Introduction to the Book of Job

Ralph L. Smith  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 14 - Fall 1971


The book of Job, like the books of Joshua, Ruth, and Esther, gets its name from its main character rather than its author. The dissyllabic Hebrew name ‘Iyyob became Iob in Greek and Job in Latin and English. The meaning of the name is very uncertain. If the word comes from the root ‘yb it could mean “enemy” or ”enmity.” If it comes from an Arabic root ‘wb the meaning could be “return, repent,” or “the penitent one.” The name is very old and seemingly a common one in the ancient Near East. It has been found in the Egyptian Execration Texts from around 2000 B.C., in the Mari and Alalakh tablets from the first half of the second millennium B.C., and in the Tell-el-Amarna tablets of the fourteenth century B.C.[1]Cf. Marvin H. Pope, Job “The Anchor Bible” (Garden City, N.Y.: Double­day and Co. Inc., 1965), p. 6; Samuel Terrien, Job, Exegesis, “The Interpreter’s Bible,” (New York: Abingdon Press), III, p. 909.

The Place in the Canon

Job’s right to a place in the canon was never challenged except by Theodore of Mopsuestia,[2]Cf. Pope, op. cit., p. xxxviii, E. M. Gray, Old Testament Criticism (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923), pp. 40-43. but its position in the order of books in the canon has varied considerably. In modern Hebrew Bibles it stands first in the third division of the canon before Psalms and Proverbs. However, in some manuscripts Job follows Psalms and Proverbs, and in some it stands between them. In the Septuagint, Vulgate, and English versions it stands after the history books among the books of poetry. In the Syriac version and in one list in the Talmud it stands after the Pentateuch and before Joshua.


Text and Versions

Marvin Pope says, “The Book of Job is textually the most vexed in the Old Testament.”[3]Pope, op. cit., p. xxxix. Its language is strange and at times almost foreign to the rest of the Old Testament. Ibn Ezra in the twelfth century first suggested that the book was a translation from another language.[4]Ibid., p. xxxix. Some scholars have argued that Job was written originally in Arabic.[5]”Cf. F. H. Foster, “Is the Book of Job a Translation from an Arabic Orig­inal?” American Journal of Semitic Languages, Vol. 49, 1932-33, pp.   21-45. N. H. Tur-Sinai believes that the poem of Job was written in Aramaic by a Jew living in Babylonia in the early days of the Exile, and that it was translated into Hebrew in Jerusalem several generations later.[6]N. H. Tur-Sinai, The Book of Job (Jerusalem: Keryath Sepher Ltd., 1967), p. xxxvii.

There are more hapax legomena (words which occur only once) and rare words in Job than in any other book in the Bible. Recent discoveries in Ugarit on the upper coast of Palestine have helped considerably in our understanding of the vocabulary and style of Job. But many textual and exegetical difficulties remain. A comparison of the various English translations of the book will show many divergencies. Examples of such divergencies can be seen vividly in the different English translations of 6:14; 13:15; and 22:30.

It is generally agreed that the original Hebrew text of Job has suffered numerous changes in the process of its transmission. In all probability the familiar passage in 19:25-27 has not been preserved in its original form. The Talmud lists eighteen instances in the Old Testament in which rabbis deliberately altered the original reading in order to show the proper respect for deity. Two instances of such changes are in Job 7:20 where “a burden to thee” (God) was changed by rabbis to “a burden to myself,” and in 30:3 where “they condemned God” was changed to “they condemned Job.”

Some of the most serious difficulties in the text of Job are to be found in Chapters 24-27. It is not at all clear who is speaking in many places in this section. At times Job seems to be saying the same things that his friends had said previously thus contradicting everything he had said earlier. Many modern scholars and translators have tried to solve some of the problems in this section by rearranging chapters and verses. Norman Snaith lists twenty-four different writers who have arranged this material differently.[7]Norman H. Snaith, The Book of Job (London: SCM Press, Ltd. 1968), pp. 100-103.

