Job: Fact or Fiction?

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“For a start – Job is very obviously a fiction, a story, a fable, a myth – and it is not a history, an Annal, nor a piece of theology – the whole way it is written makes that very clear.”

Bruce Charlton

The story of Job is a well known one in Christianity. It is preached from widely, and referenced frequency in relation to the virtue of Christian endurance of patient endurance. Trials and temptations are a feature of daily life, and Job is a reliable reference point for consolation and encouragement.

That said, Job’s effectiveness as a role model does not stem necessarily from any empathy we may have for him. Job’s challenges are far removed from anything we tend to experience on a normal level. Even when we experience physical, psychological and emotional trauma, the spiritual element and cosmic proportions never match the Satan versus God dimensions present in Job’s predicament. If anything, we read Job with the hope that he will empathize with us, and encourage us.

But for those who come to Job outside the context of personal experience, from a purely objective perspective, whether academically or devotionally, it is possible to wonder whether you are reading truth, or whether a great relic of ancient storytelling has found its way into the Bible. If you are reading from a purely academic, critical viewpoint, this seems almost certain.

But it is not necessarily easy to dismiss Job as mere fiction. The account is attested in several places in the Bible. Outside the book itself, it is mentioned twice in Ezekiel and once in James. In Ezekiel 14:12 – 14, we read,

“The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (NIV)

In verses 19 and 20:

““Or if I send a plague into that land and pour out my wrath on it through bloodshed, killing its people and their animals, as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in it, they could save neither son nor daughter. They would save only themselves by their righteousness.” (NIV)

James in the New Testament also refers to Job as an example of patient endurance:

“Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” – James 5:11 (NIV)

Traditional support for the canonicity of Job cite these references as attestations much in the same way as the inspiration of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel is attested by references made by Jesus and the apostles. Scripture validates itself, the argument goes. But the debate is hardly put to bed. Those who believe that Job is a fictional account have an answer worth hearing. But before we hear it, it is useful to acquaint ourselves with the basics of their case.

 

The Argument for Fiction

The “Once upon a Time” Prologue

The first argument for fiction is that the structure follows Ancient Near Eastern (ANE henceforth) story-telling. The basic form is narrative, even though some sections are poetic. There is an overall A-B-A structure as some have observed of Prose-Poetry-Prose correlating to Prologue-Dialogue-Epilogue.1 The prologue begins with with the straightforward declaration:

“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.”

This simple introduction contains some important cues. The amorphous introductory words “There was” gives us our first introduction to the indefiniteness of the story with regards to historicity. We are not told when Job lived. The line reads with an indefiniteness of time very reminiscent of “Once upon a time”. “Once upon a time, there lived a righteous man in the land of Uz called Job.” The references to his wealth that immediately follow may seem detailed enough to be historical. When one considers the level of specificity, though, one sees more elements of fiction. Observe the structure in 1:3:

He had seven sons and three daughters

Seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels

Five hundred oxen

Five hundred asses

And a very great household.

The repetition of “seven” and “three” is a literary device, which can be seen as kind of parallelism. We cannot underestimate the literary force of the alliteration. Seven A, three B, seven C, three D, five hundred E, five hundred F, and a very great G.

The general introductory formula continues:

Now there was a day when… Job 1:6 (KJV)

And there was a day when… 1:13 (KJV)

Again there was a day when… 2:1 (KJV)

These indefinite introductions help to build the story to the point of climax. They are seen as equivalent to “One day” in modern story telling culture.

And Then

The narrative flow of the story is helped by the use of phrases such as “Then”, “After that”, “Now”, “And then”, and “So”. The Hebrew construct is called the “vav” consecutive. Basically it refers to the Hebrew conjunction ו (vav), meaning “and”, “so”, “Now”, etc. Again, there is a consistent indefiniteness of time. Granted, this conjunction is used in many historical narrative types in the Old Testament. Contrast that with other sequence formulae throughout the Bible, where phrases like “after/in those days” (Genesis 6:4; Jeremiah 31:33; Matthew 24:29) and “the following day” (John 6:22, Acts 21:1), “after three days” (Genesis 40:30; Joshua 3:2), “in the third month” (Esther 8:9; 2 Chronicles 15:10).

