Major Purposes of the Book of Job

M. Pierce Matheney, Jr.  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 14 - Fall 1971

That one must speak of “purposes” in the title of this article poses immediately the problem of interpreting the book of Job. What is the book of Job about? It has several important themes, and therefore its author must have had several major purposes in mind. It is the manner in which the book deals with its themes which will provide a convenient classification for the divisions of this article.



First there are some preliminary considerations which must be briefly treated before one may discuss the themes of the book. In Old Testament study these come generally under the heading of literary and form criticism.[1]Samuel Terrien, “The Book of Job: Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), Vol. III, pp. 877-897. Who is the author of the book of Job? Did he write all the various sections of the book? When was it written, and in what historical circumstances? What type of literature is the book of Job?

That the name of the book is ”Job,” which is also the name of its chief character and protagonist, does not mean that he is the author of the book. Rather he and his experiences, and especially his struggle with his God, are the subject of the book of Job.[2]Ernst Sellin and Georg Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, tr. David Green (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), p. 324. Because the story about Job has a kind of patriarchal setting, it has sometimes been assumed that the book itself is very old.[3]E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job, tr. Harold Knight (Lon­don: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1967), pp. xx-xxi. It has been claimed that it was written by Moses.[4]Baba Bathra, 14b. Rather than accepting such traditions, which are incapable of historical demonstration, it is wiser simply to say we do not know who wrote the book of Job. One may know this man only by his book, and his book reveals that he was a very learned wisdom writer and a sage, who had probed deeply into the mysteries of man’s relationship to God as illustrated by the problem of human suffering.[5]Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible: Job (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Company Inc., 1965), pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.

When one looks at the various sections within the structure of the book of Job, one must ask the hard question whether the same author has composed the entire work.[6]H. H. Rowley, “The Book of Job and Its Meaning,” From Moses to Qumran (New York: Association Press, 1963), pp. 141-183. First of all, it is apparent to anyone with a modern translation of the book that part of it is prose and part of it is poetry. The prose tale about an ancient worthy named Job, who was inexplicably stricken with multiplied sufferings, who responded with patient faith, and who in the end was rewarded, is contained in the prologue, consisting of the first two chapters, and the epilogue, within the last chapter of the book (42:7-17). Encased within this framework however is a long poetic dramatic dialogue between Job, his friends, and God. Certain differences may be noted between the prose and the poetry.[7]John D. W. Watts, in collaboration with John Joseph Owens and Marvin E. Tate, Jr., “Job:: Introduction and Commentary,” Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), Vol. 4, pp. 22-26. The character of Job is patient in the prologue, and stubbornly impatient in the poetry. The names for God are consistently different in the prose and in the poetry. The reference to the righteousness of Job in the book of Ezekiel (14:14, 20), in company with the ancient worthies, Noah and Dan’el (not Ezekiel’s contemporary Daniel, but an ancient hero of Canaanite literature),[8]D. Winton Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times ( London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1958), pp. 124-126. would indicate that the story about Job was widely known. The best hypothesis of Old Testament scholarship is that the author of the book of Job adapted an old story passed down by oral tradition as the literary framework for his exalted dramatic poetry.[9]Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, tr. P. R. Ackroyd (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 456, 462.

Within the poetry itself, it is noticeable that the cycle of the debate between Job and his three friends, which had proceeded in an orderly fashion through two complete cycles, is interrupted in the third cycle (ch. 22-27) by the abbreviation of the third speech of Bildad, and the disappearance of the third speech of Zophar. The various theories about the restoration of the third cycle need not detain us,[10]Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 93-99. since this may be a poetic device intentionally used by the author to bring the debate to a close. Chapter 28 of the book of Job is a beautiful poem on wisdom, in which Job is ostensibly saying some of the same things that God will later say to him. Perhaps it is an older hymn quoted by the author of the book, and seemingly somewhat out of place.[11]Hillel A. Fine, “The Tradition of a Patient Job,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXXIV, Pt. 1 (March, 1955), pp. 28-32. On the other hand, he may be using this manner of bringing the debate to a close as a proleptic device anticipating the true conclusion in the Yahweh speeches.

Concerning the speeches by God, when he speaks to Job directly out of the whirlwind, some have wondered whether the second speech in Chapters 40 and 41 is really necessary.[12]George W. Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1959), p. 184. I believe that it belongs, and further that it adds significantly to the praise of the creator-God revealed therein.

Between the end of the debate, with Job’s final challenge to God in Chapters 29-31, and the Yahweh speeches which begin in Chapter 38, lie the one true problem of the unity of the book of Job, the speeches of Elihu. This angry young theologian was not numbered among the friends of Job whose coming was recorded in the prologue, nor are his speeches commented on by God in the epilogue. Job never replies to his speeches, and God completely ignores them. Their absence would not damage, but rather enhance the unity of the literary work. The majority of scholars feel that the speeches of Elihu have been added by a later editor of the book.[13]Samuel Terrien, Job: Poet of Existence (New York: The Bobbs-Merril Company, Inc., 1957), pp. 189-190. However, this does not mean that they have no value. They are extremely important as the earliest commentary on the theology of the book of Job as a whole. They also have something to add about the problem of human suffering, which is certainly one of the chief themes of the book.

