Lecture 03: ANE Literary Parallels
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: ANE Literary Parallels
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
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.
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.