In the month of October, 2021, the Revised Common Lectionary has four readings from the book of Job. Not only is the scroll of Job many sided, it has been approached, praised, and analyzed in a multitude of ways. As early as 1884, a prominent Old Testament scholar wrote,
The question, What is the purpose of the Book? has been answered in so many ways, that a judgment regarding it must be put forth with the greatest diffidence. Almost every theory that has been adopted has found itself in collision with one or more of the parts of which the book now consists, and has been able to maintain itself only by sacrificing these parts upon its altar. (A.B. Davidson, Job, The Cambridge Bible, Cambridge University Press, 1884, p. xxiii.)
I have a 5-foot shelf of books on Job, and that only scratches the surface. Nevertheless, here is my take on the scroll of Job.
NOTE: This essay is about how the Job scroll was composed (or compiled). It does not attend to the thought contained in it. A discussion of the arguments presented in the debates would be a long and complex process.
The Job Project:
How an Intellectual Symposium Enhanced a Pious Legend.
A few years ago I spent much of one summer reading and pondering the scroll of Job, and books about it. The outcome was this view of a group of ancient Israelite intellectuals (“sages”) who joined together in “the Job Project”!
The Basic Facts about the Job Scroll.
First, there are a few things that are givens. They must be dealt with in one way or another by anyone trying to explain and interpret this complex work.
1. Job was an old legendary figure of the non-Israelite past. Ezekiel (around 600 BCE) could assume that his educated audiences were familiar with the legendary figures of Noah, Daniel, and Job, renowned as righteous men of the past (Ezekiel and 20. “Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job, these three, were [here], they would save only their own lives by their righteousness…” Ezekiel 14:14.)
2. The Job scroll has a prose framework around a very large and complex body of poetry. (There is also a prose introduction to the extra figure Elihu.)
Prose: 1:1-2:13; 32:1-5; and 42:7-17.
Verse: 3:1-31:40; 32:6-42:6.
3. The early poetic portions are organized into “speeches” by Job and his friends who have come to console him:
· 3:1-21:34 – Two complete cycles in which Job speaks, each of his three friends speaks, and Job replies to each friend separately – a total of 13 speeches. (Each speech is marked by an opening rubric, such as “Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said…”)
· 22:1-27:23 – A third cycle begins but is not complete.
4. The last part of the scroll, still in poetry, is somewhat miscellaneous, with Yahweh’s speech(s) from the whirlwind as the climax.
· Chapter 28 is an independent speech about the elusiveness of Wisdom.
· Chapters 29-31 is a long self-defense by Job, quite different from his speeches in the debates with his friends.
· Chapters 32-37 are speeches by Elihu, an extra sage not otherwise mentioned in the scroll. (He knows, and sometimes corrects, the other speeches.)
· Chapters 38:1-41:34 give two long speeches by Yahweh from the whirlwind, with a couple of groveling responses from Job.
5. The poetry of Job is very literary and difficult. This is not popular, street-wise verse. These speeches assume very learned and acute audiences.
“Job is written in an extremely sophisticated, ‘learned’ Hebrew, with a higher proportion of words unique to itself than any other book of the Hebrew Bible.” Edwin M. Good, “Job,” Harper’s Bible Commentary, Harper & Row, 1988, p. 407.
6. There are two Jobs – the “patient Job” and the “angry Job.”
· The Job of the prose passages is the patient Job. At the end of his ordeal of testing by the Satan, when his wife invites him to “curse God and die,” Job says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” And the narrator says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job .)
· The angry Job appears with the first poetry in the scroll: “Let the day perish in which I was born…” (Job 3:3.) The Job who speaks in the long poetic debates with his “friends” is mostly the angry Job.
Relief Sculpture, at Wohl Rose Park, Jerusalem, Israel. Benno Elkan, 1877-1960.
1. The traditional story of Job (chapters 1-2, in prose) told only of the testing of Job’s faithfulness to God and ended with his second reply to disaster (). At that point the test is over. (A restoration sequel may have been popularly supplied sooner or later, 42:10-17, in prose, like chapters 1-2.)
2. A group of intellectuals -- the Symposium -- decided to make the traditional story the basis of a Project: What did Job REALLY say?
3. These were well-educated persons, accomplished speakers. They took turns presenting speeches to each other representing first, what Job said (a brilliant composition, chapter 3), then what the tradition-oriented friends said in reply.
4. Each speech was (is) self-contained, exhibiting the speaker’s skill (see their sophisticated poetic effects, which only their peers would appreciate).
5. Many speeches were developed but the “debate” (definitely not a “dialogue”) that gradually unfolded was never completed. Chapters 24-27 contain valuable pieces, not integrated into organized speech cycles but simply dictated in a miscellany to end the debate. 27:1-6 is definitely Job’s final avowal, whenever that would have come in the debate.
6. Chapter 28 is a self-contained unit (with no speaker identified, i.e., no rubric), not related to the debate. Chapters 29-31 make up the most organized speech attributed to Job, but it is not in debate form! It is, rather, a full-fledged apologia (argument for the defense, a very elaborate “lament” speech: How great my lot used to be - chapter 29; How miserable things are now - chapter 30; yet I am innocent!! - chapter 31.
