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A Taste of the Wise Life: Job and Theodicy

Davis Hankins
Emory University

Audience: Undergraduate level

Background Essays


The book of Job has long been a favorite of readers from antiquity to the present. Although its literary artistry and theological profundity have never been in doubt, it is equally clear that the book of Job is difficult to read. Beyond its complex themes and lengthy speeches, the book itself presents a variety of genres that, at times, stand in sharp relief. Many scholars have debated the unity or diversity of the materials that compose the book of Job, and while it is evident that the generic, narrative, and semantic disjunctures in the text present obstacles to comprehension, scholars nonetheless see many connections between disparate sections of the book. As the early Christian scholar Jerome put it, the book of Job is like an "eel," since the more one tries to contain it, the slipperier it becomes. Though this slipperiness prevents scholars from making sure judgments about much of its background and its contents, perhaps this same quality has propelled the ages-long fascination with the book of Job. For more information, see the related article on the composition of the book of Job.


Traditionally, Jewish interpretation has tended to understand Moses as the author of the book (see the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b), but even in the Talmud alternative suggestions abound (see Baba Bathra 15a–b). Modern scholars, too, have proposed a variety of possible times and places for the original setting of the book of Job, and no consensus exists. The book of Job does seem to interact with several other biblical texts, including Jeremiah (e.g., Job 3; Jer 20:14–18), Lamentations (e.g., Job 19:7–8; Lam 3:7–9), and Second Isaiah (e.g. Job 9:8; Isa 44:24). These texts all date roughly from the time of the exile (the sixth century BCE), and as a result Job might well derive from a later period when these texts were available for public consumption. But it is very possible that dependence runs in the other direction, and thus Job remains difficult to date. For more information, see the related article on the setting of Job's composition.

Ancient Near Eastern Parallels

The book of Job has much in common with several important ancient Near Eastern texts associated with "Wisdom literature." While it is not certain that the book of Job depended upon any of these texts in particular, they are all witness to a similar conception of the world. It would be helpful to introduce students to some of these texts, such as The Babylonian Theodicy or The Eloquent Peasant, and compare and contrast them with the book of Job. In particular, note the dialogic form of these texts, as well as their common sources of knowledge and common methods of reasoning. For more information, see the article on the ancient Near Eastern parallels to the book of Job.


The book of Job contains a pair of folktale-like prose narratives (Job 1:12:11; 42:7–12) that bookend a long poetic section in between (Job 3:1– 42:6). Chapter 3 begins the poetic section with a soliloquy from Job, and then the book shifts into a wisdom dialogue between Job and his three friends (Job 327). The wisdom dialogue is divided into three sections, each section comprising a speech by each of Job's three friends, and a response from Job to each speech. Job then presents a poem concerning Wisdom (28) before launching into a spirited defense of his piety (2931). At this point, an eavesdropping friend named Elihu offers his perspective on Job's situation (3237). God finally appears after Elihu's discourse and presents a series of thundering speeches (3842:6). Finally, the prose tale returns, and Job's fortunes are restored (42:7–12). For more information, see the article on the structure of the book of Job.



  1. 1. Students will be challenged to analyze the formal structure of a story separate from content-driven inquiries.
  2. 2. Students will better understand how traditions (e.g., the fear of the Lord) and figures (e.g., the satan) develop over time and across traditions and will therefore become cautious before presuming continuity.


  1. 1. Suffering in biblical literature
  2. 2. Discussion of piety in the psalms, which parallels the piety of Job in the prologue
  3. 3. Sickness in biblical literature
  4. 4. Background to the "sons of God" and the "satan "

Structure: Earth, Heaven, Earth, Heaven, Earth

The prologue is structured by alternating scenes on earth and in heaven. The final verses (Job 2:11–13) introduce the friends with whom Job will dispute over the course of the dialogue. Such a structure is regularly used in film sequences, often to build suspense as the cuts become increasingly close together as the two sequences converge.