It is just as difficult to fix the date of the book of Job as it is to discover its author. But the dating of the book is important, because it helps us discover the historical setting of its teaching. To be sure, the formal wisdom movement began in Israel in the time of King Solomon.[14]Perhaps the time of the incidents in the prose tale, when north Arabia first became important to Israel, and ties with Edom were close, 1 Kgs. 4:30-31, 10:15; at any rate not the late Arab setting proposed by A. Guillaume, Studies in the Book of Job (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), pp. 1-15. Also there are literary treatments of the problem of suffering in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian literature which are very ancient.[15]Pope, op. cit., pp. L-LXVI. Nevertheless, several lines of evidence converge to date the book and its main author in the 6th century B.C.[16]Terrien, Poet of Existence, pp. 30-31. The problem of suffering became most acute in the life of the chosen people at the time of the Babylonian exile. It was the time when some of the Old Testament people began to search for a destiny beyond death. It was the time also when the anonymous tempter or evil spirit of earlier Hebrew thought, perhaps under the influence of Persian thought, came to be called the Satan, the “Adversary” (Zech. 3; I Chron. 21). If the Elihu speeches indeed do not belong to the 6th century author of the major literary work, then they must have been added by a more orthodox wise man of the Persian period, 5th or 4th century B.C.[17]Against Gordis’ view that they are an afterthought of the author himself, op. cit., pp. 14, 104-116. The Aramaisms in the Hebrew of the book of Job, which increase significantly in the Elihu speeches, would tend to confirm this exilic or post­ exilic date. It is noticeable, when the book of Job is compared with other Old Testament treatments of the problem of suffering, how the treatments of this problem increase during the exilic age. Just before the exile, Jeremiah and Habbakuk raised questions concerning the sufferings of their people. During the exile, certain Psalms, the Lamentations, and the Servant of the Lord passages in second Isaiah develop to its climax the He­ brew treatment of the problem of human suffering. It is in this literary and theological setting, with its background of historical crisis, that the book of Job belongs.

With what label may one best characterize the type of literature of the book of Job? First of all, it is wisdom literature.[18]O. S. Rankin, Israel’s Wisdom Literature (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936), pp. 1-52. This means that, in the Old Testament, it belongs in the same tradition with Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms.[19]John Wm. Wevers, The Way of the Righteous: Psalms and the Books of Wisdom (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), passim. The wisdom literature of Israel is continued in the Apocrypha by Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon.[20]And in certain of the pseudepigraphical writings, cf. T. Henshaw, The Writings: The Third Division of the Old Testament Canon (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1963), pp. 64-65. The book of James, which refers to the patience or endurance of the character Job, is also in some respects a wisdom book. Israel’s wisdom literature belongs in the larger setting of the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature mentioned above. There are five or six different pieces of Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian literature, some of which was already known in Canaan, to which the book of Job has been compared.[21]Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, pp. 26-27; Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, pp. 878-884. Although it is not directly related to any of these, it certainly treats of similar problems in similar ways. It is interesting to notice that the man Job is a typical nomadic sheik of the north Arabian or Edomite territory, and that his friends are Edomite or Arabian wise men.[22]Dhorme, op. cit., pp. xxi-xxvii. The author of the book of Job deliberately chose such an international setting to say that the problems of Job are the problems of every man. They are the problems of the individual and not of the nation. If the book of Job is not in the main stream of the history of Yahweh’s redemption of his people, nevertheless it is perhaps the most remarkable monument of Israel’s wisdom traditions, and her greatest literary achievement. The book of Job has been compared to Greek drama, dialogues of the Greek philosophers, and epic poetry.[23]Roger N. Carstensen, Job: Defense of Honor (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963), p. 7. It is none of these, and yet contains elements of all these literary types. Its speeches can hardly be said to constitute a real debate, with logical movement of thought. It is one of a kind, and perhaps may best be described as a poetic, dramatic dialogue within a prose tale.[24]Rowley, op. cit., pp. 141-142. It has certainly been influenced by the lament literature of the Psalms and other Hebrew poetry.[25]Claus Westermann, Handbook to the Old Testament, ed. & tr. Robert Boyd (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1967), pp. 227-231. The dialogues of Jeremiah and Habbakuk with God add another element to its literary setting. As far as its place within the wisdom traditions is concerned, it be­ longs with the pessimistic branch of Hebrew wisdom literature, that is more skeptical of the easy answers in the book of Proverbs, and the generalizations in some Psalms literature. It is more like Ecclesiastes and other Psalms (49, 73), which tend to question the traditional wisdom theology. All of these preliminary considerations go to demonstrate the complexity of the book of Job, and of any interpretation of its major teachings.


Asking Hard Questions

The customary answer to the question, “What is the book of Joh about?” is the problem of human suffering, or the problem of innocent suffering, or the problem of evil. Now the book of Job certainly does pose these hard questions. However one need not look for any easy answers to these questions in the book of Job. It can even be questioned whether the book ever intended to provide a logical solution for these hard questions it raises.[26]Rowley, op. cit., pp. 170-183; cf. Henry McKeating, “The Central Issue of the Book of Job,” The Expository Times, Vol. LXXXII No 8 ( May 1971) pp. 244-247. There is no man, who has lived long enough, who has not had some occasion to ask the very thorny question: “Why do the righteous suffer?” Put in another way, with a slightly more envious note, it may be asked: “Why do the wicked prosper?” (cf. Jer. 12:1) . The circumstances of life and man’s human condition certainly tends to pose these hard questions, and the book of Job will not ignore these questions. In his modern poetic adaptation of the book of Job in the drama, J. B., Archibald Macleish hears the Satanic character Nickles mocking Job:

“I heard upon his dry dung heap

That man cry out who cannot sleep:

‘God is God He is not good,

If God is good He is not God . . .’”

Again he gives another parody of the problem:

“If God is Will

And Will is well

Then what is ill?

God still?

Dew tell!”[27]Archibald Macleish, J. B. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1956) pp 11, 78-79.

