By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Book of Job has to do with the deepest questions of humankind. "Why do good/innocent people suffer?" "Where is God in human suffering?" Many people have probably heard the phrase, "The patience of Job," and think that this book is about patience. Logically, then, in the time of trials and troubles and sufferings and questions, our task should be to be more patient - like Job. In reality, however, such a reading is too simplistic and merely demonstrates a lack of understanding of this material. Many scholars have devoted their entire careers to mining the treasures of this book -- with varying results. It is daunting to presume we can even begin to grasp the richness of all this book has to offer in just a few pages.

There are several factoids about Job, however, that are quite interesting. The name "Job," in Hebrew, is related to the passive participle of the verb, "to hate." Thus it would then be translated as "the hated one" or "the enemy." A second century Semitic text uses the word in an earlier form. There it means, "Where is my father?" Both of these are useful in helping us understand the biblical word. Job is both searching for God and counting himself as his enemy. He stands in that dual role of petitioner and the accused.

Scholars have not been able to determine anything about the author of this book. They speculate that he was an Israelite, but he may have only been a compiler of materials that already existed. No one doubts, however, that he was a wise man, educated in many facets of life and cultures, having a deep interest in spiritual matters.

The date of the book is even less certain. It has been variously attributed to the time of the patriarchs and all the way down to the exile. The language of the book is so varied as to be unhelpful in the dating process. Most place it sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E. (The exile occurred in 587B.C.E.) Nor is there any certainty about the setting. Job lived in "the land of Uz," which is thought to have been east of Palestine. Lamentations (4:21) mentions that Edom was in the land of Uz. So, one might assume that Job was living east of Palestine, in an area comprised of Edomites and possibly other tribes. He is essentially outside the covenant territory.

In Hebrew bibles, the book of Job is found in the third division of the scriptures known as the Writings. It follows Psalms and Proverbs. In Christian bibles, it precedes those books. Surprisingly, Job was canonized early on, and there is no known recorded conversation indicating any controversy over that decision. Nor has the message of Job been used to support any heresy or skepticism about God. Considering that this book illustrates one man's highest and lowest points of faith, that is quite remarkable and attests to the profundity of the spiritual message.

For, indeed, the book of Job is all about wrestling with the meaning of life and matters of religion. Most people have had some experience with these same issues and have, themselves, struggled to find meaning in suffering and loss. The book of Job may be less about finding answers to these questions and more about the process that is involved. In its biblical placement in the Christian Bible, Job comes at the end of a long series recounting the history of the Israelite people. We have heard time and time again, "Be faithful and you will be blessed." "Be unfaithful and you will be judged." The children of Israel were not faithful, and they were judged - conquered and taken into exile. Everything up to this point has been relatively straightforward. Such thinking has been variously called Deuteronomistic theology or the doctrine of retribution - goodness is rewarded, wickedness is not. Suddenly, we have the book of Job, which asks a question about innocent suffering, and life is no longer simple. Some scholars believe that the Book of Job was written as a diatribe refuting the one-dimensional cause and effect premise purported by the Deuteronomists. That is perhaps also too simplistic, but it certainly changes the focus of the "reward and punishment" theory. That this issue plagued writers for eons is evidenced by the disciples' question to Jesus in John 9:2: "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" And to some extent, it still comes up in the modern question: "What have I done to deserve this?" The Book of Job stands as a witness that sometimes the answer is rightfully, "Not a thing."

So how does the book deal with this issue? It is multi-faceted. There is a prologue and an epilogue that deal with the character named Job. These frame the larger chapters, which are comprised of a series of dialogues between Job and his friends and between Job and God. These chapters are written in poetic form. The speeches are based on genres common to the day, primarily laments and argumentations. In the center of the book is chapter 28, a treatise on Wisdom that attempts to answer the question, "Where does wisdom come from?"

