Glossary of Terms

The Book of Job


Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Job, The Book of. O.T. book, probably written sometime between the seventh and fourth centuries B.C. An ancient story of a good man was expanded into a dramatic dialogue on the question of why God allows the good person to suffer. Ezek. 14:14; James 5:11.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Job, the Book of, the eighteenth book in the ot, and a major example, along with Proverbs, of wisdom literature. The Hebrew name ‘Job’ may mean ‘where is the [divine] father?’ or it may mean ‘hated/persecuted one’; or it may combine both meanings to pose the book’s question. The date, place, and identity of authorship are still debated. Commonly proposed dates fall between the seventh and the fourth centuries b.c.; an exilic date (after 586 b.c.) is here assumed.


The Book of Job

Various sections of the book have been identified as secondary: chap. 28; chaps. 32-37; one or another part of chaps. 38-41; and the prologue and/or the epilogue. Such judgments rest largely on one’s interpretation of the book as a whole. The unity of the book is not without its proponents, and that view is here adopted.

Background: The book has its background in the history of Israel’s religion up to the Exile and in Canaanite and Mesopotamian religious traditions (as reflected in the book’s many allusions to common ancient mythic motifs). In Mesopotamia and Canaan, the gods were viewed as divine creators and rulers of the world, with humans as subjects. Majestic in wisdom and power, they acted at times beneficently and at times with inscrutable arbitrariness. In second-millennium Mesopotamia a form of ‘personal religion’ arose within which a god (as divine parent) endowed the human devotee (as child) with generativity, nurture, guidance, and protection. This ‘personal religion’ was important for Israel’s ancestors beginning with Abram (Heb. ‘the [divine] father is exalted’) and for the birth of Israel in the Exodus and the covenanting at Sinai (see Exod. 2:23-25; 3:6, 13-15; 4:22-23; 19:3-6). The latter enactments displayed God as compassionate to the innocent oppressed and just in the establishment of Israelite life upon a basis of law. Israel’s Eden story (Gen. 2-3) universalized this vision of God as beneficent creator and covenanter; and the creation account of Genesis 1, with its portrayal of humankind as made in God’s image, affirmed the deepest affinity between human and divine within a context of creation as good.

In Mesopotamia this ‘personal religion’ crumbled before the experience of persistent evils, and older views prevailed portraying the gods as inscrutably arbitrary. In Israel the numerous Psalms of complaint (e.g., Pss. 3-6; 22; 30), together with other voices such as the prophet Habakkuk, attest to the challenge that Israel’s experience of evil posed to their self-understanding and their vision of God, a challenge that became excruciating with the Exile.

The Question of Undeserved Suffering: Israel’s question, posed through Job, concerned the meaning of undeserved suffering before the silence and inactivity of God: what is one to make of the tradition, of oneself, and of divine character and purpose in view of such experience (chaps. 3-37)? This human question is presented as arising out of, and therefore as embedded in, a narratively prior question in the divine realm concerning the character and purpose of human piety (1:6-12; 2:1-6). These two complementary questions, asked and explored with painstaking honesty on both sides, may be viewed as a transformed exposition of the traditional Israelite themes of divine-human covenanting and of the viability and possible significance of humankind as dust in God’s image, as human child of divine parent.

Job’s friends have learned well the lessons of Sinai—perhaps too well. Observation and folk wisdom, reinforced by centuries of teaching concerning the claims of the covenant and its conditional blessings and curses (see Deut. 30:15-20), produced a sensibility ingrained with a strict calculus of retribution: reward for uprightness, punishment for wickedness. Job shared this theology, but now his experience calls it in question. As voiced by his friends, this theology would force him to deny his experience and to confess a wickedness that his conscience could not in truth attest. He therefore explores alternative possibilities. God must after all be no benevolent creator, compassionate father, or just covenanter, but merely a brutally insensitive power acting in a grotesque parody of wisdom and purpose. Yet from time to time Job imaginatively entertains a vision in which God is, somehow, on his side (8:33 [with rsv note]; 14:13-17; 16:19-21; 19:25-27). He displays covenanting loyalty in his refusal to stop addressing God, if only with stormy questions. This loyalty comes to a first climax in his oath of a clear conscience, sworn in the name of the very God responsible for his condition. Then, after a soliloquy in which (unlike chap. 3) he affirms the worthwhileness of his past life (chap. 29) alongside his present condition (chap. 30), he utters an extended oath of conscience (chap. 31), appealing to divine conscience (31:35-37) and leaving himself in the hands of God so appealed to (31:38-40).

The three friends and Job have based their views largely on observation, experience, and tradition, although in 4:17-5:7 Eliphaz briefly invokes the authority of a nocturnal revelation. Now Elihu appears (chaps. 32-37), filled with inspiration, to settle the issue with his revelation. But he only repeats the views of the three friends, thereby unwittingly betraying himself as a false prophet (cf. 1 Kings 22:13-23). Finally, God breaks the long, divine silence and speaks directly to Job (chaps. 38-41).

