Job is a fictional story dealing with theodicy—God’s justice in light of human suffering. The book is forty-two chapters long and is framed by a prologue (chapters 1-2) and an epilogue (42:7-14). Between these bookends is a lengthy series of dialogues between Job and his friends followed by a dialogue between Yahweh and Job. The prologue and epilogue are written in a narrative style and the dialogues in poetic style.
Curiously, Job is from the landof Uz, which is east of the Jordan River, outside of Israel. Yet, somehow he knows God and calls God by his God’s covenantal name Yahweh. It is not clear whether Job is an Israelite or God-fearing Gentile. If the former, the book is a picture of Israelite suffering. Some interpreters have even thought that Job represents Israel suffering in exile, waiting to be brought back and blessed by God (compare, for example, Job 42:10 and Isaiah 40:1-2). If the latter, the book of Job represents anyone grappling with God’s justice amid suffering. This interpretation fits well with the fact that there were several stories similar to Job circulating in the ancient world (Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian) in a time preceding Job. Job has a transnational feel to it even though is it thoroughly couched in Israelite language and conceptions of God.
The book begins with Job, a God-fearing man, enjoying God’s blessings. Then at a meeting of the “sons of God,” one referred to as “the accuser” challenges God that Job is only God-fearing because he is blessed. Take away his blessings, says the accuser, and then see what kind of man Job is. The challenge, in other words, is to see whether Job worships God because he simply loves God, or whether he worships God because of what he gets from God.
Some English versions translate “sons of God” as angels, but this is almost certainly wrong. Job 1-2 pictures a divine assembly, where Yahweh, the high God, presides of the divine council. “The accuser” is often translated “satan,” as if it is a personal name. But Satan, as he has come to be understood in Christian tradition, is not a character in the book of Job. He is a member of the divine council, with easy access to the assembly, who plays the role of prosecutor.
God allows the test to proceed—which is a fact Job never once learns of, but which drives the drama of the entire book. “Why is God doing this to me?” is actually Job’s question. Job loses everything and is undone. Still, he does not sin against God with his mouth. He knows his misfortune is not a result of his disobedience to God, but he is searching to understand why.
At this point, Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar enter the scene (and they are later joined by a fourth friend, Elihu). Chapters 3 to 37 consist of a series of (very repetitive) dialogues where Job’s friends insist that there must be some sin in Job that accounts for his misery. There is good Old Testament precedent for this sort of thinking, leading us to see that this does not mean that Job’s friends were callous. For example, Deuteronomy 27-29 gives a list of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Likewise, Proverbs connects proper behavior with good outcomes. Job’s friends reason that, since Job is suffering, there must be a cause. One can hardly expect them to draw any other conclusion. They are not “bad” friends! Their mistake was in thinking that God always works “by the book.” But they, like Job, are not part of the divine council. They do not know what God is doing, so they should not presume to speak for him—even if they are being “biblical” in doing so.
As the book of Job unfolds, it becomes clear that Job has not done anything to deserve his suffering, and he insists on it throughout the dialogues. Once God enters the dialogue, the reader is hopeful that the dilemma will be solved. All will be revealed; Job will be let in on the test that the readers have known about all along. But such is not the case. God’s argument to Job, from chapters 38-41, amounts to this: “Your place, Job, is not to understand what I do. You are a man, and I am the creator.” Job repents (42:1-6). He has spoken of things he does not understand. He despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. The book concludes with Job’s friends repenting, offering sacrifices for their words, and Job praying on their behalf. Job is then given back double what he had previously had and lives a long life thereafter.
Readers might be interested in the references to Behemoth and Leviathan in 40:15-24 and 41:1-34. These creatures are not hippopotamuses or crocodiles, and certainly not dinosaurs! They are primeval mythical figures. In Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions, the sea-deity was associated with chaos, and it was the job of the high god to defeat chaos and bring order to the cosmos. Leviathan is this goddess’s name in Canaanite religion, and in Mesopotamian religion it is Tiamat. These creatures are portrayed as sea-monsters. In Job, the behemoth is “the first of God’s creations” but outside of the Bible, it was likely another form of the sea-monster. In the book of Job, Yahweh has complete control over those creatures.
– Peter Enns