In spite of all its difficulties the Masoretic text still remains our primary source for the study of Job because our other sources present even greater difficulties. The earliest form of the Septuagint of Job suffers from being about four hundred lines shorter than the Masoretic text. In places the earlier form of the Septuagint seems to be just a paraphrase of the Hebrew Text.

None of the remaining Greek versions (Aquila, Symachus, and Theodotion) are older than the first century A.D. Only scanty fragments of these versions are in existence. The oldest Syriac Version, the Peshitta, probably dates from the second century A.D. and is a literal translation from the Hebrew. The Hexaplar Syriac Version was made much later by Paul, Bishop of Tella (616-618 A.D.). This version was a translation from the LXX and differs widely from the Peshitta.

According to the Talmud, the earliest Targum to be written down was a Targum on Job against which Gamaliel I (Paul’s teacher) is said to have raised serious objections so that it was suppressed and buried in the ground. Frank Cross[8]Frank Moore Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran (Garden City, N, Y.: Doubleday and Co. Inc., 1958), p. 26. has suggested that the two portions of a Targum on Job discovered at Qumran may be the one suppressed by Gamaliel.[9]The Targum of Job from Cave XI at Qumran is “in the press” at E. J. Brill Leiden, The editors are J.P. van der Ploeg and A. S. van der Woude.

The old Latin version was made from an unrevised Septuagint, and is therefore of little value. About 400 A.D. Jerome made a new Latin translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew text which became known as the Vulgate. Jerome had special problems with Job. He tells in the preface to the book that he found Job as “slippery as an eel.” Accordingly, he engaged at no small cost a Jewish teacher from Lydda, who had a great reputation, but who f ailed to throw much light on the book. However, Jerome did leave a translation of Job which was far ahead of its age.

English translations of Job have been many. The King James Version captured something of the beauty of the language of Job in some of its expressions: “the eyelids of the morning” (41:18); “the skin of my teeth” (19:20); “Is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (6:6). However, the King James Version of Job has many weaknesses. It does not distinguish poetry from prose. There are many places in which the Hebrew text is not correctly represented (cf. 13:15) and places in which the meaning is very obscure.

The Revised Versions of 1881 and 1901 were decided improvements on the King James Version. The Revised Standard Version of 1952 is for the most part a much better translation than any previous English Version. In addition to these standard Versions, many modern translations have been made of Job: Moffatt, Smith-Goodspeed, The Anchor Bible, The Jerusalem Bible, The New English Bible, The New American Standard Version, and Today’s English Version. All of these translations can be helpful to the interested student.


Traditions about Job

The book of Job must have been very fascinating to the ancients. Traditions about Job have been preserved in the Talmud, the Koran, and in a Greek apocryphal book called “The Testament of Job.” Job is mentioned many times in the Talmud, but of course the traditions found there about him are not consistent. P. Katz says that the Baba Bathra contains more conjectures about Job than about any other biblical character. Katz summarizes the Talmud’s conjectures on Job as follows:

He never existed nor was ever created, he is a fable. He was a Gentile-he was an Israelite. He entered Egypt with the Israelites and died when they left it. He was a contemporary of Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Judges, David, the Kingdom of the Sabaeans, and of Ahasuerus. He accompanied those returning from the Exile and his academy was in Tiberias. He preached to the Gentiles. Moses wrote his book. This secured the place of Job in the Canon. The other conjectures are all points of early discussion and based on adducing the most far-fetched Bible passages.[10]P. Katz, “The Old Testament Canon in Palestine and Alexandria,” Zeitschrifr fiir Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 47 (1956), 191-217; p. 208 on Job.

