The Book of Job - Lesson 3

Ancient Near Eastern Literary Parallels

Other cultures in the ancient near east created literature with themes that are similar to the book of Job. The book of Job is unique because of his character and the answer that the book provides for the situation he is in.

Duane Garrett
The Book of Job
Lesson 3
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Ancient Near Eastern Literary Parallels

I. Parallels in Literature Outside the Bible

A. Mesopotamian myth of Atrahasis

B. Babylonian prayer to Marduk

C. Babylonian "Ludlul bel nemeqi" ("I will praise the lord of wisdom")

D. Sumerian "A Man and His God"

E. Canaanite, describes the trials of "King Keret," who like Job, lost 7 sons

F. Egyptian "Protests of the Eloquent Peasant"

II. Differences from Job

A. In no case is the sufferer absolutely righteous

B. The god does not appear and give an answer

C. The text in Job is more compelling and balanced

III. Significance

A. The ancient literature of lamentation influenced Job

B. The book of Job answers the question that other literature only raises

Class Resources
  • When you see what you would describe as evil and injustice in the world, how does that affect your view of God? When someone is suffering, do you assume that it’s because they are getting what they deserve? This lecture gives you an overview of book of Job by describing his situation, how he interacts with his friends and God, and what we can learn about how God is managing the world.

  • Because there is nothing specific in the text that tells you when the book of Job was written, the sections in Job that allude to other passages of scripture give you some helpful clues. The structure of the book of Job focuses your attention on the main subject of the book which is God’s wisdom.

  • Other cultures in the ancient near east created literature with themes that are similar to the book of Job. The book of Job is unique because of his character and the answer that the book provides for the situation he is in.

  • Job is one of the wisdom books of the Old Testament. It covers more “advanced” topics than Proverbs and uses a variety of literary genres and allusions to other Biblical passages to explain and illustrate profound truths about God’s nature and his involvement in the world.

  • There is limited information in the book of Job about its geographical and historical background. However, it can be helpful to understand general information about the geography and history of the area to give you a context for reading and studying the book of Job. The author of the book of Job was a Hebrew poet who had an extensive vocabulary. Being uncertain about history and geography is good because the message is timeless.

  • Job contains literary elements that are similar to what you find in other Biblical books that are Apocalyptic. These elements include depictions of events in heaven and on earth, the emphasis on specific numbers and persevering in your faith in God, the references to mythological animals and God’s supernatural control of all events. 

  • Satan appears before God with an accusation against Job. Even though Job is described as, “upright and blameless,” Satan accuses Job of serving God only because Job is prosperous. God allows Satan to take away Job’s possessions, children and health. The remainder of the book is the dialogue of Job and his friends attempting to determine why this is happening.

  • Job curses the day he was born. When you carefully examine what he is saying, you realize that it is more intense than just saying that he wished he had never lived.

  • Eliphaz begins tactfully in his remarks to Job. He did not intend to do harm. However, he thinks God is causing Job to suffer because of a sin Job committed. He speaks accurately of the justice of God, but in Job’s case he misapplies it. He also gives a message he received from the, “night spirit.”

  • Eliphaz considers the message of the, “night spirit” a revelation from God. However, at it’s core, this message is inconsistent with God’s attitude toward Job, and creation in general.

  • Job’s theological worldview has fallen apart because he knows he doesn’t deserve to suffer. Eliphaz calls Job to repent. Job responds questioning why he is suffering, because according to his worldview, he hasn’t done anything to deserve it.   

  • Bildad is direct is his rebuke and admonition of Job. He uses metaphors to get his point across.

  • When Job’s friends describe God as all powerful in an attempt to comfort Job, he becomes terrified because he sees God as causing his suffering and there is nothing that can stop it.

  • Zophar assumes that Job is being punished because he sinned and accuses him of mocking God. Job's three friends move from tactful suggestions to open hostility. As Job is searching for answers, he becomes disappointed in his friends.

