Lecture 04: Biblical Genres in Job
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: Biblical Genres in Job
In this lecture we are going to consider the relationship of Job to other books in the Bible and how Job has made use of many of these genres and rhetorical patterns that you see elsewhere in the Bible.
I. Job Within the Biblical Canon
A. A wisdom book
The first thing, though, is to identify where Job fits within the Biblical canon. Job is a wisdom book. We have three books that are strictly speaking, wisdom books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job; and another book that could be loosely identified with wisdom, the Song of Songs.
Where does Job fit within wisdom? We need to begin actually with Proverbs. Proverbs is a book that concerns itself with the basic issues of life. Who is
Proverbs addressed to? It is addressed to the young man, actually what we would call a boy, 12, 13, 14 years old. This boy is setting out in life and he is going to have to make decisions that will affect the rest of his life. How does he behave himself? What are the skills he needs to acquire? Really, very major decisions. Is he going to live life honestly? Or is he going to join a gang and engage in burglary and theft and highway robbery? Is he going to be faithful to one woman for his entire life or is he going to go to prostitutes? And he has to learn all kinds of skills about dealing with people, about being reliable and responsible, about being honest; and he has to learn the fear of the Lord.
So what is Proverbs? Proverbs we could call “Wisdom 101.” It is not complicated wisdom. It is not wisdom that is filled with all kinds of dilemmas and confusion. It is not concerned with all of the exceptions. It is concerned with the basic rules that govern life. How should a young man conduct himself? How should he engage in life? What are the things he should do? That is what Proverbs is all about; and of course, being directed towards a young man, towards a boy, it is very simple, it is very straightforward in terms of the lessons it teaches. It does not raise hard, complicated, confusing issues.
B. It is “advanced” wisdom
We get into more advanced wisdom with Ecclesiastes and Job. In Ecclesiastes the principle issue, that is fate, is the issue of death and human finality. I can be as wise as I want. I can behave with great integrity. I can govern my affairs really well, and I am going to die just like any fool. Everything that I have accomplished in this world will die with me. Future generations won’t even remember my name. So that raises severe questions about, what is the place of wisdom and how should we live, and what really matters in life? As people search for meaning of life, they will consider that well, perhaps I should just try to get rich and enjoy life. So Ecclesiastes will wrestle with that. Maybe I should just try to become as powerful as possible, gain as much power as I can, so that at least I can just tell everybody else what to do. Ecclesiastes will address that issue as well. So the book of Ecclesiastes concerns the mortality of the human, the fact that all of our works are fleeting; and trying to determine, in light of all of that, how should I live?
The book of Job, as we have discussed, concerns the righteousness of God. Since so many evil people seem to do so well and since there are many good people who suffer terribly and who die young, where is the righteousness of God?
So I think you can see what is going on here. Proverbs is to give people the basic rules of life, not complicated, not filled with exceptions, just here is right and here is wrong, do the right thing. Ecclesiastes and Job are for people who already accept that. They know that it is true. Yet, other very grave questions have arisen, and so Ecclesiastes and Job deal with those very grave questions.
Song of Songs, by the way, deals with a very important issue of human life, that is to say, sexuality and love, and the relationship between a man and a woman. It is obviously perhaps the single most important issue one faces in this life; so it is understandable and a joyful thing that the Bible addresses this issue. So that is where Job fits within the canon of the Bible. It is wisdom literature of a very specific kind; wisdom literature that addresses really hard questions.
II. Biblical Genres in Job
In addition to Job having a place within the whole of the Bible, Job draws upon many texts of the Bible. It has many of the same patterns or as we say, “genres” that we see in these other texts. What is a genre? A genre is a kind of passage, a kind of text. Paul wrote letters, epistles. The epistle is a genre. We have books in the Old Testament that are historical narratives. Historical narratives is a genre.