In contrast with the patient acceptance by the Job of the prologue of the multiplied evils that have happened to him, it is the Job of the dramatic dialogue who raises continuously the problem of innocent suffering. He begins in his introductory complaint, by cursing the day of his birth, wishing either that he had never been born, or that he had died at birth, or that he could die now (3:2-10, 11-19, 20-26).[28]It is hoped the reader will study the passages cited from the RSV fext of the book of Job. The climax of his complaint is: “Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, whom God has hedged in?” (2:23, RSV). Again in Job’s first answer to Eliphaz there is a radical, impatient cry for help, and a blaming of God for his miserable situation (Chapters 6 and 7). Job wishes that someone might understand his illness and alienation from God:

“For the arrows of the almighty are in me;

My spirit drinks their poison;

The terrors of God are arrayed against me” (6:4).

Job impatiently demands that God finish him off, even if it is painful (6:10, 11). After complaining about the friendlessness of his friends (6:14-30), and about man’s miserable condition and destiny on earth (7:1-10), Job turns his complaint directly against God (7:11-12). In a bitter parody of Psalm 8, Job pleads with God to let him alone and let him die in peace (7:16-19). He comes perilously close to blasphemy, when he pictures God as a merciless spy on men:

“If I sin, what do I do to thee

thou watcher of men?

Why hast thou made me thy mark?

Why have I become a burden to thee?

Why dost thou not pardon my transgression

and take away my iniquity?” (7:20-21a).

The context of this last wish forces the interpreter to see it as an arrogant demand for an end to his suffering, rather than a repentant prayer for forgiveness of sin.[29]Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, pp. 967-968.

This sampling of the complaints on the part of the Job of the dramatic dialogue will give some notion of the way in which the author of the book of Job uses his chief protagonist to raise the most difficult question about innocent suffering.

Another of the hard questions raised by the book of Job follows from this first one: ”Are there not exceptions in life’s experiences to the textbook answers to the problem of human suffering?” Any discussion of this hard question will impinge on the second part of the way in which the book of Job treats its main themes, namely that it tends to deny the easy answers. There was a traditional theology of retribution and reward, which is clearly set out in the book of Proverbs and certain Psalms. This was the wisdom school’s generalizations concerning the traditional theology of God’s dealings with his people in the hook of Deuteronomy, and in the treatment of the history of Israel by the Deuteronomic historians (Joshua through Kings). The book of Job wants to say that the trouble with generalizations is that they don’t always prove true in life’s exceptional experiences.[30]L. D. Johnson, Out of the Whirlwind: The Major Message of Job (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), pp. 22-23. As it has been humorously put: “All generalizations are wrong-even that one.” Though the man Job begins with the same theological presuppositions as his friends, his experiences have made a mockery of this theology. Job’s friends know their textbook theology, quote it correctly adnauseum, but consistently misapply it to the exceptional experiences of their “friend.” These easy answers will have to be considered in detail later in this paper, but it should be noted how the author of the book of Job deals with the conflict of opinions in the dramatic dialogue. Job’s author uses the speeches of the friends to structure the setting for the reflections of his chief character Job, just as he frames the whole in the ancient prose tale. I think one may conclude that Job’s author is not precisely of the same total viewpoint as his chief character, Job, that he maintains a certain “dramatic distance.” That is to say, the author of the book of Job does not disagree with everything that the friends say, any more than he agrees with everything the character Job says in the debate. In this way the author of the book deepens and qualifies the dramatic but over-simplified answers to the problems in the prose tale.

But there is a third hard question that arises out of the relationship between the Job of the prologue and the Job of the dramatic dialogue. Though the character Job is not aware of the existence of this question, the scene in heaven raises with dramatic insistence the question of “disinterested religion.”[31]Ibid., pp. 6, 17f.; cf. Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 38. What is man’s true motive for serving God? Will a man continue to serve a God who no longer blesses him? The prologue tells about an exemplary man, Job, who becomes the battleground between God and the Adversary over this very question. The Lord singles out his servant Job as “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:1, 8). Then the Satan slanders Job’s motive for serving God (1:9-11). If it didn’t pay him well, he wouldn’t do it. The Satan is pictured here as a servant of God, but the implacable adversary of man, and thus his indictment of Job’s motive for serving God becomes an indictment of all mankind. Then the Satan is per­ mitted to test Job, and Job passes the test with flying colors (1:20-22). The second scene in heaven repeats the whole process. The Satan is permitted to test him again, with help from the wife of Job, and still Job comes through unscathed (2:9-10). The problem with all this is that the character Job in the dramatic dialogue shows no knowledge of the scene in heaven, and what has transpired there. He does not know that his experiences constitute a test case. Further, the character Job shows no knowledge of the role of the Satan as man’s Adversary, and believes that God is his accuser and adversary, his enemy (9:15; 16:9). If the dramatic dialogue be regarded as a legitimate continuation of the same test, and the speeches of the friends provide a further testing with their rigid theology, then the character Job no longer accepts his suffering with a patient resignation. Now he violently protests the injustice of God, his own integrity, and the inappropriateness of the accusations of his friends. The truth is that the emphasis has shifted, between the prose and poetry, from a test between God and the Adversary, in which Job is the battleground, to a struggle between Job and God. Or, to draw this out a little further, it has become a struggle between Job’s stubborn, clinging faith and his and his friends’ outworn theology for the vision of a God greater than their theology. Because his faith achieves this vision, to which he responds in genuine repentance, Job also ultimately passes this test. Then the epilogue comments that his theology in the dialogue has surpassed that of his friends (42:7). Nevertheless, the question of disinterested religion remains a hard question, to which there is no ringing affirmative answer in the book of Job to compare with that in the martyr stories of apocalyptic (Dan. 3, 6).