Job's Pre-Afflicted Piety

Job's only act reported by the narrative prior to the affliction is his regular sacrifices for the potential sins of his children in 1:5. This act is therefore crucial for grasping Job's fear of God upon which the satan casts his shadow of doubt. For the most part, interpreters are divided into one of two camps. Those who think Job is truly pious, and thus refuse to grant the satan's challenge any credibility, see in his sacrifices evidence of his authentic piety. Their very excessiveness—he provides sacrifices every day—are proof that Job's piety is far from calculated. Those who grant the satan's challenge some credibility, and thus are on the lookout for Job's selfishness, see the sacrifices as outward expressions of Job's inner conviction that he has a contract with God; according to this view, Job thinks that if he remains pious by sacrificing for his family's sins, he will remain protected and productive.

Both perspectives, however, err by treating Job as if he offers his sacrifices from a position of certitude, when the story tells us that Job offers sacrifices on account of something he does not know—namely, whether his children have somehow transgressed. Job's sacrifices proceed from a position of uncertainty, and with them he tries to anticipate, capture, or satisfy the desire of God. The regularity with which Job offers them suggests that they are not (only) occasioned by some particular occurrence but are instead fundamental to his piety. They serve as evidence of Job's disciplined devotion to sustaining himself in a position of ignorance about the truth of his world.

This disciplined devotion to ignorance makes Job a principal exemplar of the ethic of ancient Israel's wisdom tradition. The motto of the book of Proverbs sums up the core of this ethic nicely when it teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (see Prov 1:7; 9:10). The first step toward becoming a sage is to fear the Lord, which is to say, to confess one's ignorance, to acknowledge that wisdom is located in a divine, not human subject (cf. the many verses denouncing those who are "wise in their own eyes," such as Prov 12:15; 16:2; 21:2; 26:5, 12, 16; 28:11). The wisdom tradition frames the life of the sage as a path and wisdom as a search or process (e.g., Prov 1:15; 2:8, 13, 20; 3:17; 4:11, 18–19; 5:21; 7:27; 8:32; 9:6; 12:28; Job 17:9; 22:3, 15; 23:11;; 28:23; 31:7). The path on which the sage travels offers the promise of progress but requires that progress remain continuous. With his perpetual sacrifices, in other words, Job ritually and concretely enacts his fundamental condition as a fearer of God.

The Satan

The meaning of "the satan" developed over time and traditions. The Hebrew means "the accuser," and here it signifies the occupant of an occupation or office whose responsibility it was, in the divine court, to accuse. This is not yet the figure who will be opposed to God in a dualistic cosmology, a tradition that derives from a later time when Persian Zoroastrian and/or Greek thought became more prominent (see Satan). Here the satan is clearly on God's team, if not God's side; he can only act on God's authority, and he is more devil's advocate than devil. Satan the devil does not appear in Jewish and Christian literature for some time.

The Satan's Challenge

The first heavenly scene begins with Yahweh's provocative question to the satan in 1:8. The satan's response in 1:9–10 is quite remarkable. Trading question for question he asks, "Is it for naught that Job fears God?" and he then conjectures that Yahweh has blessed Job with a protective hedge surrounding his entire world such that, if Yahweh were to take it away, Job's piety would be exposed as inauthentic, and he as an imposter.

The satan is suspicious of Job's piety because of its potential self-interest or selfishness. The satan wonders whether Job's fear of God is not conditioned upon the blessings God has given him, as if Job were some kind of wage-earning laborer for God. But the stakes of the implied wager to which Yahweh agrees are even higher; the question concerns whether or not Job's fear is unconditional.

God's Afflictions

The root of the word translated as "destroy" in the NRSV when Yahweh uses it in 2:3 to characterize the affliction actually means "to swallow." It is often associated with destruction and death, but the root meaning captures the effect of Yahweh's act well. When Job receives the reports of the effects of the affliction, the order in which the destruction is relayed to him is nearly a point-by-point reversal of the order in which the introduction to the tale predicated the now-destroyed entities to Job. In the afflictions, Job is split off from what or whomever one may have thought of as Job.

