there is no divine justice.
The most famous parallel to the Book of Job is the Babylonian piece entitled, “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom,” also known as, “The Babylonian Job.” In this poem a man of high rank is suddenly and unexpectedly reduced to dreadful suffering. He laments his plight in the most gruesome terms. Since he is unaware of any sin in his life, he searches for a remedy to his plight by means of divination, but to no avail. Throughout his ordeal he refrains from rebuking or condemning his god. For a year his disease persists; all the while the sufferer maintains his belief that the gods will yet show him favor. At last, the chief god, Marduk, sends messengers to perform an exorcism and bring about healing for the sufferer (J. Hartley, p. 8.) Although there are some striking similarities between this Babylonian poem and the Book of Job, there is also a very significant difference. Unlike the Book of Job, there is in the Babylonian poem no true grappling with the question of justice as it relates to the suffering of the righteous. The sufferer never questions the gods about his unjustified adversity. The gods are not accused of subverting justice by treating the righteous in a way befitting the wicked; rather, there is almost a sense of fatalism in the face of the inscrutability of the gods. It must be noted, however, that despite the incomprehensibility of the situation, the sufferer does entertain the hope that the gods will yet show him favor—a hope that is not disappointed. This note of optimism is in keeping with the Apostle Paul’s testimony concerning the true God, of whom he says, “he did not leave himself without witness, in that he did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17.) A remnant of the knowledge of the gracious character of the God of heaven remains present in the consciousness of apostate man.
Before considering the biblical response to the questions pertaining to divine justice and human suffering, especially the suffering of the righteous, we need to consider the structure of the Book of Job. To that subject let us now turn.
The Structure of the Book of Job
As Longman & Dillard phrase it (p. 202,) “The Book of Job has a sandwich structure.” It begins with a prose prologue (1:1-2:13,) it continues with an extended poetic section (3:1-42:6,) and it then concludes with a prose epilogue (42:7-17.) The prologue and the epilogue are known as “the prose framework.”
Not only is there an overall symmetry to the book, there is also symmetry within the various parts. C. Schultz notes (p. 338) that the prose framework features the following symmetrical parts: the prologue contains two dialogues between Jehovah and Satan (1:6-12; 2:1-7a;) the epilogue contains two dialogues between Jehovah and Job (38:1-40:5; 40:6-42:6.)
The poetic portion of the book likewise features much symmetry: Eliphaz speaks, and Job replies; Bildad speaks, and Job replies; Zophar speaks, and Job replies. This cycle is repeated three times, the one exception being the omission of any third speech by Zophar. This very omission is a striking way of emphasizing that Job’s would-be comforters have exhausted their efforts to dissuade Job, they have come to an abrupt halt and have nothing more to say. C. Schultz also observes (p. 338) that the three cycles of dialogue are framed by Job’s opening soliloquy (3:1-26) and his closing speech (29:1-31:40.)
“The simplicity and symmetry of this structure contrasts with the profundity of the subject discussed” (J. Hartley, p. 37.) Indeed, it is the author’s way of assuring us that although Job may for a time be experiencing both spiritual and emotional turmoil and upheaval, there is a divine overarching order to God’s universe. (Note: Chapter 28, The Hymn In Praise of Divine Wisdom, and Chapters 32-37, Elihu’s Speeches, intrude upon the overall symmetry of the book. But they do so in order to alert the reader and prepare him for the great theophany that is about to take place.)
Another feature of the dialogues between Job and his three friends should also be noted. In each instance Job picks up on a point made by one of his friends and turns it into a counterargument. The occurrences of this phenomenon are as follows:
Eliphaz counsels Job to let his fear of God (i.e.; his devotion to God) sustain him in his time of intense suffering (4:6.) To this Job replies that one who is undergoing intense suffering is in need of sympathy and compassion to sustain him or else he may be tempted to forsake his fear of God (6:14.)
Bildad assures Job that God’s actions are in accordance with justice; in His justice, God makes a distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous (8:20.) Job responds by asserting that he has a hard time reconciling that truth with his present experience; he, a righteous man, is being treated like the unrighteous (9:22.)
