Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs

Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs

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ISBN-13: 9781414398853
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 10/01/2016
Series: Cornerstone Biblical Commentary , #6
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 2 MB

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Copyright © 2006 August H. Konkel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8423-3432-7

Chapter One




The book of Job belongs to that category of writings typically termed "wisdom literature." This is not a specific genre designation but is a term of convenience, derived apparently from ecclesiastical usage and used to designate the biblical books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (Murphy 1981:3). Biblical wisdom may be defined as the exposition of a fundamental order within the universe (Crenshaw 1981:66). Wisdom is to know and follow this order, and folly is to contravene and ignore it. Traditional wisdom sought to provide direction for understanding order, but the wisdom writers recognized that the divine order contains mystifying paradoxes. Reflective wisdom addressed realities that appeared to be a contradiction of the traditional understanding of the creative order. The book of Job is a profound reflection on the mysteries of the divine order.

Fundamental to Old Testament revelation is the affirmation that the sovereignty of the Creator is absolute and that his providence for his creation is uncompromisingly beneficent. Traditional Hebrew wisdom asserts that wisdom and knowledge begin with a reverence for the Creator and a loyalty to the covenant that he has given: the fear of the Lord is thebeginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7; 9:10). Such knowledge is the means to a good life: "Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding.... She offers you long life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left.... Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly" (Prov 3:13, 16, 18). The basic premise is that righteousness contains its own reward in the operative providence of God.

The reality of life is that the affirmations of traditional wisdom often contradict the experience of the faithful. Bad things happen to good people; and, conversely, good things often happen to bad people. The book of Job confronts the tension between the idea that virtue has its own reward and the reality that the virtuous often suffer. However, the book of Job does not sever the connection between conduct and consequences. It is not adequate to say that the world is "amoral." Tsevat has argued that there is no realization of moral values except those affected by people, so there is no relation between fate and religio-moral actions (1980:26-33). This amounts to a denial of the sovereign providence of God, so fate operates as a cruel, arbitrary force that may as readily punish good as reward it. Job indeed suffered as an innocent person, but this does not imply that we are to expect nothing from our behavior. The prologue is not meant to teach us that piety, as far as it is possible, is disinterested in personal good. Certainly, it does not insure safety, nor is personal benefit the primary motivation for good conduct; but there are temporal rewards for moral behavior. In the end, the fortunes of Job are restored as a reminder that the author is not oblivious to the consequences of our actions and the truth about a moral universe (Clines 1989:xlvii). Thus, we should conclude that the author was not seeking to undermine all traditional values.

The book of Job does not resolve the rational question of the problem of the innocent suffering. The story of Job suggests that, in human experience, the cause of individual suffering may remain forever a mystery. Readers are privy to the reason for Job's anguish, but Job himself will never learn of the challenge in the courts of heaven that so drastically changed his life. The quest for wisdom does not lead us to explain the order of the universe but to live within it under the sovereign control of God. A large portion of the dialog is an attempt to explain the order of the world in terms of justice and retribution; but in the end this effort is condemned by God. "Job's friends cherished religious conviction more than a vital relationship with the living God, for they believed in a rational deity who was enslaved by a greater principle: justice" (Crenshaw 1981:118).

Job is a solemn reminder that our attempts to defend the order of God may not be honoring to him at all. Although Job is overwhelmed by God to the point that he is brought to silence and submission, God, in the end, takes his side-the side of the man who had challenged the divine rule-and Job must offer sacrifices for his three friends (42:7-8; cf. Barr 1971:46). The profound lesson of the book of Job would seem to be that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Humans face the problem of suffering on both a rational and an existential level. On a rational level, the problem is one of justice; on an existential level, the question is one of how to respond to inexplicable suffering. The question of why innocent people suffer is intellectual; the practical question is what the innocent should do when suffering comes upon them. In the book of Job we see more than one response. In the prologue Job is reverent and accepting, but in the dialog we find him rejecting his very life (9:21). The fundamental issue is Job's relationship to God. When Job could not bow in submission to the divine "theft" of his property, family, and health, there was still no question but that he must plead his innocence before God and find his hope and life there.

