Job is an unusual book. For starters, most Christians have known the story since Sunday school, but hardly any of them know much about most of the book. They know the narrative of the first 2 chapters and the last chapter, and they know generally about God’s speech to Job that is the climax of the book in chapters 38-41, but pretty much all the rest of it—the extended conversation among Job, his three friends, and a young observer named Elihu—are essentially “flyover country.” If you asked most lifelong readers of the Bible to summarize the speeches of Eliphaz as distinguished from those of Zophar, not only could they not do it, but they might not even recognize the names. We’ve missed a lot.
I’d like to comment about a couple of issues connected with reading and understanding the book better.
First is the question of genre. Is it history or fiction? Since we read literature differently depending on its genre, the question matters.
The first thing we notice is that the story seems to stand apart from the historical metanarrative that makes up the rest of Scripture. No one knows where the “land of Uz” (Job 1.1) is; though the place name is mentioned in connection with the Philistines (Jer 25.20) and with Edom (Lam 4.21), no one is even sure that the latter two are the same location as the one mentioned in Job. The word does appear as a personal name in the Israelite genealogies (Gen 10.23; 36.28; 1Chr 1.17, 42), but there’s nothing in all of that information that lets us put Job anywhere certain.
There’s also no reference in the book to any of the patriarchs; the long conversation makes no reference to Noah or Abraham or Moses or David or anybody else that sounds familiar. There’s no unambiguous reference to the Law (Job 22.22?), or to God’s Word in the written sense (cf Job 6.10; 23.12; 42.7).
Job is mentioned by other biblical writers (Ezek 14.14, 20; James 5.11 [Gen 46.13 probably names a different person]). Ezekiel mentions him alongside Noah and Daniel (though there’s an interpretational argument over whether the Daniel here is the same as in the biblical book), both of whom I take to be historical characters, and that to imply that Job is as well.
James alludes to him in a way that implies he’s talking about the character in the book of Job. Does this prove that the story is true? Well, Jesus told fiction stories to teach moral lessons—we call them parables—but they don’t use personal names. (I don’t think his story of Lazarus and the rich man is a parable.) OT writers, including Job himself, refer to a fictional character named Rahab (Job 9.13; Ps 87.4; 89.10; Isa 51.9), common in ancient Near Eastern mythology (and not the prostitute from Jericho). So it’s not impossible that James is using a fictional character to teach a moral lesson.
Some scholars argue that the extended poetic conversation is not likely to have happened extemporaneously—who talks like that, anyway? But we should note that while you and I don’t typically make up poetry on the fly, the poetry of that culture was different in ways that might make poetry extempore possible. Most significantly, their poetry doesn’t have rhyme or meter, which is much of what makes poetry hard for us. They “rhyme” concepts rather than words (e.g. Ps 1.5-6; Ps 24.1-2). And further, there’s no reason to think that the characters in Job couldn’t have taken a few minutes to sketch out their thoughts before they spoke, even perhaps taking notes (in the dirt? on a clay tablet?) while another was speaking, debate-style.
So while the situation is mildly muddy, I’m inclined to think that the events in the book really happened. This means that Satan really appears in God’s presence and that God converses with him. It also means that ancient peoples were a lot smarter than the stereotypical cavemen. Your homework is to think about what other differences the historicity of the book makes.
Next time we’ll look at something else you need to keep in mind as you read the book.