Job is mentioned at least four times in the Koran (IV. 163; VI. 85; XXI. 83-84; XXXVIII. 42-45). In a footnote on Sura XXI: 83-84, George Sale in his edition of the Koran comments:

The Mohammedan writers tell us, that Job was of the race of Esau, and was blessed with a numerous family, and abundant riches; but that God proved him, by taking away all that he had, even his children, who were killed by the fall of a house; notwithstanding which he continued to serve God, and to return him thanks, as usual: that he was then struck with a filthy disease, his body being full of worms, and so offensive, that as he lay on the dunghill none could bear to come near him: that his wife, however (whom some call Rahmat the daughter of Ephraim the son of Joseph, and others Makhir the daughter of Manasses), attended him with great patience, supporting him with what she earned by her labour; but that the devil appeared to her one day, after having reminded her of her past prosperity, promised her that if she would worship him, he would restore all they had lost: whereupon she asked her husband’s consent, who was so angry at the proposal, that he swore, if he recovered, to give his wife a hundred stripes: that Job having pronounced the prayer recorded in this passage, God sent Gabriel, who taking him by the hand raised him up; and at the same time a fountain sprang up at his feet, of which having drank, the worms fell off his body, and washing therein he recovered his former health and beauty: that God then restored all to him double; his wife also becoming young and handsome again, and bearing him twenty-six sons: and that Job, to satisfy his oath, was directed by God to strike her one blow with a palm-branch having a hundred leaves. Some, to express the great riches which were bestowed on Job after his sufferings, say he had two threshing floors, one for wheat, and the other for barley, and that God sent two clouds which rained gold on the one, and silver on the other, till they ran over. The traditions differ as to the continuance of Job’s calamities; one will have it to be eighteen years, another thirteen, another three, and another exactly seven years, seven months and seven hours.[11]George Sale, The Koran (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1891), pp. 247-248.

A third piece of ancient tradition about Job has been preserved in the Greek apocryphal book, The Testament of Job. This book possibly comes from the pre-Christian era since it has striking verbal similarities to the Septuagint of Job.[12]Cf. C. C. Torrey, The Apocryphal Literature (New Haven: Yale Univer­ sity Press, 1945), pp. 140-145. The story of the Testament can be summarized as follows: Job in a farewell address to his children (seven sons and three daughters all of whom have names including the sons) reviews his life telling them that he is of the generation of Abraham, a descendant of Esau and was known as Jobab before God called him Job. His second wife, their mother, was Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. Like Abraham he had changed from idolatry to worship the true God, maker of heaven and earth. He set out to destroy the idols of the land, the work of Satan, and was told to prepare for a lifelong battle with Satan. At the same time he was promised lasting renown as a great spiritual athlete and a crown of amaranth in the world to come after the resurrection. Satan first attempted to get Job in his power through the guise of a beggar. Then he secured permission from God to take away all of his possessions. Finding Job still praising God in spite of his loss, Satan came in the form of the King of Persia, besieged his city, captured his possessions and killed his children. For seven years (48 years; Paris MS) Job sat on a dunghill outside his city while his first wife Sitis, who had been brought up in royal luxury, carried water to provide food for the two of them. Afterward, Satan disguised himself as a bread­ seller and offered to sell her three loaves of bread for the hair of her head. Under Satan’s influence Sitis called on Job to curse God and die. Job in response, seeing Satan hiding behind his wife said, “Only a coward fights with frail woman; come forth and wage war with me!” Then Satan broke forth in tears and said, “I yield to thee who are the great wrestler,” and left him (chs. iii-iv). Job’s three friends, kings like himself, come with their body-guards to see him. When Job spelled the Ineffable Name, Job, his wife, and his three friends saw Job’s first children in heaven. Sitis soon dies and is mourned greatly. The story of how Job was restored to health is missing in the narrative. But at the end he is rich again, charitable, and his new wife Dinah bears him ten children. At the end Job sums up his ethics and religion in admonishing his sons: “Forsake not the Lord! Be charitable to the poor and do not disregard the feeble. Take not unto yourselves wives from strangers.”[13]For a good summary of the Testament see Kauffman Kohler’s Article in The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, pp. 200-202.

