As we begin our study of Job today, once again I find this introduction from Lawrence Boadt helpful….
The dramatic dialogue between Job and his three friends about the relation of suffering to human behavior, and Job’s impassioned assault on God himself, have made the Book of Job one of the all-time favorite classics of world literature. Many modern playwrights, including Archibald MacLeish (J.B.) and Neil Simon (God’s Favorite), have used it as the basis of successful plays. Job itself is constructed like a dramatic play:
1. Chapters 1-2: The scene is set with an old folktale about how God tested Job, who proved faithful in every case.
2. Chapters 3-31: A dialogue between Job and three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, over the meaning of divine justice and Job’s suffering, ending with Job demanding that God appear and defend himself if he is a just God.
3. Chapters 32-37: A sudden appearance of a fourth adversary, Elihu, who challenges both the friends and Job, and demands that they submit to the divine majesty and divine control of human events.
4. Chapters 38-41: God himself appears and recites the power and marvels beyond human understanding that show Job’s demands for justice to be arrogant. Job submits twice.
5. Chapter 42:7-17: The final act of the old folktale in which God restores Job to his greatness and attacks the friends for accusing him.
The outline shows some of the inconsistency in the book from a modern logical point of view. The folktale in sections 1 and 5 has nothing bad to say about Job, but condemns the friends, while the dialogue sections present the friends as defenders of God and have God himself correct Job for his pride. As a result, we can detect two quite separate sources to the book. The prose folktale in chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17 was an older and quite legendary story of a wise man whom God tested and found faithful. A later author, unknown to us, composed the rich and profound exploration of human innocence and suffering, divine power versus a man’s search for meaning, that creates the wisdom book as we now have it. Possibly a still later author inserted the remarks of Elihu in chapters 32-37 to prepare for God’s speech in chapters 38-41.
The author had the courage to move beyond simple acceptance of God’s will to ask hard questions of the traditional and overconfident wisdom so often found in Proverbs and sometimes in the prophets. If God does look after the just, and does always punish the wicked, as the friends claim, why does the opposite seem to be our real experience, in which evil people prosper from their deeds and the honest person never gets ahead (Jb 21:7-17)? In many ways the author is writing a parody of the smug prophets and wise teachers who assure people that everything will be all right. But the book explores a still deeper question of how one who is faithful ever comes to know God or understand his or her relationship with God. Most of Job’s long speeches are concerned with either the silence of God or Job’s desire for a “right” relationship with God based on justice and mutual terms. Ultimately, the harsh reply of God destroys this hope—no one relates to God on a basis of justice or equal rights. God gives himself by means of his law and his revelation that we are to obey. For this reason, the author inserted a special poem on wisdom in chapter 28 that breaks up the dialogues but makes the firm point that no one can find the way to wisdom; only God knows it and he has given it to humans through reverent worship: “Behold the fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Jb 28:28). But worship is also the means of knowing God face-to-face. As Job finally admits, “I had only heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you” (Jb 42:5).
Job was a well-known figure of wisdom, perhaps like Paul Bunyan in the legends of Minnesota. Ezekiel suggests that he was as famed for his justice as Noah (Ez 14:14,20). Thus the use of the old folktale as an opening both establishes the agony of Job’s situation and makes it clear that God controls what happens. This permits the author to put on Job’s lips words and ideas that might shock many Israelites. The happy ending relieves the bad taste such attacks on divine goodness have created, and shows in the form of a drama how one man can grow and change his mind by learning wisdom. Other ancient peoples also explored these questions of suffering and faith. They even came up with roughly the same answer of faithful trust in the greatness of God. The Babylonian work, “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom,” ends with the command, “Creatures endowed with breath…as many as there are, glorify Marduk!” (ANET 437). The author of Job has created a version that places these fundamental human questions within Israel’s belief in Yahweh. The final form most resembles the great psalms of lament with (1) their threefold cry of human pain and lament, (2) their call for help to God, and (3) their promise to praise God forever. Ultimately from the midst of doubt and questioning, Job teaches us, comes trust.