The cry of Job is the most persistent and developed of all appeals in the Bible for help and vindication. The book never answers the question why the righteous suffer, but it does allow a theological discussion about how we shall talk about God in a world that is turned upside down and makes little sense. What distinguishes the Book of Job from most biblical literature and literature in general is the author’s capacity to represent the voices of different viewpoints with authenticity. The author does not create straw dogs that can easily be knocked over. In a highly conflicted situation these contesting voices are represented fairly and with consistency. For additional reflections on the relevance of Job, see the Conclusion.
Form, Date, Setting, and Author
Job has been classified as a wisdom book and though it shares characteristics with wisdom literature throughout the Middle East from Egypt to Babylon, it defies rigid classification. The friends of Job dispense classical wisdom teaching reflecting on the coherent, reliable, and regular nature of creation: good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people (the doctrine of retribution). On the other hand, many of the speeches of Job reflect the language of lament found in the Psalter. Job with his explosions of despair and anger follows the pattern of complaint rather than the measured discourse of the sage.
Details in the prose narrative used as the frame for the Book of Job suggest it could have been in existence as early as the eighth century BCE. The figure of the righteous sufferer who does not raise his voice in the event of a catastrophe can be found as early as the second millennium BCE in Sumer. Many believe that the author of the book has refashioned such a prose tale and supplemented it with the poetic sections after the exile, from approx. 500–400 BCE.
In the organization of the Hebrew canon, the Book of Job is located with Psalms and Proverbs, serving as a bridge between the hymns of Israel and the wisdom of the sages. In the Protestant canon, the Book of Job is associated with the historical books, following Esther.
Though the book was written in Hebrew and includes the special Israelite name for God (Yahweh), the central characters have non-Israelite names and come from a region outside Palestine. Job has no genealogy, and the book, unlike what is typical for historical works, does not begin with the word and linked to a verb. Rather it opens with the simple phrase, “And there was a man.” With this introduction and the absence of detail about his origins, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud considered the possibility that Job never existed (B. Bat. 15a). Scholars propose that the story may have had historical antecedents, but in its present form it should be read as a parable about the life of devotion, no longer linked to a specific individual or time.
Regardless of the book’s layers of composition, however modest they may be, the writing is not a patchwork but a clearly conceived piece of literature. Recent investigation treats the book as primarily the work of one astute and literate writer with some additions and expansions in chapters 22–28 and 32–37.
Of prime importance is Job’s relationship with God. The narrator describes Job as a “man . . . blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1 NRSV; cf. God’s similar descriptions in 1:8; 2:3). The reader is provided the basis on which the whole book depends: a righteous man suffers. The reader will not get an answer to the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” The book in effect poses another question, “Is it possible to serve God without expecting a reward?” The accuser in chapters 1–2 (satan, a title not a name) believes that every person has a price, and the only reason Job serves God is because God has protected him and rewarded him. God, on the other hand, believes in the devotion of Job for its own sake. That is, God bets on humanity and the accuser bets against humanity.
Summary and Comment
Structure and Prologue
The organization of the book has a framing prose narrative: chapters 1–2 (which introduce Job and his suffering) and 42:7-17 (resolution and Job's final years). The central poetic section is inaugurated by the lament of Job in chapter 3 and concludes with the speeches of God (and brief responses from Job) in 38:1–42:6. The first lament is followed by three cycles of speeches in which a friend speaks and Job responds: Cycle I, chapters 4–14; Cycle II, chapters 15–21 Cycle III, chapters 22–27. In the final cycle, the speech patterns break down, the harshest accusations are made, and arguments become confused. The three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, speak in each of the first two cycles, but Zophar vanishes from the third. The friends begin with gentle persuasion but end with intense accusations about Job’s sins. All three represent the doctrine of divine retribution with a variety of nuances in their positions. If there is any progression in their speeches, it is in emotional intensity and not in new argument. A fourth friend speaks in chapters 32–37, followed by the speeches of God in chapters 38–41.
Dialogue with Friends
The conflict in the book occurs because the friends believe that one can only speak about God in muted tones, while Job—following the psalmists—bursts forth with angry complaint. Job’s accusatory cry against God and his friends disturbs pious views of how one should pray and what one should do in moments of distress. Job displays a striking frankness in his prayer life and in his discourse with his friends who believe that a wise man would never act in this way (cf. the first speech of Eliphaz in chs. 4–5 with the speech of Job in 6–7).
The greatest disruption comes in the third cycle of speeches where the arguments are not clearly delineated. As often happens in extended conversations, the clarity of the arguments fade. The voice of Zophar is lost completely. Chapter 28 is a powerful summary of wisdom thought without attribution to any speaker. In response to the friends’ accusations, Job gives a speech outlining his change in fortune from the pinnacle of esteem to social outcast and concludes with an assertion of his innocence in a calm and deliberative manner (chs. 29–31). Elihu, a young upstart, makes his own effort to refute Job’s arguments as well as to criticize the attempts of the three friends (chs. 32–37). While there has been debate about various possible additions to the work, the most likely candidate is the speech of Elihu (previously and subsequently unmentioned in the book), characterized by Carole Newsom as the review of a dissatisfied reader.
Job and God
The speech of God and Job’s response (Job 38:1–42:6) have raised perhaps the most questions for interpreters. Many have found God’s speech to be unsympathetic and unresponsive to Job’s plight. David Dorsey has shown that God’s speech echoes Job’s lament in chapter 3 by 140 uses of nouns and verbs from that chapter (class notes from his lectures in the 1990s). This repetition suggests that God has been listening to Job and seeks to respond directly to his expression of lament and despair. In the process, God replaces Job’s destructive words with divine words of creative presence.
