The book of Job is the most consistently theological work in the Hebrew Bible, being nothing but an extended discussion of one theological issue, the question of suffering. Its chief literary feature is that it does not expound or defend a dogma from one point of view, but portrays a debate in which conflicting points of view are put forward, none of them being unambiguously presented as preferable. This makes it perhaps the most intellectually demanding book of the Hebrew Bible, requiring of its readers a mental flexibility and even a willingness, in the end, to be left with no unequivocal message.

It is not only a work of intellectual vigor, though; it is also a literary masterpiece that belongs with the classics of world literature, with the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. In design it has both the form of an unsophisticated prose narrative, which nonetheless contains intriguing surprises, and that of a series of subtle speeches in poetry of great delicacy and power. The interplay between prose and poetry, between naïveté and rhetorical finesse, mirrors the interplay among the six participants in the book: Job, the four friends, God—and the narrator.

Structure.

The book can be most easily analyzed as narrative framework surrounding poetic core:



1.1–2.13 Framework prose: narrative1.1–2.13
3.1–42.6 Core poetry: argument
42.7–17 Framework prose: narrative

Another way of reading the shape of the book follows the indications given by the book itself about the speakers. The whole book may be seen as speech, the narrator speaking in prologue and epilogue, and the characters in the dialogue—the three cycles of conversation between Job and the first three friends, the speeches of Elihu the interloper, and the exchanges between God and Job:

This analysis shows, first, that the narrator's words enclose those of all the characters, which has the effect of predisposing the reader to understand how all the speakers in the dialogue are to be understood, and at the end leaving the narrator's perspective uppermost in the reader's mind. Second, it is Job who for the most part initiates conversation; he speaks, and the friends reply to him. But when Yahweh speaks, it is he and not Job who takes the initiative; though Job has summoned Yahweh to speak, Yahweh's speeches are less a reply than a new approach. Third, all the speaking moves toward silence; Job, who has done most of the talking, in the end lays his hand on his mouth (40.4–5); the friends run out of words and do not even finish the third cycle of speeches. Does the book perhaps imply that the real resolution to the problem of suffering comes not at all through talking but only when Yahweh too stops speaking and actually restores Job's fortunes (42.10)?

Argument.

Although it is generally agreed that the chief issue of the book is the problem of suffering, we need to be clear on just what that problem is.

Sometimes it is thought that the question is why is there suffering, what is its origins and cause, or why has this suffering happened to a specific person? To these serious questions the book of Job gives no satisfactory answer. It does indeed say that suffering is sometimes punishment for sins, sometimes a warning against committing sin in the future, and sometimes, as in Job's case, for no earthly reason at all, but for some inscrutable divine reason. In the end, though, readers cannot learn from the book any one clear view about what the reason for any particular suffering, or for human suffering in general, may be.

A second problem about suffering is whether there is such a thing as innocent suffering. Against cut‐and‐dried theologies of retribution, the book of Job, without of course denying the possibility that sometimes suffering is richly deserved by the sufferer, denies that such is always the case. Job is an innocent sufferer, whose innocence is not only asserted by himself (6.30; 9.15) but is attested to by the narrator (1.1) and above all by God (1.8; 2.3; 42.7–8).

There is a third, and more important, problem about suffering that the book does address, however indirectly. It is more existential: In what way am I supposed to suffer, or what am I to do when I am suffering? Two different but complementary answers are given. First, in the opening two chapters, Job's reaction to the disasters that come upon him is a calm acceptance of the will of God; he can bless God not only for what he has given but also for what he has taken away (1.21; 2.10). The patient Job is thus a model for sufferers. But second, Job does not remain in that attitude of acceptance. Once we move into his poetic speeches, from chap. 3 onward, we encounter a mind in turmoil, a sense of bitterness and anger, of isolation from God and even persecution by God. Job makes no attempt to suppress his hostility toward God for what has happened to him; he insists that he will “speak in the anguish of [his] spirit” and “complain in the bitterness of [his] soul” (7.11). What makes this protesting Job a model for other sufferers is that he directs himself constantly toward God, whom he regards as responsible, both immediately and ultimately, for his suffering. It is only (we may suppose) because Job insists on response from God that God enters into dialogue with Job. Even though Job's intellectual questions about the injustice of his suffering are never adequately answered, he himself is in the end satisfied, as a sufferer, by his encounter with God.