  • Job agrees with his friends that God is causing his suffering, but disagrees with them about why it’s happening. Job believes that God will eventually vindicate him.

  • Eliphaz appeals to the night spirit and the tradition of the elders to tell Job that he is a babbling and blaspheming fool.

  • Job begins by criticizing what his friends are saying to him and then professes his faith in God. Bildad responds harshly to Job.

  • Even though Job’s friends have criticized him, he has grown in his faith in God. Job is worn out and begs for compassion. When he gets nothing but contempt and hostility instead, he confesses his faith and hope in God. The messianic theology of Job is different from any other book of the Bible.  

  • Zophar uses metaphors that are found in other passages of scripture as well as Job’s own words to accuse Job of being wicked. However, Zophar made a serious error, which we need to avoid in our lives.

  • Job continues to wrestle with the presence of evil in the world and the apparent injustice of God. 

  • Eliphaz attacks Job as being wicked by twisting the meaning of what Job has said previously. The irony is that Job will be reconciled to God and will pray for Eliphaz.

  • Job wants to lay out his case before God by claiming his innocence. Job says that God is hidden and does as he chooses, but that God neither judges the guilty nor helps the righteous. Bildad responds by contrasting God’s holiness and human lowliness.

  • Job sarcastically thanks the friends for their wise words, which he doesn’t think were wise at all.

  • This is a poem about wisdom that divides the content of the book and points to a deep truth. It is inserted by the author of the book and is not attributed to Job or the friends.

  • The crisis that Job is experiencing is not just the material losses and physical suffering, but also his crisis of faith. He thought he understood what his relationship with God is all about but he feels that God has abandoned him for no apparent reason. Job laments the pain he feels from being disgraced and humiliated.

  • This is the last major statement that Job makes, other than his responses to God that come later. Job is taking a series of oaths that he has not committed any of the sins he mentions. The Bible is distinctive in declaring that all people are created equally, in the image of God. In ancient cultures, some people intrinsically have more value than others because of heritage, wealth, gender, race, etc. God looks on everyone impartially.  

  • Elihu is not mentioned either before or after his speech. He claims to be perfect in knowledge. Elihu thinks that the other three did not convince Job because they did not give a satisfactory answer, but Elihu ends up repeating what they have already said. He thinks that the doctrine of retribution is the answer to Job’s situation. Elihu is a warning to us that we don’t have all the answers.

  • The questions of the book of Job are, “How does God address the problem of evil and why do we serve God? God created a world that is stable and not chaotic. Where there was chaos, God brought in light, shape and beauty. Chaotic forces are necessary for life and God controls them.

  • People in ancient Mesopotamia lived in constant fear of the chaos, danger, ferocity of nature and they valued subduing, controlling and pushing back nature. Wilderness was something to be tamed and pushed back by civilization. In the Gilgamesh epic poem, Enkidu is transformed into a civilized man who protects the domestic animals from the wild animals. In Egypt, there were gods of the Black Land and gods of the Red Land. God sees everything in the world as entirely under his control.

  • God’s care for the animals and how this relates to the problem of Job. All of the things that we see as chaos, and out of control depend on God and thrive because he provides for them and things that he manages and glories in. God describes nature as good, unlike the night spirit that describes it with contempt and loathing. God knows how to manage the chaotic elements of creation.

  • The societies of the Ancient Near East had a high concept of justice. It was the duty of the rulers to uphold justice and protect the powerless. If you are a man who leads, you need to make sure that evil is held in check. Listen to people who come to you with a grievance. God is asking Job if he comprehends what it means to bring justice to the world. It involves both power and wisdom.

  • Behemoth is the plural form of a Hebrew word that refers to animals in general also specifically to wild animals. In Job, it’s also used as a metaphor representing the composite forces of the powers of the earth that are against God.

