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Old Testament: Job

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Summary

Tomb of the Prophet Job, LebanonJob is presented as such a good man that God boasts about him in a conversation with Satan. Satan is then given permission to test how faithful Job would be if he had to endure loss, grief, and pain. Job's friends come to bring comfort to Job, but fail miserably. After an extended series of dialogues between Job and four friends, God speaks and Job's good fortunes return. Questions about why good people like Job suffer are left unanswered, but Job's relationship with God is renewed.

So What?

The problem of human suffering and God's involvement in the pain of the world is always with us. Efforts to find the cause of suffering often lead one (as Job and his counselors) to put the blame somewhere--on self, others, God, or Satan. The book of Job asks us to look beyond blame, accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and trust God for what we cannot see or control.

Where Do I Find It?

Job is the eighteenth book of the Old Testament. It follows Esther and immediately precedes Psalms.

Who Wrote It?

No one really knows who wrote the book of Job. No author is identified. There was likely more than one author.

When Was It Written?

The first two chapters read like some of the older narratives in Genesis or Samuel. Job is mentioned as a figure known to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 14:14, 20). Most of the book shows signs that it was written much later, at the time of exile or soon after. And the Elihu chapters could be still later.

What's It About?

Job is a good and pious man who suffers unbearable tragedies, and he and his friends try to figure out why such disasters should happen to him.

How Do I Read It?

Job mentions no historical dates or persons and takes place in a strange land. The book is not history, but a literally timeless story and a series of enduring dialogues that address theological questions that forever elude simple answers. Although the questions have profound pastoral implications, neither is the book primarily about immediate pastoral care. It is a long and complicated book that wrestles with serious theological issues. Job contains much repetition and some passages that are difficult to understand. Be sure to use a study Bible that will give you some help. Pay attention to who is speaking: Job, one of the counselors, Satan, God. Start with the prologue (chapters 1-2), then the first cycle of the dialogue (chapters 3-14), and then go to the God speeches (chapters 38-41).

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

I. Prologue (Job 1-2)
The prologue introduces the reader to Job, tells of two conversations between God and Satan in heaven, and recounts the tragedies that come to Job in two stages. Then three friends come to bring Job comfort.

II. Dialogues (Job 3-31)
Job laments and enters into dialogue with three friends.

A. Job's Lament (Job 3)
After a week of silence, Job opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth. He wishes he had never been born, but since it is too late to change that, he wants God to let him die.

B. The First Cycle of Speeches (Job 4-14)
Job's three friends take turns trying to interpret Job's suffering to him. After each speaks, Job answers by rejecting their theorizing about him.

C. The Second Cycle of Speeches (Job 15-21)
The tension between Job and his three friends grows as they become more condemning of Job, and he becomes more defensive. The question of whether or not wicked people will ever be punished now enters into their disagreements about God's justice.

D. The Third Cycle of Speeches (Job 22-27)
There is much repetition and even confusion about who is talking as the dialogues wind down. There is no speech by the third counselor, Zophar, in this cycle.

E. Wisdom Poem (Job 28)
This chapter seems to interrupt the flow of the book. It is uncertain who the speaker is--Job or one of his friends or the editor of the book. The main point (to be expressed more fully by God later in the book) is that human wisdom, though wonderful, is limited and only God can truly know wisdom.

F. Job's Final Monologue (Job 29-31)
Job had begun the conversation with his friends by opening with a lament (chapter 3). Now he concludes this section of the book with a closing monologue in which he longs for the "good old days," defends his innocence, and continues to wonder why so many terrible things happened to him, since he did not deserve them.

III. The Emergence of a Fourth Counselor Named Elihu (Job 32-37)
The dialogues are over and one would expect to move on to the God speeches in chapters 38-41. But the natural flow is broken by the speeches of a new, younger counselor named Elihu. Elihu speaks for six chapters with no response from Job. He refers to points made earlier by Job and the other three friends. There is some argument among scholars whether Elihu brings anything new to the discussion or whether he merely represents a later attempt to deal more helpfully with questions of suffering.

