The Book of Job

By Barry Huff

Categories: Job, Old Testament


A friend shared with me her notes from listening to a tape recording of a lecture on the book of Job. The speaker stated it is a drama. She also said that Job lived 140 years longer after this experience. To me, that was a little startling, and the question is: is Job a fictional or a real person?
Mary Helen


The opening line of the Book of Job, "There was a man in the land of Uz," implies that what follows is not a biography of a real person. Since the location of the land of Uz is nebulous, certainly far beyond the boundaries of Israel, this opening verse is the ancient equivalent of the folktale introduction, "Once upon a time, in a land far away…" Similarly, the declaration at the end of the book that God blessed the final 140 years of Job's life is the exaggerated equivalent of the folktale conclusion, "and they all lived happily ever after." The literary style of these framing verses is much closer to that of a folktale than a biography, suggesting that the story as we now have it is more fictional than historical.

The prose tale that opens and closes the Book of Job (Job 1-2; 42:7-17) draws upon an ancient legend regarding a righteous sufferer. Whether there existed an historical figure upon which this legend is based is similar to asking whether there existed a King Arthur or a Robin Hood. In any case, this question was of little concern to the author of the Book of Job, who drastically altered the popular legend of Job to address theological issues raised by the suffering of his or her audience. Thus, even if the ancient legend of Job reflects the experiences of a real person, this person is portrayed quite differently in the biblical Book of Job.

The poetic section that dominates the Book of Job (Job 3:1-42:6) transforms the ancient legend of a man who patiently accepts his suffering as the will of God (James 5:11) by portraying Job, instead, as a man who boldly protests his suffering as divinely unjust. Through this revolutionary portrayal of Job's response to his suffering, the author undermined the popular theology that interpreted suffering as divine punishment for sin. This theology had become especially debilitating in the wake of the Babylonian exile (587 BCE), when prisoners of war were told that they should accept their victimization as divine punishment for their sins. The author of the Book of Job challenges this conclusion by praising as the ultimate model of piety the man who protested his victimization.

Thus, the author of Job rewrote a popular legend regarding a righteous sufferer to respond to questions provoked by the Babylonian exile. Rather than documenting the life of one person, the hero of the biblical Book of Job may represent how Israel should respond to the exile. While there may or may not have been a real person named Job, the Book of Job definitely addresses real life issues arising from a very real crisis. Even though much of this book may not be historically factual, truths pervade its fiction.

For further study of this exceptional book, the following commentaries on Job are recommended: Gerald Janzen's commentary in the Interpretation Series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985); Carol Newsom's commentary in Vol 4 of The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996); and Norman Habel's commentary in The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985).

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