  • Behemoth is a dangerous power that God must reckon with. Some people think this is an allusion to animals that God created in Genesis 1:24. “Lady Wisdom” is the wisdom that God built into creation. Behemoth is dangerous and a force to be reckoned with, not the embodiment of good behavior. One aspect of principalities and powers is forces outside of the world we can see. In Revelation, God protects people from the fury and wrath of the beast, which is an oppressive power that seeks to take the place of God.  

  • Job 41 describes Leviathan. Leviathan is not a natural animal like a crocodile. Sometimes Leviathan refers to a large sea creature, and sometimes death, chaos and the embodiment of evil. Satan is present at the first of the book but he is never mentioned again. In order for God to deal with evil in the world, he must defeat Leviathan.

  • Leviathan is a ferocious creature that no human can subdue. God is saying that he is willing to oppose Leviathan and  is not frightened of Leviathan or intimidated by his boasting. God is the one who will defeat this enemy who seems unbeatable to humans. God tells Job that he will deal with Leviathan but God doesn’t tell him how he will do it. Job embraced God’s answer even though Job didn’t know how God would deal with evil.

  • Job announces that he has changed his outlook on evil, God’s governance of the world and his own suffering. Job knew that God is all-powerful. Now Job knows something more about how God uses his power. Should God be merciful to people who will still be evil? Eschatological is an event that can only happen by a work of God. Emergence of divine power within the historical context. Job admits that he didn’t understand the complexity that is involved in God conquering evil. God forgives Job’s three friends because Job interceded for them. God is showing his approval with job by publicly restoring him.

  • Job’s suffering brought him to a new understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world. Job’s hope, and our hope, is in a heavenly redeemer that rose from the dead. Legalism comes about often when people hold to essential teachings but they don’t know God. They substitute the rules for relationship.

  • Job mentions composite animals similar to those described in other apocalyptic passages. Job had faith that God would do a work of salvation but didn’t understand everything that Jesus would do. There is a hidden plan of God to redeem people and conquer evil that is a major theme in apocryphal books and also in Job.

  • Job tells us about the heavenly mediator. Prior to his afflictions, Job’s life was almost god-like because he was relatively free of suffering. Job through his affliction, faces the problem of evil and the enormity of suffering in the human race. Even though some people commit evil and violent acts, Job describes them in pitiful terms.

  • Should virtue, or piety, be disinterested? If it’s not done for it’s own sake, is it real? Job’s love for God is not disinterested, but it is real.

If God is good and powerful, why do you see suffering in the world? Why do you serve God even when you experience suffering? How do you respond to others when they ask these questions? How have you answered them for yourself? These are such important questions that the entire book of Job is devoted discussing only these issues in the context of the perspective of the experiences of one person. 

The theme of the book of Job is timeless and singular. There are clues about its geographical and historical setting but nothing in the book itself that identifies the place or time of its writing. However, the setting is irrelevant because the questions that are addressed in the Book of Job are ones that people have asked in all cultures, throughout time. It would be distracting and even limiting to frame the dialogue in a specific time or culture. There are enough clues in the text to give you a general idea of the culture and time it was written in to help you understand the logic and metaphors used by the main characters in their dialogue. 

The complete book of Job is composed of the dialogue of Job, his friends and God regarding the issues of God's goodness, his power, and evil in the world. No historical events. No other personal, corporate or theological issues. Since these questions are central to your understanding of God's character and how he works in the world around us throughout history, the book of Job compels you to consider this question deeply and exhaustively. The point is that by the end of the book, you can understand and articulate who God is and how he works in your life and in the world. 

The value of this class is that Dr. Garrett helps you understand what the text means, the historical and theological implications, and how you apply it to your life. Dr. Garrett's knowledge of the Bible, understanding of the Hebrew language and background in Ancient Near Eastern history and culture inform his insights into the message of the book and what it means to you. He is skilled at explaining technical linguistic and theological issues in a way that helps you comprehend them and see how they apply to your life. Whether you are just beginning in your study of the Bible or you have had training at an advanced academic level, studying the Book of Job with Dr. Garrett has the potential change the way you understand God and also how you live each day. 