Job's Responses

Job reacts to each affliction with both verbal and non-verbal responses. Job's non-verbal response to the first affliction includes four expressions of grief and one act of worship (1:20). Such acts of mourning ritually separate grievers from the community and their lives. Job's non-verbal response to the second affliction is to take a potsherd and scrape himself as he sits upon the trash-heap outside the city, the place where broken pots, ashes, and other such garbage was dumped (2:8). Job's location is important because it identifies him with the rejected and destitute and situates him in the place for those things that have no place in society. Thus, through both his acts of mourning and his location, Job is displaced.

Job's verbal responses are some of the most famous lines in the book. In 1:21, Job blesses the name of the Lord and neither offers any reason nor appeals to any support for his worship. In his second verbal response in 2:10, Job rebukes his wife by suggesting that it is foolish to relate to God on the basis of any condition, be it good or evil. Job expresses no curiosity about what his experience might mean. He does not try to sacrifice objects that may satisfy the desire of God. Job's words and actions are not driven by his desire to know who or what he is for God but are instead driven by his experience of God in what is effectively the destruction of himself and his entire world.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. 1. Why does the satan cast doubt upon Job's piety?
  2. 2. Is it really possible to fear God or do anything for nothing—that is, unconditionally?
  3. 3. How, if at all, do the afflictions change Job? Of course his conditions change, but does he himself actually change because of the afflictions?
  4. 4. What do expressions of grief and/or mourning do? How do they function in society?
  5. 5. How can we know whether Job has passed or failed? How does one know an unconditional act?
  6. 6. Do you agree with what Job says in his verbal responses?


  1. 1. Have students write a general outline of the text ahead of time.
  2. 2. Show a clip of a film in which the director uses the same formal device of alternating shots between two different locations so as to relate them in a way that they are not (yet) immanently related. The editing technique, known as "cross-cutting," is classically associated with the direction of D. W. Griffith. Give the students a chance to figure out what parallel you are intending to create between the move and the tale. (Griffith's 1909 short film A Corner in Wheat cuts back and forth between the actions and parties of a speculator who tries to corner the market on wheat and the bread lines created as a result of his speculation. Thus, it offers a nice parallel to the cuts back and forth between the speculation in heaven and its disastrous effects on earth...)
  3. 3. Give students some texts in which the figure of the satan appears and have them trace the development of this figure over time.
  4. 4. Give students some texts in which the fear of the Lord is present and ask whether unconditionality is essential to its authenticity anywhere else.
  5. 5. Have students compare Job's responses. How do they differ?



  1. 1. Students will participate in active learning by comparing the friends' arguments and Job's arguments.
  2. 2. Students will learn about the ancient Near Eastern context that serves as the larger intellectual background for many ideas, forms, and figures present in Israel's literature.
  3. 3. Students will demonstrate familiarity with the teachings of traditional wisdom literature as well as skeptical responses emanating from the wisdom tradition itself.


  1. 1. Commentary on Job 3
  2. 2. Commentary on the wisdom dialogues
  3. 3. Discussion of traditional wisdom literature
  4. 4. Discussion of skepticism within the wisdom tradition
  5. 5. Commentary on Elihu

Job's Curse

At the beginning of chapter 3, the book of Job takes a drastic turn: it shifts into poetry and does not return to prose until chapter 42 at the end of the book. Breaking his silence (2:13), Job "curses" the day of his birth (3:1), coming perilously close to proving the accuser correct (1:11; 2:5). Overall, this speech presents Job very differently than the prose introduction did. Job's anger has percolated to the surface, and instead of offering pious phrases (cf. 1:21), he rages against what he sees as a lack of moral order in the universe. Note carefully the language of Job's curse: it clearly parodies the creation language of Genesis 1 ("let there be… darkness!" Job 3:4; cf. Gen 1:3), and contains formal similarities to Jeremiah's curse of his own birthday (Jer 20:14–18). Job's curse seems like an "anti-creation," a wish that the world itself would disappear.