Zophar charges Job with being full of empty talk and expresses his desire that God would personally address Job (11:1-5.) Job responds by expressing his desire that he might, indeed, be granted a personal interview with God (13:3.)
Eliphaz exhorts Job to take comfort in the consolations provided by God (15:11.) In his discourse, Job laments the fact that he can find no consolation, neither from his brethren (16:1-5) nor from God (16:6-17.)
Bildad implies that Job, as a wicked man, has become ensnared in a trap of his own making (18:7-10.) Job protests that he is not caught in a trap of his own making; on the contrary, it is God who has inexplicably captured Job in His trap (19:6.)
Zophar confidently asserts that the triumph of the wicked is brief (20:5.) Job questions why the wicked survive, why they live to old age, why they prevail (21:7.)
Eliphaz instructs Job to seek God and return to Him (22:21.) Job’s response is that he desires to draw near to God, but God has hidden Himself from Job (23:3.)
Bildad confronts Job with God’s divine majesty, hoping to instruct Job as to his own human insignificance (25:1-6.) Job dismisses Bildad’s instruction as worthless because Job knows more about the majesty of God than Bildad, as he goes on to prove in his discourse (26:5-14.)
As we have already noted, the rest of Scripture testifies to the fact that Job was a historical person (cf. Ezek. 14:14,20; Jas. 5:11.) Furthermore, as Longman & Dillard point out (p. 207,) the first verse of the Book of Job is similar to the opening verses of Judges 17 and 1 Samuel 1, two passages that beyond a doubt are intending to communicate historical events. Thus, based on the teaching of Scripture, we are to accept Job and his friends as historical persons and the events as historical facts.
But, as Longman & Dillard go on to say, although the Book of Job intends to be read as communicating historical facts, other signals from the book indicate that the author is not merely transcribing a historical record (as a court stenographer would communicate the verbatim testimony of persons on the witness stand.) One obvious clue to this is the fact that all the dialogues are cast in poetic form. Clearly, then, write Longman & Dillard, since people did not normally speak to one another in poetic form, (especially when in extreme distress,) we have nothing like transcripts of the conversations that took place between the characters of the book.
What are we to make of this? How are we to put together the historical and poetic elements of the book? Perhaps we can reconstruct the process as follows: The story of the man named Job, (including his plight and his subsequent deliverance,) together with his would-be comforters and the counsel they sought to give their friend, was a well-known oral tradition (or even a written record) passed down from generation to generation and preserved in its purity by the covenant community. Then, in His divine providence and under the inspiration of His Holy Spirit, the LORD caused one of the wise men of Israel (most likely during the Solomonic era) to compose the original material into poetic form and thus produce the Book of Job as we now have it. As Longman & Dillard conclude (p. 207,) “The Book of Job is not simply a historical chronicle; it is wisdom that is to be applied to all who hear it.” We must now go on to consider the message of the Book of Job.
THE THEME AND PURPOSE OF THE BOOK OF JOB
The Overarching Theme of the Book
“Suffering is at the heart of the Book of Job,” write Longman & Dillard (p. 199.) But they then go on to say (p. 208,) “The issue of the suffering of the innocent propels the story and is theologically important, but the question, ‘Who is the wise?’ takes precedence in the unfolding of the plot.” We agree that suffering is not the overarching theme, although it obviously plays a very significant role in the book. However, we differ with Longman & Dillard when they maintain that wisdom is the main theme. On the contrary, the overarching theme of the Book of Job is providing the correct answer to the question, Why should a man serve God? Or, to put it another way, What is the motivation of true devotion? This theme is evident out the very outset of the book when Satan raises the question, “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9) He then proceeds to submit his thesis that Job only serves God for the material benefits to be derived from such devotion (1:10-11.) This overarching theme, introduced in the opening chapter of the book, comes to a climax in the closing chapter when Jehovah honors Job for having, in contrast to all others, articulated and exemplified the correct answer to the question, What is the motivation of true devotion.