Recommended Books

The Book of Job: A Biblical Answer to Pain - Student Guide

The Book of Job: A Biblical Answer to Pain - Student Guide

This Student's Guide is for the class on The Book of Job in BiblicalTraining.org. It contains the outlines to the lectures, a summary of each point, and reflection...

The Book of Job: A Biblical Answer to Pain - Student Guide


I. Parallels in Literature Outside the Bible

Before we begin to take a close look at the text of Job, we want to consider literary parallels to the book of Job. The book was not written in a vacuum. It is
not the only book in the world that has some of these issues and concerns at its center. In fact, in the ancient world, especially from Mesopotamia, Babylon, that general area, we have a number of books that are very reminiscent of the book of Job. They have a number of similarities to the book of Job.

So in order to understand Job, it is a good thing to have a sense of what other books have been written and what they say and how the book of Job is distinct from those books, even as it kind of makes use of the genre of those books. So these are parallels from outside the Bible that are in some way similar to the book of Job, but by no means identical.

A. Mesopotamian myth of Atrahasis

The first is the Mesopotamian myth of Atrahasis. This is the story from the Mesopotamian point of view of the great flood. For our purposes, the important
parallel is the fact that the human race is described as filled with suffering and pain and people lose children in childbirth, women miscarry. There is all kind of suffering and pain in the world and the book of Atrahasis essentially says, “Well, God made the world that way” or “The gods made the world that way. That is just the way it is, they set it up that way and we just have to deal with it.”

B. Babylonian prayer to Marduk

A better parallel to the book of Job is called The Babylonian prayer to Marduk. This is a prayer in which a sufferer bewails his pain and his agony and he cries out to the god Marduk. Marduk was the high god of the city of Babylon. We see in this prayer something that is analogous to the book of Job where Job will turn to God, Job will pray repeatedly in his book. He will turn to God and he will speak of his pain and his agony and his suffering and wonder, why doesn’t God help him.

Let me read to you a little from the Prayer of Marduk, so you get a sense of what it is like:

O warrior Marduk, whose anger is as the deluge,
Whose relenting is that of a merciful father,
I am left anxious by speech unheeded,
My hopes are deceived by outcry unanswered,
Such as has sapped my courage,
And hunched me over like an aged man.
O great lord Marduk, merciful Lord!
Men, by whatever name,
What can they understand by their own efforts?
Who has not been negligent, which one has committed no sin?
Who can understand a god’s behavior?
I would fain be obedient and incur no sin,
Yes, I would frequent health!
Men are commanded by the gods to act under curse,
Divine affliction is for mankind to bear,
I am surely responsible for some neglect of you,
I have surely trespassed the limits set by the god.
Forget what I did in my youth, whatever it was,
Let your heart not well up against me!
Absolve my guilt, remit my punishment,
Clear me of confusion, free me of uncertainty,
Let no guilt of my father, my grandfather, my mother or
my grandmother, my brother, my sister, my family, kith or kin
Approach my own self, but let it be gone!

This is quite a remarkable prayer and it does have some significant parallels to Job. This man is suffering and he understands that his suffering has come from Marduk, but he doesn’t know what he has done wrong. Now there is a little difference from Job there, of course. Job knows that he is righteous, that he has done nothing wrong. This man simply doesn’t know what he has done wrong, but he cries out for mercy, he cries out for understanding. He says, “You know, which one of us humans never sins, so why are you so hard on me?” And we will have some echoes of that in the book of Job. He wants to be healthy again; and of course, Job is afflicted with disease. He says, “Men are commanded by God to act, even though they are under a curse.” So, Job feels himself under a curse.