During class time, the students could compare Job 3, Jeremiah 20:14–18, and Genesis 1, pointing out the similarities and dissimilarities of each. Alternatively, students could break into groups, attempt to outline Job's poem into stanzas, and present their understanding of Job's argument concerning the value of life.

Structure: Wisdom Dialogues

After Job's startling curse in chapter 3, his friends join the conversation, starting with Eliphaz in chapters 45. Most of the rest of the book of Job consists of the lengthy dialogue between Job and his friends that ensues (chapters 327). The dialogue is structured in three rounds, in which each friend gives a speech, followed by Job's reply. Though the third cycle of speeches may exhibit some text-critical problems, the ending of the dialogue is not in doubt: Job and his friends cannot agree upon an understanding of Job's suffering. This is not unusual; ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature often presents opposing points of view in the form of a dialogue that ends without a clear victory of one position over another. The purpose of these dialogues is not to prove the universal correctness of one side or the other, but rather to present opposing views in their most convincing form. The dialogue format lends itself well to discussion of the problem of theodicy, or the tension that exists between God's supposed justice and the manifestly unjust world.

Job's Friends and Their Worldview

The book of Job casts Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar as wise men, or sages, who argue that Job must not lose sight of the teachings of traditional wisdom even in the midst of his suffering. In response, Job argues that his traumatic experiences have forced him to reconsider his understanding of God and of God's relationship to the world. Since the end of the book of Job includes a divine repudiation of the friends (42:7–10), many readers throughout history have caricatured their arguments. Yet it is important to hear the friends' arguments in a sympathetic light, because they represent some of the most profound thinking in the ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition.

Below are short readings from each of the three friends and then from Job; these readings present a glimpse of each character's larger argument. In short, Eliphaz argues that the world's moral order is more or less sound, and that if Job repents for his sins that caused his suffering, God will restore his life; Bildad argues that Job needs to see the "big picture," in which his insignificant life does not matter much, but the overall well-being of the community does; and Zophar argues that Job cannot know anything about God, since God is transcendent, and thus Job should stop thinking about his suffering and quickly repent.

Job's Replies

In response, Job argues that his particular situation is not well explained by these teachings. He experiences God as overbearing (Job 7), ambivalent to moral differences between humans (Job 9), and capricious (Job 10). Job claims that his personal experiences force him to disagree with traditional wisdom. Rather than repent, Job imagines that he may instigate a court case with God, with the hope that God would receive something akin to a "restraining order" (chapters 9, 13, 16).

Clearly the book of Job presents significant problems for traditional wisdom teachings. The book tells us emphatically that Job was a blameless man (1:1) and yet he finds himself mired in terrible suffering. Job's friends attempt to convince Job that his understanding of himself and his own circumstances must be in error, not the traditional teachings about God's justice. This tension drives the dialogues and leads ultimately to the climax of the divine speeches (chapters 3842).

Presenting the Information of the Dialogue:

During class time, the students could read these passages aloud and discuss the perspective of each character, assessing their application to Job's dilemma and their potential explanatory power in other instances of suffering. Another class session could be devoted to reading the selections of Job's speeches also included below, and clarifying his arguments in relation to the arguments of his friends. These readings could easily be arranged on a PowerPoint slide, on a class handout, or simply in reading packets to facilitate class discussion. More in-depth assignments are included below.


1. Eliphaz and The World's Moral Order (Job 4:7–9)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. What does Eliphaz say about wicked people?
  2. 2. What does Eliphaz say about innocent people?
  3. 3. What does Eliphaz say God does to wicked people?
  4. 4. What does this imply about Job, and Job's children?
  5. 5. What kind of metaphor does Eliphaz use, and what does this imply about the world?
  6. 6. How would you sum up Eliphaz's teaching in one sentence?
  7. 7. Is Eliphaz's teaching accurate according to chapters 12 of the book of Job?
  8. 8. Is this teaching accurate in general; that is, does the world work like this sometimes, always, or never? (If the students assume this is never true, perhaps it would be beneficial to ask if sometimes people "get what is coming to them," such as a perpetual liar cultivating a reputation for untruthfulness.)