If ancient literary men found the story of Job intriguing, the same is true with modern literary artists. Goethe’s classic Faust was modeled on the book of Job. William Blake in 1825 published twenty-one watercolor drawings illustrating his understanding of the book of Job. Blake’s interpretations are unique to say the least. George Bernard Shaw reacted to the book of Job in his Black Girl in Search of God. Robert Frost, in A Masque of Reason chides God for testing Job. He views his own work as the forty-third chapter of Job. And Archibald MacLeish wrote a modern drama patterned on the book of Job called J. B. This play was produced on Broadway and ran for almost two years in the late nineteen fifties. So the book of Job still has an attraction for the makers of traditions.


Literary Forms

The book of Job is made up of a prologue and epilogue in prose (Chapters 1-2: 42:7-17), and a center section (Chapters 3:1-42:6) primarily in poetry which purports to be speeches of Job, his three friends, Elihu, and Yahweh.

Some have called the book of Job a drama. H. M. Kallen argued that Job has the form of a Greek tragedy, including the chorus (Chapter 28). John Milton regarded Job as an epic. The dialogues of Plato have been suggested as having the pattern of Job thus making Job a literary composition in the form of a dialogue. But there is really very little similarity between the long monologues of Plato and the brief, precise speeches of the characters in Job.

Some similarity in style and form can be seen between Job and some ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. One Egyptian text dating from the end of the third millennium

B.C. presents a debate of a man with his soul over the question of suicide. Another Egyptian document dating from about 1800 B.C. called “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” has a prologue and an epilogue in prose and a central portion composed of nine semipoetic appeals for justice on the part of an eloquent peasant. The best known parallel to Job from the Ancient Near East has been called “The Babylonia Job.” It probably dates from the Cassite period (c. 1600-1150) and may be classified as a thanksgiving hymn for deliverance from distress.[14]For a discussion of the parallels between Job and Ancient Near Eastern Literature see Pope, op. cit., L-LXVI. Although there are similarities between the book of Job and these ancient literary documents there are also striking differences between them. None of these documents furnish a pattern or a key to the literary type of Job.

Modern form critics are divided about the literary type and the Sitz im Leben of Job. Baumgartel and Bentzen see its setting in the cult and classify it as a dramatized lament. Ludwig Kohler classifies the poem of Job as judicial speeches and puts the setting in the City Gate.[15]Ludwig Kohler, Hebrew Man (London: SCM Press, Ltd. 1956) pp. 158-160. Alfred Guillaume sees the book of Job as having an Arabian background. He thinks that the language is greatly influenced by Arabic and the form and the Sitz im Leben are typical Arabic. ”Three poets, later to be joined by a fourth, meet together to deal with a given theme in verse of surpassing beauty, just as the old Arabs did when tribal poets engaged in poetic contests at the annual fairs, a custom which still survives to the present day in Syria.”[16]A. Guillaume, “The Arabic Background of the Book of Job,” in Promise and Fulfillment edited by F. F. Bruce (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1963), p. 108.

It is not possible at this point to classify the book of Job as an epic, a drama, a cultic lament, judicial court scene, or any other one type. However, in interpreting the book one should pay close attention to the literary form of each section. The book does contain narratives, laments, hymns, an oath of innocence, and wisdom sayings.


Date and Authorship

The book of Job contains no statement concerning its date or authorship, but there are traditions galore concerning both matters. In one place the Talmud says that “Moses wrote his own book, and the passages about Balaam and Job.” But in the discussion that follows rabbis ascribe the book (or Job’s lifetime) to various periods in Israel’s history ranging from the time of the Patriarchs to the time of Ahasuerus.

