The Book of Job is the strangest book in the Hebrew Bible, primarily because it is not a book about the birth or genealogy of the Israelites. Rather, it is a fable whose moral lesson is less than satisfactory. It is a universal tale, written for all people and all times. The text raises difficult questions, and gives challenging answers concerning the divine nature of evil. In this way, Job is a fable.
Job, an upright man from the land of Uz, meaning “counsel” or “advice,” begins in a mythical land that has yet to be identified somewhere east of Jordan. He is identified as “blameless and upright and feared God (Elohim) and shunned evil” (1:1-2). He holds feasts with his sons and daughters, and he is always sure to consecrate their food with burnt offerings because he fears that his sons may have offended and cursed God in their hearts.
“And one day,” hasatan (translated as ‘the Adversary’ by Robert Alter) joins the “sons of God” in council. By the sons of God, the ancient writer references archaic Hittite mythology of a council of gods, an image that is echoed elsewhere in early Genesis, such as in Book VI. At any rate, when God asks where the Adversary has been, he replies he has been “roaming the earth and walking about in it” (1:7-8). Curiously, God asks the Adversary if he has paid heed to Job, because Job is unparalleled on the earth. Why does he mention Job to the Adversary? The Adversary, who apparently is familiar with Job, questions whether Job fears God for nothing and asks God to strike all of Job’s possessions to see if he will curse God. However, God does not perform the act himself, but rather He gives all of Job’s possessions into the hands of the Adversary.
The early framed narrative returns again to Job’s family eating and drinking wine, an act of safety and security, when a messenger announces to Job that the Sabeans killed the young men and took his cattle “and I alone escaped to tell you,” then a second messenger proclaims that fire from heaven fell and burned up all the sheep and men “and I alone escaped to tell you,” and a third messenger announces that the Chaldeans set out in three bands and killed the young men and stole the camels (he notably does not repeat the refrain of the others. Perhaps there are others who escaped?), finally a fourth messenger appears and informs Job that his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of his firstborn when a “great wind” came and struck the four corners of the house and killed them “and I alone escaped to tell you”(1:13-20). Two messengers reveal external attacks from other tribes, and two messengers reveal cataclysms from the chaos of the natural world, fire and wind. The phrase “and I alone escaped to tell you” is repeated three times and is most notably picked up by Herman Melville in his monumental 20th century novel, Moby Dick (however, Melville used the King James Translation).
In response to these tragedies upon his household, Job tears his clothes and shaves his head -a prohibition in ancient Israel and also a sign that Job is not an Israelite, but rather a universal believer of some kind.
In council, the Lord challenges the Adversary by noting that Job did not curse His name. The Adversary responds by inciting the hand of God to strike Job’s flesh and bones. The Lord allows it, but commands the Adversary to “preserve Job’s life” (2:7). Therefore, the Adversary strikes Job with a painful rash from his feet to his head. In response, Job’s wife says for Job to “curse God and die” but Job fires back that we cannot accept good things from God and curse Him for evil. Job, who was once the greatest man of the east, is now in ruins.
Three of his companions: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite come to grieve and comfort Job in silence for seven days and seven nights. (Chapter 3) After seven days and nights, Job finally speaks a terrible poem and curses the day he was born without light or joy. He calls on the “day-cursers” as mythical agents, or those ready to rouse the Leviathan (the primordial sea monster in ancient Canaanate mythology, tamed by the god of order) to hex his birthday. Job says the thing he feared most fell upon him. He was not quiet or still and trouble came (3:26). Job longs for peaceful non-existence.
Eliphaz reminds Job that he was once known as a person who delivered just blame, yet now he believes himself to be above reproof? His speech is not wise. Eliphaz then justifies himself by saying he searches after God. In chapter 6, Job responds by wishing for his own destruction because he has not committed any injustice. He chooses not to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as formulated in Shakespeare’s classic question. Job compares himself to Yamm, the Canaanite sea monster god also called Leviathan or Rahab, who is subdued by Baal, the weather god. The words: El, Shaddai, God, and the Lord are used interchangeably.