2. Eliphaz's Solution: "Repent!" (Job 5:6–9, 13, 17–18, 22, 26–27)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Where does "trouble" comes from?
  2. 2. What does Eliphaz say he would do if he were in Job's shoes?
  3. 3. Why would Eliphaz repent? What does he assume God would do in return?
  4. 4. In verses 1718, what does Eliphaz imply about the nature of suffering? Who suffers?
  5. 5. What is the result of such suffering, according to Eliphaz?
  6. 6. What does Eliphaz think will happen to Job in the long run?
  7. 8. Is this set of teachings true within the context of the book of Job? Why or why not?
  8. 9. Is this set of teachings true in general, at least sometimes? (If students say "no, never," perhaps the instructor could point out stories of '"redemption,"' of people who "'turned over a new leaf"' and whose lives changed for the better as a result. For example, a terrible trauma can sometimes wake people up to their own problems that caused that very trauma, allowing them to change their lives for the better.)

3. Bildad's Solution: "Look at the bigger picture." (Job 8:3–10, 16, 18–19)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. How does Bildad characterize God?
  2. 2. Why did Job's children die, according to Bildad?
  3. 3. In verses 5–6, what does Bildad tell Job to do, and what will happen to him if he does it?
  4. 4. In verses 8–9, what does Bildad tell Job to do, and what is his reason?
  5. 5. How does Bildad want Job to understand his personal experiences?
  6. 6. Note the story of the plants in the garden, in which God steps on a few plants but doesn't notice them because they are insignificant. What does this say about human tragedy?
  7. 7. Is Bildad correct about Job's children and about Job?
  8. 8. Does Bildad's argument sound convincing to you? (If not, perhaps the instructor could play devil's advocate by arguing that many of our problems are insignificant, and other sufferings are for the "greater good" in the long run.)

4. Zophar: "You can't understand it." (Job 11:4–8, 13–16)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. What does Zophar wish God would do?
  2. 2. Why does Zophar wish this?
  3. 3. Zophar claims that Job's knowledge is very limited. What does Zophar take as the lesson of Job's limitation?
  4. 4. What does Zophar suggest Job do?
  5. 5. Is Zophar's argument convincing as it applies to Job? Why or why not?
  6. 6. Is Zophar's argument convincing for suffering in general? (If the students say "no," perhaps the instructor could argue that often people cannot know the true cause of their suffering. Is it better to guess that "'God has it in for me,"' or to say "'I don't really know why this tragedy has happened"'?)


1. "God doesn't care about right and wrong" (Job 9:21–24)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Job's belief in his own blamelessness forces him to make a claim about God. What is this claim?
  2. 2. How does Job characterize God?
  3. 3. What are the implications of Job's argument—–that is, what is the moral framework of the universe if Job is right?
  4. 4. Read Proverbs 11:5 and compare this to Job's speech. What is different?
  5. 5. Is this a comforting or troubling view?

2. God's Over-proximity (Job 7:12, 17–21)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. The "sea-monster" and "dragon" in verse 12 likely refer to monsters, much like Leviathan, mentioned in Job 41 and elsewhere in the Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature. These monsters represented the forces of chaos that had to be subdued in order for the gods to create the order of the world. Job here accuses God of confusing Job for a chaos-monster. Why does Job think this is the case?
  2. 2. Read Psalm 8. Note that Job parodies Psalm 8:4 in his speech, particularly in verse 17. While in Psalm 8 God's attention was touching, Job thinks God is attentive for a different reason (see verse 18). Why does Job parody this psalm?
  3. 3. What does Job want God to do now?
  4. 4. How is Job's understanding of God here different than that of Job's friends?
  5. 5. Read Psalm 139. What would Job say about this poem? Is it touching, or terrifying?
  6. 6. Does Job's understanding of God sound reasonable?

