The Book of Job

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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...

(This entire section contains 1518 words.)

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from other cultural traditions, including the wisdom literature of the Edomites, Egyptian Pessimism, and Babylonian Skepticism. According to modern scholars, the chief exegetical question surroundingThe 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