Whether the reader will find the answer to this question (or any others, for that matter) will depend in large part on what the reader is bringing to the text. This book is about the process. We may approach this reading from a personal standpoint, trying to determine the meaning of innocent suffering and what that means for our own lives and human existence in general. But let us not forget that this is part of our canon, so there is also the divine question. And some have suggested that this is really a question posed by God about God. What does innocent suffering have to do with God, and what does God have to do with innocent suffering?

How that is answered will be determined by our concepts of God, by our views on sovereignty, compassion, and omnipotence. Job rails against God, demands an audience with him, but ultimately places his destiny in God's hands. Against all odds, Job maintained his trust/faith in God. Despite his adversity, Job's moral resolve grew stronger. Job's three friends represent the traditional thinking of the doctrine of retribution. Their only counsel is for him to "repent." We know (as does Job) because of the prologue that Job is truly innocent. In this case, repentance can only be seen as a cheap statement trying to curry God's favor and blessing. This would make Satan correct in believing that humans are totally self-serving when it comes to worshiping God. The Elihu speeches are thought by many to be a later addition to the text, but they are absolutely essential to the story. It is the young Elihu who brings a fresh approach to the situation and raises Job's thought by pointing out that sometimes God uses suffering for a higher purpose. There are some things about God that we don't understand, but our lack of understanding doesn't change God's essential nature. He is merciful, just, and omnipotent. With this, God does speak -- not with answers but with more questions. He asserts his authority over every corner of the world, and maintains his caring and orderly management over every aspect of it. In his humanness, Job does not have the perspective to judge.

Perhaps some of us wanted more, a "real" answer. But those questions are enough for Job. Through the analogies put forth by God, Job comes to believe in the essential "rightness" of everything. He is able to surrender his complaint before God, believing God to be no longer just transcendent and forceful, but also personal and merciful. Job then intercedes for his friends for having spoken wrongly about God. With this, Job is fully restored and blessed with riches beyond anything he had before. Does this ending make sense; is it satisfactory? Many would say no. But many others who have experienced spiritual growth through personal suffering might have a different take on it. God never abandoned Job in his suffering, and Job never abandoned God (even when his wife begged him to curse God and die!). God comes to us in ways we can understand, and it will surely be different from Job's experience. But the promise of Job is that God will never abandon us. The worst suffering is suffering done alone. The book of Job is both a superlative undertaking of one man's quest to understand God as well as God's amazing gift to all mankind.

There are eight distinct parts to this book: 1-2:13 - The Prologue - The Affliction of Job; 3:1-26 - Job's Lament; 4:1-27:23 - Three Cycles of Speeches between Job and His Friends; 28:1-28 - Treatise on Wisdom; 29:1-31:40 - Job's Summation; 31:1-37:24 - Elihu's Speeches; 38:1-42:6 - Dialogue between God and Job; 42:7-17 - The Epilogue - The Restoration of Job.

1:1-2:13 - The Prologue - The Affliction of Job

  • 1:1-5
    • Job's prosperity
    • Job is blameless and upright, prosperous
  • 1:6-12
    • Dialogue between God and Satan
    • Satan accuses Job
    • God gives Satan permission to "touch all he has"
  • 1:13-22
    • Disaster befalls Job
    • Four plagues kill his children, servants, cattle, crops
    • Job looks to God for strength
  • 2:1-6
    • Second dialogue between God and Satan
    • Job is still upright and blameless
    • God gives Satan permission to "touch his bone and his flesh"
    • Satan must spare Job's life
    • [Many commentators struggle with the origin and meaning of the Satan as well as the conversations between God and Satan. Yet the point of the Prologue is essential to the story. It is imperative that God himself declares Job innocent at the beginning of the story; otherwise, we'd be siding with his friends along the way.]
  • 2:7-10
    • Affliction of Job's body
    • He sits among the ashes
    • His wife tells him to "curse God and die"
  • 2:11-13
    • Arrival of Job's three friends - Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
    • They sit with him on the ground, in silence, for seven days