3. Envisioning a court case (Job 13:2–12)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Job's friends counseled Job to pray to God for forgiveness; Job envisions a different sort of encounter with God. What does Job wish for in verse 3?
  2. 2. What does the word "case" imply? What sort of situation involves "arguing a case," and how does this situation differ from that of prayer?
  3. 3. What does Job accuse the friends of doing for God?
  4. 4. What does Job predict will happen to the friends?
  5. 5. Read Proverbs 1:33 and compare it to Job's speech. What is different? Why is it different?
  6. 6. How is Job's argument different from the arguments of his friends?
  7. 7. With whom do you agree, and why?

In-Class Activities:

  1. 1. Character Debate: Divide students up into four groups ahead of time and ask each group to read the arguments of one character closely (one group each for Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar). In class, encourage them to try to embody the position of that character, and structure a debate. Give the topic "Why do people suffer, and what should they do about it?" Allow students several minutes to gather in their groups in order to consolidate their character's best arguments. Give each group several minutes to argue per round, and run the debate in three rounds. After the debate, ask students to leave behind their role and try to take an objective view of the debate. Whose arguments were strong and whose were weak? Does this get us any closer to answering the question of suffering?
  2. 2. Comparative Literature: Compare the responses to theodicy found in the ancient Near Eastern texts "The Righteous Sufferer" " and "The Babylonian Theodicy" with each of the arguments found in the book of Job. These texts may be found translated into English in Benjamin Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesda: CDL, 1995), pages 298–323, and in William Hallo, The Context of Scripture (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 1:486–495. Note similarities and differences. Are there some arguments found in one that are not found in another? Is one point of view more convincing than any of the others?
  3. 3. The Court Case: Job spends much of his time in the dialogue section of the book dreaming about the possibility of holding a court case to settle his dispute with God. Assign chapters 9, 13, and 23 as at-home reading to prepare for this in-class exercise. Assume that Job wants to sue God for abuse. Choose students to play the roles of a judge, the plaintiff (Job), the plaintiff's lawyer, the defendant (God), and the defendant's lawyer. Assign the role of "jury" to the rest of the students. Have the actors play their parts and present their strongest cases. At the end, ask the jury to vote: is God guilty of cruelty or not?


  1. 1. Choose one of the friends. Read all of the speeches assigned to that friend, discern his basic arguments, and present a distilled version of them in written form. Include an evaluation of the arguments as they apply to Job's particular story as well as an evaluation of the arguments as they apply to the world in general.
  2. 2. Read the section of the book of Job devoted to the fourth friend, Elihu (chapters 32–37). Does Elihu add anything "new" that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar do not say, or does he simply rehash their arguments? Prove your case with ample biblical citations.
  3. 3. If you could write your own response to Job's suffering in the form of a speech, what would it say? You may write in prose or poetry.
  4. 4. Job's speech in chapter 14 has prompted many different interpretations through the years. Give a detailed account of this passage in light of the rest of Job's speeches. What do you think Job is saying in this chapter?



  1. Students will participate in active learning by comparing the divine speeches in Job with Ps 104 and Gen 1.


  1. 1. Commentary on the Divine Speeches
  2. 2. Creation in biblical literature
  3. 3. Chaos in biblical literature
  4. 4. Chaos myths in the ancient Near East
  5. 5. Animals in biblical literature
  6. 6. Behemoth in biblical literature
  7. 7. Leviathan in biblical literature


The main divisions of Yahweh's two speeches are fairly uncontroversial. The first speech ends with Job's first brief response at the beginning of chapter 40, and the second concludes with Job's second response at the beginning of chapter 42. Each speech is introduced with the same formula, and each starts out with the same demands of Job. Yahweh begins both by speaking directly to Job, but he then turns to aspects of creation that may at first appear to be merely vehicles for the message to Job but which subsequently seem to assume the role of the message itself as they extend in elaborate detail. The initial moment of direct address to Job is longer in the second speech than the first, but the weight of both speeches undoubtedly shifts to those aspects of creation that are subsequently described. Both speeches have two main sections following the initial direct address to Job. The first divides thematically, focusing first on inanimate creation and then on animate creation, on five pairs of animals in particular. The second speech divides according to the particular pair of creatures it describes: Behemoth in 40:15–24 and Leviathan in 41:1–34 (Heb 40:2541:26).


