The Gods of Job

Job’s got some real problems. The book I mean, not the guy. He has problems, too, but that’s another story – the story, in fact.

You know that list of things you’d like to know about biblical literature before you actually try to read it? Things like author(s), date, and place? Well, we don’t know any of that.

And the translation…goodness gracious! There’s a very famous passage, Job 19:25-27, which reads in the AV as a resurrection text:

25 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: 26 And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: 27 Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.

Actually, everything after “I know that my redeemer/avenger/vindicator lives” is pretty much unintelligible. Although most students of Job take a stab at translating, at least one, Edwin M. Good, refuses to and does not use these verses in his reading (Good, Turns of the Tempest, p. 100-01).

However. A scary Hebrew text and a lack of good information to make critical decisions about the historical details, narrative, and theological affirmations have never stopped anyone. Quite the contrary; it leaves the field wide open! We likewise press on.


The Book of Job is usually classed as wisdom literature. This genre originally took its name from the repeated appearance of the noun “wisdom” and is a modern distinction. Most folks are more familiar with prophetic literature or the narratives of the Deuteronomistic History (DH), so some explanation is in order.

The wise are called sages. In wisdom literature, God is something of a sage. As the first sage, he created the world by means of wisdom (Pr 3:19):

By wisdom the Lord set the earth on its foundation
By discernment he established the heavens

In wisdom literature, the creation and the divine life are a solitary affair—no divine councils, just God and Wisdom. The fact that there is a heavenly court in the opening chapters of Job is very interesting. Those courtroom scenes are more common in prophetic narratives. Wisdom literature also doesn’t have much interest in temples, prophets, or prophecy.

Although God acquired Wisdom by finding (begetting?) her before creation (Pr 8:22-23), the sages felt they could acquire wisdom in three ways: (1) by learning from other sages; (2) by taking Wisdom herself as a guide; and (3) as a gift from God.

The proper attitude of a sage was “fear of the Lord.” When combined with the wisdom that had been distilled by generations of observing and testing, the sage who was properly taught was in a great position to enjoy the fruits of his discipline: honor, wealth, and health. As you will see, Job had all three of these, lost them, and then enjoyed their restoration.

General Storyline

Job is the greatest man of the East. God boasts about Job’s excellence in the heavenly court. The Satan provokes God by suggesting that Job’s behavior is so good only because God takes care of him. God allows the Satan to take everything except Job’s life. This leaves Job sitting on a dunghill scratching at his sores with a broken piece of pottery.

Three of Job’s friend arrive to comfort him: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These three wise men espouse a particular world-view sometimes called retributive theology. The bottom line of this approach is that you reap what you sow. Since Job is suffering, he must have sinned. In three cycles of increasingly heated dialogue, they urge Job to repent so that God will bless him again.

Job maintains his innocence, likewise in ever-stronger terms. He makes some pretty amazing accusations against God – God is not merciful, God is capricious, and divine injustice causes suffering. He also seeks someone to intervene and judge between God and himself. In the end, he challenges God to a legal showdown, invoking a deadly curse on himself should his innocence not be vindicated.

At this critical point in the narrative, a youngster named Elihu shows up. Youth is not usually a positive trait in the OT and this case is no exception. In four speeches, Elihu apparently appoints himself the arbiter Job desired, rehashes what has already been said, and decides for God.

Then God appears, speaking from the whirlwind. And despite what Job has said, he doesn’t die. Instead, God asks him a raft of what seem to be incomprehensible and pointless questions about topics such as birds, horses, stars, rain, the creation, and two mythical beasts, Leviathan and Behemoth. God never explains why Job was so tormented.

At the end of this interview, Job is satisfied and retracts his suit. God declares that while Job has not sinned, the three friends “have not spoken the truth about me, as did my servant Job.” Job’s fortune and family are restored and he offers intercessory sacrifice for his three friends.

Since the central question is what Job learns about God that convinces him to retract his suit, I think I’ll come at the text by way of looking at the various depictions of God. What about a God who ruins someone on a bet with the Satan? What do the three friends understand about God? What accusations by Job does God absorb and even affirm as truth? What might God be saying about himself in his two final speeches?

And of course, it’s not like I have actual, you know, answers to most of these questions…


Finally, here’s a very basic and rough structural outline of the Book of Job. I use ‘em like I use a map while driving, but your mileage may vary.

Introduction (1:1-5)

First interview between God and the Satan (1:6-22)
Second interview between God and the Satan (2:1-10b)

The three friends arrive (2:11-13)

Three cycles of dialogue (chaps 3-27)
……Job’s opening statement (chap. 3)

First dialogue cycle
……Eliphaz (chaps. 4-5)
……Job (chaps. 6-7)
……Bildad (chap. 8 )
……Job (chap. 9)
……Zophar (chap. 11)
……Job (chaps. 12-14)

Second dialogue cycle
……Eliphaz (chap. 15)
……Job (chaps. 16-17)
……Bildad (chap. 18)
……Job (chap. 19)
……Zophar (chap. 20)
……Job (chap. 21)

Third dialogue cycle
……Eliphaz (chap. 22)
……Job (chaps. 23-24)
……Bildad (chap. 25)
……Job (chap. 26)
……Zophar (does not speak in the 3rd round)
……Job (chap. 27)

Poem – Where is wisdom found? (chap. 28)

Job’s closing statement (chaps. 29-31)

Elihu’s four speeches (chaps. 32-37)

First interview between God and Job (38:1-40:5)
Second interview between God and Job (40:6-41:26)

Conclusion (chap. 42)

Now there’s not much to discuss in this post, although I’m quite willing to be corrected if you’ve more insight into Job. I picked it up seriously for the first time about a month ago and I’m slowly feeling my way through it. It’s a very amazing piece of work.