The lament of Job "unfolds a curious situation which bristles with irony" (Crenshaw 1981:109). On the one hand, Job endeavored to escape God's constant vigilance; on the other, he longed to find the God who concealed himself from his former friend. God could not be responsible for such antagonism, but Job knew that such misfortune must be a part of the ruling hand of God. The speeches of God removed Job from the center of the picture and destroyed the illusion that he was at the heart of the universe. Job was not able to determine the order of the universe, nor did he understand his suffering. He was, however, able to meet God as someone other than a hostile enemy and to submit to him as a child of the earth (42:6). Job, who earlier had rejected his life, saw God and rejected his former attitude (42:5-6). "Seeing God" was not a sensory perception but a personal encounter. The crucible of life experience led to a more profound reverence for God.

The book of Job excels as an example of wisdom literature. The search for wisdom must begin on the path of understanding the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7; 9:10). Job began as an individual uncompromising in his integrity and his desire to revere God. No effort may be spared in the search for wisdom (Prov 2:1-4). Job was relentless in his pursuit of God, even in his pain and anguish. The end result of wisdom is not some new rational insight but a more profound comprehension of the fear of the Lord (Prov 2:5-6). Skladny defines the fear of the Lord as the instinctive and intuitive recognition of the total claim of God in religious and moral issues (1961:15). In the end, Job came to terms with this claim in a way that was not possible at the beginning; he was able to speak rightly about God (42:7-8). The theodicy of Job's friends proved to be their liability. Job had no such answers for the moral problem of evil in the world, but he was rewarded for his uncompromising submission to the claim of God upon his life. This is true wisdom.


As is the case with a large portion of the literature of the Old Testament, the book of Job is anonymous. We know nothing of the identity or the life circumstances of the author, but from his work we do know something about him as a person. The book of Job has its origin among the wise. In ancient Israel, there were three primary means of revelation: law, prophecy, and wisdom. This is observed when those who rejected the prophetic warnings of Jeremiah laid plot against him, assuring themselves that the "law will not fail from the priest, nor counsel from the wise man, nor the word from the prophet" (Jer 18:18, my translation). Similarly, Ezekiel's warning to the rebels of Jerusalem mentions these same three means: "They will look in vain for a vision from the prophet, the law will fail from the priest, and counsel from the wise" (Ezek 7:26, my translation). The author of Job speaks from within the circles of the wise rather than from the ranks of the priests or prophets.

It is often assumed that there was a professional class of wise men in Israel as was the case in Egypt and Mesopotamia. A royal court of wise men responsible for the education of the royal family and other bureaucrats was indispensable to aspiring rulers. They needed to learn proper speech, correct etiquette, interpersonal relationships, and all the skills that enabled them to function as elites. This was less necessary in Israel for at least two reasons: they did not have the complex writing systems of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the whole specialized technique of reading omens was excluded in Israel (Crenshaw 1981:28). There probably was a class of wise men in Israel, such as the men of Hezekiah who collected proverbs (Prov 25:1). However, in Israel the wise, as a class, were those who stood in opposition to fools. Their instruction had less to do with the finer details of court life and more to do with the ordinary struggles of living a good life. The setting for the vast majority of proverbs and wisdom sayings was the family. The continuity of the wisdom tradition is expressly said to rest within the family (Prov 4:1-5). The purveyors of wisdom did not necessarily have a particular affiliation with a recognized group of scholars. Their inspiration and authority was recognized in the exercise of their craft; the author of a magisterial work like that of Job would be known as one of the wise regardless of any particular social position or function.