7. After the Symposium had been going on a while, the challenge of whether to attempt a divine reply to Job was considered, and finally ventured on at least twice (38-39 and 40:6-41:34 [41:26 in the Hebrew text], with each of these perhaps made up of several attempts).
8. When the Symposium had ceased as an active group, someone undertook to collect and record the speeches in a substantial scroll. They were organized by rubrics into the “speeches” in the current Masoretic Text. The various accommodations to popular piety at the end (see below) were probably composed at this written stage of the Project. After all, it was now addressed to a public, not just the wise persons who had tested themselves by the original challenge of Job’s disastrous fate.
9. The Elihu speeches (chapters 32-37) were compositions of a later member of the Symposium, after it was dissolved (or dissolving). The speaker (whose work is imitative) demonstrated his skills and made explicit references to the earlier speeches, though there are no verbatim quotations, making it unlikely that any written texts were yet available for “Elihu” to read.
10. The “replies” of Job, 40:1-5 and 42:1-6, still in the poetic materials, were added when the Scroll of Job was composed for public consumption. They turn Job into a baffled and groveling repentant (which is, of course, supposed to magnify the grandeur of Yahweh’s “answer(s)” in chapters 38-41).
The LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.... Job shall pray for you [and] I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly;..." (Job 42:7-8).
The "Greatness" of Job.
"The book of Job is the greatest work of Hebrew literature that has come down to us, and one of the great poetical works of the world's literature." George Foot Moore (quoted in Job, Victor E. Reichert, Soncino, 1946, p. xiii.)
"There is nothing written...in the Bible or out of it of equal merit." (Thomas Carlyle, quoted in Ibid.)
In what does this greatness consist?
Here is one answer, in a volume that presents several modern appraisals of Job (paragraphing added).
The manifold influence of Job on theology, philosophy, art, and literature derives not only from its literary excellence but also from its distinctive Jewish perspective on perennial features of the human predicament: the relation of good to evil, the nature of God, the character of justice, and the enigma of suffering.
The book's profundity does not arise, however, from "solving" these problems of existence. On the contrary, it does not hesitate to leave the reader with painful questions about suffering or calamity; it challenges simplistic appeals to moral order in history; it enmeshes human responsibility in fate or destiny, but without absolving the human of responsibility.
From antiquity to the present, therefore, the book of Job has been a fascination, often a problem, occasionally a scandal and a danger.
(The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, eds. Leo G. Perdue and W. Clark Gilpin, Abingdon Press, 1992, p. 11.)
It is also true that one of the great affirmations of faith (and a profound aria) is quoted from Job,
"I know that my Redeemer lives..." (19:25, NRSV),
though the context in Job is not as hopeful as later believers take it.
About Job Reading
· For over 2200 years literate people read Job in manuscripts as “scripture,” as written words with divine messages to later generations. After about 1500 CE, European people read Job as something printed. The mental and esthetic associations of the printed page wholly dominated the way people thought of Job in the Jewish and Christian scriptures during the last five centuries.
· The heritage of this written/printed reception of Job was the concept of “the Job Poet” (a very “natural” concept to European interpreters). Ironically, both traditionalists, who want the book to be unitary and inspired, as well as highly critical scholars, who see several different sources combined in the final “book” of Job -- all of these have spoken of “the Poet” or “the original Poet.” There was a single, unitary mind / plan behind the whole "original" work. This “original” work of the poet, of course, is some selection of materials from the five major parts of the Scroll; other parts to be explained as additions of various kinds.
· Recent commentators on Job, since about the 1970s, have produced a curious coalescence of traditional and postmodern interests that reads the Job Scroll as a single united work; traditionalists because they want a unified and consistent (inspired) perspective presented by a single author. Postmodernists because ... well, the finished “book” is what we have before us and we might as well make the best of it. Besides, any “historical analysis” would privilege some parts of the Scroll against other parts, introducing modern biases. Never mind that the “poet” ceases to be a credible composer in the process.
Along the way, I found a few quotes that encouraged my reading:
“Within the general form of a debate by means of long addresses, the poem contains poetic pieces that may be regarded as independent compositions.” Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, Harper Bros., 1948, p. 685.
"[The debate] itself is far from homogeneous, in either language or thought. It is a collection of diverse materials, with a variety of styles and a wealth of ideas in which there is often a clash of opinion." (Francis L. Anderson, Job, "Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries," Inter-Varsity Press, 1976, p. 45.)"The debate between Job and his three friends has a highly literary form, not resembling an informal debate in which there would be interruptions and shorter speeches. It is formal, allowing each of the speakers to finish before another responds.... Snaith well observed... 'Job is scarcely a dialogue... The content of each speech is usually strangely independent of what has gone before and what follows.' " (Tremper Longman III, Job, Baker Academic, 2012, p. 55, italics added.)
[This last sentence, in italics, is one of the most important statements about the literary character of the poetic Job in all of Job criticism.]