Reading Job can be a tough slog. It’s a long book, with extended speeches and virtually no action; the poetic language can be hard to follow; and the philosophical discourse often feels repetitive. Understanding what’s behind the text may make it easier to track what’s going on. Here are four key features of the background of Job.

Setting

The text of Job does not refer to people or events in the history of Israel; consequently, the story’s time period is not clear. Details about Job’s estate and lifestyle, along with his death at age 140, seem to fit the period of Israel’s patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).

Job lives in the land of Uz (Job 1:1), but no one is quite sure where Uz was. It may have been northeast of Israel in Aram or southeast of Israel in Edom. These options are equally plausible, so the location of Job’s homeland remains uncertain.*

Structure

The book of Job is framed by a short story in chs. 1–2 and ch. 42—a prose narrative with its own characters, conflict, climax, and conclusion. This is the most familiar version of Job’s story. A good man suffered greatly in a test of his faith and remained faithful. The story even has a happy ending. But this prose framework is not the whole story. 

Most of the book is written in poetry presented as the direct speech of Job, his companions, and God. These speeches consist of a lengthy dialogue between Job and his friends (Job 3:1–37:24) and a climactic exchange between Job and God (38:1–42:6). Recognizing the underlying structure of this material is important for following the conversation and catching the story’s full significance.

Thirty-five chapters of Job relate three rounds of speeches (see the map of the book on the facing page). The first two rounds follow the same pattern, as Job interacts with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In the third round, instead of a speech from Zophar, we find a wisdom poem. Then, after Job’s final reply to his friends, a new character, Elihu, weighs in.

At the conclusion of this human dialogue, Job finally hears from God, who speaks from a whirlwind to affirm his sovereignty. The book of Job is commonly grouped with the Old Testament’s wisdom literature—which includes Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and some of the psalms. Wisdom texts can use many diff erent literary forms, such as proverbs, parables, and speeches. Wisdom literature is generally concerned with observations and advice. The observations lead to ideas that help people make sense of how the world works. The advice is oriented toward helping people make good choices that should lead them to a happier life. Job reflects these concerns, but the lengthy speeches present a debate about very different views of the world. Job is a discussion about and challenge to the idea that good people are rewarded and wicked people are punished. 

Genre

The book of Job is commonly grouped with the Old Testament’s wisdom literature—which includes Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and some of the psalms. Wisdom texts can use many different literary forms, such as proverbs, parables, and speeches. Wisdom literature is generally concerned with observations and advice. The observations lead to ideas that help people make sense of how the world works. The advice is oriented toward helping people make good choices that should lead them to a happier life. Job reflects these concerns, but the lengthy speeches present a debate about very diff erent views of the world. Job is a discussion about and challenge to the idea that good people are rewarded and wicked people are punished. 

Authorship

The text of Job does not identify the author. Tradition holds that Moses wrote Job, but there is no evidence to support this view. The book is commonly regarded as a composite work, with multiple writers and editors involved in shaping the text as we have it.

Because Job lacks references to Israel’s history, it’s hard to say when the book was written. Based largely on the literary style, many interpreters believe the poetic material was composed sometime after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. Some scholars have speculated that this time period is a fitting context for the profound themes raised in Job—particularly the question of why the righteous (i.e., Job, Israel) endure suffering.  

* 1 Genesis mentions two Arameans named “Uz” (Gen 10:22; 22:21), but it also identifies an Edomite with the same name (Gen 36:28). Lamentations 4:21 establishes a link between Uz and Edom. For a detailed discussion of the possible locations for Uz, see Marvin Pope, Job, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 4–6.

** Material for this article was adapted from Lexham Bible Dictionary and DIY Bible Study.

 

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