By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Book of Job is one of the famous and yet one of the least understood books of the Old Testament. ‘The patience of Job’ and ‘Job’s comforters’ have become proverbial idioms which emerged from the book’s popularity and ubiquity; and yet how patient was Job, and who were his comforters?
The Book of Job is an important part of the Bible because it asks one of the most commonly asked questions: if God is good, how come he allows evil and suffering to exist in the world?
Let’s take a closer look at the Book of Job, one of the most misunderstood episodes in the whole of the Bible.
Book of Job: summary
The Book of Job is generally analysed as being divided into five sections. The first of these, the Prologue, which forms the first two chapters of the book, tell us of Job’s prosperity and success.
We are then told of the misfortunes visited upon him, following God’s conversation with Satan (who, in this book, is not synonymous with the Devil but is merely one of God’s minions). Satan suggests that, if Job lost all of his worldly possessions, he would cease to be a pious and godly man. God rises to the challenge and sets about afflicting job with a series of calamities.
Job lost his property, including all of his livestock; his ten children all perished; and his wife lost her sympathy for him. He was also afflicted with a terrible disease involving boils on the skin.
This first section of the book concludes with three of Job’s friends – the so-called ‘comforters of Job’ – arriving at Job’s house to console him for his losses.
The second section, the Dialogue, forms chapters 3-31 of the book: by far the most substantial part. In this dialogue, Job and his friends discuss his condition and his attitude towards God. Eliphaz leads the discussion, rebuking Job for some unconfessed sins, while Bildad emphasises God’s justice and Zophar points out that God acts in mysterious ways.
The third section, chapters 32-37, is partly given over to a new character, a man named Elihu. Elihu chastises Job for his outlook. Job also offers a concluding monologue, and there is a poem in praise of wisdom.
The fourth section focuses on God’s addresses to Job. In these speeches, God reminds Job that He, as the Lord God Yahweh, is more powerful than Job, a mere man. Job responds to God’s speeches.
The fifth and final section is known as the Epilogue; this informs us that Job went on to become prosperous and happy once again, and to live a long and fruitful life.
Book of Job: analysis
Job is a well-known figure in the Old Testament, and yet the Bible tells us little about him. We don’t know who his ancestors or parents were, and the (precious) few references made to him elsewhere in the Bible tend to refer to his legendary patience (see, for instance, James 5:11 in the New Testament).
We do know that Job lived in ‘Uz’, as the beginning of the Book of Job tells us as much. But precisely where Uz was, nobody can quite agree. It has been suggested that it’s in Aram (in modern-day Syria and Israel) or Edom (in modern-day Jordan and Israel), but nobody knows for sure.
So, we know little of Job besides what we learn of him in the Book of Job itself. But even there, the story is far less well-understood than it perhaps should be.
For a start, Job wasn’t anywhere near as patient as he is commonly assumed to have been. During the length dialogues and speeches which form the majority part of the book, Job is seen as impatient with his suffering, and far less pious and trusting in God than the general perception of him usually allows.
He is, after all, only human, and he has undergone a great number of afflictions and losses. It’s understandable that he should start to doubt the goodness of God in such circumstances. He recovers his faith at the end of the book, following God’s reminder of his all-powerfulness, but before this point he doesn’t exactly have the patience of a saint.
Another common misapprehension is highlighted by the Dictionary of the Bible. As the authors point out, the common interpretation of the meaning of the Book of Job is too narrow: rather than being a story about the suffering of the righteous, specifically, the book is about suffering in general: the setbacks and afflictions every human being must face at some point.
Job’s righteousness is relevant here, of course, but the dialogues are more wide-ranging than his individual situation. The book is about the universality, the unavoidableness, of human suffering.
As the authors of Dictionary of the Bible point out, Job’s ‘comforters’ or friends are there to represent the orthodox theological views of the time. And we cannot say that the book’s author (or rather, authors: the book was probably the work of several hands) entirely disagrees with this orthodoxy: there is much wisdom in their comments, and they are trying to help Job to understand why he might find himself in such a predicament.
There are some noteworthy details mentioned in the Book of Job: details we don’t find in any other book from the Bible. For instance, Job 9:9 makes reference to several constellations and stars in the night sky: Arcturus, Orion, and the Pleiades. And later, in chapter 38, God refers to Arcturus again, when reminding Job of His might when compared with Job’s mere mortal powers.
And it’s also in this connection that the Book of Job makes reference to what are probably the two most famous monsters referred to in the Bible: Behemoth and Leviathan. Job 40:14 sees God mention ‘behemoth’, which is simply the plural of the Hebrew word for ‘beast’.
Which beast or animal this verse specifically refers to has been the subject of some debate, with perhaps the most likely candidate being the hippopotamus (Job 40:21-22 makes it clear that this large animal lives by water).
Conversely, ‘leviathan’, which is referred to in Job 41:1, is clearly a water-dwelling creature, since God asks Job (rhetorically) whether Job, a mere man, could draw leviathan with a hook (that is, out of the water). Although ‘leviathan’ is usually interpreted as being a whale, Isaac Asimov points out in his Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament that the author of the Book of Job may well have been Egyptian, and that he may have had a Nile-dwelling animal, such as the crocodile, in mind.
We cannot say for sure when the Book of Job was composed, although the Dictionary of the Bible proffers a tentative date of 400 BC.