These narrative formulae give varying degrees of certainty ranging from general placement to absolute dating. This is rare if at all present in the book of Job. Rather, there is a general vagueness with respect to time. One of the few definite definitions of time is made when Job’s friends fall silent with him for seven days, which leads us to other issues.

 

Hyperbole, Dialogue and other Devices

When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” – Job 2:12, 13

When Job’s three friends heard about their friend’s troubles, they set out to visit him. On seeing him they “tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.” This reflects common practice in the ANE denoting grief. Then they sat down with him on the ground for seven days, in complete silence. This, clearly, was not a practice of the ANE. The initial silence is an expected human response, but the duration indicated clearly points to hyperbole – literary exaggeration.

Hyperbole turns out to be a basic feature of the fictional motif. The disasters Job experiences all come in a day, one right after the other. Not only that, but they are also all of superlative nature. His wealth is eviscerated, his children die, his body deteriorates. This is exaggerated misfortune, clearly a common feature of storytelling. Also hyperbolic is the righteousness portrayed in Job, who worships God when he gets all the bad news with his famous words, “Naked I came, naked I will go; the Lord Gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 

Dialogue

Job’s wife is depicted as rash and foolish, a foil to Job because she advises exactly the capitulation that Satan’s plot is aiming to produce.

It is hard to overlook the fact that forty out of forty-two chapters of the book are dedicated to dialogue. Dialogue in Job consists of long speeches or monologues, sometimes identified in the text as parables, exchanged between conversing parties: Job and his friends (Chs 3 – 37) and between God and Job (Chs 38 – 42:8).

This particular feature of the narrative is typical of drama. Momentous events occur, driven by powerful dialogue amongst well defined characters. The dialogue is enriched with many proverbs and wise sayings:

For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat. – Job 34:3 (KJV)

And Job as a dramatic piece has some very strong characters: Satan is shrewd and scheming, deeply knowledgeable about humankind, and competent over the forces of nature. Job’s wife is depicted as rash and foolish, a foil to Job because she advises exactly the capitulation that Satan’s plot is aiming to produce. Eliphaz, Zophar and Bildad are almost stereotypical – old and venerable, wise in their own eyes and loquacious in error. Elihu is young, patient, insightful and mysterious. He appears without introduction and disappears in similar fashion. His speech comes nearest to the truth of the cosmic backstory.

Other literary devices feature. Irony captures how the most righteous man suffers the worst calamity. It also captures how the one who suffers most is the last to accuse God of wrongdoing. Dramatic irony is present in that the reader, God and Satan know what is really happening while the central character do not.

Also interesting is the poetic nature of the dialogue. It features typical Ancient Near Eastern elements: metaphor, proverbs, descriptive and reflective wisdom, rhetorical questions,

Hero

Another important feature is the hero status that Job is portrayed in. A good hero has admirable qualities, does admirable deeds, and often comes out on top. He experiences conflict, which drives him through the climax of the story, and often also has a specific weakness known as a tragic flaw.

Job has all these qualities. He is rich, righteous and wise. He acts as priest over his family and cared for his household. He endures his superlative hardships and gains more in the end. He also has a tragic flaw that often skips many.

When Satan goes to God, he is confident of some grounds on which he can get Job to sin. His argument is that it is not total faith but Divine protection that allows him to keep holy. Satan knew something that Job himself early admitted. He harboured fear.

“What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” – Job 3:25

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, they say. Great wealth can often create a sense of anxiety caused by the fear of losing everything. It emerges from the story that Job had just such fears. Satan was looking to capitalize… to gain a foothold there, and work it out into sin. Satan is portrayed as true to type, going after the exact point of Jobs fear: the loss of everything that was dear to him.

