In the ancient Near Eastern world, the connection between a person’s fortune and a person’s standing before their god was firmly fixed: good standing before God led to health and wealth, while sinfulness before God led to disease and poverty. Yet was this always true? What if the wicked prosper while the righteous are ill and impoverished? Such is the dilemma found in the book of Job.
Job is the eighteenth book in most English Bibles, considered the first of the books of wisdom in the Old Testament; in the Hebrew Bible, Job is the second or third book of the Ketuvim or “Writings.” Uz, Job’s home, is part of Edom to the southeast of Israel (Job 1:1, Lamentations 4:21); he is spoken of in terms of a patriarch, having lived before the days of Moses and Israel (cf. Ezekiel 14:14, 20; perhaps ca. 2000-1800 BCE). The book of Job as presented could have been written at any time from the United Monarchy to the post-exilic period (1000-420 BCE). The book of Job describes righteous Job and his affliction and how he and his friends attempt to make sense of how a righteous God could allow it to happen to him.
The context of Job is established in Job 1:1-2:13. We are introduced to Job as blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil, and whom God had richly blessed (Job 1:1-5). God lifted up Job as an exemplar of an obedient human to Satan, and Satan suggested that he only served God because he had so much wealth and health, and God gave Satan license to dispossess him of his health and wealth (Job 1:6-2:8). In all this Job does not sin, and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to comfort him (Job 2:9-13).
Job 3:1-31:40 present a series of speeches in elegant Hebrew poetry by Job and his three companions. Job begins by cursing the day of his birth and the troubles of his life (Job 3:1-26). His friends then seek to uphold the standard ancient Near Eastern understanding of these difficulties: innocent and righteous people prosper and maintain health, and since you are suffering so terribly, it must be because you have sinned, growing ever more bold in their attempt to affirm God’s righteousness and therefore Job’s sinfulness (Job 4:1-27, 8:1-22, 11:1-20, 15:1-35, 18:1-21, 20:1-29, 22:1-30, 25:1-6). Job responds to each in turn, affirming his righteousness, declaring that the wicked do prosper and the innocent suffer, and growing ever more bold in his desire to make the case before God regarding the injustice he is suffering (Job 6:1-7:21, 9:1-10:22, 12:1-22, 16:1-17:16, 19:1-29, 21:1-34, 23:1-25, 26:1-28:28). Job concludes with his defense of his righteousness before God and his friends (Job 29:1-31:40).
Job 32:1-37:24 introduce a new and younger character, Elihu, whose speech properly stands between Job’s friends and God’s response. Elihu is incensed that the three men would not respond to Job’s declaration of his own righteousness, and so he impetuously both re-hashes some of the arguments of the friends while also anticipates some of the declarations which God will make.
Job is granted the dignity of a response by God in Job 38:1-41:34, although it is not the response Job expects. God questions Job in terms of the way the creation works and whether Job was present when they were established or had a hand in running them. God makes it clear that Job makes his accusations without knowledge since there is much more going on than Job can ever understand, and Job, unable to answer God, fully repents of the accusations he has made against God (Job 42:1-6). God then condemns the three friends for not speaking rightly about God as Job did; whether Elihu falls into that same condemnation is unsaid and remains one of the great mysteries of the book (Job 42:7). God provides the friends with a means of atonement through Job (Job 42:8-9). The book ends with Job’s vindication: God restores and doubles his fortune, he has many descendants, and ends his life full of days and in peace (Job 42:10-17).
The meaning and implications of the book of Job have been argued about and disputed throughout time, since every successive generation must grapple with the same challenges as Job and his friends: why do some righteous people suffer? Why do some evil people prosper? Why do things not work out the way they should? In the end, we cannot come to a full understanding of these things, but are invited to trust in God who does have all understanding and in Jesus His Son who experienced great suffering on our behalf!