Bildad, like Eliphaz, reinforces the notion that God operates under a rubric of human justice. He tells Job that his children were all killed because they must have committed some act of injustice toward God. Job denies Bildad’s assertions. The existential language of the book is becoming more apparent, as Job compares his prayers to god as playing a lyre to a palm and he swallows his own spit (chapter 9). He asks why God has decided to convict him.
Zophar speaks in Chapter 11 attacking Job. He tells Job that he must have committed a crime so severe that God is generous not to have done worse to him. In turn, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar each speak twice more with futile responses from Job. Beginning in Chapter 26, Job gives a long confession of his own innocence. He longs for a trial that falls on deaf ears, much like shouting at the sky, as the natural world is cold and indifferent to the moral affairs of human beings.
An angry Elihu, previously unmentioned and thought to be a later interpolation, enters the conversation irate at Job’s interlocutors because they are unable to find blame with him. He notably tells Job, and his compatriots, that God “does not regard all the wise of heart” (37:24) and therefore God should be feared.
The voice of God appears through a “storm” or “whirlwind.” He accuses Job of speaking “words without knowledge” (38:2). The Lord asks him where Job was when God founded the earth and all things in it. He asks Job if he knows the laws of heaven, and “can fix their rule on earth” (38:33).
In chapter 40, Job responds to God by stating his own worthlessness. The Lord continues through chapter 41 by speaking of His power: how He created the beasts, like the behemoth, that dominates over the others. Job lies prostrate before the Lord, acknowledging that He can “do anything” (42:2), presumably God can even commit acts of evil. A significant theme running through the Book of Job is that of speech. The theologian, taking from the Book of Job, is instructed first and foremost to listen and not to speak. Words in times of suffering are unwise. Humans should be silent and obedient, and even then humans are not guaranteed favor in the eyes of the Lord. His whims are irrational, tempestuous, and unpredictable.
God asks Job’s four compatriots, to make sacrifices and then the Lord begins to show favor to Job. He gives Job seven sons and three daughters, and fourteen thousand sheep and six thousand camels and a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand she-asses. Job names his daughters Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eyeshade (Yemimah, Qetsi-yah, Qeren hapukh).
In concluding these notes, the problem of evil in the Book of Job is unsatisfactory (evil is synonymous with suffering). Has Job committed any evil? According God he has not. Neither has the Adversary. What have we learned from this fable? At the persuasion of the Adversary, the Lord is capable of allowing his most “upright” humans to suffer the worst tragedies -with the loss of family, property, and health. Yet, He still demands complete prostration to His wayward whims. It is not a comforting tale. God is willing to test his most faithful people, with little provocation. The problem of suffering, sometimes called “evil” in the modern sense, is that not only does God allow it to happen, but also He encourages suffering to test His most faithful. How true should we take this tale to be? The story takes place in the fabled land of Uz or “council,” the Book of Job is more of a moral lesson. It does not happen anywhere in particular, unlike other books of the Hebrew Bible.
What is the intention of the Book of Job? This is a difficult question. Perhaps the lesson is for humans to unceasingly remain in praise of God, even when things seem most difficult. God may bring great suffering upon a man, but He should still be praised. Worshipping God is not a guarantee of personal profit. However, on another level, it is a story about “council.” God relies on the counsel of the Adversary, and Job relies on the counsel of his compatriots, all of whom God shuns. When God confronts Job at the end, God accuses Job of “obscuring counsel without knowledge.” He goes on to boast of His creating the world. God reinforces the image of Job as an insignificant creature amidst a massive world. Anyone who would take counsel, should be sure that they have “knowledge” first, otherwise they risk offending God – perhaps this is a different kind of insecurity God feels than He had espoused in the Book of Genesis, wherein He strictly forbids humans from gaining knowledge. Job never falls into his compatriots’ traps, or if he does he still finds pleasure in the eyes of The Lord, however God falls prey to the Adversary, perhaps desiring to impress him with Job. Perhaps God’s vanity overcomes him. The Book of Job is an existential moral allegory that is, perhaps, most appropriate for modern humans to read and digest, however it is certainly disturbing and discomforting and it is troubling for latter theology to reconcile its Canaanite mythological origins with the Christian or even Islamic conception of God.
For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.