3rd Article in a Series on “The Book of Job and Reconciling Science and Religion”

About the Author:  Dr. Josh Stewart
As part of his academic training, Dr Stewart did an MA in Intertestamental Studies at University College London. The interwoven themes of the degree have since been developed and refined and nowadays provide an ideal grounding for current research into the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, especially the Book of Job. Dr Stewart is of the opinion that Job provides a unique insight into the conundrum of reconciling the trials and tribulations of human existence within the framework of spiritual aspiration. He argues that the epiphany of Job reveals a creative principle, the sole domain of God, which governs the material universe. It makes Job realize that he can only stand in awe of such power and majesty, whilst at the same time acknowledging the frailty of all human knowledge. Be that as it may, the epilogue concludes with God validating Job’s quest for understanding and thus implies that humanity is justified in exploring all possibilities.


The Book of Job as an Ancient Near Eastern Text

A consideration of the Book of Job within the cultural milieu of Ancient Near Eastern Texts [ANET]1


I survived the following year – the appointed time passed

As I turned around it was more and more terrible

My ill-luck was on the increase

I found no good fortune


I called to my god but he did not show his face

My goddess – but she did not raise her head


The diviner with his inspection did not get to the bottom of it

 Nor did the dream priest with his incense clear my case


                                             Ludlul bēl nēmeqi – “I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”                                                        

“The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” or “The Babylonian Job.”2 



The Book of Job provides a thought provoking reflection on the subject of unjustified suffering, but in this it does not stand alone. The people of the ancient Near East were quite concerned with disorder and the issue of human anguish, and thus when life went awry the challenge was to understand why this had happened. Many texts from this region treat of such themes and by doing so they parallel  Job, sometimes in structure and other times in thematic development. Several of these scripts are now compared and contrasted within the overall context of extant wisdom literature.

Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature [Israel – Egypt]

Book of Proverbs – Instruction of Amenemope3

Israelite Wisdom literature has many parallels to other works of the same genre. The prime example is the similarity in subject matter and language between that of Proverbs 22: 17- 24:22 and the Egyptian “Instruction of Amenemope.” In places the verbal identity indicates that one of the texts, more likely the latter, directly influenced the other.


The Instruction of Amenemope is a literary work composed during the Ramesside Period [c. 1300–1075 BCE], which contains thirty chapters of advice for successful living; ostensibly written by the scribe Amenemope son of Kanakht as a legacy for his son. A characteristic product of the New Kingdom “Age of Personal Piety”, the work reflects on the inner qualities, attitudes, and behaviours required for a happy life in the face of increasingly difficult social and economic circumstances.

Comment: It is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of ancient near- eastern wisdom literature, in part due to its relationship to the Book of Proverbs.

Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature [Egypt]

The Story of the Eloquent Peasant 4

Based on one of the major literary texts surviving from the Middle Kingdom Period [c. 2160 – 2025 BCE], the classical era of Egyptian literature, The Eloquent Peasant is a combined morality cum folk tale and poem.

When the peasant Khun-anup and his donkey stumble upon the lands of the noble Rensi, his goods are confiscated and he is unjustly accused of theft by Nemtynakht [Rensi’s overseer]. The worker petitions Rensi who is so taken by the man’s eloquence that he reports his astonishing discovery to the king. The king realises the rustic has been wronged but delays judgement so as to hear more of such eloquence. The provincial makes a total of nine petitions until finally his goods are returned.

The format is similar to Job in that it consists of nine semi-poetic speeches set between a prose prologue and epilogue. It has come down from ancient Egypt by way of four different and incomplete documents – manuscript as well as ostrica.  The greatest point of contact between these two works is their use of long speeches in the mouth of an offended party to discuss the issue of true justice.

Comment: Job’s cries of injustice are aimed at G-d, not a local official [Nemtynakht].

Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature [Egypt]

A Dispute Over Suicide5

A Dispute between man and his Ba or The Debate between a man and his Soul addresses the issue of despair caused by hard circumstances. Weary and disillusioned with life and considering death to be the escape from the troubles of life, the hero discusses his desire for death with his soul [ba]. Fearful that his soul might not accompany him in death if he should take his own life by casting himself in the fire, he pleads with his soul to stay beside him. During his search this person, like Job, wishes that the gods would come to his defence:

“Pleasant would be the defence of a god for the secrets of my body.”6

The soul tries to dissuade him from committing suicide by beckoning him to forget his troubles in the pursuit of pleasure. But he waxes eloquent in rebuttal of his soul’s advice. At last the soul agrees to stay with him in life or death.

Even though in his darkest hour Job too contemplates death as an escape from his pain,7 he overcomes that despair, for he never idealizes life in Sheol as sharing with the gods. Job finds greater meaning in life than does his Egyptian counterpart, and his view of G-d prevents him from actually contemplating suicide.

The Dispute is an ancient text from the second half of the third millennium B.C.E. The beginning of the text is missing, there are a number of lacunae, and translation of the remainder is difficult. The only copy to survive, consisting of 155 columns of hieratic writing, is on the recto of Papyrus Berlin 3024.

Comment: In the Egyptian work the troubled man’s speech may be considered a soliloquy, whereas Job’s speeches are mainly addressed to specific parties.

Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature [Mesopotamia]

The Babylonian Job8

The most famous parallel to the book of Job is entitled Ludlul bēl nēmeqi – “I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”  and is known as “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” or “The Babylonian Job”.

