The Book of Job Essay - Critical Essays

The Book of Job


The Book of Job c. Fifth Century B.C.?

(Also rendered as Iyyov and iyyôbh.) Hebrew poetry and prose.

The Book of Job is best known as one of the Poetic Book of the Old Testament of the Bible. While the work has been the subject of theological discussion and teaching since ancient times, it has also inspired extensive exegetical and philosophical commentary by modern secular critics. The story's depiction of the undeserved hardship experienced by a virtuous and pious man has served both as a means of advocating traditional morals and as a spring-board for complex philosophical exchanges regarding the problem of human suffering. Combining elements of folklore, wisdom literature, prophetic literature, poetic drama, tragedy, lament, hymn, diatribe, proverb, and judiciary procedure, The Book of Job defies strict literary classification. Paul Weiss has commented: "The Book of Job is surely one of the very great works of literature of the world. It touches the core of existence; it probes to the root of the problems of good and evil, the destiny of man, the meaning of friendship, the wisdom and goodness of God, and the justification of suffering."

Plot and Major Characters

Critics divide The Book of Job into three sections: a prose prologue (1:1-2:13), a poetic dialogue (3:1-42:6), and a prose epilogue (42:7-17). The prologue provides an idyllic picture of a semi-nomadic sheik named Job who is virtuous, prosperous, and immensely happy. Soon therafter however, a meeting of the celestial court takes place in which God (Yahweh) praises Job. This incites a challenge from the satan (the Hebrew term for the adversary, an antecedent of Satan), who suggests that Job's piety is simply a product of his good fortune. The satan instigates a wager with Yahweh that Job will curse God if he is made to suffer. A chain of calamities befalls Job, and every component of his wealth and security is destroyed, culminating in the death of his children. After Job successfully eschews blasphemous speech and behavior, another test is proposed by the satan, and Job is inflicted with a loathsome skin disease. At the prologue's conclusion, the three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar arrive to comfort job, sitting with him in silence for seven days. Following the prologue is a diverse poetic section incorporating elements of lament, debate, soliloquy, and hymn. Job lashes out against the injustice of his suffering and is answered by each of the three friends, who castigate him for challenging God and suggest that his misfortune must be a punishment for some hidden sin. Job steadfastly rejects their arguments, insisting that he is innocent and pleading for a fair hearing from God. The dialogues are followed by a poem on wisdom and the speeches of Elihu, a younger friend who also intervenes in defense of God. In the final poetic section, called the theophany, God answers job with a series of questions and declarations of omnipotence spoken from a whirlwind, after which Job repents. In the epilogue, Yahweh rebukes Job's friends and restores Job's property and wealth.

Textual History

Considerable discussion and debate surrounds the origin of The Book of Job and the means through which it achieved its final form. Although the Talmud names the prophet Moses as the author of The Book of Job, most scholars consider it to be an anonymous work. The Book of Job is classified as a work of Hebrew literature, but some scholars have pointed to evidence of Arabic influences within the Hebrew text. Archaeological discoveries made during the twentieth century have also led researchers to speculate that the story of Job may have evolved from other cultural traditions, including the wisdom literature of the Edomites, Egyptian Pessimism, and Babylonian Skepticism. According to modern scholars, the chief exegetical question surrounding The Book of Job concerns its literary integrity. Commentators maintain that the prose prologue and epilogue contrast significantly with the poetic dialogue at the book's center, suggesting that the book was written by more than one author. One widely espoused, although inconclusive, theory suggests that the book's prologue and epilogue evolved from an ancient oral folktale, perhaps dating back to the semi-nomads of the second millennium B.C. A later poet or scribe who, some critics believe, lived during the postexilic period of the fifth century B.C. may have been the first to write the Hebrew text in its complete form, adding the poetic dialogue in the center of the traditional story as a means of addressing the problem of evil more closely. Although numerous English translations of The Book of Job have been produced, virtually all are ultimately derived from one of three sources: the Greek Septuagint text, which is a translation of the Hebrew Bible made in the second or third century B.C. for the benefit of Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt; the Hebrew Masoretic text, which was compiled by rabbis in or around the second century B.C. from manuscripts surviving the fall of Jerusalem; and the Latin Vulgate Old Testament, St. Jerome's fourth-century Latin translation of the Hebrew text.