He ends his speech by saying, “What is this? Did some guilt of some family member come down upon me, is that the reason I am suffering? If there is some sin I committed, please let me know what it was.” In Job we see many similarities, but again, there are some very important differences, the most significant of course, Job knows he is righteous and he will not yield on that fact.

C. Babylonian “Ludlul bel nemeqi” (“ I will praise the lord of wisdom”)

Another important parallel is a Babylonian work called “Ludlul bel nemeqi,” which is just Acadian and it means “I will praise the lord of wisdom.” So the title of the book is given in Acadian, but it means, “I will praise the lord of wisdom.” In this book again a sufferer bewails all that he has lost and it has a number of parallels to Job. In both, for example, the sufferer is saved after his god appears to him; and in both, they try to come to grips with why they suffer.

There is a big difference. The big difference is, Job will really wrestle with the question of the righteousness of God and in the end, offer us a solution
concerning the righteousness of God. This book, “Ludlul bel nemeqi,” is not that profound and it doesn’t wrestle on the level that the book of Job does. Here is a little excerpt from this book:

From the day the Lord punished me,
And the warrior Marduk became furious over me,
My own god threw me over and disappeared,
My goddess broke rank and vanished.
He cut off the benevolent angel who walked beside me,
My protecting spirit was frightened off, to seek out someone else.
My vigor was taken away, my manly appearance became gloomy,
My dignity escaped and lit on the roof.
Terrifying signs beset me:
I was forced out of my house, I wandered outside.
My omens were confused, they were contradictory every day.
The prognostication of the diviner and dream interpreter could not explain what I
was undergoing.
What was said in the street portended ill for me,
When I lay down at night, my dream was terrifying,
The king, incarnation of the gods, son of his peoples,
His heart hardened against me and appeasing him was impossible.
Courtiers were plotting hostile action against me,
They gathered themselves to instigate base deeds:
If the first said, “I will make him end his life”
Says the second, “I ousted (him) from his command!”
So also the third, “I will get my hands on his post!”
“I’ll come into his prosperity!” says the fourth
The fifth subverts the mind of fifty,
Sixth and seventh follow on his heels!
The clique of seven have massed their forces,
Merciless as fiends, the likeness to demons.
So one is their body, but seven is their mouths.
Their hearts fulminate against me, ablaze like fire.
Slander and lies try to lend credence against me.
My eloquent mouth they checked as with reins,
My lips, which used to discourse, became those of a deaf man.
My resounding call forth dumb,
My proud head turned feeble for terror,
My broad breast brushed against by a novice,
My far-reaching arms pinned by my clothing,
I, who walked so proudly, learned slinking,
I, so grand, became servile.

This is of course written from a pagan context. This man is a worshiper of gods and goddesses, especially the god Marduk, again, the god of Babylon. He
apparently was a high official and had a lot of power and people are clamoring to get his position, to come tear him down. But he laments the fact that he was once honored and that he once could walk proudly and boldly through the city; and now he slinks about because he is so broken.

Again, a lot of this will have parallels in the book of Job, although again, the book of Job is distinctive and ultimately much, much more profound.

D. Sumerian, “A Man and His God”

There is another work, a Sumerian work, called “A Man and His God.” What does “Sumerian” mean? It is from “Sumer” which is the oldest civilization of the
ancient Near East. This is before Babylonia and Assyria. This is way before the Nation of Israel existed. This is contemporary with the earliest Egyptian
civilization. So it is in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and what is now Iraq. It is an ancient civilization called Sumer, which existed roughly from 3,000 to 2,000 BC.

In this Sumerian work called “A Man and His God,” this person complains that one ought to rise to one’s gods, even when calamity strikes. Let me give you a brief excerpt from this:

My god, the day shines bright over
The Land, (but) for me the day has hardened,
The bright day has dawned upon me like a misty day.
Tears, lament, anguish and
Depression are lodged within me.
Suffering overwhelms me
Like a weeping child.
In the hands of Fate,
My features had been changed,
My breath of life has been carried off.