IV. God Speaks (Job 38-41)
After all these chapters of human effort to make sense out of Job's suffering, the reader hopes that God will finally clear it all up for Job, his friends, and latter day readers of the book. Is Job guilty or not? Why do innocent people suffer and the wicked escape untouched by calamity? God does not answer those questions but rather, in two speeches, assures that the created order is God's domain and that humans cannot know and do what only God can do; so, in the meantime, the best thing to do is to trust God to handle the unknown.

V. Conclusion and Epilogue (Job 42)
In verses 1-6, Job seems to accept his limitations and even to feel sorry that he has overreached in his effort to know what humans can never know. The exact interpretation of these verses is not entirely clear. The book ends with the epilogue (vv. 7-17), written in a narrative style similar to the prologue and usually regarded as a continuation of the basic story that set the structure for the present book of Job. Job receives back from God double what he had lost; for many readers, this seems too simplistic an answer to the hard questions that have been raised all the way through the book.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

There is no clear context for the writing of Job, though a strong case can be made for the period of Israel's exile in Babylon or the years immediately following. Questions about the meaning of suffering and God's participation in the tragedies of life are common throughout history, whether in the lives of individuals or, perhaps, in the experience of a whole community or nation. During and after the exile, God's people were forced to consider what went wrong in their unique relationship with God. Were the ancient promises of God's love and protection no longer valid? Whose fault was it that king and temple were destroyed and many sent into exile? The prophets and the history in Samuel and Kings had made a connection between the sins of the people and the terrible consequences. During the exile, many began to question the simplistic idea that all suffering is caused by the sin of the sufferer. Lament psalms and Ecclesiastes are other examples that raise hard questions about God's justice. Some people who are innocent, like Job, also suffer. The book of Job could well emerge from such a time of questioning.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Cause of suffering. After reading the entire book of Job, the reader may still wonder if the book gives any clear answer about the cause and meaning of suffering. Is the answer in the prologue, in the interpretations of the counselors, in the God speeches, in Job's humble submission at the end of the book, in Job's reward for staying strong throughout the ordeal? Or is the "answer" in the realization that from the human perspective there is no answer? Conclusions vary greatly from those who read Job and try to apply its lessons to their own life experiences.

The comforters. The dialogues between Job and his counselors could be used as a manual on "how not to comfort one who is in trouble." Though their intentions are good, they keep on blundering ahead with their heavy-handed interpretations of why Job is suffering, essentially looking for some sin (possibly unknown) that set these terrible tragedies in motion. Though their pastoral skills are certainly suspect, their theological answers have had lasting power and are still in prominent use today. Such answers need to be carefully reconsidered.

Difficult text. The Hebrew text for the book of Job is very difficult. There are many words that do not appear any place else in the Bible. When one reads Job with a study Bible, it is apparent that the translator is often unsure of the exact meaning of the words. One often encounters a footnote that says "the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain." The difficulties also become obvious when different translations are compared.

The Elihu section. Scholars have long wondered about the sudden appearance of Elihu in chapter 32. Up to this point in the book, there were only three friends. They were introduced at the end of chapter 2 and took turns talking to Job about his suffering. Elihu claims to be young and angry about the way the conversation has gone. He is going to step up and speak his mind because he cannot any longer sit back and witness the inability of the others to make good responses to some of Job's outrageous statements. Those who see Elihu as an original part of the book think that he helps prepare Job for his audience with God (chapters 38-41). The majority opinion is that Elihu was added to the book at a later time to make one more attempt to deal adequately with the hard questions about suffering and God's justice.