Major Themes

The Book of Job has incited diverse interpretations ranging from explorations of its basic morality to extensive philosophical discussions concerning human suffering and divine justice. Traditional religious teaching has emphasized the patience of Job in the face of suffering, reaffirming the conventional concept that, through divine justice, faith will ultimately be rewarded. The view of suffering as a potentially purifying, and even desirable, experience has also been a subject of discussion surrounding the work, particularly in the writing of such medieval theologians as Pope Gregory I and Thomas Aquinas. Critics approaching the work from a secular perspective, however, have commented that the popular image of Job as an example of faith and patience actually ignores the fact that he is depicted as a rebellious and even blasphemous figure in the central poetic section of work. In modern times particularly, scholars have suggested that the apparent injustice and randomness of God's treatment of Job raise the possibility that Job is in fact faithful without a good reason to be so. Much debate also surrounds the enigmatic relationship between God and Job. When God finally speaks to Job from the whirlwind, he gives no explanation for Job's affliction, but instead offers a poetic description of his own omnipotence, describing the natural wonders of the creation and questioning Job's right to challenge him. Some critics have asserted that God's response fails to address the serious questions raised by Job concerning justice, leaving the reader with an amoral conception of the universe. Others have interpreted God's evasion of Job's questions as a denouncement of an anthropocentric view of the world, asserting that the essential theme of The Book of Job is the human inability to comprehend a deity who functions outside the realm of worldly justice.

Critical Reception

While The Book of Job has been continuously reinterpreted over the centuries, it has traditionally been presented in religious teachings as a morality tale in which Job is upheld as a model of patience, endurance, and humility. During the sixth century, for example, Pope Gregory I emphasized Job's piety in his Moralia in Iob (Morals on the Book of Job), considered an important early example of ecclesiastical writing on the subject of Job. Moses Maimonides, one of the foremost intellectual figures of medieval Judaism, included a section on The Book of Job in his twelfth-century work Dālalat al-hā'rīn (Guide of the Perplexed), portraying Job as an upright and pious man who was flawed by a lack of wisdom, which impeded his capacity to accept the actions of God. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Biblical story of Job was superseded in popularity by a more familiar pseudepigraphal book entitled Testament of Job, considered by such critics as Lawrence Besserman to be the principal example of the "apocryphal tradition" of writings about Job. In the Testament of Job, Job is presented as both a saint and a heroic king of Egypt. During the Reformation, John Calvin presented a series of 159 sermons on The Book of Job in which he emphasized Job's integrity and resistance to the temptation to reject God. Job's exemplary response to misfortune was also praised during the nineteenth century by the theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. While theologians have traditionally interpreted The Book of Job as a vindication of conventional morality concerning divine justice, secular scholars of the twentieth century have given greater attention to Job's defiance in the middle section of the book, occasionally arguing that the work in fact denounces the notion that human suffering is justifiable. Writers outside the realm of theology, for example Carl Jung, have invoked the book as a forum for examining broad philosophical and psychological questions concerning suffering, evil, and faith outside the context of any specific religion. Widely considered one of the most celebrated books of the Bible, The Book of Job has also been an inspiration for such diverse works of art and literature as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, William Blake's Inventions to the Book of Job, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and Archibald MacLeish's J.B.

Principal English Translations

The Book of Job, in the Wycliffe Bible (translator unknown) c. 1390

The Book of Job, in the Great Bible of 1539 (translated by Miles Coverdale) 1539

The Book of Job, in the "Authorized," or "King James"Bible (translated by a committee under the auspices of King James I) 1611

A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Book of Job: Together with a New Translation (translated by Samuel Rolles Driver and George Buchanan Gray) 1921

The Book of Job, in the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (translated by the International Council of Religious Education) 1952


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John Calvin (sermon date 1554-55?)

John Calvin (sermon date 1554-55?)

SOURCE: "Sermon 1: The Character of Job," in Sermons from Job, translated by Leroy Nixon, 1952. Reprint by W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 3-17.

[Calvin was an influential French theologian and Protestant reformer. Among his most famous writings is the Christianae Religionis Institutio, (1536; Institutes of the Christian Religion). Although primarily known as a theologian, Calvin was also a devoted preacher whose sermons were most often delivered extemporaneously, a fact which has prevented the preservation of his early sermons. In 1549, however, a group of his devotees hired Denis Reguenier as a...

(The entire section is 5973 words.)

Voltaire (essay date 1764)

Voltaire (essay date 1764)

SOURCE: "Job," in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, Volume III, translated by William F. Fleming, 1903. Reprint by The Lamb Publishing Company, 1910, pp. 314-19.