There are many other literary features of the book that we cannot explore for space. These should be enough however to illustrate basis of the claim that Job is a work of fiction, the most probable genre of which is drama.

 

What about the Attestations?

As we mentioned before, the fact that Job is mentioned in other parts of the Bible seems to oppose this claim. However we should realize from clearly examining those citations that none of them necessitates a literal historical reading of the book of Job.

The citations in Ezekiel 14:14 and 14:20 express the same idea. The punishments by famine and plague are used to express the same idea in a poetic feature called a synthetic parallelism, or a parallelism of addition. In both of them, Job only needs to be righteous to fit, whether fictional or real. Noah, Daniel and Job do not all have to be historical. The important common denominator is righteousness.

To illustrate, one might say, “Neither Obama nor Demosthenes can persuade them.” Clearly, we mean that no degree of oratory brilliance will avail in changing the minds of an unnamed group of people. Obama and Demosthenes need not both be alive, for the logic to hold, they only need to be good orators.

The same applies to James’ citation.

“Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” – James 5:11

James could be seen to be appealing to the example of Job rather than to Job himself. We know the account: he was patient and his patience was rewarded. The lesson is from the account itself, not the historicity of the individual it names.

 

What Shall We Say Then?

All this considered, what are we to say about the book of Job, and what are we to do with it? If it is a fictional account can we trust it on theological matters like the state of the dead and the existential ethos and pathos of suffering and endurance? Is it good only for drawing moral lessons? Is it useful merely as a vestige of ancient near eastern literary forms?

What implications would this hold for our current views on inspiration and canonicity? What implications would it hold for other narratives of in the Bible, such as the Flood, Exodus and the story of Esther?

 

Fiction, but not Fictional

A work of fiction need not be fictional.

Fiction is a broad categorization of literature. It concerns the style of writing more than the content. A work of fiction need not be fictional. We have all read true stories and seen movies based on true stories. For example the film Twelve Years a Slave and The Butler are based on true stories with real historical persons. So are stories like Moby Dick, Schindler’s List and Apollo 13. While each of them adds it own fictional embellishments, nobody would doubt their basic historicity.

The Book of Job, then, may be seen as a true story set in quasi-dramatic narrative form, with various literary elements and devices infused. In that regard, it is fiction as far as its literary quality and classification goes. It should be classed like that because it fits all the relevant criteria. But it is one thing to say that a work of literature is fiction by genre, and quite another to say that it is fictional in content. Like many writers in his era, fiction is the style the author chose under inspiration to use, but he nonetheless told a true story. The story of Job is not fictional in that the content of the story is wholly historically true. How do we know? That question may be speculated on by theology – and there is much to be argued about the New Testament attestations – but like much of the Bible it can only be answered by faith.

Yes, the story of Job is filled with numerous literary elements that make it so elaborate that it does not appear to many as asimple statement of history. One observant reader has noted:

“Job is – in the Authorized Version  – astonishingly beautiful as prose… the sheer sensuous beauty tends to suggest that it was substantially an aesthetic work”3

Stemming from the overall consensus of its narrative form, many have suggested that the structure of Job reveal elements of parable, epic history, or philosophical debate or legal dispute.2  Like the Six Blind Men of Hindustan, students of Scripture have groped about the various genres expressed in the book and found it resembles different things. More critical readers have insisted that these literary genres indicate the story is fictional and unhistorical. But we can respond that like the blind men, they each have got a good hold on some part of the story, and yet have all missed the bigger picture… the elephant in the room: it is the word of God.

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1, 2 Lasort, Hubbard & Nelson, 1996. Old Testament Survey.

3 Bruce Charlton, 2014. The Book of Job – obviously a fiction (not a history). Retrieved from http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-book-of-job-obviously-fiction-not.html

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.