Jehovah publicly vindicates Job; in contrast to his three companions, Job is commended for having spoken of God “what is right” (42:8.) Although Job has had moments of wavering doubt as to the justice of God, and although he was in danger of developing a self-righteous attitude that would have caused him to disparage God’s righteousness, nevertheless, Job has spoken “what is right” and, despite his moments of wavering, he has not recanted.
The thing that is right, which Job has spoken of God, is expressed in Job 1:21, “[Job] said, Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return there. Jehovah gave, and Jehovah has taken away, blessed be the name of Jehovah.” Job’s testimony may be summarizes as follows: (1) all the good, the blessing, the benefits we experience are bestowed upon us by the LORD and are subject to His sovereign discretion: “Jehovah gave, and Jehovah has taken away;” (2) despite the change in our earthly circumstances the LORD (Jehovah) ever remains the faithful covenant-keeping God: He is Jehovah—it is significant that Job identifies God by His covenantal name, “Jehovah” (cp. Deuteronomy 7:9); and (3) it is our moral obligation to honor the LORD and render devotion unto Him as an end in itself (cp. Ecclesiastes 12:13,) not merely when or because we are the recipients of temporal blessings, or in an effort to induce the LORD to bestow such blessings upon us. Despite his trials Job still proclaims, “blessed be the name of Jehovah.”
In contrast to Job’s God-honoring testimony, there was the counsel of his wife: “Then his wife said to him, ‘Are you still maintaining your integrity? Renounce God and die!’ (Job 2:9.) Her position is self-centered and utilitarian—as opposed to being God-centered and truly pious, or devotional: service is to be rendered unto God, not as an end in itself, not as the supreme purpose of man’s existence, but as a means of gaining temporal benefits from God—if God withholds the blessing, one should renounce his service to God, even if it means suffering God’s curse.
Note that the counsel given by Job’s wife is the same position as that of the wicked and ungodly: “They say to God, ‘Get away from us! We have no desire to know your ways. Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What will we gain by praying to him?’” (Job 21:14-15.) Like that of Job’s wife, their position is self-centered and utilitarian, as opposed to being God-centered and truly pious, or devotional.
Jehovah goes on to charge Job’s three companions with “folly” (42:8;) the same charge Job had earlier brought against his wife: “You are speaking like one of the foolish women” (2:10a.) Whether knowingly or unintentionally, the three would-be comforters have given Job counsel that is basically the same as that given by his wife. Throughout the book the three companions have urged Job to confess whatever sin he may have committed, assuring him that by so doing he will once again receive temporal blessings and benefits from Jehovah. They are actually tempting Job to be dishonest and sacrifice his integrity (his devotion to God) by confessing to sin he has not committed in order to receive the restoration of temporal blessings and benefits from the LORD.
God’s Use of Suffering
Suffering does, indeed, play a major role in the Book of Job. From the book we learn two things about suffering. It is God’s prerogative to employ suffering (1) as a means of punishing the guilty, and (2) as a means of proving (by testing) the devotion of the righteous.
The first aspect of suffering, namely, that it is used by God as a means of punishing the guilty, was well-known to Job’s friends. This was their operative definition of suffering; they were unaware of any other purpose for which Jehovah might employ suffering. Consequently, because of their limited view of suffering, they tragically misinterpreted Job’s plight and, ironically, as noted above, their efforts to elicit repentance from Job actually became an occasion of temptation to him—the temptation to gain restoration at the expense of his integrity.
The other aspect of suffering, although unknown to Job’s friends, is revealed to the reader at the very outset of the book. We find Jehovah inviting Satan to consider the life and character of this man Job, whom Jehovah describes as “my servant.” We then find Satan responding with the request that Job’s faith and integrity be put to the test—that Job’s identity as a servant of Jehovah be verified or proven. Jehovah grants Satan’s request, putting Job’s devotion (as well as Jehovah’s claim on behalf of His servant) to the test, and He does so by means of suffering. Throughout the course of the book we find that Job—by the grace of God at work in him—meets the challenge and proves to be a true servant of Jehovah. Thus we see that in the life of Job, as well as in the life of Christ, (note the striking parallel between the opening chapters of Job and the account of Jesus’ baptism and subsequent temptations,) Jehovah exercises His divine prerogative to employ suffering as the instrument by which He tests and verifies the devotion of His servants. The apostle Peter informs us that each and every Christian may expect to find his devotion tested in ways similar to that of Job (1 Pet. 1:6-7.)