[A principal figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire promoted the highest ideals of the Age of Reason, particularly the ideal of faith in man's ability to perfect himself He was also a formidable satirist who was both feared and denigrated by the victims of his biting wit. Voltaire's works encompass diverse genres including drama, poetry, history, essays, literary criticism, political and social treatises, autobiography, and contesshort adventure tales. Also...

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Søren Kierkegaard (essay date 1843)

Søren Kierkegaard (essay date 1843)

SOURCE: "The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord," in Edifying Dis-courses, Volume II translated by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson, Augsburg Publishing House, 1944, pp. 7-26.

[Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and theologian who is widely regarded as the founder of Existentialist philosophy. He was primarily concerned with ethical questions as they were experienced by individuals, and he observed three possible approaches to life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. According to his thought, the religious path would allow the greatest freedom for the self but would...

(The entire section is 6485 words.)

Josiah Royce (essay date 1898)

Josiah Royce (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: "The Problem of Job" in Studies of Good and Evil: A Series of Essays upon Problems of Philosophy and of Life, D. Appleton and Company, 1898, pp. 1-28.

[Royce was an American philosopher whose writings encompass the fields of mathematical logic, psychology, metaphysics, religion, and social ethics. He is noted for developing an idealist philosophy emphasizing individuality and the human will rather than intellect. In the following excerpt from his essay "The Problem of Job" in Studies of Good and Evil (1898), he examines the problem of suffering as depicted in The Book of Job, employing the tenets of philosophical...

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A. B. Davidson and C. H. Toy (essay date 1911)

A. B. Davidson and C. H. Toy (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: "Job," in The Voice out of the Whirlwind: The Book of Job, edited by Ralph E. Hone, Chandler Publishing Company, Inc., 1960, pp. 87-103.

[Davidson was editor of The Book of Job for the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, and Toy was a distinguished American scholar of Hebrew. In the following essay, originally published as "Job" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1911), the authors outline the progression of events in The Book of Job, commenting: "Two threads…run through the bookone the discussion of the problem of evil between Job and his friends, and...

(The entire section is 7894 words.)

James Strahan (essay date 1913)

James Strahan (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Book of Job, T. & T. Clark, 1913, pp. 1-30.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to his critical study The Book of Job Interpreted, Strahan interprets The Book of Job as a visionary author's response to an era of change in Israel which called for clarification and strengthening of the nation's theology, theodicy, and morality, particularly in regard to the problem of human suffering.]

Pervaded by the thought and feeling of a period in some ways singularly resembling our own, the Book of Job is the most modern of all Hebrew writings, though some...

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Morris Jastrow, Jr. (essay date 1920)

Morris Jastrow, Jr. (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "The Folktale of Job and The Book of Job," in The Book of Job: Its Origin, Growth and Interpretation, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1920, pp. 25-63.

[In the following essay from his critical study and translation The Book of Job: Its Origin, Growth and Interpretation, Jastrow views the poetry section of The Book of Job as a philosophical discussion in which the traditional explanation for human suffering presented in the older folktale of Job is questioned.]

The ambition of the student of Biblical Literature to try his hand at an interpretation of the Book of Job appears to be as...

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Paul Weiss (essay date 1948)

Paul Weiss (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "God, Job, and Evil," in The Dimensions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Schocken Books Inc., 1969, pp. 181-93.

[Weiss was a leading American philosopher whose works include Nature and Man (1947), Man's Freedom (1950), Modes of Being (1958), The World of Art (1961), Art and Religion (1963), The Making of Men (1967), and Right and Wrong: A Philosophical Dialogue between Father and Son (1967). In the following essay, originally published in Commentary in 1948, he considers The Book of Job "one of the great works of literature, "...

(The entire section is 4851 words.)

Samuel Terrien (essay date 1957)

Samuel Terrien (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Fear and Fascination of Death," in Job: Poet of Existence, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1957, pp. 40-65.

[Terrien is a French-born American theologian, educator, and pastor whose writings include The Psalms and Their Meaning for Today (1952), Le Livre de Job: Commentaire (1963; The Book of Job: A Commentary), and The Elusive Presence: Prolegomenon to an Ecumenical Theory of the Bible (1978). In the following excerpt from his Job: Poet of Existence, he discusses Job's experience of despair and isolation in relation to the concept of death in The Book of Job.]

How does man...