Another hard question asked by the dramatic poem, as well as by Job’s wife, is: “Would not death be better than protracted suffering for which there is no explanation?” The Hebrews consistently affirmed life and abhorred death. It is remarkable how few cases of deliberate suicide are found in the Old Testament (most notably, Ahithophel, 2 Sam. 17:23). The cases of the wounded in battle, or a lost military cause are slightly different (Judg. 9:54; 16:30; 1 Sam. 31:4; 1 Kings 16: 18). Yet so painful was Job’s physical suffering, so unjust his fate seemed in his mental anguish, that he longed for death and the grave. He gives us an ideal picture of the Hebrew view of Sheol, the underworld, or common grave of mankind in the opening lament, cursing the day of his birth:

“There the wicked cease from troubling,

And there the weary are at rest.

There the prisoners are at ease together;

They hear not the voice of the taskmaster” (3:17-18).

Then he yearns for such a death to come, and put him out of his misery (3:20-22). Even if death is irrevocable, and Sheol inescapable, Job wants an end to his suffering (7:6-10; 15-16, 21b; 10:20-22). His watchword is: “I loathe my life” (9:2lb; 10:1a). Undoubtedly it is the problem of his innocent suffering, the accusations of his friends, and the struggle with a seemingly unjust God, that have brought Job to the point where he yearns for death.

Perhaps there is an influence from foreign wisdom thinking in this un-Hebraic death-wish. The poem of Job has sometimes been compared to the Egyptian text: “A Dispute Over Suicide.”[32]Thomas, op. cit., pp. 162-166. But there is a much more tangible hope for life after death in the Egyptian thought world, and the cases are not really all that similar.[33]Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 26. That the Old Testament wisdom tradition and Hebrew thought in general are influenced by a Babylonian view of the underworld may be seen, not only in the book of Job, but also in Ecclesiastes (3:19-22; 6:6; 9:1-10).[34]Thomas, op. cit., p. 97; T. H. Gaster, “Abode of the Dead,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), Vol. 1, pp. 787-788.

This brings one to a further hard question asked in the speeches of Job: “What happens after death?” In the passages cited above, the traditional Hebrew view of Sheol seems to be consistently affirmed. This is certainly true in the speeches of the friends (4:19-21), especially as they wax eloquent on the death of the wicked, among whom they include Job (18: 14-21; 20:7-11). But the author of Job will not accept the easy answer or the traditional theology. He will doubt, he will question, especially in two of Job’s speeches, whether there may not indeed be something beyond death and the grave (14: 14-17; 19:25-27). There were a few precedents in Israel for this questioning, some outstanding individuals whose death was in some way extraordinary (Moses, Dt. 34:8; Elijah, 2 Kings 2:11; perhaps Enoch, Gen. 5:24). A few righteous sufferers in the Psalms began to question the traditional view (Psm. 49; 73). The suffering Servant of the Lord in some mysterious way triumphs beyond death (Isa. 53:8-12). It is this context of questioning the traditional dogma, rather than the later affirmations of resurrection by apocalyptic (Isa. 26: 19; Dan. 12:4), and intercanonical literature (2 Mace. 7:9, 14; 2 Esd. 7:32, 37), that provide the setting for the creative asking of the hard question about what happens after death in the book of Job.

Other hard questions raised by the book of Job have to do with man’s relationship to his God. What if man’s God turns against him? How can a man be just before his Accuser? Particularly in his first answer to Bildad, Job protests that God is overwhelming him. He wishes he might contend with the mighty Creator (9:2b-3). He is not only Creator, but Destroyer as well, and none can oppose him (9:12; cf. 12:14-25). An innocent man would not have a chance before his angry Accuser:

“How then can I answer him? . . .

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser” (9:14a, 15b)

Job grows rash in his accusations against his divine enemy:

“He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me;

He has gnashed his teeth at me;

My adversary sharpens his eyes against me” (16:9).

Another difficult question asked by the book of Job concerns the silence or absence of God: “Can a man confront God personally?” The juxtaposition of the prologue with the dialogue dramatically highlights the ignorance of Job as to what has transpired in the scenes in heaven. The only message Job has from God is his calamity and suffering. Throughout the dialogue he and his friends try to interpret this message. Again and again Job pleads for a hearing with God, a personal encounter. Eliphaz had claimed a numinous vision for the source of his traditional theology (4:12-16), but Job was not impressed. The need for some enlightened discussion on how God speaks to man was felt by the commentator who appended the Elihu speeches, since he evidently believed this had been neglected in the debate (33: 14-28). Even the matter of the addressee of the speeches in the debate testifies to this problem. The friends speak to Job. But Job speaks primarily to God, and only incidentally to his friends. The problem of communication cries out for a solution:

“For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him,

that we should come to trial together” (9:32).

He understands what the friends are telling him:

“But I would speak to the Almighty,

and I desire to argue my case with God” (13:3).

Preferably, Job would desire a cessation of his suffering before this encounter, since it puts him at a disadvantage (13:20-24). But the only answer is the silence of his pain, the loneliness of his suffering (19:7).

On one occasion, Job imagines how the ideal encounter might take place:

“Oh, that I knew where I might find him,

that I might come even to his seat!

I would lay my case before him

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,

and understand what he would say to me” (23:3-5).

But, alas, God is nowhere to be found (23:8-9). In his summation, Job turns again to the courtroom arena by analogy, and takes a mighty oath of purgation, swearing his innocence (Ch. 31). At the climax, he flings a final challenge at the silent God:

“Oh, that I had one to hear me!

(Here is my signature! let the

Almighty answer me!)

Oh, that I had the indictment

written by my adversary!” (31:35).

