The book of Job treats the perennial issue of undeserved human suffering and of how to reconcile this with faith in God. It presents an individual test case of a character called Job who went through various trials, but was ultimately restored. It takes its place in the canon alongside the wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, although since much of it is lament it has a close relationship with many psalms.
The book shares its name with the hero, Job. The opening narrative is set in patriarchal times in a land called Uz, probably Edom.
The book starts and ends with a tale that includes heavenly scenes of a wager between God and ‘the Satan.’ The character of Job is described in the opening verses as ‘blameless and upright’ and this sets the keynote of the book. God then allows the Satan to afflict Job with the loss of possessions, children, and status, and with a terrible skin disease, and to cause Job to be left on a dungheap scratching his sores with only his wife left to chastise him. The largest section of the book is a dialogue about reward and retribution between the character, Job, and three friends (followed by a fourth). Job attempts both through dialogue and his own soliloquies to understand his relationship with God in the light of his suffering, and he calls on God to answer him face to face. Ultimately God appears in a whirlwind to answer Job, but actually does little more than proclaim God’s superior power, knowledge, and wisdom as demonstrated in the creation of the world and its ongoing sustenance. God puts Job down with a series of rhetorical questions asking where Job thought he was at creation, to know all the answers.
There is a detailed description of the creative process, of the various animals, usually wild ones, for which God cares, and an indication that God will not be limited by human questions about justice. At the end of the book Job is silenced and submits to God’s authority; then a final happy ending has Job, ironically, restored to his life and possessions (twofold) and with a new family, longevity, and much blessing.
Date and authorship
The date of the book of Job as a whole is probably post-exilic and the favoured date is 4th century BCE. A more individualistic stance is thought to have arisen after the Israelite exile and questions of suffering arose in that context. Also within the wisdom literature it seems to counter earlier ideas from proverbial wisdom of just rewards for the righteous and the wicked. The text was originally written in Hebrew [Masoretic text]. The book is probably composite in that the narrative sections in Job 1–2 and 42:7–end could have existed as a separate tale (certainly the character of Job is witnessed to in Ezekiel 14:14, 20). The main author is that of the dialogue sections and God-speeches who probably incorporated the older tale into the book to fashion a more profound tale. He may have been part of the circles of ‘the wise,’ or, because of his questioning of accepted tradition, a renegade sage seeking to overturn the status quo. There may be later additions to the main text in the Elihu speeches (chapters 32–37) although modern scholarship prefers to read the book as a totality in its final form.
Questions of the main theme of Job abound. Is it about disinterested righteousness as the Prologue would seem to suggest when the Satan figure asks God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” This raises the question of why people have faith—is it simply for the material and spiritual rewards that they hope to gain?
In the Prologue Job appears to pass the ‘test’ set by God and the Satan—he does not waver in his righteousness. However at the opening of the dialogue a rather more impatient and despairing Job utters an opening curse on the day of his birth and the night of his conception. In the dialogue another theme emerges: whether all punishment is a result of sin or whether God allows innocent suffering. This challenges the traditional doctrine of retribution that states that good people are rewarded by God and the wicked punished. The friends argue that this is always the case, even if sometimes the punishment is delayed. Job, on the other hand, argues from experience that this principle no longer holds as he has done nothing to deserve the loss of everything, including his dignity and status. He overturns traditional sentiments of lament to state that God has turned against him and treated him unfairly. Thus the theme of the book develops into being essentially about human relationship with God and whether it is possible or even desirable. God’s reply indicates that the parameters of Job’s world are limited and that from God’s perspective as creator the world stage is much bigger than human beings make it out to be.
Job has long been an inspiration to Jews and Christians alike. Rabbinic writers filled in parts of the story that were missing and gave a more prominent role to Job’s wife, who in the prologue simply advises Job to ‘Curse God and die.’ The Greek Septuagint translation also increases her role. Interestingly in medieval Christian iconography, Job’s wife is often aligned with ‘the Satan’ and compared to the temptress, Eve, in her seduction of Adam.
A tradition arose in early Christian tradition of ‘Job the patient,’ largely based on a reading of the narrative sections alone and with reference to a description in James 5:11 of Job as ‘steadfast.’ Job is even made a saint—of those with skin diseases and of musicians, following an additional story that he threw worms from his body to pay musicians who came to play and comfort him as he sat on his dungheap scratching his sores. These worms turned into golden bands to pay the musicians.
This book has been an inspiration to many artists, musicians, writers, and theologians over the centuries. The issue it debates is a universal one for any human being who has experienced suffering. The questions ‘Why me?’ and ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ are asked by us all at times in our lives; and the reader can identify themselves with the suffering Job on this level. The idea of a rather distant and less engaged God might be problematic for some, and indeed some have rejected this picture arguing that it indicates a tyrannical God who plays with human beings as if for sport (e.g., Carl Jung in his Answer to Job). But other interpreters more charitably see it as posing a challenge to human beings who attempt to domesticate God or think they have all the answers.
Balentine, Samuel E. Job. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary 10. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006.
Clines, David J. A. Job 1-20, 21-37, 38-42. Word Bible Commentary 17, 18a, 18b. Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 1989, 2006, 2011.
Crenshaw, James L. “Job.” Pages 335-55 in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Dell, Katharine J. The Book of Job: Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Phoenix Guides to the Old Testament. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013. Repr., Job: An Introduction and Study Guide. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? T&T Clark Study Guides to the Old Testament. London; Oxford; New York; New Delhi; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Good, Edwin M. “Job.” Pages 407-32 in Harper’s Bible Commentary. Edited by James L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
Gordis, Robert. The Book of God and Man. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1965.
Hakham, Amos. Job. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2009.
Jung, Carl. Answer to Job. London: Routledge, 2002.
Van Wolde, Ellen J. Mr. and Mrs. Job. London: SCM Press, 1997.