3:1-26 - Job's Lament

  • 3:1-13
    • Job curses the day he was born
    • He questions why he's alive to experience such pain
  • 3:14-26
    • Job's lament
    • Describes his agitation and lack of rest

4:1-27:23 - Three Cycles of Speeches between Job and His Friends

  • 4:1-14:22
    • The First Cycle
      • 4:1-5:27 
      • Eliphaz's First Speech
        • 4:1-11 
          • Eliphaz consoles Job with doctrine of retribution
        • 4:12-21 
          • Eliphaz believes no one is just before God
        • 5:1-7 
          • Who is there for Job to turn to
        • 5:8-16 
          • Job should appeal to God who only does right
        • 5:17-27 
          • One who needs correcting is reproved
          • [Eliphaz tries to motivate Job to serve God for the benefits he will receive.]
  • 6:1-7:21
    • Job's First Response
      • 6:1-30 
        • Job repeats his lament, argues with God, expects an audience
        • Job asks to die
        • Accuses friends of betraying him, says they are afraid of
        • God and not wiling to be loyal to him. Requests their sympathy
      • 7:1-21 
        • Job's lament
        • Describes his pain, wants his life to return to normal
        • Complains God is not treating him fairly
        • Prays for a reprieve
        • [Job laments the betrayal of his friends, wants relief from his illness, and defends his right to lament.]
  • 8:1-22
    • Bildad's First Speech
      • 8:1-7 
        • He reprimands Job by claiming that all God's ways are just
      • 8:8-19 
        • Uses tradition of elders and examples from nature to make case
      • 8:20-22 
        • God never reverses the laws of retribution
        • [Bildad counsels Job on the certainty of the law of retribution, no exceptions]
  • 9:1-10:22
    • Job's Second Response, virtually ignores Bildad
      • 9:1-35 
        • Job wants to litigate with God
        • Job begins to blame God
        • He pleads for mercy, but expects God to crush him
        • Wrestles with God, eventually demands a mediator
      • 10:1-22 
        • Realizes he has to be his own mediator
        • [Job believes God has failed to inform him of the charges against him. Desires an advocate between God and him. Finding none, Job once again pleads for mercy. Knows he must be acquitted in order to renew fellowship with God.]
  • 11:1-20
    • Zophar's First Speech
    • Accuses Job - people are either submissive or arrogant before God
    • God's wisdom is inexhaustible
    • Calls for Job to repent in order to receive blessings
    • [Tries to impress upon Job the immeasurable depth of God's wisdom. If Job is suffering (which of course he is), then he must have committed some hidden sin. Praying that God will overlook it is pointless. Repentance is the only solution.]
  • 12:1-14:22
    • Job's Third Response
      • 12:1-13:17 
        • Objects to his friends' arguments
        • They are on dangerous ground of offending God with their arguments
        • Realizes he will have to plead his own case
        • It is worth doing because he is worth it
        • His wisdom is equal to theirs
        • He knows God has control over all creatures
      • 13:18-14:22
        • Job summons God
        • If he follows friends' advice, he will compromise his own integrity
        • Job pleads with God to hear his case
        • Ends with another lament, identifies his suffering with all of humanity
        • Muses over the possibility of life after death, then rejects it even though he believes God has control over death