God's speeches. The book of Job leads up to the climax when God will finally speak and clarify the confusion among Job and his friends. Is Job guilty and deserving of his fate, as his friends believe, or has he been treated unjustly and is innocent? Unfortunately, God does not answer the questions raised by the dialogues. Job is not declared innocent, nor is he pronounced guilty. That question is ignored. Rather, God, in the first speech, makes clear that God alone is the one who can know and do everything, in contrast to human limitations. In a second speech, God makes clear that only God has power to control the Behemoth and Leviathan. If humans attempt to fight on their own against these horrible beasts, they will not have a chance. Over the years, there has been much conversation about the full meaning of these speeches. If this is the climactic moment in the book, then what is the meaning that we should take with us when we are confronted by tragedies that have no apparent meaning? Is God with us, even if we cannot understand everything? Most believers who have read Job have concluded that the answer is yes.

The legitimacy of lament. Job is often remembered as the patient one who endured all kinds of hardships with a stiff upper lip, not complaining about his situation. That may well fit the Job described in chapters 1 and 2. If one reads the rest of the book, beginning already with his painful lament in chapter 3, it is apparent that Job is no compliant victim who is willing to suffer in silence. The neglect of the defiant, complaining Job in our common thinking is typical of the avoidance of the lament tradition, a tradition that pervades the Bible. When in trouble, people complain and cry out to God for help. The image of the stoic sufferer is reinforced by a limited examination of the real Job.

The nature of God. The way God is presented to the reader of Job is problematic for many. In the prologue, God seems to be too willing to turn his faithful servant Job over to the hands of Satan. For many chapters God remains silent, even though Job begs for some word to clarify his situation. Has God found him guilty or not and, if not, why is he suffering? In the God speeches, God seems to intimidate Job with power and sarcasm. How do all these images of God harmonize both within the book and in the context of the whole Bible?

Permission given to Satan. The presence of Satan in the prologue raises many questions. This is one of only three appearances in the Old Testament of Satan as a heavenly figure. Why are God and Satan in such a cozy relationship? Why does not God address Satan at the end of the book (in the epilogue of 42:7-17) to taunt him for losing the bet that Job would curse God to his face?

The unity of the book. Was the book as we know it written at one time by the same author? Many have questioned the connection between the prologue/epilogue and the rest of the book. The style is narrative, rather than the poetry of the rest of the book. The language is different and the theology is inconsistent. Further, many believe that the Elihu section (chapters 32-37) is a later insertion into an existing book. A logical conclusion could be that there existed an old story about Job (represented by the prologue/epilogue) that was used by the author of the dialogues and God speeches. A third stage was the addition of Elihu.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Answers--helpful or hurtful. Job's friends come to Job with the intention of bringing comfort. In their effort to accomplish this, they think back to what they have been taught and try various ways to interpret the meaning of Job's suffering. The main answers they bring are that Job deserves his suffering, that all humans are sinners so even good people are not immune from suffering, and that God may use suffering to teach us something. All these are common answers, even in our day, to questions about suffering and may be helpful to some people. But they can be hurtful rather than helpful to others.

Creation. In the God speeches, God speaks proudly about the creation, interspersed with comments that humans cannot do what only God can do. Clearly the point being made is that "only God can make a tree." But there is also something revealing about a God who creates and sustains such a wonderful world.

Crisis of faith. Many have experienced a crisis of faith when terrible things happen to them or their loved ones. They ask how a good God could either cause or permit such things to occur. Since such disasters tend to deny that a good and just God is at work in the world, the sufferer may need God to act to restore the broken relationship.

Educational value of suffering. Perhaps suffering is intended to teach the sufferer, to bring one back to a proper sense of priorities, to provide warning that to continue such behavior may lead to even worse calamities. This is one common understanding of suffering in both Old and New Testaments. It gives a more positive view than to regard suffering only as punishment. Both Eliphaz (5:17-27) and Elihu (36:8-12) try to apply this answer to Job.