Martin Luther suggested that Job was written by Solomon or one of his wise men. But there is much evidence in the book which points to a later date than Solomon. First, several pas­ sages (9:24; 12:6, 13-25; 24:12) seem to reflect some national calamity such as the fall of Samaria or the fall of Jerusalem 586 B.C. Second, there is a striking similarity between Job 3 and Jeremiah 20:14-18, and although it cannot be proved, there is a good possibility that the Jeremiah passage is the original. Third, Job 7:17 seems to be a parody of Psalm 8:4; 144:3. Of course there is no way of dating either of these Psalms absolutely but there is the possibility that both of them are fairly late. The court room language, the interest in the individual and the deep concern with the problem of the sufferings of the righteous all suggest a time near the fall of Jerusalem.

There was a time when men assumed that books of the Bible were written by one author in a reasonably short period of time. Now scholars are saying that ancient books (including books of the Bible) were not produced that way. Rather, ancient books grew from many parts passing through a good many hands. The writers of the commentary on Job in the Broadman Bible Commentary say:

The book of Job, like a medieval cathedral, was built in stages. Different architects over a century or more used various styles. . . . So it is with the book of Job. It took shape at the hands of many inspired workmen. Some used the rhetoric and argument of the courts. Some moved within the proverbs of the wise. They all made their unique contribution to the one great theme and built a magnificent literary structure.[17]John D. W. Watts, et. al. Job, “The Broadman Bible Commentary,” Vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), p. 23.

Although it is probable that the material in the book of Job passed through several hands it is still possible to speak of an author in the sense of a final redactor or in the sense of a responsible author, that is, a man who gave the book its major form and thrust. If we had to identify such an author, we probably could not improve on Samuel Terrien’s description of him. Terrien said:

The poet of Job may thus be pictured as a man who lived probably between 580 and 540 B.C. He was acquainted with the international circle of the wise; had traveled widely in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and of course the Fertile Crescent; forged for himself an elegant poetic idiom, and was deeply impressed, not only by his personal experience of sorrow, but also by the profound social and political disturbances of the ancient Near East at the beginning of the Neo-Babylonian empire. His outlook was thoroughly Hebraic, although he was completely detached from love of promised land, covenant law, temple, or David’s royal family.[18]Samuel Terrien, Job, Introduction and Exegesis, “The Interpreter’s Bible,” III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 890.


Some Theological Concepts in Job

To speak of the theology of any book of the Bible runs the risk of being misunderstood. There is little or no theology in the Bible, but an abundance of materials out of which theology can be made. It is easy to over-systematize theological materials in any book, but that is especially true in the book of Job where there are so many different views expressed. So without any effort to deal with all of the theological materials in the book of Job, and being acutely conscious of many limitations, I want to comment on some of the most significant theological concepts in the book.

God in Job

The most obvious thing about the concept of God in the book of Job is the fact that he is a high God. In the first scene in heaven God is on the throne and sovereign. During the poetical dialogue he seems to be remote and hidden. Even in the climax of the book he speaks from a position of strength veiled in a whirlwind.

Job and his friends (including Elihu) stress the sovereignty of God. God can do anything (9:3-10), but where Job’s friends emphasize the benevolence of God’s acts (5:8-14), Job emphasizes the destructiveness of his actions (9:3-10; 12:13-25).

God is recognized as the creator of the universe (38:1-11); of Job (10:8-12); of Job’s servant (31:15). God controls and sustains the animate (37:1-23; 38:12-38) and inanimate world (38:29-30). God in Job is a high God. It is hard to keep from agreeing with Norman Snaith when he says that the author’s main problem is the problem of the transcendent God.

Has this God anything at all to do with this world of men-and their affairs? How can mortal man ever get into touch with this High God? How can the High God ever be imminently concerned with the affairs of men?[19]Snaith, op. cit., p. vii.

God, in Job, is high and sovereign. His ways are mysterious. It may seem at times that he is unjust in his operation of the universe, but the message comes through at the end of the book that he cares for men and for his whole creation. Grace may not be a dominant note in the book of Job, but it is a prominent one in the climax of the book. Samuel Terrien said:

With a keen sense of drama and profound knowledge of psychology, the poet withholds until the climax of his work the secret of his intention, which is to show the divinity of God, the humanity of man, and the specific nature of the relation between a God who is truly man-namely, one of grace alone apprehended by faith.[20]Terrien, op. cit., p. 898.