We have proverbs of various kinds. We have messages from prophets. Those are all different genres that we have in the Old Testament. And it turns out that the book of Job uses many of these genres. Just by saying why this is worth exploring, it is worth exploring because it shows us what a rich literary text Job is. Job is a very complex text, written by a poet of surpassing skill. It draws upon a great deal of what we see throughout the Bible. I’m not saying it specifically copies these texts or that these texts are all exactly like Job, but that they are of the same type of text. So let’s compare a few.
Looking at the book of Job, we can look at certain passages and we have first and most obviously the lamentation. A lamentation is a text that is typically poetic in the Bible, in which the author bewails terrible things that have happened to him. So the first great lamentation in the book of Job is chapter 3. Job begins in chapter 3, verse 3, “May the day of my birth perish in the night it was said, ‘A boy is conceived.’ That day may it turn to darkness. May God above not care about it. May no light shine on it. May gloom and other darkness claim it once more. May a cloud settle over it. May blackness overwhelm it.” Then he says in verse 11, “Why did I not perish at birth and die as I came from the womb?” Then in verse 20, “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul?” So here we see in Job him bewailing his pain and bewailing it in very powerful terms. He says, “The day of my birth was a tragic event because I was born to nothing but misery and sorrow.”
We have other passages in the Bible that are also very powerful laments, in which the psalmist says things that surprise us. The most famous of these is Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One. You are the one Israel praises.” He goes on and he says in verse 6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me. They hurl insults, shaking their heads.”
We have here in Psalm 22 a classic example of a lament in which the speaker is distressed terribly. He also is being mocked. He is suffering. And he calls out to God. The thing I want you to see is again, not only that these are both laments and the book of Job obviously is using this genre; but how powerful they are expressed. Again, Job curses the day he was born and the psalmist says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So they both make use of very powerful language.
In addition to the lament, both Job and the rest of the Bible have the hymn. The hymn is a text in which the speaker praises God, declares his joy in God, his love for God, or simply the greatness of God. We have a number of hymn passages, hymn type passages in the book of Job. One, for example, comes in chapter 5, verses 9-16. Chapter 5, verse 9 begins: “He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. He (God) provides rain for the earth. He sends water on the countryside. The lowly he sets on high and those who mourn are lifted to safety. He thwarts the plans of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success…”
So here in the book of Job we see a good example of a hymn of praise to God. He is almighty. He is powerful. He rules all. He is gracious to the humble, but he puts down the proud and the wicked. Of course, we have many hymns in the rest of the Bible. For example, we have Psalm 94: “The Lord is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth, rise up, Judge of the earth, pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, O Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant. They pour out arrogant words. All evildoers are full of boasting.” It moves on in verse 9: “Does he who fashioned the ear not hear? Does he who formed the eye not see? Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches mankind lack knowledge? The Lord knows all human plans. He knows that they are futile. Blessed is the one you discipline, O Lord, the one you teach from your law.”
So we have in this passage again, God is great, he is powerful, he is all-knowing. He thwarts the wicked and he punishes them and those who turn aside from God do so to their own regret and with much pain.
We also have in Job something called “the proverb.” We know what proverbs are from the book of Proverbs. A proverb is a short, pithy little statement; typically it is in two lines and it establishes some truth. We have a fair number of proverbs within the book of Job and also elsewhere in the Bible, obviously of course in Proverbs.
We can find a proverb, for example, in chapter 5, verse 2: “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” That is a classic proverb. Notice it is in two lines, “Resentment kills a fool,” line one; and parallel to it, “and envy slays the simple,” line two. We have many of these kinds of proverbs within the book of Proverbs. For example, we can look to, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Again, a two-line proverb. In this case, the first line tells us positively, “A heart at peace gives peace.” Negatively, in the second line, “Envy rots the bones.” In those cases, you have a simple, two-line proverb that lays out truths about life and about God and about righteousness. That is what we have in Job and that is what we have frequently in the book of Proverbs.
D. Prophetic inspiration
There are also passages that claim prophetic inspiration in the book of Job. We are going to talk about this in great detail very soon. We have this especially in Job chapter 4, beginning in verse 12: “A word was secretly brought to me. My ears caught a whisper of it amid disquieting dreams in the night when deep sleep falls on people. Fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face and the hair of my body stood on end.”