I am also interested in the strands of LDS thought that echo retribution theology. How about the BoM’s idea that good behavior is always rewarded by safety and peace, while bad behavior brings war and insecurity? And how about DC 130:20-21 – the idea that all blessings comes from obedience?

Hmmm…I don’t think Job would buy that one.

6 Replies to “The Gods of Job”

  1. Resurrection text indeed.

    When Job 19:26 is quoted in general conference to indicate a physical resurrection (in my flesh), the german-speaking LDS are reading their Luther bible and seeing the words “ohne mein Fleisch”.

  2. Retribution theory:

    My theory is that God is probably less involved in our day-to-day than many suspect. Much of our ‘reward’ is the result of our behavior – good or bad, without God being involved. He lets us know the behaviors that will in general bring good results, same with the bad. But there are no guarantees in the short term.

    Probably completely wrong.

  3. Ah, that’s good stuff, the idea of looking at the modern versions. I ought to take a look at the Vulgate, as well. I’ll bet the AV got some of its ideas from there…

    Eric, you are gonna love Job!

    Here’s my thought. I draw a distinction between my personal experiences with God and those I find in scripture, or other people’s testimonies, or whatever. I try never to compare them, and I never allow anyone else too, either.

    The truth of the matter is, there’s a whole range of idea in the OT/NT about how God interacts with us. Some have him caring about the fall of a sparrow. Others suggest a far more “hands-off” approach.

    So…when you hear folks, normally the theologically- or philosophically-inclined, get too dogmatic about what God is like or what he does, or whatever, you’ll also hear this quiet laughter in the distance. It’s probably just Mogget and David J., having a bit of gentle fun.

    I have wondered if God really does deal with everyone alike, or if it’s far more personalized. And of course, the other possibility is that God does deal with all of us alike, but because of our differences, we report different interactions.

    Anyway, it’s a fascinating line of inquiry. Tell me if you thoughts have changed or gotten more nuanced when we’re done with Job.

  4. I like the Book of Job, perhaps for the same reason I like the story of Abraham and Isaac: it’s unsettling. And I think it’s intended to be unsettling. I tend toward the Kierkegaardian approach that faith, by definition, entails a leap, an acceptance of something that defies logic and rationality. Here’s how Jim F. describes it at his T&S Sunday school lesson: “Job also teaches that we cannot judge God using our understanding of morality.” I think this is why the post-moderns are on to something, Levinas’s notion that truth is to be found in relationships (God is ultimately testing Job’s relational faith in Him) and Marion’s assertion in God Without Being that God’s love is more fundamental than his existence….

    I think analogous BOM story is Nephi slaying Laban—this too goes beyond what rational ethical philosophies would prescribe. But Nephi’s relationship with God (via the angel) transcends such theories. Which I think is very interesting and practical and relevant today—these are the most radically anti-dogmatic stories in scripture, and should be taken as a warning against the intellectual comforts of dogmaticism….

    Regarding D&C 130:21-22, Jacob posted something on this recently at New Cool Thang (sorry, I’m too lazy to find the link…). His point is that “the law” referred to in D&C v. 21 is the single law in v. 20, not a different law for each blessing we receive. The argument there regarding what what that law is. I think it’s what D&C 88:78 calls the “law of the gospel.” Regardless, I don’t think the blessing we receive is material prosperity in an obviously recognizable way. Even in the Book of Mormon, what does prosperity mean? I don’t think it’s obviously material, worldy blessings as we tend to think. Furthermore, to the extent that it does mean material blessedness, I don’t think it ever claims that this is a one-to-one correlation but rather a collective promise. Which follows the OT tradition of declaring Israel wicked collectively without denying individual righteousness (in fact, a few stories come to mind where individual wickedness was singled out as the reason for defeat—what’s that guy’s name in Joshua 2 or so I’m thinking of?).

  5. Thanks for the post. I love the story of Job, but when I think about it too long I get a little frightened:)

    Something that is interesting to me is that not only does Job suffer, but he points out that the wicked prosper. (Job 21:7-11) What kind of justice is that?

    When God and Job finally have their confrontation God basically says, “Who the hell do you think you are?” (I am sorry but Job’s God also swears sometimes) This event reminds me of Moses'(Moses 1:10) meeting with God. After that experience Moses says, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” Maybe Job came to the same conclusion?

    In a modern culture that views justice almost universally from the individuals perspective. Job can be a reminder that justice is not always about “me”.

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