Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

The Book of Job

Initial Questions:
1) What is the real dilemma Job finds himself facing? (Not just boils — the real difficulty!)
2) Do you think God answers Job? Why or why not? [or: How is God’s response both an answer and not an answer?]

The Book of Job is considered a literary masterpiece. It belongs to the genre of “wisdom literature,” or “speculative wisdom” as it questions commonly held principles and assertions. Here, the universal question is tackled: if there is a God, why do the innocent suffer? (Buddhism addresses this too.)
The narrative sets up a “theodicy” (the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil), but….

Prologue — Chapters 1-2:
Like the opening chapters of Genesis, separate sources are detectable here. The frame (Chapters 1, 2, and 42) sounds like an early prose folktale, using the term JHWH for God and supplying an anthropomorphic quick cosmic set-up in which a proud God is backed into a corner. It’s like the Greek gods sitting around making bets and backing various mortals, meddling in their lives from on high. This prose material is thought to come from the 6th or 7th century bce, a legend concerning a patriarch and native of Uz (and so pre-Israel). Job might end up representing Israel (and there is no mention of Israel nor of a covenant nor of a saving history). Ultimately, Job stands for everyman. The prophets explained suffering on a national scale; this is individual.
Satan (whose name simply means “adversary”) challenges JHWH in the anthropomorphic plot premise. Job attracted the interest of Satan, who proposes that Job’s loyalty is simply for material reward. (Consider the story of Joseph.) So, JHWH, test this. He still is loyal? Then add pain too, like boils from heel to head. Still no complaint against God, we are told.
If this reflects and allegorizes a historical situation, then it’s the product of a troubled time, such as the Babylonian exile, when one is forced to question the justice of God.

Symposium — Chapters 3-31:
The style shifts to the poetic now, so 3rd or 2nd century bce? Set in a dungheap, Job debates (Socratic-style, in rounds) with his so-called friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

Eliphaz says the righteous do not suffer, only the wicked.
Bildad insists God does not pervert justice.
Zophar claims Job is not being punished as much as he deserves; God is merciful and so treats people better than they deserve.
Job defends himself: either point out my supposed evil deed or admit that I am created human and how can I be blamed for that? Job challenges Yahweh to appear before him and to see things from a human vantage point (9-10).

Dramatic speeches offer emotional reactions to theological problems, sometimes verging on blasphemy: it is surprising to find in scriptures an admission of how little reason there is to believe in God or to trust in his goodness. The text questions the ethical nature of God, challenging the doctrine that virtue is rewarded and vice punished, thus discrediting the Deuteronomic thesis.

The dilemma? It’s not the problem of evil entirely, but a problem of faith (how is faith possible?). All seems arbitrary, and God doesn’t interpose. The mourning is not emotional or physical, but existential: an anguish of faith.

An interesting phenomenon involves how difficult this is to read: one is plunged in and finds it difficult to keep track of the larger perspective or to see where the moment fits into a larger scheme — just like Job’s difficulty!

Elihu’s Speeches — Chapters 28, 32-37:
Wisdom literature seems to have been inserted separately to align the book with orthodox party-line thinking, but this is in conflict with the spirit of Job, which is a reaction against this kind of easy explanation. In fact, the work is also a revolt against wisdom literature: not accepting a passive, patient, and resigned composure like wisdom books are in tone and as they advise.

Suffering is a warning against sinning, supposedly; and then we have the verbose and overconfident pretentious repetition of the three friends (esp. 32:2-4).

Nature Poems — Chapters 38-41:
God’s answer comes in two speeches: sarcastic, deriding, and ultimately offering no answer. The problem of evil is not solved. But, at least God notices; we are assured of this.

Exquisite language tells of the wonders of creation. It’s beautiful poetry, a recitation in catalogue form of natural wonders, but of course it doesn’t answer the existential question and doesn’t assure us of the inherent goodness of God. Finally there’s no theodicy — no justifying God’s ways in face of evil: just a contrast of the human perspective with the power and wisdom of the deity. But what about the innocent suffering? We receive no concrete solution. In the absence of a comprehensible divine ethic, humans have to create their own meaning (40:8)?

God appears in a whirlwind — a symbol of chaotic amoral forces? The magnificence and horror of the fashioned universe? God still tolerates the chaotic forces of Behemoth and Leviathan (formerly thought to be hippopotamus and crocodile; just ludicrous?). [See Leviathan for more on this mythical sea-creature.]

We are left with the irrelevance of God’s ethical nature and its vast indifference to human need (vs. Genesis anthropocentricity). Who is the author’s hero? Job? God? Neither?

Epilogue — Chapter 42:
We return to the prose frame again for a distanced wrap-up. Job acknowledged the justice of Yahweh and repented. As recompense, God doubled Job’s prosperity. This tacked-on fairytale ending and anticlimactic in its orthodoxy after the difficult questions raised previously fails to satisfy, of course. It even supports the charges Satan made initially!

The only sense of resolution: maybe Yahweh prefers honest doubt and searching to convenient orthodoxy.

Works Cited

The Book of Job. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 7th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 3rd ed. Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1992.

Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt, eds. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.

The Old Testament