Again, what is going on here? We don’t know the whole story. We only have a very short text. But clearly, this is a person who is suffering greatly and is calling upon God to help him and to give him aid.

E. Canaanite, describes the trials of “King Keret,” who like Job, lost seven sons

We do have some other works that we can briefly mention. There is a Canaanite text from the city of Ugarit, which concerns a man named King Keret. King Keret was a rich man, a powerful man. He had seven sons and he lost it all; and he went and he complained to the gods to restore him and ultimately he is restored.

F. Egyptian “Protests of the Eloquent Peasant”

There is an Egyptian text called “The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant.” In this passage, we have a peasant who is oppressed, who is unjustly punished and is suffering and he makes a series of speeches about why do the poor and lowly people suffer so much and the rich and the powerful and the wicked just get away with everything.

All of these are parallels to the book of Job. We have in the ancient Near East, therefore, a whole series of texts that have strong parallels to the book of Job. A man is powerful, he is wealthy, he has high office, he is honored and he loses all his possessions, and he looks to the gods for explanations. He thinks maybe he sinned against the gods; and yet, he doesn’t know what is going on. He doesn’t know why. Or, we have a series of speeches that simply talk about the injustice in the world and ask, why is it this way?

So there are some very strong similarities between what is in Job and what is in the ancient Near Eastern texts.

II. Differences from Job

On the other hand, there are some pretty major differences as well. We have already mentioned them, but just to summarize very quickly.

A. In no case is the sufferer absolutely righteous

In no case is the sufferer absolutely righteous. He may not know what he did wrong. He may bewail the fact that everybody sins from time to time. But in no case is the man explicitly declared to be righteous, so that the reader has to figure out why in the world is the god afflicting him so much? Why is the god harming him so much?

B. The god does not appear and give an answer

In no case does the god, in the case of pagan literature, come down and explain everything that has happened. In short, there is no answer ever given. These texts at best will simply say, “Well, the best thing you can do is try to serve the gods and be pious and hope that they take notice and they don’t smash you. But, in fact, you never know what they are going to do. So, hope for the best.”

C. The text in Job is more compelling and balanced

Whereas in the book of Job we have a very specific answer from God that explains why there is injustice and what in fact is going on. The structure of the book of Job that we have already looked at, is much more compelling and balanced than anything we see in the pagan text. In the pagan text you simply will have a long passage such as I have read to you in which they bewail everything that is going wrong, and so forth. But as we have already seen, the book of Job has this highly structured pattern that comes to the question of how hard it is to find true wisdom and then it moves toward an answer. Everything about the book of Job, I guess I can say, is on a much higher level than anything we have in the pagan literature.

II. Significance

A. The ancient literature of lamentation influenced Job

I would want to say one other thing, though. It should not surprise us that Job has parallels to literature from the ancient world. Some Christians kind of want to believe that the Bible was written in a vacuum, that it did not have any kind of contact with the cultures around it; and that everything that the Bible has in it has no counterpart anywhere else. That does not make any sense and simply speaking, is not true. Pretty much all of the passages that I have read almost certainly were written before the book of Job.

B. The book of Job answers the question that other literature only raises

It is not that Job influenced these pagan texts. However, that should not trouble us because what the book of Job does is, it answers a universal human question. All of these other books, the best thing you can say about them is, they raise the question, human life is filled with injustice and with suffering, and why don’t the gods fix it all?

But in the book of Job we actually have an answer. So we can say on the one hand it is simply not at all surprising that the book of Job reflects concerns of its own world, of its own environment and uses some of the same language. But on the other hand, we can say the book of Job is a much higher book, a book that addresses the questions we have and does not leave us in misery, wondering why heaven doesn’t do something to save us from all of this.

So with that, we are finished with looking at pagan literature and next time we will look at Biblical parallels to the book of Job.