Article – The Book of Job

The Book of Job

by Dr. Josh Stewart

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Described as a unique spiritual drama and an epic journey of the human soul, the book of Job is one of the most celebrated classics ever written, and is deemed to be on par with Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Goethe’s Faust, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the major tragedies of Shakespeare. Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times,” while William Blake drew from its lines inspiration for his mystic art [Reichert, 1978: xiv]. Thomas Carlyle wrote: “I think there is nothing inscribed in the Bible of equal literary merit” [Timko 1998: 49].

At a glance, the work appears to be a fascinating story wherein a devoutly religious man named Job is left bereft following a progression of inexplicable calamities. To his friends the cause of such misfortune must surely lie in a contravention of divine law. Job vigorously denies this charge and appeals to God to vouchsafe his innocence. In acknowledging the validity of the claim, God restores Job to his former status within the community, doubles his wealth, and refutes the dogma of retributive justice espoused by the friends; human suffering is not necessarily a consequence of sin [cf. John 9:1-3].

The narrative explores the reasons as to why unjustified suffering [evil] prevails in a world governed by an omnibenevolent deity. Although not the first to ponder such matters, this dichotomy was vocalized by Liebniz with the term Theodicee [Huggard 1985: 127-8]. Previously, Epicurus had articulated a trilemma in response to the conundrum: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able, then he is not omnipotent. Is God able, but not willing, then he is malevolent. Is God both willing and able, then whence cometh evil? Is he neither willing nor able, then why call him God?” [Hume 2008: 186].

In Job, the mystery of evil is set out explicitly in terms of the relationship between God and humankind [Honkel 2006: 17-18]. The axioms of absolute justice which underpin God’s sovereign rule in the universe are held to be manifest in his beneficent provision for creation; therefore anything deemed unjust is considered evil. In western philosophy, eight major answers to the problem of evil appear, each of which is found in Job [Vicchio 2006: 3]. These responses are divided into two equal groups; those which look backward to discover the cause of innocent suffering [deontological]; those which look forward [teleological].

Looking to the past for answers, the deontological argument embraces four theories: individuals suffer because they or members of their family or clan, have done something wrong [retributive justice]; people have deliberately chosen to turn away from God by abusing the special gift of free will with which they have been endowed [cf. Ps 1]; unjustified suffering is a consequence of the original transgression by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [Gen 3:1 – 24], which imprinted in perpetuum on the human psyche a propensity to sin; finally, innocent people have unknowingly fallen victim to unseen malevolent forces.

A prime example of this last theory is to be found in the book of Job, where the Satan reminds God that Job’s exemplary moral conduct is merely a consequence of the hedge that has been placed around him [1:10]. Take away such safeguards taunts the Satan, and Job will blaspheme God to his face [1:11]. With the enclosure removed, the fortunes of Job are suddenly exposed to forces of evil in the form of human wrongdoing [1:15, 17], and natural disaster [1:16, 19]. Notwithstanding such trauma, Job remains steadfast in faith and thus disproves the Satan’s premise [1:20 -22].

The fourfold teleological paradigm argues thus: people have to experience evil in order to appreciate the good, without suffering there can be no happiness [contrast view]; secondly, the real reason for suffering is to test human beings to see if they are truly good [faith]; this is closely linked to the contention that the purpose of suffering is to make someone a better person [moral qualities view]; finally, there is the divine design principle, which says God had a specific plan in mind at the beginning of creation, whereby all suffering and evil would eventually be transformed for the better.

Along with the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Job belongs to a group of writings designated as wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, known colloquially as Tanakh [Torah • Neviim • Ketuvim]. Such material is a reflection of the aspiration among all early peoples of the orient to gather, preserve and express, usually in aphoristic style, the results of human experience as an aid toward understanding and solving the challenges of life. In Judaea, the movement concerned itself with questions of provenance and providence, health and happiness, wealth and wellbeing, good and evil, suffering and death, and ultimately life beyond the grave.

Certain features are characteristic of this literature. There is an absence of any reference to the sacred traditions, such as the patriarchal promises, Exodus, the revelation at Sinai, and the Abrahamitic covenant. It exhibits a certain international flair, a feature which is highlighted by the appearance of several non-Israelites like Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Moreover, by its explicit comparison of Solomon’s wisdom to that of the people of the East and Egypt [I Kings 4:29-34 [5:9-14)]. And furthermore, with the obvious influence of extrabiblical wisdom, for example, Proverbs 28: 51- 53 with the Instruction of Amenemope [MacKenzie 1992: 447].

Consistent with wisdom thinking, the book of Job was intended for all peoples throughout the ages, as is expressed in the call to wisdom: “Hear this, all ye peoples! Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, low and high, rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.” [Ps 49: 1-3]. In his selection of an ancient non-Israelite hero, his avoidance of the usual Israelite names for G-d, and his lack of allusion to any known historical events, the author of Job created a universal and timeless perspective [Honkel, 2006:11].


Brown, Raymond Edward; Fitzmyer, Joseph A.; Murphy, Roland E, eds. [1990]. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall.

Honkel, A. H. [2006]. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary Job [Gen. ed. Philip W. Comfort]. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Carol Stream, Illinois.

Hume, D. [2008]. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and the Natural History of Religion [ed. J.C.A. Gaskin]. Oxford World Classics. Oxford University Press.

G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil. Translated by E. M. Huggard. Lasalle, IL: Open Court, 1985, pp. 127-28.

Reichert, V. E. Cohen, A. ed. [1978]. Job Soncino Books of the Bible. Soncino Press • London

The Holy Bible [RSV] [1966]. Old and New Testaments • Catholic Edition. Thomas Nelson Publishers. London

Timko, M. [1998] Carlyle and Tennyson, MacMillan Press, London

Vicchio S. J. [2006]. The Image of the Biblical Job: A History. Vol 1: Job in the Ancient World. WIPF & Stock Publishers. Eugene, Oregon, USA.


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.