This is a speech of Eliphaz and we are going to look at it in great detail. But the main thing to see here is, this is a claim of divine inspiration. It is a claim that he has had a word from the heavenly realm that a spirit has spoken to him. We have the same thing, of course, in the books of the prophets. Ezekiel chapter 3, verse 14 says, “The spirit then lifted me up and took me away and I went in bitterness and the anger of my spirit with the strong hand of the Lord on me.” So this is Ezekiel experiencing prophetic inspiration and he says the spirit grabbed him and seized him and took him away and gave him words.
What we have in the book of Job is the claim from Eliphaz, one of the three friends, to have prophetic inspiration and we will have to take a close look at
what he has to say, and see if it is bourn out.
E. Wisdom poem
In addition to prophetic inspiration, we have the wisdom poem. A wisdom poem is a poem in which some lesson is being taught, a poem that is focused on wisdom somehow and gives some kind of special instruction to the reader. The most famous of these is Job 28. Job 28 is a poem dedicated to wisdom, although this is another passage we will look at in great detail. The way it does it is quite unusual.
The wisdom in chapter 28, the wisdom poem begins like this: “There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined. Iron is taken from the earth and copper is smelted from ore.” It goes on and talks about how people search for precious metals and precious stones, and so forth. Then verse 12 says, “Where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? No mortal comprehends its worth. It cannot be found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘it is not in me.’ The sea says, ‘it’s not in me.’ It cannot be found with finest gold, nor can its price be weighed out with silver.”
So here in Job 28 it is a poem dedicated to wisdom, but it is unusual in that it is claiming that wisdom is beyond anything people can find. There is actually a kind of parallel to this in the book of Proverbs in Proverbs chapter 30. In Proverbs chapter 30 we have the author of this particular text aware of the fact that he lacks wisdom. He does not have as much wisdom as he would like to have. This passage is by Agur, the son of Jakeh and here is what he says, Proverbs chapter 30, verses 2-4: “I am more stupid than any other person. I lack a human’s ability to understand. I have not gained wisdom and I have no knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in his hands? Who has bound up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name and what is the name of his son, if you know? Every word of God is pure. He is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Don’t add to his words or he will rebuke you and you will be proved a liar.”
This is another wisdom poem, in this case from the book of Proverbs, and it is a very unusual one. You don’t see this kind of thing too often. It has this strong parallel in the book of Job. It is a man who is aware that there are problems he cannot solve, issues that are too deep for him, and he finally says, “You simply need to trust in very word of God.” That does have a strong parallel in the book of Job, as we will see when we look at this another time.
A more conventional wisdom poem is what you have in Proverbs 31. You are all aware of Proverbs 31 and the poem to the good wife. It begins like this: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.” The poem ends, “Honor her for all that her hands have done and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” That is a much more conventional wisdom poem. It is a poem which declares the nature of the virtuous woman. It lists out in detail all the things that she does, how she manages her household, how she runs the economy of her household, how she goes out and sells items in the marketplace, how she makes sure that her servants are provided for and also makes sure they are doing their duty; that she is in all respects a responsible, intelligent, compassionate woman.
That is a traditional wisdom poem. Again, what we have in Proverbs chapter 30, verses 2-4 and what we have in Job 28 is still a wisdom poem, but it is a different kind of wisdom poem. In those two cases, it is searching for wisdom, but being aware that you don’t have it.
F. Numeric saying
Then there is the numeric saying. A numeric saying is simply a saying in which you say something like, “There are three things, no, there are four” or, “there are six things, no, there are seven.” It always has this pattern of first giving one number and then giving that number plus one. So three, then four; six, then seven; something like that. You have that in the book of Job and you have it elsewhere in the Bible.