Origins.

The composition of the book of Job can be dated to some point between the seventh and the second centuries BCE, but hardly more precisely than that. Quite probably there was a much older tale of an innocent sufferer, and the general theme is found also in Jeremiah and in the poems of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah, both of these prophetic texts stemming from the sixth century. Perhaps the inexplicable suffering of Job was intended to symbolize the suffering of the Jews in Babylonian exile in that century.

The earliest reference to Job outside the book is found in Ezekiel 14.14, 20, where Job is mentioned along with Noah and Danel (probably not Daniel; see Daniel, The Book of) as an ancient hero. But this sixth‐century reference may well be not to the book of Job but to the more ancient folktale, so no inference about the date of the book can be drawn.

There can be little doubt that the author of the book was an Israelite. Job's homeland is depicted as north Arabia or possibly Edom, and in most of the book Job himself does not know God by the Israelite name Yahweh (see Names of God in the Hebrew Bible). Nor does the book refer to any of the distinctive historical traditions of ancient Israel. But these facts only mean that the author has succeeded well in disguising his own age and background in his creation of the character of his hero, who is intended to have universal significance.

In the history of scholarship on the book, several critical questions have commonly attracted attention. One is whether the prose framework of the book (the prologue and epilogue) once existed as an independent story before the poem (3.1–42.6) was composed. The tendency now is to assume that although there was a prose story of Job older than the present book, the prologue and epilogue that we have now were written for their place in the book, since the prose framework by itself does not tell a completely coherent story. The other major question is whether the present allocation of speeches in the third cycle (chaps. 21–31) is the one intended by the author—for it seems strange that there is no third speech of Zophar, that the third speech of Bildad is so short that Job is credited with three speeches in a row, and that some of what Job says seems more suitable in the mouth of one of the friends. Most scholars therefore suspect that there has been some error in the manuscripts of Job, and that, for example, 26.5–14 was originally part of Bildad's speech and 27.13–28.28 was originally Zophar's third speech. A third question often raised is whether the speeches of the fourth friend Elihu (chaps. 32–37) were originally part of the book, since Elihu (unlike the other friends) is not referred to in either the prologue or the epilogue. But it is not possible to settle this question, and in any case these speeches need to be treated as a significant part of the present book whether or not they were contained in the original book.

Job among the *Wisdom Literature.

The book of Proverbs affirms that wisdom—which means the knowledge of how to live rightly—leads to life, while folly leads to death (e.g., Prov 1.32; 3.1–2, 13–18; 8.36). Everywhere the principle of retribution is asserted or taken for granted: that righteousness is rewarded and sin is punished (e.g., Prov. 11.5–6). And the world of humans is divided into two groups: the blessed righteous, or wise, and the unhappy wicked, or foolish.

Ecclesiastes, while not disparaging the quest for wisdom, asks, What happens to one's wisdom at death? Since death cancels out all values, not excepting wisdom, life cannot be meaningful if it is made to consist of gaining something that will inevitably be lost.

As for Job, from the viewpoint of the book of Proverbs, he is an impossibility. If he is truly righteous, he finds life, and wealth, and health. If he is in pain, he is one of the wicked and the foolish. In the end, of course, the book of Job does not completely undermine the principle of retribution, for Job ends up pious and prosperous; but once the principle is successfully challenged, as it is in the book of Job, even in a single case, its moral force is desperately weakened. For once the case of Job becomes known, if a person who has a reputation for right living is found to be suffering (the fate Proverbs predicts for wrongdoers), no one can point a finger of criticism; the book of Job has established that the proper criterion for determining whether people are pious or not is the moral quality of their life and not the accidental circumstances of their material existence.

David J. A. Clines