These are a few of the hard questions asked by the book of Job. What is intriguing to this interpreter is the realism with which these questions are raised, faced, and turned over and over, especially in the speeches of Job. The easy answers offered by the friends are refuted. The book never gives a clear, logical answer to its hard questions, but affirms the mysteries of existence in the faith-relationship to a Creator-Redeemer who finally graces Job with a hearing.[35]James Wood, Job and the Human Situation (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), pp. 20-21.


Refuting Easy Answers

Not only the friends, but even Job himself begins with the theology that God is source of all things, both good and evil. The Old Testament never questions the existence of God, nor that He causes everything that happens. The Old Testament questions the interpretation of the event: “Why has God done this?” So Job simply assumes: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away” (1:21), and “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10). But the Job of the dramatic dialogue struggles mightily with the question of interpretation.” “Why has God done these things to me?”

In trying to help Job interpret his suffering, the friends turn out to be “miserable comforters” (16:2). I believe they genuinely came to help, and not to gloat.[36]T. H. Robinson, Job and His Friends (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), p. 51. When they came to condole and comfort, they did not even recognize the man on the ash heap as their old friend. They went through the ritual of mourning, and seven days of silent sympathy (2:11-13). But they were horrified by his opening lament, and began at once to apply their aphorisms about retribution and reward.

Eliphaz tells Job to practice what he has been preaching (4:3-5), to remember his former pious behavior (4:6).

“Think now, who that was innocent

ever perished?

Or where were the upright cut off?

As I have seen, those who plow iniquity

and sow trouble reap the same.

By the breath of God they perish,

and by the blast of his anger they

are consumed” (4:7-9)

Eliphaz knows his wisdom teachings. The Psalmist says:

“I have been young, and now am old;

yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken

or his children begging bread” (Psm. 37:25).

The agricultural metaphor used so tellingly by Paul (Gal. 6:7-8) was not only wisdom teaching, but prophetic preaching as well (Prov. 22:8; Hos. 10:13). Job, you are reaping what you’ve sown! Your extreme suffering must mean correspondingly great sin on your part.

Bildad goes further, and says that Job’s children deserved to die!” (8:4). The old doctrine of corporate responsibility had taught that fathers might suffer for the sins of their children (Dt. 24: 16). Indeed, Job had offered sacrifice for the possible sinful thoughts of his children (1:5). But Bildad mainly elaborates the same textbook doctrine of retribution:

“Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh?

Can reeds flourish where there is no water?” (8:11)

In other words, as our popular proverb has it: “Where there’s smoke, there must be fire.” Job, you must have sinned in proportion to your suffering. Zophar gets even tougher with Job:

“Know then that God exacts of you less

than your guilt deserves” (11:6b).

His friends all urge Job to repent of sins they are certain he has committed (4:8ff; 8:20ff; 11:13ff).

But the author of the book uses the speeches of Job, especially his replies to the friends’ charges, to deny the easy answer, the usual interpretation of sudden calamity. The author of Job says that suffering does not necessarily prove the sinfulness of the sufferer. Punishment and reward is not a closed mechanical system. There are real-life exceptions to the pat answers. The modern reader expects logic in the arguments of the friends, but they do not pass this test.[37]Ibid., pp. 50, 64. The friends have a faulty logic:

(1) All sinners suffer.

(2) Job suffers.

Therefore (3) Job is a sinner.

This does not necessarily follow. Life demonstrates there are multiple causes for suffering. Even Eliphaz speculates about a possible disciplinary value of Job’s suffering:

“Behold, happy is the man whom God reproves;

Therefore despise not the chastening of

the Almighty” (5:17).

The author of the Elihu speeches sees this as an important insight into one purpose for man’s suffering (33:19ff).

But Job knows himself to be innocent of any wrong-doing commensurate with his suffering! Therefore, he consistently denies the validity, not of the friends’ theology, but of the way they mercilessly have applied it to his case. They have withheld kindness from a friend (6:14), and are like dry streambeds of the desert that disappoint the hopes of thirsty caravans (6:15-21a). The friends are afraid that Job’s case will ruin their theology (6:2lb). They are mean enough to auction off orphans, or sell their own friend (6:27).

“How forceful are honest words!

But what does reproof from you reprove?” (6:25).

In other words, your easy answers just don’t fit my experience.

Further the friends have no right to play God, and pass judgment on Job with their textbook theology. They are assuming omniscience, as Job sarcastically remarks:

“No doubt you are the people,

and wisdom will die with you” (12:2).

It is all too human of the friends to assume their own safety from such calamity, as they are condemning Job (12:5a). The presumptuous wise man is in the same class with the false prophet (13:4a; cf. Ezek. 13:1-16). In their zealous attempts to defend their own theology against Job’s experience, the friends are showing an unjust partiality toward their God-of­ the-easy-answers, placing them in jeopardy of rebuke from the true Judge (13:7-12). It is so easy to pontificate from a safe distance, and Job could do this if their situations were reversed (16:4). Surely, one of the major purposes of the book of Job is to deny the mechanical theology of retribution so ably presented by the friends, and so cruelly and falsely forced upon Job’s situation.

Another of the easy answers which the author of Job is interested in refuting is the proposition: “It always pays to serve God.” He uses the exceptional case of Job, who was stricken with suffering, though a man of moral integrity, to say that life is not always so simple. This is a negative contribution to the hard question of “disinterested religion.” The Job of the prologue continues to bless God, and refuses to despair by cursing Him, despite his reversal of fortune (1:21; 2:9-10). So the slander of the Satan is disproved in Job’s case (1:9-11), and the case of a selfless piety is bettered for all man­ kind. The Lord commends Job: “He still holds fast his integrity. . .” (2:3). The Job of the dramatic dialogue also maintains his integrity, not against the slanders of the Adversary, but against the calumnies of his friends, and against their vengeful God. He is unaware of any such wrong-doing as the friends have presumed (6:28-30a).