In chapters 29–31 Job requests that God render a judgment against him. Yet in the response, God does not condemn him, overwhelm him, or put Job down. Rather, God summons Job to “Gird up your loins like a man” (38:3 and 40:7). The use of man in most translations does not reflect the strength of the Hebrew noun, gibbor, the word for warrior. God is actually saying to Job that he should stand up like a mighty warrior and present his case. God is also saying in this response that all life does not come under human control. The chapters are a reminder that God’s thought and action cannot be comprehended in a human-centered world. While the friends had banished God from the disruptive and chaotic moments of life, Job now sees the creative presence of God even in the tragic moments of loss and illness.
The reader is particularly challenged to understand Job’s reply to the discourse of God, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). A better translation supported by a number of scholars would be, “I retract my case and repent of my dust and ashes” (Habel, The Book of Job, 575). In his book, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Gustavo Gutierrez argues that “Job is rejecting the attitude of lamentation that has been his until now. The speeches of God have shown that this attitude is not justified. He does not repent or retract what he has hitherto said, but he now sees clearly that he cannot go on complaining. This means that in his final reply what Job is expressing is not contrition but a renunciation of his lamentation and dejected outlook” (87). Job has overcome his attitude that God owes him something because of his own righteousness.
In the prose conclusion (42:7-17) Job forgives his friends (enemies!) and prays on their behalf. The final verses of the book bring Job’s restoration with an abundance of wealth and a return of family life. However, they provide a puzzle for the reader. This restoration appears to confirm the arguments of the friends, namely that the righteous will eventually be rewarded. In a polyphonic text the reader should not expect that when the writer appears to support one point of view over another that the second point of view in the inherited tradition will be completely repressed. The writer preserves a variety of voices articulated in the biblical tradition right up to the last words of his work.
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
What the reader discovers in this journey through the Book of Job is a devotion not built on rewards but on the recognition that our standing with God is God’s free gift to us. One cannot gain a hold on God and remove God’s freedom in his love and care of us. Devotion for Job and for the believer is driven by a love of God. Job also provides a voice for those who have suffered loss and encourages an airing of the way one actually feels in prayer. In a day of great differences among people of faith, the author of the Book of Job displays a variety of voices and honors those voices, even in conflicted circumstances. Such voices heard in community are essential to an Anabaptist view of congregational life. Each is viewed with integrity and provides an avenue for the examination of beliefs.
The book has a strong anticreedal disposition when the standards of wisdom are examined. God stands outside the distillation of all attempts to set an intellectual frame around the deity. God cannot be pinned down by creed or pithy philosophies, in this case the doctrine of retribution. In this setting the writer examines the nature of devotion and obedience outside doctrinaire creedal affirmations. The faith journey is defined by obedience to God (discipleship) that is one of the hallmarks of Anabaptist thought.
Job’s undeserved suffering provided an example to the Anabaptists who were also suffering undeservedly for their faith. The Martyr’s Mirror (1660) connects the persecution and torment inflicted on the Anabaptists with the faithful of all times and places, and in particular Job. Thomas van Imbroek, beheaded in Cologne on May 5, 1556, quoted Job in a letter, “Remember also patient Job who in his trial with all meekness said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither, the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21)’” (580). Andriaenken who was burned at the stake wrote to her husband in 1572, “Hence we are of good cheer; whatever the Lord suffers to come upon us is all for the good… wherefore we endure everything, and are patient according to the example of Job…” (927). These confessions reflect an interpretation of Job—suffering with perseverance and acceptance—similar to that found in the Book of James (5:11).
However, the poetic section of the book of Job (chs. 3–41) does not encourage meek submission to suffering nor does it encourage sufferers to be content with easy palliatives in response to their condition. In this part of the book Job cries for justice—not in hushed tones but in anguished outbursts. The drive for justice in an individual life and in the governance of the universe arises with emotive force in the poetic speeches of Job. The Ruler of the universe is called to execute justice in the present.
In a certain sense the poetic dialogues in Job are a precursor to the method used by the first Anabaptist believers to determine the basics of faith and practice: joint Bible study. Though one can say in both the Book of Job and in life that God has the final word, that outcome is most likely after all voices have been heard.
- van Braght, Thieleman J., ed. Martyrs Mirror. 8th English ed. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1968.
- Clines, David J. A. Job 1–20. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
- Freehof, Solomon. Book of Job: A Commentary. The Jewish Commentary for Bible Readers. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1958.
- Good, Edwin M. In Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job, with a Translation. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
- Gutierrez, Gustav. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987.
- Habel, Norman C. The Book of Job. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1985.
- Neff, Robert W. “Suffering in the Book of Job and Psalms: A Study of Our Devotional Response to Loss.” In The Witness of the Hebrew Bible for a New Testament Church, fs. Robert W. Neff, edited by Christina Bucher, David A. Leiter, and Frank Ramirez, 193–209. Elgin, IL: Brethren, 2010.
- ––––––. Voices in the Book of Job. Covenant Bible Study Series. Elgin, IL: Brethren, 2005.
- Newsom, Carol. The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Pope, Marvin. Job. Rev. ed. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
- Westermann, Claus. Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1994.
Invitation to Comment
To recommend improvements to this article, click here.
|—Robert W. Neff|