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Richard B. Sewall (essay date 1959)

Richard B. Sewall (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "The Book of Job," in The Vision of Tragedy, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 9-24.

[Sewall is an American critic and educator whose critical study The Vision of Tragedy, originally published in 1959, was lauded by critics and declared an "academic bestseller. "In the following essay from that work, Sewall discusses the concept of tragedy in The Book of Job in relation to several works of fiction, concluding that Job may be considered a somewhat "dangerous" or rebellious work in the context of traditional Hebrew literature.]

We look at a work of literature and...

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Eugene Goodheart (essay date 1961)

Eugene Goodheart (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Job and the Modern World," in Judaism, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter, 1961, pp. 21-28.

[Goodheart is an American critic and educator. In the following essay he contrasts modern interpretations of Job's suffering in several fictional works with the original intent of TheBookof Job.]

Behind much of the modern literature of suffering is the greatest single work of the Bible, The Book of Job. We hear echoes of Job in books as different from one another as The Brothers Karamazov, Jude the Obscure and The Castle. If, however, we return to Job from a reading of...

(The entire section is 4464 words.)

Robert Gordis (essay date 1965)

Robert Gordis (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Lord out of the Whirlwind," in The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job, The University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 117-34.

[Gordis is an American rabbi, theologian, and editor who has written broadly on Jewish culture and theology. In the following essay he focuses on God's speeches in The Book of Job, examining various critical perspectives concerning their authenticity and form and emphasizing the importance of allusion in Hebrew literature.]

As Elihu's words end, a storm is seen rising in the east. The Lord himself appears in the whirlwind and addresses Job in two speeches, after each of which...

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Marvin H. Pope (essay date 1965)

Marvin H. Pope (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: An introduction to Job, translated by Marvin H. Pope, Doubleday & Company, 1965, pp. XVLXXXIV.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to The Anchor Bible: Job, Pope examines several points of critical debate surrounding The Book of Job: the question of textual integrity, the form and origin of the book, the place of the work in the literary canon, and the philosophical and educational intentions of the book's author(s).]

To summarize the contents of the Book of Job raises the question of its literary unity and integrity. The same issue is raised by the problem of...

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Northrop Frye (essay date 1981)

Northrop Frye (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Myth Two," in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982, pp. 169-98.

[A Canadian critic and editor, Frye is the author of the highly influential and controversial Anatomy of Criticism (1957), in which he argued that literary criticism can be scientific in its method and results, and that judgments are not inherent in the critical process. Believing that literature is wholly structured by myth and symbol, Frye views the critic's task as the explication of a work's archetypal characteristics. In the following essay from his critical study The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1981),...

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René Girard (essay date 1985)

René Girard (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Case of Job," in Job: The Victim of His People, translated by Yvonne Freccero, The Athlone Press, 1987, pp. 3-18.

[Girard is a French scholar whose critical studies include Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961; Deceit, Desire and the Novel), and La Violence et le sacré (1972; Violence and the Sacred). In the following excerpt from his critical study Job: The Victim of His People, originally published in 1985 as La route antique des hommes pervers, he examines the role of the community in Job's suffering.]

What do we know about the Book of...

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Moshe Greenberg (essay date 1987)

Moshe Greenberg (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Job," in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 283-303.

[An American professor of the Bible and of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures, Greenberg has published works that include The Religion of Israel (1963) and Introduction to Hebrew (1964). In the following essay he offers an analysis of The Book of Job, examining problems of inconsistency within the text and considering several possible interpretations of the work's meaning.]

The prophet Ezekiel mentions...

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Edwin M. Good (essay date 1990)

Edwin M. Good (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Is Job Religious for Nothing?" in In Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job, Stanford University Press, 1990, pp. 189-203.

[Good is a Cameroonian-born theologian whose writings include Irony in the Old Testament (1965) and Job and the Literary Task: A Response (1973). In the following essay he offers an analysis of the first section of The Book of Job.]

Perhaps Job 1-2 is a folktale. In some respects it reads like one: the "once upon a time" beginning, with its quick, deft encapsulation of the hero's circumstances and character, the formulaic structural points ("It was the day...

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Further Reading

Besserman, Lawrence L. The Legend of Job in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979, 177 p.

Traces the development of the legend of Job during the Middle Ages.

Bloom, Harold, ed. The Book of Job. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, 152 p.

Collection of critical essays on The Book of Job with an introduction by Bloom.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "The Book of Job." In Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts, edited by Edna Aizenberg, pp. 263-75. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.


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