Man in Job

There is both a low and a high view of man in the book of Job. Eliphaz espouses the idea that man is inherently evil because he is a created being (4:17-20; 15:14-15). Some rabbis have argued that the expression “born of woman” (14:1; 15:14; 25:4) carries the idea of inherent impurity. Job certainly acknowledges the vast gulf which separates man from God (9; 32; 10:4-5). But the idea of Job standing his ground before the jibes of his friends, the silence of God, in the midst of great suffering and loss is one of the loftiest and most noble portraits of man to be found anywhere. When Job concludes his last speech with the words “like a prince I would approach him” (31:37b) he might be showing signs of egotism but he is also demonstrating the dignity which belongs to a “blameless” human being.

The Mediator

One of the most interesting ideas in the book of Job is that of a mediator. Since God in Job is a high God and man is man, the need for a mediator soon became obvious. Four passages in Job developed this theme. In 9:33 Job asked for an “umpire” who might lay his hand on Job and on God and bring them together. In 16:19, despairing of getting any help from earthlings, Job exclaimed that he had a witness in heaven who would vouch for him. There is nothing in the text which would identify the heavenly witness. Job might have been thinking of God himself as the witness or one of the “holy ones” mentioned in 5:1; 15:15; 4:18. In 19:25 Job says that he knows that his redeemer lives and will eventually come to his rescue. Even if he (Job) dies, the redeemer will present him and his case before God. In 34:23 Elihu presents the possibility that an angel might be Job’s mediator in the hour of death so that Job might be ransomed. Although it would not be wise to dogmatize about these passages relating to a mediator, it is easy to see in them an expression of what Terrien calls “the necessity of a Christ.”[21]Terrien, p. 900.

Is there life after death?

Job asked the question in those classic words, “If a man die, shall he live again?” (14:14). He seems to answer his question negatively in that passage when he says there is more hope for a tree to sprout again than for a man to live again after he dies. The famous passage in 19:25-27 cannot be made to yield a full-blown doctrine of the resurrection. However, Job did come to the conclusion that death would be no barrier to a satisfactory solution to his case. It is interesting to note that in the conclusion of the book of Job in the Septuagint there is a rather lengthy passage which goes beyond the Hebrew Text. That passage begins, “It is written, however, that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.” So, by 150 B.C. the hope of a resurrection for Job was a living reality.

However, the idea of a firm belief in a life after death may not have been as foreign to the Old Testament writers as it was once believed. Mitchell Dahood in his third volume to his commentary on the Psalms marshals much evidence from the Old Testament backed up by discoveries in the Ugaritic materials for an early date for a firm belief in a life after death among the Hebrews.[22]Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III, “The Anchor Bible” (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970), pp. XLI-LII. Unfortunately, none of his references are from Job. The writer of Job does seem to be almost preoccupied with the problem of death (Cf. 3:11-21; 7:6-10; 10:18-22; 13:15, 28; 14:1-22; 16:22; 17:1, 11-16; 19:26; 21:23-26; 28:22; 30:23). But even a firm belief in a life after death would not have solved all of Job’s problems.

H. H. Rowley wrote shortly before his death:

The hope of a life beyond this, where the inequalities and injustices of this life are rectified, does not touch Job’s problem. No reward to the innocent sufferer in a future life can offer any solution in terms of justice. It may bring comfort, but it cannot bring explanation. And even in terms of comfort it is inferior to the message of Job, which is that here and now in the fellowship of God the pious may find a peace and a satisfaction that transcends all the miseries of his lot.[23]H. H. Rowley, Job, “The Century Bible” (London: Nelson, 1970), p. 21. (Italics mine).


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