        • [Tradition of the fathers has merit, but needs critical thinking. Each person has to decide these things for himself. Friends have tried to instruct him in God's ways and begged him to seek God. Job feels friends simply don't get it. Rejects arguments of friends, tries to litigate directly with God.]
  • 15:1-21:34
    • Second Cycle of Speeches
      • 15:1-35 
        • Eliphaz's Second Speech
        • Rejects Job's claim to Wisdom, ridicules his self-defense
        • Describes the plight of a wicked person (i.e. in this case, Job)
        • [Tries to convince Job that his suffering is that of a wicked person. Doctrine of retribution is firm. Increases the rhetoric and sarcasm. No sympathy.]
      • 16:1-17:16 
        • Job's Fourth Response
        • Argues with his friends (miserable comforters)
        • Renews his lament against God
        • Calls for heaven to witness his unsettled claim against God
        • Ends with another personal lament, feels death is inevitable [Job's pains are wearing him down, feels need for vindication is more urgent.]
      • 18:1-21 
        • Bildad's Second Speech
        • Also increases rhetoric, delivers passionate speech about terror that awaits those who do evil (i.e. in this case, Job)
        • There is no hope for those who argue against God
        • [At this point feels Job has reached the point of no return. Tries to scare him into repenting and end his arguing against God.]
      • 19:1-29 
        • Job's Fifth Response
        • Complains mightily against his friends, feels estranged from them
        • Begs them to offer real assistance, warns them if they don't
        • [Job feels totally isolated. Knows that a "kinsman-redeemer" will stand up for him. God will do this, he just doesn't know when, but begins to plot a course of action.]
      • 20:1-29 
        • Zophar's Second Speech
        • Unnerved by Job's accusations against friends and God
        • Doesn't know how to respond, repeats assertion that evil fate awaits evildoers
        • [Presents a wisdom speech, sees Job's sufferings as just.]
      • 21:1-34 
        • Job's Sixth Speech
        • Speaks to his friends, demands a sympathetic hearing
        • Sees that some wicked prosper; some innocents suffer
        • Therefore doctrine of retribution fails
        • Anticipates and rebuts friends' rejection [Job soundly rejects counsel of the friends.]
  • 22:1-27:23
    • The Third Cycle of Speeches
      • 22:1-30 
        • Eliphaz's Third Speech
        • Increases rhetoric against Job
        • Rejects Job's argument - states God does punish wicked
        • Issues stirring call for Job to repent
        • [Job's refusal to admit sins causes Eliphaz to lecture him on how he can restore his relationship with God. Whatever care he once had for Job is now gone.]
      • 23:1-24:25
        • Job's Seventh Response
        • Ignores Eliphaz's statements, desires to present his case before God
        • Is very confident that God will allow him to do this
        • Meditates on God's sovereignty
        • Complains about widespread suffering, criminal injustice, and the wicked
        • [Job speaks with increasing confidence. Resolves to meet God, argue his case. Is more sensitive to human injustices because of his own situation.]
      • 25:1-6 
        • Bildad's Third Speech
        • Praises God, repeats that the wicked are certainly punished
        • [Bildad believes Job is unworthy to speak before God.]
      • 26:1-27:23
        • Job's Eighth Response
        • Turns away from friends and meditates on God's awesome power
        • Maintains his innocence, tries to instruct his friends
        • [Job praises God and avows his own integrity. Celebrates God's power.]