For example, in the book of Job, chapter 5, verse 19: “From six calamities, He will rescue you. In seven, no harm will touch you.” So that is a very conventional way of speaking among the sages of wisdom literature. When they want to make a point and they want to say, “There are a whole bunch of things here that are important,” they will give two numbers like six and seven, or three and four, something like that. We have the same thing elsewhere. In the book of Proverbs you have a number of numerical sayings. For example: Proverbs, chapter 30, verse 15: “The leech has two daughters. Give! Give! they cry. There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say ‘Enough,’ the grave, the barren womb, land which is never satisfied with water and fire which never says, ‘Enough.’”
There you have a very good example of a numerical saying. There are three things; no, there are four. Again, this is a wisdom way of saying, “There are a lot
of things I could give as examples and here, I’ll give you three; no, no, I’ll give you four.” It is just a typical way of speaking in wisdom literature.
G. Reflective questioning
Then there is what we could call reflective questioning. Reflective questioning is when someone is struggling with an issue and they are trying to understand it and they voice out loud their concerns, their uncertainty and they invite the reader to participate in searching for an answer. We have this quite a bit in the book of Job. For example, in Job chapter 21 we have in verses 17-19: “Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out? How often does calamity come upon them, the fate God allots in his anger? How often are they like the straw before the wind, like chaff swept away by a gale? It is said, ‘God stores up punishment of the wicked for their children.’ Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves may experience it. Let their own eyes see their destruction. Let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty. For what do they care about the families they leave behind when their allotted months come to an end?”
This is reflective questioning over the issue of the justice of God. What does it say? It says, I can look around and I can see lots of wicked people who are not being punished by anybody. Why doesn’t God punish these wicked people? Well, you might answer, maybe God is planning to punish their children. To this, Job says, What is the point of that? They will be dead. What do they care if their children get punished when they are long gone. So, this is Job struggling with the issue of the righteousness of God and doing it by raising these rhetorical, reflective questions, designed to challenge the reader.
The other book in the Bible that uses a great deal of the technique of reflective questioning is the book of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes we have where there is this questioning and struggling about why we should be wise, how we should behave in light of the fact that everything we accomplish turns to dust. We die, our works die. What can we say about it? Here is an example. This is Ecclesiastes chapter 9, verses 2 and 3: “All share a common destiny, the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so it is with the sinful. As it is with those who take oaths, so it is with those who are afraid to take them.” We can read on. “This is an evil in everything that happens under the sun, the same destiny overtakes all. The hardest people moreover are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live; and afterwards, they join the dead.”
So here we have in the book of Ecclesiastes where the sage, Solomon, is struggling with the question of, in the end of all things, what is the point of being
wise? If you are good, or if you are bad, you’re going to die. If you are just, or you are unjust, you are going to die. If you are wise or you are foolish, you’re going to die. So, what is the point? It is related to, but not exactly the same as the book of Job. Because in Ecclesiastes, the question is not really the righteousness of God, it is the human condition. It is the mere fact of mortality and the fact of death, that makes so much of our efforts seem futile and fleeting and passing.
Whereas in the book of Job, as we just read, it is the righteousness of God that is the issue. Why doesn’t God do something about all of these wicked people? Why doesn’t God do something to help all of these suffering people? So you have in this technique of reflective questioning a pattern whereby Job employs a common standard wisdom technique to force the reader to engage in the questions that the book of Job itself is engaged in.
So what can we say about this? The book of Job draws upon all kinds of elements of Biblical literature. There are laments, there are hymns, there are proverbs, there is at least one claim to being inspired by a spirit. There are poems devoted to wisdom, there are numeric sayings and most especially there are these reflective questions.
Again, what it means is this: Job has drawn on many types of literature, but it does not belong singly to any one of these categories. These are just literary
techniques that Job uses to get his message across. As we recognize these things, we should be in a better position to understand them. There are other parallels to the book of Job that we will examine in a future lecture. Especially surprisingly, Job has a lot of similarities to apocalyptic literature, especially the book of Revelation. When we look at that, it will help us even further understand how Job has made use of many Biblical patterns and Biblical types to give us its message.
But for now, we should simply understand that the poet behind the book of Job was a master of the text. He was a master of the literature. He knew his material and he has given us what is perhaps the high point of ancient Israelite wisdom as a literary answer to a theological problem.