Job does not claim to be a sinless man, for he speaks of “my transgression,” “my iniquity,” “my sin,” “my error” (7:21; 14: 16-17; 19:4). Yet, he will not confirm the charges of the friends by repenting of sins he has not committed. He maintains his personal integrity by being true to himself, to his own existence before God. To be sure, this very attempt to maintain his personal integrity causes him to bring indictments against the justice of God:

“It is all one; therefore I say,

he destroys both the blameless and the


When disaster brings sudden death,

he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.

If it is not he, who then is it?” (9:22-23, 24b).

When Job argues that if he is innocent, and God caused him to suffer unjustly, then God is unjust, he is really rebelling against his own previously inadequate concept of God, and that of the friends. This means that when they argue throughout the second cycle of the debate that the wicked are always punished, Job must reply with the observation that in real life they often prosper (Ch. 15, 18, 20, cf. Ch. 21). Eliphaz responds by accusing Job himself of flagrant misdeeds (22:6-9). These are acts that would be publicly verifiable, which he could not have hidden. We must believe Job’s final protestation of innocence, when he specifically denies these social sins (Ch. 31). The interpreter must conclude that Eliphaz is so desperate to defend his theology that he will invent evidence to support it. If the facts deny your easy answers, just change the facts! But Job loses his faith in the God of the easy answers, only to regain faith at a deeper level in the living God of his own experience. Therefore he has not maintained his integrity against the charges of the friends in vain (27:2-6).

Another of the easy answers the book of Job denies is the traditional Sheol doctrine as an escape from life’s problems. Thus it is true to the Hebrew affirmation of life as good, although this was placed in doubt by Job’s extreme suffering. It is a stubborn, clinging faith in God’s ultimate justice which pushes the man Job, in his dialogue with God, to question the traditional Sheol doctrine. In the famous chapter where he first gains an inkling of something beyond the grave, Job compares man to a cut-off tree stump, which may revive and gain new shoots, if water revives it!

“But man dies, and is laid low;

man breathes his last, and where is he?

As waters fail from a lake,

and a river wastes away and dries up,

so man lies down and rises not again . . .” (14:10- 12a).

But what if Sheol might be only a temporary hiding place until the time appointed for justice to be done (14: 13)? “If a man die, shall he live again?” (14: 14a). This is the vital question that will not be satisfied with the annihilation or shadowy existence of the common grave. Such an opportunity for vindication after death would satisfy Job, and give him the patience to wait (14:14b-17). But immediately the hope vanishes (14:18-22). Nevertheless, Job cannot affirm Sheol as his hope:

“If I look for Sheol as my house,

if I spread my couch in darkness,

if I say to the pit, ‘You are my father’,

and to the worm, ‘My mother’ or ‘My sister’,

where then is my hope?

Who will see my hope?

Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?

Shall we descend together into the dust?” (17:13-16).

Finally he comes to a climatic affirmation that death cannot prevent God’s ultimate personal vindication of his cause (19: 25-27).[38]In agreement with Terrien, Poet of Existence, pp. 149-153, but against such pessimistic interpretations as James K. Zink, “Impatient Job: An Interpre­tation of Job 19:25-27,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXXXIV, Part II (June, 1963), pp. 147-152. This is the true climax of the dramatic dialogue between Job and his friends, when Job returns from his opening death-wish to affirm life even in the midst of suffering, and hope even against hope.

This points up another easy answer the book of Job wants to refute. The caricature of God as a capricious tyrant, which seems to be implied in the prologue, and especially in the friends’ theology as ruthlessly applied to Job’s case, is denied by the new view of God worked out in the Job speeches. God who is only the accuser is the God of the easy answers. There must be some kind of mediator function in Godness, or in the God-man relationship.[39]William A. Irwin, “Job’s Redeemer,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXXXI, Part III (Sept., 1962), pp. 217-229. When Job has complained bitterly that God is an omnipotent Destroyer before whom he can never get a fair hearing (Ch. 9), he says: “There is no umpire be­ tween us, who might lay his hand upon us both” (9:33). Right after he pictures God as his vicious enemy (16:7-15), Job affirms the power of his innocent blood shed by unwarranted suffering:

“O earth, cover not my blood,

and let my cry find no resting place.

Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven,

and he that vouches for me is on high” (16:18-19).

There must be an intercessor function in Godness, something favorable to the just man who has been wronged. Thus Job yearns for that which the New Testament proclaims is available in Christ Jesus (I Tim. 2:5). Somehow God must ultimately appear in Job’s behalf: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth” (19:25). The Redeemer (go’el) was the kinsman-vindicator who set matters right, as Boaz did for Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth. He was also the avenger of innocent blood.[40]Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, pp. 82-83; cf. Pope, op. cit., pp. 134-135. That Job could give this name in hope to the God who seems to have wronged him, and claim that one day he would have the personal experience of seeing this Redeemer-God vindicate him ( 19:26-27), shows the triumph of his faith in the God of his own experience over the sterile stereotypes of the friends. God is ultimately just, and will not abandon one who trusts in Him to some capricious fate.

Finally, the book of Job denies the easy answer of a second-hand experience with God. The parental, national, traditional teaching about God is not enough for Job to weather the crisis experience of his innocent suffering. Job had asked the hard question of a man’s real relationship to God, whether he might gain a hearing, have first-hand communication with the deity. He had flung a final challenge in his oath of innocence to the silent God (Ch. 31). The interlude on the question: “Where shall wisdom be found?” has already acknowledged that God is the only one who knows ultimate wisdom, and that man is limited to a practical wisdom of fearing Yahweh and departing from evil (Ch. 28). Now Yahweh answers Job from the whirlwind, and though that answer preserves all the mystery of Godness, Job’s response in humble repentance shows that the first-hand encounter with God himself dwarfs all other considerations.[41]H. Joel Laks, “The Enigma of Job: Maimonides and the Moderns,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXXXIII, Part IV (Dec., 1964) pp. 345-364. Job still has his dignity, his integrity, his full humanity when he confesses:

“I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees thee; therefore I

despise myself and repent in

dust and ashes” (42:5-6).