The Justice of God
Does the Book of Job come to any resolution concerning the justice of God? Or are we left with the answer that the ways of God, including His justice, are beyond the comprehension of mortal men?
The latter view is the one espoused by the great majority of commentators. Consider the following as a representative sampling:
”The book … raises one of the most perplexing questions facing men and women: Are God’s ways just? … although the book raises the issue, does it really answer it with anything more than a simple and implied affirmative?” (Longman & Dillard, p. 199)
”By constant appeal to the creation and the incomprehensible nature of the created universe, God brings to the fore the infinite, absolute distance between the Creator and the creature. Man, being a creature and hence finite, cannot comprehend the infinite wisdom of God or the mystery of His rule … Job is more and more abased to the point where he sees that it is futile for man to think that he can penetrate the mysteries of God’s providential dealings with His creatures. He (Job) has found peace—a God-given peace—even though all his questions have not been answered.” (E.J. Young, p. 330)
However, when we examine more closely the concluding chapters of the Book of Job, we discover that there is, indeed, a resolution!
In these concluding chapters of the book Job is not only confronted by God as the all-wise Creator and the caring Sustainer of His creation; Job is also confronted by God as the faithful covenant LORD. When He confronts Job, God reveals Himself by His covenant name: “Jehovah answered Job” (38:1.) We may again remind ourselves of God’s testimony recorded in Deuteronomy 7:9, “Know therefore that Jehovah your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.”
Although the LORD (JEHOVAH) answers Job “out of the tempest” (38:1,) Job is not swept away; the significance of this fact is two-fold. First, it means that Job is justified before God: Job’s standing before the tempest demonstrates his innocence, his righteousness (note Proverbs 10:25, “When the tempest has swept past, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.”) Second, it means that God is justified before the world: Job’s standing before the tempest demonstrates God’s justice, God’s righteousness; it demonstrates that God does make a distinction between the righteous and the wicked. Here we may take note of Jehovah’s testimony recorded in Malachi 3:17-18, referring to the righteous, Jehovah declares, “’They will be mine,’ declares Jehovah of hosts, ‘in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’”
Although Job is reduced to silence, he does not tremble in terror. Contrast Job’s experience with that of Isaiah when he is confronted with the majestic presence of Jehovah, he cries out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! —for I am a man with unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5.) Because of his devotion to God—and that produced in him by the grace of God—God has made Job to stand secure (cp. Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the LORD is able to make him stand.”)
From Job’s encounter with the LORD (Jehovah,) let us learn to put our confidence in the LORD; because He is our faithful covenant God.
From the Book of Job we learn that God, in His justice, does not exempt His servants from suffering (as we have seen, suffering plays a vital role in verifying, or, authenticating, His servants’ devotion.) On the contrary, God manifests His justice by abundantly rewarding His servants for faithfully sustaining any divinely appointed suffering to which He may deem it necessary to subject them.
Archer, Gleason L. Jr.; A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Moody Press, Chicago, 1964, (Sixth Printing, 1970.)
Harrison, R.K.; Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1969 (Fifth printing, November 1975.)
Hartley, John E.; “The Book of Job,” The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Wm. B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1988.
Heavenor, E.S.P.; “Job,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.
Keil, C.F. & Franz Delitzsch; “Biblical Commentary on the Book of Job, Vol. 1,” Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Sixth Printing, May 1970.
Longman, Tremper III & Raymond Dillard; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI, 1994.
Schultz, Carl; “Job,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.
Young, Edward J.; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1949 (Fourth printing, June 1969.)