Evil. Satan in Job 1-2 is not the same as the devil in later Scriptures, though Satan does seem to want to stir up trouble. The Behemoth (chapter 40) and Leviathan (chapter 41) represent a common Old Testament way of personifying the presence of evil in the world. The sea and the monsters that live in the sea provide symbolic or mythic ways to identify the reality of evil at work in the world. Without God's help, we would be completely vulnerable in any encounter with such monsters.

God's constant presence. Many find comfort in the belief that God is present with them in their suffering. Job, however, reminds us that even assuring words of God's presence can have a negative effect. Job wishes that God would leave him alone, get off his back, and not be so preoccupied with the trivial sins of humanity (Job 7:16-21). Under the stress of great suffering, even a word intended as comfort can be turned upside down.

God's control of all that happens. Both Job and his counselors are certain that everything that happens, both good and bad, is the will of God. God has ultimate control, even when human beings (as in Job 1:13-15) are the ones who cause the suffering. To believe in God as the instigator of all that happens makes it more difficult to trust God when one is in the midst of a series of terrible events. It is a great theological dilemma to maintain that God is in control of all that happens and at the same time grant that humans often act in defiance of God's will. Finally, God's "control" in Job is not simplistic, but mysterious, hidden, and complex.

Hope. Is there any hope at the end of the book of Job? God has listened to Job and responded, though not to answer the questions that Job has asked. In the last few verses of the book, Job receives double what he has lost. Unfortunately, that is not the outcome that every sufferer can expect. People do not always have their hopes fulfilled in such a positive way. The greater hope may come simply in the reality of God's showing up to address Job, as Job implies in 42:5.

Human limits. Obviously, humans cannot control all the forces that can hurt them. Further, there is a limit to their understanding because only God knows wisdom. Sometimes humans act as if they can control what is beyond their capacity. At other times, they do not live up to the potential that they already have.

Life after death. Like most of the Old Testament, Job does not have a strong belief that there is a life for individuals after this life that we can see. Job's big problem with God's justice is that good people suffer in this life, wicked people prosper, and there is nothing after we die to make right what was an injustice in this life. In two places, Job seems temporarily to break through this skepticism. He sees the rebirth of a tree stump when watered and wonders why humans cannot be so revived (14:7-17). He hopes that a redeemer will vindicate his good name and that he will see it, even if he has already died (19:23-27).

Retribution. Throughout the Bible there is a strong connection between sin and suffering. Many biblical narratives (such as the downfall of the nation of Judah) point to the sin of the people as the reason for their trouble. Sinful behavior does have consequences, but, as shown in the book of Job, not all suffering should be understood as the result of the sufferer's sin.

Satan's role. Who is this Satan who appears in chapters 1-2? God allows Satan to hurt Job to prove a point. A large question for believers is to try to understand how God relates to hostile cosmic opposition, whether called Satan, evil spirits, the devil, or the ferocious beasts in Job 40-41. Christians live in hope that some day God will finally destroy all such representations of evil.

Sinful nature of all humans. Job is a tough problem for those who think of suffering as retribution for one's sins. Job is, obviously, a good man, and there are many worse sinners around. Eliphaz, in particular, solves this problem by declaring his low estimation of all humans (see 4:17-19 and 15:14-16). Since all are sinners, no one can claim to be innocent and immune from suffering as a consequence of sinful behavior. This idea does not explain why some suffer and others do not.

Speaking the truth. Job urges his friends to speak the truth about God and human sin. He is convinced that they are so desperate to defend God's good name that they are willing to tell lies about Job (13:1-12), thus making what looks like an injustice against Job into an example of God's justice. Pious words about God that gloss over the reality of earth's turmoil and pain are not helpful to the sufferer. Suppression of lament is all too common among religious folk.

Trust. The usual understanding of Job 42:1-6 is that Job now accepts his limits, turns away from his earlier angry statements about God, and puts his trust back on the one and only God. For many, in times of suffering, it is hard to continue to trust in a good, powerful, gracious God when there seems to be little evidence that God has heard and acted on one's behalf. Job's trust seems to be renewed when God addresses him directly.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

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