Date

Although the date of writing is unknown (suggestions ranging from the time of Moses to that of the Hasmoneans have been made), there are indications that the figure of Job represents a person living in the times of the Patriarchs.  The Evangelical Commentary on the Bible offers the following evidence for this:

  1. ‘Job offers his own sacrifices (Job 1:5) as do the patriarchs (Gen. 22:13);
  2. ‘Job’s wealth is measured in terms of livestock and servants (Job 1:3) as is Abraham’s (Gen. 12:6);
  3. ‘Job’s longevity (Job 42:16) is matched only by persons in patriarchal times;
  4. ‘Job is classified by Ezekiel (Ezek. 14:14, 20) with Noah (also with Daniel—an early heroic figure though not necessarily the Daniel of the Old Testament).’

The problem of suffering

The Book of Job deals with the problem of suffering.

What is the origin of suffering?  This book touches on the origin of suffering, but does not give a definitive answer.  Does God send suffering, or does he allow Satan to inflict it?

Why do people suffer?  Can there be such a thing as innocent suffering?  Part of the answer, so far as Job’s friends are concerned, is that they suffer because they have sinned, and/or to prevent them from sinning again.  But this is too simplistic, and although it may establish a valid general relationship between sin and suffering, this cannot be particularised to the individual (Job did not suffer so much because he was a great sinner).

How should we suffer?  The book gives two answers: first, endures Job suffers in patient submission to God’s will (Job 1:21; 2:10).  But, second, as his suffering threatens to overwhelm him, Job complains bitterly to God (e.g. Job 7:11).  But, because he takes his concerns to God, in the end God praises him for speaking his mind (Job 42:7f).

(The above notes based on NBC)

Overall structure

‘As you read Job, be sure not to miss the overall structure of the book. The poetic dialogues of the book (3:1–42:6) are framed by a prose prologue (chs. 1–2) that tells you in advance why Job was tested so severely (God planned it all so that Job’s refusal to give up on God would honor God and thwart the adversary, Satan) and by a prose epilogue (42:7–17) in which Job is openly vindicated and rewarded, in direct contrast to his comforters. This framing structure gives the reader information that Job and his comforters lacked as they debated. It doesn’t “spoil” the story, but it helps one keep the story in proper perspective: this is not just a story about someone’s suffering, but about God’s gracious superintendence of suffering and the way that innocent suffering can truly glorify God (1 Pet 2:20).’ (Fee & Stuart)

Fact or fiction?

Conservative authors Howe and Geisler (When Critics Ask) cite three reasons for considering Job to be an historical figure: (a) the ‘plain assertion’ of Job 1:1; (b) the reference to Job, Noah and Daniel in Eze 14:14,20; (c) the reference to Job in James 5:11.

John Goldingay responds to this question by suggesting that the book may well be based on some historical person and his experiences of suffering.  Awful things to happen to people.  However, given the poetic nature of the book, along with the hyperbole that we find at the beginning and the end of the book, it is likely that real-life events became the stimulus for imaginative reflection.  Bear in mind that we do not judge a parable according to whether we think that the events it describes really happened.  The reference to Job in James 5:11 [and, we might add, in Eze 14:14, 20], suggests Goldingay, is not determinative in this matter.

Walton (NIVAC) argues that even if we do accept Job as a historical person, ‘even the most conservative and traditional of recent interpreters grant that the speeches of Job and his friends are literary artifice rather than journalistic transcripts. No stenographer would have been present; furthermore, people do not talk extemporaneously in such elevated prose. If we agree that the speeches are literary artifice, we must then ask which other parts of the book are in the same category; in fact, is every part of the book in the same category? If the speeches are literary constructions, are the friends themselves literary constructions? That is, are they designed to represent certain approaches to the question of suffering?’

Walton adds that the writings of Plato have equal value whether or not Socrates is to be regarded as a historical person.  Again, he says that the genre of Job (wisdom, rather than historical, literature) leads to no assumptions about its historical character.  He further suggests that, as wisdom literature, the book might be thought of as a ‘thought experiment’ – one could imagine the ‘events’ happening, even if they did not.

Approaching Job in this way, we come to realise that it communicates its main message at the end, and not earlier.  Walton writes: ‘As I have taught Job to students over the years, the question frequently arises, “What sort of God is this who uses his faithful ones as pawns in bets with the devil?” I would suggest that we need not concern ourselves with this question. The scene in heaven, like the speeches of Job’s friends, is part of the literary design of a thought experiment to generate discussion about how God runs the cosmos; it is not about trying to explain how Job got into such a difficult situation. The message of the book is offered at the end, in the speeches of God, not in the opening scenario, which only sets up the thought experiment.’