The Old Testament book of Job is among the group of writings known as the wisdom books. In ancient Israel people recognized wisdom writings as being different from other writings. Wisdom teachers were a category distinct from other religious guides and leaders.
Wisdom teachers did not teach the law as did the priests, nor bring revelations from God as did the prophets. Rather they looked at the practical affairs of life and, as those who feared God and knew his law, gave advice for living. Sometimes they gave common sense instruction based on their observations of the experiences of life in general. Other times they investigated the puzzles of life when the facts of experience seemed to contradict the generally accepted beliefs. The book of Proverbs gives an example of the former kind of teaching, the book of Job an example of the latter. (See also WISDOM LITERATURE.)
Understanding the book
There is no certainty concerning who wrote the book of Job or when it was written. The book takes its name from the chief person in the story. Job was a wealthy, intelligent, God-fearing man who lived in Uz, somewhere in the region east of Palestine. When a series of disasters ruined his prosperity, destroyed his family and struck him down with a terrible disease, his friends argued that his troubles must have resulted from his secret sins. Job denied this, even though it was the commonly held traditional belief. Job knew he was not perfect, but he also knew that the traditional belief did not explain everything. The long and bitter argument that followed takes up most of the book. The reader of the book, however, knows what neither Job nor his friends knew. Satan had made the accusation that people serve God only because of the benefits they can get from him. If, instead, they receive only hardship and suffering, they will curse him (Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5). God allowed disasters to fall upon Job to prove the genuineness of Job’s faith and at the same time enrich Job’s experience of God. Job’s sufferings were not a sign of God’s judgment on him, but proof of God’s confidence in him (Job 1:8; 2:3).
As the friends persisted with their unjust and cruel accusations, Job increasingly lost patience with them. Job’s frustration drove him to protest to God, whom he saw as his only hope. In making his protests, Job may have been guilty of rash language, but at least he took his protests to the right person (Job 7:11-21; 13:13-28; 14:13-17; 17:3-4). He was finally satisfied, not through having all his questions answered, but through meeting the God to whom he had cried. God is not answerable to Job or any other human being, and he gave Job no explanation of his sufferings. Yet Job was content. He realized now that the unseen God was in control of all events and his wisdom was perfect (Job 42:1-6). God then declared that the friends, in accusing Job of great sin, were wrong (Job 42:7). He also showed the error of the commonly held belief that suffering was always the result of personal sin. In addition he proved Satan to be wrong in his accusation that people worship God because of what they can get from him. Job had remained true to God even though he had lost everything. God now blessed Job with greater blessings than he had ever had before (Job 42:10).
Outline of contents
The book opens with a narrative section that recounts Satan’s challenge to God and his attack on Job (1:1-2:13). The remainder of the book, except for the closing narrative, is in poetry. It starts with a complaint from Job (3:1-26) and this begins a long debate between Job and his three friends. Eliphaz, the first of the friends to speak, states that Job’s suffering must be because of his sin. Therefore, if Job repents he will have good health and prosperity again (4:1-5:27). Job rejects Eliphaz’s accusations and complains to God about his unjust suffering (6:1-7:21). Bildad heartlessly reminds Job of his misfortunes, pointing out that they are a fitting punishment. He emphasizes that the traditional teaching is all-important (8:1-22). In his response, Job again complains to God about the injustice he suffers (9:1-10:22). Zophar, the shallowest thinker and most hot tempered of the three friends, then attacks Job (11:1-20), to which Job gives a lengthy and at times sarcastic reply (12:1-14:22).
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The second round of argument follows the same sequence as the first. Eliphaz speaks and Job replies (15:1-17:16), Bildad speaks and Job replies (18:1-19:29), then Zophar speaks and Job replies (20:1- 21:34). The third round begins in the same fashion, with Eliphaz speaking, followed by Job (22:1-24:25). Bildad speaks only briefly, followed by Job (25:1-26:14), but Zophar does not speak at all. Job therefore proceeds to give a summary of his position (27:1-31:40). A young man named Elihu, having listened to the debate in silence, now decides to speak. Angry that the friends have not convinced Job of his wrongdoing, Elihu claims he will answer Job with different arguments. But he adds little to what the other three have said (32:1-37:24). As a fierce storm breaks, God himself now speaks to Job. He reminds Job, through chapter after chapter, of his divine wisdom in controlling all things, and he challenges Job to take the place of the Almighty and govern the moral order of the universe (38:1-41:34). Job cannot accept God challenge; he realizes he has been conquered. At last he submits, and in doing so he finds peace (42:1-6). God then rebukes the friends and expresses his approval of Job (42:7-17).