28:1-28 - Treatise on Wisdom

  • Transition between dialogue of friends and scenes to come
  • Speaker is unknown; most attribute this poem to Job
  • Treatise on Wisdom is elusive, wisdom can only be known by God
  • Signifies end of dialogue; comforters have failed in efforts to comfort
  • Job maintains his innocence, but lacks insight on God's purpose
  • Job discovers true wisdom is spiritual wisdom

29:1-31:40 - Job's Summation

  • 29:1-25
    • Job remembers his innocence, his abundant life
    • Job had intimacy with God; community recognized Job's favor with God
    • He was among the most respected of all elders
  • 30:1-31
    • Job's lament
    • He laments his shame and suffering
    • Now people in society taunt him
    • Repeats their taunts for all to hear
    • Accuses God, faith in God's goodness is badly shaken
  • 31:1-40
    • Maintains his innocence
    • Takes an oath
    • Lists 14 sins that he has not committed
    • Seals his oath with his own signature

32:1-37:24 - Elihu's Speeches

  • Comforters are rendered speechless by Job's latest tirade
  • Young Elihu speaks (first indication he even existed)
  • Asks permission to speak (Affirms he was 'young')
  • Claims divine inspiration and offers insight into God's ways of instruction
  • Stresses God's sovereignty
  • Makes four main speeches - does not assume all suffering is for punishment
  • Righteous can respond to suffering in various ways
  • 32:1-5
    • Introduction of Elihu
    • Youthful and angry with Job for making himself more righteous than God
    • Angry with three friends for putting God in the wrong
  • 32:6-33:33
    • Elihu's First Speech
    • Apologizes for speaking among the elders
    • Sometimes there is purpose in affliction
    • Job claims God has afflicted him
    • This was incorrect; God is greater than man
    • To want to argue with God is presumptuous in itself; God is always trying to communicate with man
    • God has many ways at his disposal - dreams, angel mediators
    • Insinuates Job has not been listening
    • Asks Job to respond, but now Job is silent
  • 34:1-37
    • Elihu's Second Speech
    • Asks Job to listen
    • Repeats Job's complaint against God
    • Responds that God rules justly
    • God's slowness to act does not mean he is not sovereign
    • Calls on Job for a decision and warns of judgment against him
  • 35:1-16
    • Elihu's Third Speech
    • Takes up matter of Job's innocence
    • Doesn't look for hidden sins, but claims Job is again presumptuous
  • 36:1-37:24
    • Elihu's Fourth Speech
    • There is a disciplinary use of suffering
    • God protects the righteous
    • Warns Job: because God's ways are just, Job will lose in the divine court
    • God is totally great - uses examples from Nature of God's greatness
    • [Though Elihu is young, his wisdom surpasses that of the three friends. Elihu admits to the possibility of innocent suffering. Job should rethink his situation, determine if God is trying to "correct" him. Asks him to meditate on God's power.]

38:1-42:6 - Dialogue between God and Job

  • Suddenly out of a tempest, God addresses Job
  • God totally ignores Job's complaints; addresses Job as a teacher might
  • 38:1-40:2
    • God's First Speech
    • God speaks to Job about the creation of the universe
    • He speaks about the structure and maintenance of the world
    • God invites Job to respond
  • 40:3-5
      • Job's Response
      • He says he is small, cannot add anything to what has already been said
      • He anticipated being overcome by God's power
      • But God is not overpowering him; it is simply His presence that causes Job to be silent
      • In the presence of God, the need to debate has diminished
    • 40:6-41:26
      • God's Second Speech
      • God questions Job's power. Does Job intend to supplant God?
      • God introduces two beasts and the implications of his position
      • If Job wants to play God, he must rule these beasts (Behemoth and Leviathan)
      • God emphasizes he has the power to execute his justice
      • Job can trust God to do justice in his case; God is merciful
      • God is sovereign and able to fulfil his purpose in Job's case
    • 42:1-6
      • Job's Second Response
      • With an inspired awareness of God's power, Job submits himself to God
      • God has convinced him of God's wise and merciful governance of the world
      • Job humbles himself before God; having a relationship with God is the most important thing. The legal issue has dissipated

42:7-17 - The Epilogue - The Restoration of Job

  • God condemns the three friends
  • Job prays for them; God accepts Job's prayer
  • With that, Job's fortune is restored - double all that he had
  • Kinsmen come to rejoice with him
  • List of Job's blessings - animals, children
  • Job's epitaph - lived to be 140
  • "And Job died, old and full of years."

This brings the book of Job to a close. The book never really refutes the doctrine of retribution, but it does try to correct wrongful adaptation of it. Despite Job's acute suffering, he was able to prevail until he was reconciled to God. All in all, he was not very patient, but he was engaged. He refused to compromise his integrity in order to curry God's favor. He refused to say the "right" words just to get God's blessing. His wrestling speaks to all struggling hearts. Job's restoration indicates God is faithful to those who follow him.


Alter, Robert and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987.

Anderson, Francis. "Job." Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Gibson, John. "Job." The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1985.

Hartley, John. "The Book of Job." The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1988.

Janzen, J. Gerald. "Job." Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Smick, Elmer. "Job." The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. Gaebelein, Frank, Ed. 1988.