This silences all the arguing about God, and his ways with men, and points up the third way in which the book of Job chooses to deal with its major themes.


Affirming the Mysteries

The prologue of the book of Job is a classical presentation of the mystery of testing experiences as a part of human existence. A faith that is not tested is not fully valid. This is the theological meaning of the command that comes to Abraham to offer up his beloved Isaac. The patriarch had responded to the call of Yahweh to leave his home and kindred for an undesignated distant land. His act of obedient faith had become the basis for a covenant promise of land, posterity, and blessing to all families of the earth (Gen. 12: 1-3). But the patriarch remained childless through a long period of waiting, during which an adoptive heir was provided (Gen. 15:1-3), and Ishmael was born by the handmaid Hagar (Gen. 16). During this period of apparent fruitlessness, Abraham “believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Now when Isaac finally came as promised, a miracle son of their old age, the command to sacrifice him must have seemed an intolerable burden, an impossible test. Nevertheless, Abraham obeyed the command in the faith that “God will provide. . .” (Gen. 22:8).

This case is dramatically similar to that of Job in the prologue, who is no more aware than Abraham that his excruciating suffering is a test of his faith. Whenever the audience is aware of elements of the plot of which the actors themselves are unaware, the suspense of true drama is present. Notice the swift polished strokes of accomplished story-telling in the description of the ideal character, family, and possessions of the ancient Edomite or north Arabian sheik, Job (1:1-5). The scene in heaven is one of the best Old Testament descriptions of the divine council of King Yahweh and his messenger-court (15:8a; cf. I Kings 22:19-22; Psm. 82), most familiar in call experiences and visions of the prophets (Isa. 6; 40:1-11; Jer. l; 23: 18, 21-22; Ezek. 1-3; 9-10; Amos 3:7-8). The closest analogy to the make-up of this heavenly court, and the best clue to the dating of this written version of the old Job tale, is the series of night visions of the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 1:7-6: 8), datable to the early reign of Darius the Great, 520-518 B.C. The role of the Satan among the “sons of God” or angels of the messenger-court is quite similar (Zech. 3), although the angelology seems less developed in the Job tale than in the Zechariah visions. It is a new sophistication with Hebrew theology which recognized secondary causation within the testing experience (cf. 2 Sam. 24:1; I Chron. 21:1), without yielding to the thoroughgoing dualism of Persian religion. It is only a partial easing of the theological problem to say that the test is initiated with the slander of the Adversary. Everything the Satan does is within the permissive will of Yahweh, who remarks to the Satan: “He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him to destroy him without cause” (2:3b). Then too, Yahweh had singled out Job as a model man, ideal for such a test case (1:8). Fortunately, it is not the primary interest of the story to describe the character that partial solution provides the climax to the debate, when Job, in his moment of deepest insight, says:

”Oh that my words were written!

Oh that they were inscribed in a book!

Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were

graven in the rock forever!” (19:23-24).

That is, both the author and his chief character recognize that what follows is the premier statement of Job’s faith in the face of adversity, important enough to be as permanently inscribed as the Behistun Rock inscription of Darius the Great.[42]Fohrer, op. cit., p. 330. What Job then declares is more important for the God-man relationship than it is for the description of his fate beyond the grave. The one leads to the other. His faith in the ultimately personal and redemptive function of Godness opens the glimpse into his own future destiny:

“For I know that my Redeemer (Vindicator)


and at last he will stand upon the

earth (dust);

and after my skin has been thus destroyed,

then from (without) my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see on my side (for myself),

and my eyes shall behold, and not

another . . .” (19:25-27).

But immediately he lapses again into despair, “My heart faints within me!” (19:27c). The alternative translations have been provided for this exceedingly difficult text, to indicate the differences of interpretation reflected in the different translations.[43]Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, pp. 1051-1057. The text of verse 26 may be corrupt, so that it is difficult to know what Job affirms about life after death.[44]But cf. T. J. Meek, “Job 19:25-27,” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 6 (Jan., 1956), pp. 100-103. But, just for a moment, he is sure of something. God is living, personal, and on his side. God will ultimately vindicate Job’s cause.[45]Gordis, op. cit., pp. 87-88. It is enough faith to go on living, enduring whatever suffering life may bring to the believer. Perhaps it is better to leave some mystery surrounding the believer’s ultimate destiny. But the difficulty of spelling out the details of the future does not put out the flickering candle of man’s hope through his dark nights of hopeless despair. An existential view of the reality of man’s encounter with the living God will lead trusting, enduring man to a rebirth of hope.[46]Anthony and Miriam Hanson, The Book of Job: Introduction and Com­mentary in the Torch Bible Commentaries (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1953), pp. 18, 105.

In the climax of the dialogue, the book of Job affirms the mystery of the Creator in relation to his creation, that only God has infinite wisdom, and that man has only limited wisdom (Ch. 28, 38-41). The creation theology of the book of Job is one of its outstanding contributions to the thought of the Old Testament.[47]Westermann, op. cit., pp. 233-234. Much of the poetry, the speeches of the friends, of Job, even of Elihu, is devoted to the greatness of the Creator. He is a just judge and a Saviour (5:8-27; cf. 22:21-30). He is an awesome Maker, and a strong Destroyer (9:4-13). Man is his marvelous creature (10:8-12). He is infinitely mysterious (11:7-9). He is Ruler of nations and their leaders (12: 3-25). According to the present order of the third cycle, Job silences the friends with a tremendous description of “the outskirts of his ways,” the cosmic victory of God over the primordial forces of chaos in primeval times (26:5-14).[48]Sometimes attributed to Bildad, cf. Pope, op. cit., pp. 163-167.