The ambiguity and obliqueness of God's speeches from the whirlwind have generated uncertainty among interpreters about their meaning. Questions linger about how, if at all, God intends by these speeches to respond to Job's situation and complaints. What is the tone with which they are spoken? Overpowering mastery? Mockery? Socratic pedagogy? What is it that makes the speeches so enigmatic?

Chapters 38–39: Animate and Inanimate Creation

Job 38–41 and Ps 104 both draw on motifs found in biblical and ancient Near Eastern myths describing divine creative acts and the nature of the created cosmos. Gen 1:12:4a can be treated as a repository of mythic motifs such as those on which the two poems draw. The psalm and God's speech do not belong to the same genre: the psalm is a hymn in praise of God the creator, and God's poem is a disputation speech intended to change Job's mind (cf. Isa 40:12–31).

Psalm 104 and Job include mythological references to the cosmic battle between God and the Sea (Ps 104; Job 38:8–11) and to the chaos-monster Leviathan, even referring specifically in both cases to the creature's "play" (Ps 104:25; Job 40:29). The chaos battle tradition is clearly muted in the Genesis account, reflected in the way the waters first cover the earth in 1:2 and are then removed in v.9. While this tradition is more present in Ps 104 and Job, it is also transformed in them. In the psalm the waters do not really rival God's control, and in Job the Sea is birthed in the act of creation and wrapped in swaddling bands by Yahweh.

Genesis 1 describes the distant past of creation, whereas Ps 104 describes the psalmist's ideal vision of how the world presently is. For both, however, the vision of creation is one in which there are strong bonds of continuity linking the entire cosmos. In Job, however, Yahweh describes a present and a cosmos that are discontinuous with themselves. Yahweh's focus is clearly on domains that are alien and/or hostile to human beings. Unlike the image in Ps 104:19–23 in which the lions, who well represent the dimension of creation hostile to human life, are kept separate from diurnal humans by being restricted to nocturnal activities, Job describes a cosmos in which humans are separated from their fellow inhabitants by porous boundaries that do not at all promise to keep them safe.

While the opposition between animals and humans remains explicitly developed in the speeches (e.g., Job 38:39; 39:10, 19–21), humans are decidedly not on the side of God as representatives of order, culture, and blessing, and God is positively associated with the natural and chaotic world of the animals.


  1. An intertextual approach to understanding the cosmos depicted in chapter 38. The discussion will likely improve if the students have read Gen 1:12:4a and/or Ps 104 ahead of time. Brainstorm with the class the various differences noticed by the students between these texts, some of which are included in the above discussion.


  1. 1. Have students come to class with a general structural outline by which the movement of the speeches can be easily perceived.
  2. 2. Have students read Ps 104 and Gen 1:12:4a.
  3. 3. Ask students to assess God's response to Job's situation. Does God answer Job's questions?



  1. 1. Students will examine the coherency of a literary text.
  2. 2. Students will consider the implications that an ending has for the text that precedes it.
  3. 3. Students will evaluate responses to the problem of existential suffering.


  1. Commentary on the Epilogue

Job's Response

Job's second response (Job 42:1–6) to the divine speeches is notoriously difficult to translate and thus can make for an interesting debate. While intriguing insights can arise from other aspects of the response, especially around what may be implied by Job's quotations of God's speech (Job 42:3a; 38:2; 42:4b; 38:3b; 40:7b), the in-class discussion should focus on the nodal verse 42:6. Newsom writes, "Almost every word in v.6 is susceptible of more than one interpretation … the word translated 'despise' or 'reject' (m's) ordinarily requires an object, yet none is present…The translation of the phrase 'dust and ashes' is straightforward enough, but the expression has two related yet different metaphorical meanings. It can refer to human mortality … [and] can also be used to describe a particular humiliation or degradation" (Newsom NIB, 628). Then there is the difficulty of rendering the verb nhm, detailed below. "Taking account of these various possibilities," Newsom claims, "one could legitimately translate v.6 in any of the following ways:

