The book of Job (Job 1)

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The book of Job is anonymous. Jewish tradition states that it was written by Moses, but there is nothing in the book itself to suggest Mosaic authorship. Many scholars today wonder whether the work is unified or the product of multiple authors. It has a prose framework (Job 1-2, 42:7-17), within which is incorporated a series of lengthy, poetic speeches. The frame tells how Job’s sufferings began and how God finally vindicated him. However, many believe this outside “envelope” to be artificial and/or the Elihu speeches (Job 32-37) to have been added at a leter time.

On the other hand, Job makes little sense without the opening and closing sections. The idea that a single ancient text could not mix prose and poetry is false (see The Bulletin and Poetic accounts of the Battle of Kadesh under Judges 5). In addition, there is nothing about Elihu texts that requires us to consider them to be a later writer. We have no compelling reason to doubt that Job was the work of a single author.

Further, we have every reason to believe that the author – though not Job or his friends – were Israelite, based upon his use of the covenant name; Yahweh, for God. The story itself, however, is of much more ancient origin, most likely passed along by oral or written tradition. The author evidently made a deliberate effort to preserve the archaic, non-Israelite flavour of the language of Job and his friends.

Most interpreters consider the tenth century B.C. – the age of Solomon – to be the earliest possible date for Job. Indeed, the majority of scholars today consider the work to be post-exilic. However, a post-exilic date seems unlikely in light of other ancient Near Eastern texts of the same genre. A large number of “pessimistic” texts from the ancient world to one degree or another parallel the book of Job in that they engage the problem of suffering and the apparent indifference of heaven. These include texts from Mesopotamia (A Man and his God under Job 29 and The Babylonian Theodicy under Job 33) and Egypt (The desire for justice in the eloquent peasant under Jeremiah 21). These are very ancient documents: A Man and his God comes from the Old Babylonian period (early second millennium B.C.) and The eloquent peasant from the New Kingdom period (middle to late second millennium B.C.).

The period od Solomon was the high-water mark for Israel’s international contacts, wealth and concern for wisdom – a time when the intellectuals of Jerusalem would have had contact with ancient wisdom texts, including material focusing on the sufferer.

If the book was indeed written during the Solomonic period, Job’s earliest readers would have been both Israelite thinkers and righteous sufferers living in the united kingdom at that time.

Job sets up the problem of the righteous sufferer. The conventional answer people of Solomon’s day gave to the question of why people suffer is that they were being punished for their own sins or those of their forebears (cf. John 9), and this is the very answer Job’s friends proposed. But the reader knows from the outset that Job is suffering because he is righteous (Job 1). Thus, when Job rails against his pain and contends that he has not deserved it (e.g. Job 31), the early reader – who had insider knowledge from the prelude – recognized that he spoke the truth. Unable to fall back on the pat answers that were almost universally accepted at the time, readers were forced to wrestle with the question along with Job as they worked their way through the text to God’s final answer. The resultant new understanding of the meaning of suffering and the justice of God, contrary as it was to the conventional wisdom of the day, must have astonished them.

As you read, imagine yourself in the sandals of Job, lying prostrate on the ground in agony while your entire world rocks around you. Then envision your own believing friends approaching you, not with words of Biblical comfort, but with ominous warnings and pleas for you to examine your life for some terrible, encroaching sin. Would you, like Job, dare to protest, whether mildly or with vehemence? Bringing the issue closer to home, has anyone in your experience raised the question of sin or lack of faith when illness or reversal came your way? Try to envision yourself in direct conversation with your Maker. How would you have responded to God’s challenging words?

Did you know that the Hebrew word for “donkeys” is feminine in form? Donkeys that produced offspring were highly valued (1:3). Did you know that Job, like the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, functioned as a priest for his family? He took his sacrificial obligations seriously, making atonement even for sins of the heart (1:5). Did you know that Job’s friends adopted a drastic form of mourning, usually reserved for death or total disaster? They tore their robes of nobility, wailed and threw dust in the air – then sat in silence before Job for seven days and nights. To speak before the individual in mourning did so was considered bad taste (2:12-13). Did you know that the ancient Israelites, despite their limited knowledge of astronomy, were awed by the fact that God had created the constellations (9:9)? Did you know that most people of the ancient Near East believed that at death everyone went down to the netherworld, a dark, dreary place under the earth, ruled by various gods? People there were thought to endure a shadowy, sleepy existence from which there was no escape (10:21).Did you know that the Canaanite deity Mot (“Death”) was portrayed as having a devouring throat that reached from earth to sky (18:13-14)? The prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 25:8) reversed the figure, picturing God swallowing up death forever. Did you know that although Job was not an Israelite, he worshiped the one true God (Job 23:13)? Did you know that the Hebrew word behemoth means “beast par excellence” (40:15)?  It refers to a large land animal, possibly a dinosaur.


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