The summing up by Job is the hymn on wisdom (Ch. 28), which really fits the mouth of an earlier writer, or a later commentator, perhaps the author himself, better than it fits the meditation of Job before Yahweh has answered him out of the whirlwind. The theme of this hymn on wisdom is expressed in the two-fold question: “Whence then comes wisdom? And where is the place of understanding?” (28:20). Man is marvelously clever in his mining operations (28:1-11), but he cannot find wisdom (28:12-14), he cannot buy 1t with all his precious metals and jewels (28:15-19). Destruction and Death have only a hint of ultimate wisdom (28:20-22). The Creator­ God alone understands the way to wisdom, which he has known from the beginning (28:23-27; cf. Prov. 8:22ff). To man is revealed a way of wise behavior: “Fear Yahweh, and depart from evil” (28:28). Elihu describes the Creator as Lord of the Seasons, especially wielding his various storm weapons (36:26-37:22).[49]Terrien, op. cit., pp. 211-217.

All this creation theology leads up to the appearance of Yahweh to confront his creature Job with the most awe-inspiring catalogue of learned cosmology in all of ancient literature (38:4-39:40). The whole speech is a set of 1romc questions based on the proposition: “Who do you think you are, Job!”[50]Ibid., pp. 213-239. Many interpreters have been disappointed that Yahweh does not answer the questions of Job and the friends in detail. This was probably one of the reasons the editor added the Elihu speeches, to attempt such a commentary on the debate itself. Rather, the Yahweh speeches put the whole of man’s existence in new perspective.[51]Johnson, op. cit., pp. 61-64. The whole of the cosmos praises its Creator (cf. Psm. 104), and dwarfs the puny problems of man.[52]Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 194-196. After this hymn to the miracle of Yahweh’s inanimate and animate cosmos, he challenges Job again. But Job has been reduced to silence; he has already said too much (40:1-5). God’s chief indictment of Job occurs just at this point: “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (40:8). If Job can do any better at playing God, then let him try (46:9-14)! It is not an easy task to be a just judge, always punishing the wicked.

Then, if this description of Cosmos has not completely overwhelmed Job, Yahweh describes two of his chaos monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan (40:15-41:34).[53]Pope, op. cit., pp. 265-279. If Job knew their secrets, or could control them, he could be as great as God. All this creation theology does not impress one as a very loving way for Yahweh to console his suffering model man, but it provides the mysterious answer to the hard question whether man may know God personally in a first-hand encounter with the living God.[54]Richard E. Singer, Job’s Encounter (New York: Bookman Associates, Inc., 1963), pp. 88-89.

The final partial solution to the problem of innocent suffering is the affirming of the mystery of man’s new personal relationship with the transcendent Creator through repentance. Job now recognizes his creaturely limitations:

“I know that thou canst do all things,

and that no purpose of thine can

be thwarted . . .

I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me,

which I did not know” (42:2-3).

So, let God be God, for now I know him face to face. Then the only possible reaction for believing man is genuine humiliation in repentance before the God thus personally revealed and known (42:5-6).

One senses that Job has found the reward of his stubborn, clinging faith. The Creator is also the Redeemer, no longer the enemy and accuser. His hope against hope has been rewarded with an ultimate assurance which would have given him a willingness to go on enduring whatever life’s experience would bring. At this point of obedient surrender, the author quickly concludes the framework of the prose tale with the rather anti-climactic epilogue (42:7-17), which justifies Job to the friends and to the world. He is given a new family, double his former possessions, a long life, “And they lived happily ever after.”

The total teaching of the book of Job about the problem of human suffering, as one telling illustration of man’s relationship to God, is the affirming of the mystery that God can bring ultimate good out of a faithful endurance of apparently inexplicable evil.[55]The philosophical problem of theodicy has been most recently and con­vincingly treated by John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row publishers, 1966), esp. pp. 369-372; 388-400. The innocent one who must suffer is to be faithful to his vision of God until he receives a further insight into “the outskirts of his ways.” The theme of the book of Job is not “Why must the innocent suffer?”, but rather, “How may such an innocent sufferer best endure the testing experience of life?”[56]Fohrer, op. cit., p. 334. The religious answer is: “By a clinging faith in the ultimate goodness of the living God.”[57]Rowley, op. cit., pp. 176-183.



The book of Job has frequently been recognized as one of the masterpieces of world literature. It was certainly the climactic achievement of the Hebrew wisdom movement. Its continuing relevance to the modern world is that it appeals to every man at the level of his human existence, and his universally experienced problems. Its major themes are the problem of innocent suffering as illustrative of man’s faith-relationship to God, with consequent light shed on the possibility of life after death, the testing of selfless piety with a disciplinary value of suffering seen in retrospect, and the ultimate value of a personal experience with the Creator-God, who alone has ultimate wisdom. The value of the book of Job is greatly enhanced by the way it deals with its themes: asking the hard questions, refuting the easy answers, and affirming in this manner the mysteries of human existence. The shattering of the God of the traditional, second-hand religion, the God of the easy answers, is only preparatory to the encounter with the living Creator-Redeemer, who rewards a stubborn, enduring faith with a new vision of his majestic power, who lightens the sufferer’s despair with renewed hope in his goodness, bringing him back into right relationship to his God, his friends, and his world.

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