  1. --"Therefore I despise myself and repent upon dust and ashes" (i.e., in humiliation; cf. NRSV; NIV);
  2. --"Therefore I retract my words and repent of dust and ashes" (i.e., the symbols of mourning);
  3. --"Therefore I reject and forswear dust and ashes" (i.e., the symbols of mourning);
  4. --"Therefore I retract my words and have changed my mind concerning dust and ashes" (i.e., the human condition);
  5. --"Therefore I retract my words, and I am comforted concerning dust and ashes" (i.e., the human condition).

With a slightly different understanding of the grammar, the Tanakh translates, 'Therefore, I recant and relent,/ Being but dust and ashes." Newsom NIB, 629)

If the students know some Hebrew, Job 42:6 can be a great verse for honing their lexical and word study skills. Have them look up nhm in the niphal in standard dictionaries and ask them to attend especially to those occurrences most like 42:6, considering the prepositions following the verb in particular.

This exercise aims to bring students into a realization of the extent to which an ambiguous text depends so heavily on the understanding one brings to it. As Newsom goes on to say, one will gravitate toward one or another of these options depending on the understanding of the divine speeches to which Job is supposed to be responding. Therefore it may be best to assign positions to be defended to different groups in the class and have them present their cases as if in a court of law.

The Prose Epilogue

After the divine speeches and Job's response, the book of Job abruptly reverts to the genre of a prose folktale, similar to chapters 12. God accuses Job's friends of speaking untruth and then requires Job to sacrifice and pray for them in order to atone for their offenses (42:7–9). Afterwards, God "gave Job twice as much as before," and Job is reintegrated with his community (42:10–11). Job, once again rich, lives a long life with new livestock and children to replace the deceased (42:12–15). Finally, Job dies at a ripe old age (42:16–17).

The prose epilogue ties together many loose ends of the story and ends with a happy note. Many commentators, however, have noticed that this happy ending glosses over the tragic loss of children and animals that began the story. Is it acceptable for God to kill children if God merely gives others in their place?


  1. 1. God says that Job "spoke rightly" about divine matters, whereas the friends did not. What exactly did Job say that was "right," and what did the friends say that was "wrong"?
  2. 2. Read Exodus 22:4–9 and note that these verses demand that thieves pay double what they stole. When God gives Job "double" what he had before, is this an admission of divine guilt (42:10)? Or is it merely a gesture of kindness?
  3. 3. Job's daughters are named in the final verses, but not his sons. All three daughter's names are references to beautiful things (Jemimah means "dove," Keziah means "perfume," and Kerenhappuch means "make-up case.") Moreover, the daughters are specifically allotted inheritance, which was not common in the ancient world. Why does the author include these details in the brief epilogue?


  1. 1. Does the epilogue make for a satisfying ending? Why or why not?
  2. 2. What would you say the "lesson" of the epilogue is? Does this lesson mesh with the lessons of the wisdom dialogues, or the divine speeches?
  3. 3. Some scholars have suggested that the book of Job was originally a folk tale consisting only of 1:12:11 and 42:7–12, with a brief prose discussion between Job and his friends. In this now-lost discussion, the friends would have said something very similar to Job's wife's words (2:9), and Job would have accused them of impiety (cf. 2:11). Thus, God's declaration that the friends have not "spoken rightly" would make more sense. Finally, this theory supposes that a later poet constructed the wisdom dialogues and divine speeches and then thrust them into the middle of the prose folktale, thus creating the tensions between the "pious Job" of the prologue and the "angry Job" of the speeches. Do you find this argument convincing? Why or why not? The ambiguity of the prose tale at the beginning and the end will be important to emphasize, as will the differences between the two sections of prose. For example, the satan does not reappear in the prose conclusion, and neither is the conclusion very interested in the question of Job's fear of God with which the prose tale at the beginning is most concerned.
  4. 4. Of all the responses to the problem of suffering presented within the book of Job, which do you find the most convincing, and why?

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