This work is a Mesopotamian poem written in Akkadian that concerns itself with the afflictions of Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan .A man of high rank, he is suddenly and unexpectedly reduced to dreadful suffering and laments his malady in gruesome detail. Since he knows of no sin in his life, he searches for some remedy to his plight through the arts of divination, but to no avail. Unlike Job, he does not rebuke or condemn his god. For a year his disease stubbornly resists every effort of the diviners to bring about healing. Meanwhile the sufferer pursues his lament, believing that the gods will show him favour someday. At last he has three dreams in which Marduk, the chief god, sends messengers to perform rites of exorcism to bring about his healing. In gratefulness, he concludes with a long hymn of praise to Marduk.

Babylonian Job Recreation [resin half cast, about 5 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches]. A Babylonian poem of the righteous sufferer and his final restoration of his fortunes. Found in the palace of neo-Assyrian King Assurbanipal in Nineveh. Ludlul bel nemeqi became known as the Babylonian Job

The poem was written on four tablets in its canonical form and consisted of 480 lines.

*NB. Tabu-utul-Bel, aged 52, an official of the city of Nippur is named elsewhere as the afflicted man.9

Comment: Like Job, Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan laments his illness, is troubled by the lack of response from the divine realm, and acknowledges the human limitation, but unlike Job he shies away from the problem of theodicy.

Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature [Mesopotamia]

The Babylonian Theodicy10

Similarities to Job are also found with an Akkadian work known as “The Babylonian Theodicy” or “A Dialogue about Human Misery” [c. 1,000 B C E]. The work contains twenty-seven strophes arranged acrostically. A sufferer, Shaggil-kinam-ubbib – “May Esagil {Marduk’s temple} declare the righteous pure” – dialogues with a friend about divine justice and human misery. In the strophes the hero and the friend exchange ideas. Presenting his tale of woe, the sufferer, an orphan, complains that he has endured trouble from his youth, even though he has sought the help of the gods. The friend answers that people are prone to evil, and he accuses the sufferer of intending in his mind to break the ordinances of the god; hence the misfortune.

Sufferer: I sought signs across the earth, but nothing made sense…

Friend: Because you disrespect the gods in your angry heart…

The Babylonian Theodicy, Lines 243 – 297

In each stanza [the sections divided by lines], the leftmost sign is the same.  Over the course of the poem, these signs spell out an acrostic message: “I am Saggil-kīnam-ubbib the priest, devotee of god and king.”

In the last preserved strophe the sufferer pleads for understanding from his friend and for mercy from Ninurta, Ishtar, and the king. The ending is abrupt, and in this it could be assumed that the gods have answered the sufferer’s petition by restoring his health.

Comment: Though the dialogue is only between two parties and their speeches are shorter than those in Job, this text may have influenced the format of the book of Job. It should be noted, the nature of the hero’s suffering and his approach to its solution differs extensively from those found in the book of Job.

Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature

Ugaritic Poem11

An Akkadian text similar to “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” – Ludlul bēl nēmeqi – was discovered at Ugarit [Ras Shamra in northern Syria]. This sufferer, like Job, can find no answer to his plight from the divine realm. His next of kin console him by imploring him to yield to his fate. They even pour oil over him as though his death were certain. But the afflicted one expects Marduk to restore him. Lying awake at night, tormented by dreams of death, he continues to lament. Amid his lamenting he turns to praising Marduk, the very god who is angry with him. He affirms that the god who has cast him down is the very god who will raise him up, because the severity of his affliction testifies to the mercy of his god. Here the text breaks off. This picture is similar to the popular understanding of Job, the righteous sufferer who praise the very G-d who afflicted him. But this sufferer takes an approach far different from Job’s pursuit of litigation with G-d.

Ruins of Ugarit at Ras Shamra

That this text was found at Ras Shamra – deemed to have been destroyed c. 1200 BCE – suggests the theme of the just sufferer was known very early in Canaanite culture and such texts may have been available to the author of Job, no matter where he lived.

Comment: the uniqueness of the book of Job is evident when it is compared to the other works described. The author expanded the dialogue from two to four speakers, and seemed able to join the cultic and wisdom traditions. He preserved the full pathos of the lament, yet incorporated lines from the hymnic tradition to create an element of grandeur without parallel elsewhere.



1ANET, J. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969

2ANET, pp. 434 – 37; W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, [Oxford: Clarendon, 1960]. pp. 21-62 and 282 to 302

3ANET, pp. 421 -24; W. K. Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt, rev. ed. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973], pp. 241-65

 4ANET, pp. 407 -10; Simpson, pp. 31-49

5ANET, pp. 405 – 407; Simpson, pp. 201-209

6ANET, p. 405 – Translation: John A. Wilson

7Job 3; 6: 8 -13

8ANET, pp. 434 – 37; W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, [Oxford: Clarendon, 1960]. pp. 21-62*

9Joshua J. Mark, The Ludlul-Bel-Nemeqi – Not Merely a Babylonian Job [Ancient History Encyclopaedia: article 06 March 2011]

10ANET, pp. 438 -40; Lambert, pp. 63-91.

11J. Nougayrol, Ugaritica V [Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1968] pp. 264 – 73

*NB. The first [but now outdated] edition of the poem – Ludlul bēl nēmeqi  – was published by W. G. Lambert in 1960 [reprinted in 1996].  Amar Annus and Alan Lenzi have now prepared a new edition of the poem for the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project. This volume was published as State Archive of Assyria Cuneiform Text 7 [SAACT 7]. The new edition includes tablets published by Wiseman, Horowitz and Lambert, George and Al-Rawi, and several other unpublished tablets from the British Museum.