The Divine Speeches: The divine speeches are generally acknowledged to hold the key to the meaning of the book of Job. Yet they themselves require a key, and interpretations vary widely. Do they reinforce some aspect of the friends’ theology? Or Elihu’s? Do they shout Job down by reference to cosmic mysteries beyond Job’s possible fathoming? Do they confirm his fear that heaven is indifferent to human concerns? Perhaps the genius of this climax to the book lies in the way it requires each reader to construe the resolution for him- or herself, thereby placing the reader in the shoes of Job who hears God’s words and responds (42:1-6).

Two prominent features appearing throughout the book may offer keys for one’s hearing of the divine speeches. These features are the use of irony and of questions. Ironic speech abounds, in which the obvious sense is subverted and another implicit sense emerges through them. Often the device serves to mask and reveal dissenting views in the garb of conventional wisdom, which is thereby left intact for the imperceptive but exploded for the keen listener. As for questions, where they address existential concerns they can serve to draw the one who entertains them into new contexts of understanding and existence. Repeatedly in Job, irony and question combine to mutually intensifying effect. One or another speaker poses questions that appear merely rhetorical, assuming common assent to conventional wisdom; yet the context shows that these supposedly rhetorical questions in fact function as genuine questions opening alternative possibilities.

The divine address to Job (chaps. 38-41) is composed almost entirely of questions ostensibly rhetorical and thereby serves to throw him back into a conventional wisdom according to which the experience of suffering conveys a baffling revelation of the incomprehensibility of life and the dissolution of the human understandings that are articulated in those traditions that focus on the Exodus, the Sinai covenant, and the good creation including humankind as in God’s image. But when these divine questions are reread in the context of Job’s own words and experience, in the context of Israelite tradition generally, and in the context of the use of questions and irony throughout Job, the suspicion may arise that they function ironically, so that their supposedly rhetorical character masks and reveals their genuine indication of a positive possibility for Job’s self-understanding. So read, these questions become a re-presentation of the two voices heard in the divine realm (1:6-12; 2:1-6), similar to the two voices heard in the Garden (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-5), calling for discerning hearing and decision. So read, the divine questions become a restatement of vocation and divine-human covenanting hitherto only latent in Israel’s tradition. (That vocation will emerge more explicitly in connection with the figure of the Servant in Isaiah 40-55 and, later, e.g., in Mark 10:35-45. In the latter instance, interestingly, apparently rhetorical questions supposedly functioning as a rebuke to pretension are subsequently disclosed to function as genuine vocational solicitations.)

Job’s Response: Job’s response (42:1-6) comes as a confession, a speaking in agreement with God. It comes to a climax in 42:6, the Hebrew text of which (as already the twelfth-century Jewish scholar Maimonides in part recognized, and recently has come to be noted by several scholars) may be translated, ‘Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes.’ In his last soliloquy (30:19) Job had taken his sufferings as God’s arbitrary action to put him in his proper place as ‘dust and ashes.’ Now, as a result of what God has said to him, he repents of that dour interpretation of God and of himself. He comes to a new understanding of his experience as suffering dust, suffering human. But that new understanding is undisclosed. As with the divine speeches, readers must come to such an understanding for themselves, through self-involvement in the story. In any case, neither Job’s earlier fears concerning divine arbitrariness and indifference nor the friends’ doctrine of strict retribution is established; and the book implies an opening out onto other possibilities.

Restoration: The book ends with a brief but densely textured portrayal of restoration. Some have felt that it rehabilitates the doctrine of retribution so painstakingly dismantled in the dialogues and therefore must be a secondary, and uncomprehendingly misleading, addition to the book. Read in full view of the dialogues, however, the epilogue should not be interpreted as though it followed immediately after the prologue. Rather, it may be taken to bring the rare insights of the existential mountaintop down to the plain of ordinary life, where it now identifies divine and human transactions, not in conventional quid pro quo terms, but as suffused with freedom, spontaneity, and loyalty. The covenant is renewed with each partner acting, not out of necessity or duty, but out of freedom, felicity, and loyalty, thereby with the other bringing into being a world of worth in the face of all that can and does go wrong.

So read, the book of Job presents a vindication of the portrayal of humankind as divine image and an exploration of what such a status implies for human vocation. Far from being an anthropomorphic domestication of the divine in accordance with human wishes, it presents a call to leave the homeland of one’s settled human self-understanding and to follow God in the manner in which the mystery of evil is engaged.

Bibliography Glatzer, N., ed. The Dimensions of Job. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Pope, M. The Anchor Bible: Job. 3d ed. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973. Sanders, P., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Book of Job. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968.


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