There have been various proposals suggesting that the book of Job originated outside of Israel. Humbert argued that the book was of Egyptian origin, based on the extensive development of wisdom literature in Egypt. He notes the detailed and knowledgeable descriptions of the hippopotamus and the crocodile in the God speeches (40:15-41:34) and the reference to ships of papyrus plying the waters (9:26). Though wisdom was highly advanced in Egypt, nothing in that literature begins to approach the profundity and the scope of Job. Another suggestion is that the book of Job was originally Arabic, which would account for its universal spirit and the difficulty of its language. However, the polytheism of the pre-Islamic, Arabic-speaking world could hardly have furnished the background for the spiritual and intellectual concerns which inspired the author of Job. Pfeiffer, who believed that Edomite tradition served as one source for the documents of the Pentateuch, insisted that Job was thoroughly Edomite wisdom. Altogether, these observations of influences outside of Israel merely indicate the inclusive nature of the material in the composition (Fohrer 1989:42-43); the author used all manner of information from Egypt and Mesopotamia, and drew on the full resources of the Hebrew language, which was far more extensive than that preserved in the pages of the Bible.

It can readily be seen that the writers of the wisdom literature of the Bible, as a whole, drew on material from the common cultural environment. For example, the thirty sayings referred to in Proverbs 22:20 are not only modeled on the thirty sayings of the Egyptian work of Amenemope, but there is also an overlap of form and content. It is also true that wisdom made much use of observations from the natural world. This, however, does not make it less theological. Wisdom embodied timeless, universal principles via concrete illustrations from and applications to a particular historical life situation. Religion and faith were present in every experience, for the wise did not divide their world into the sacred and profane. Even the most profane experience was religious, for it was always a part of life within the divine order (Nel 1978:34). Wisdom derived its authority from its theological context within the religious community of Israel. In bringing a wide variety of experiences and information to the text, the author of Job was completely within this Hebrew wisdom tradition.

Another observation that appears to favor authorship from outside of Israel is that Job, the hero, is depicted as living in north Arabia or possibly Edom. Furthermore, in most of the book God is not addressed by his Israelite name, Yahweh. The author made no direct reference to any of the historical traditions of the Hebrew people. But these facts only mean that he succeeded in disguising his own age and background in the portrayal of his hero (Clines 1989:lvii). There is no question that the poet had deep roots in the traditions of Israel and that the universalism of Job is authentically Hebrew. The evidence for the Hebrew background of the author is all the more impressive because it is incidental and unconscious (Gordis 1965:214). The national name for God appears at Job 12:9, betraying a reminiscence of a familiar passage in Isaiah 41:20: "it is the Lord [Yahweh] who has done this." In describing a hippopotamus lying placidly in the stream, the proper name Jordan is parallel to the generic reference to a river: "It is not disturbed by the raging river, not concerned when the swelling Jordan rushes around it" (40:23).

Though the search for allusions to other biblical literature can become too speculative, it seems that the poet was familiar with other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the touching lament of Job in 7:17-18 is even more moving when it is recognized as a conscious parody of the triumphant declaration of the glory of humankind expressed in Psalm 8:4-5. The psalmist could say, "What are people that you should think about them, mere mortals that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor." Job can only lament, "What are people, that you should make so much of us, that you should think of us so often? For you examine us every morning and test us every moment." Eliphaz mocked Job's claim to wisdom (15:7-8): "Were you the first person ever born? Were you born before the hills were made?" In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom boasts of being the first and most beloved of God's works: "The Lord formed me from the beginning ... Before the mountains were formed, before the hills, I was born" (Prov 8:22, 25).

The ethical code of Job's confession of integrity (ch 31) is a statement of the ideals of justice, equality, reverence, and consideration for the weak enjoined in the law and the prophets. The three basic violations of murder, theft, and adultery are mentioned in 24:14-16 just as in the covenant stipulations (Exod 20:13-15). Though the author of Job drew on a vast array of experience and education, his fundamental view of life was shaped by the Hebrew precept that "the fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom."


Excerpted from CORNERSTONE BIBLICAL COMMENTARY Copyright ©2006 by August H. Konkel. Excerpted by permission.
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