Lecture 05: The Historical Setting of Job | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 05: The Historical Setting of Job

Course: The Book of Job

Lecture: The Historical Setting of Job


I. Geographical Overview

In today’s lecture, we are going to look at the historical setting of Job. It is kind of surprising and kind of difficult. In order to do this, I want to give you a broad overview of the geography and history of The Ancient Near East. It will be a little unusual because I’m going to give you all this information and then you are going to see how little information there is or how confusing the information can be in the book of Job.

Let’s begin with an overview of the geography of the Ancient World from the Old Testament perspective. As we look at the map we can start in the East. We have here what is now Iran, eventually it became the Medio-Persian Empire. One of the earliest societies in this area was Elam. We will mention Elam a little bit later. Going a little bit toward the west we have the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, otherwise known as Mesopotamia. Here is the city of Babylon. Up here you have the city of Nineveh, which was the center of the Assyrian Empire where Jonah went. Down here you have the city of Ur. I mentioned earlier in the lectures the Sumerians as the earliest people. This was the center of early Sumeria, so this is where they dwelt, right down here in the lower Tigris Euphrates Valley. Here you obviously have Arabia. From the standpoint of the Bible, two of the most important peoples from Arabia are first of all the Midianites who dwelt right here in the northwestern corner of Arabia. You can’t see it on the map, but down at the bottom was Saba, which was a major kingdom in southwestern Arabia, better known to us as Sheba, from which the Queen of Sheba came. By the way, the Midianites are important, why? Because that is where Moses went after he fled from the Egyptians.

We come up here and we have the Ararat Mountains, the Caucasus Mountains and we have the upper Tigris and Euphrates Valleys; and here we have Syria. Syria eventually became a kingdom that would constantly fight against the Israelites. Up here we have the heartland of an ancient kingdom called the Mitanni. Here we have Asia Minor, which we now of course call Turkey, as it is sometimes called, Anatolia. This was a region that didn’t have a lot of direct interaction with the Israelites, but a famous empire, the Hittites, was here. We will talk about all of these different peoples in a moment.

We have talked about Arabia, we have talked about Syria. Here on the coastline were the cities of the Phoenicians, a seafaring people who sent out ships all across the Mediterranean. You come down into what now of course we call Israel, for a time was Ancient Canaan and then became Israel. Down here of course you have the land of Egypt. We will talk more about Egypt and its significance for understanding Job later in the course. The interesting thing about Egypt is this: Egypt was approximately 500 miles long, following the Nile River; and except for this part, the delta in the north, it was 5 miles wide. So you have a country that for the most part is 500 miles long and 5 miles wide. Why is that? Because the Nile River was the only part of it that was inhabitable by any number of people. Outside of the Nile River Valley was just desert. So you have Egypt all along the Nile River. In the delta area, the triangular delta area, of course you could have more people.

Way down below Egypt, below what we can see on this map, was the kingdom of Cush, which in our time is roughly Ethiopia. The Cushites will appear at various parts in the Bible. Moving over, we are getting away from the Old Testament world. The Old Testament will occasionally mention the Island of Cyprus. Then late in the Old Testament period you get into the Greek world where you have of course mainland Greece. All of this around the Aegean Sea, these were all Greek cities, so this was the Greek world. Moving further out to the west you have Ancient Libya, which had interaction with Egypt, otherwise was not too important for the Bible.

This is The Ancient World as it relates to the Old Testament. Again, this is just kind of background for you. I hope it is helpful. I hope if you have never had sort of an overview, this will be useful to you.

II. Historical Overview

Let me just give you a quick overview now of the historical world of the Old Testament.

A. Sumerians and Egyptians

We begin 3rd millennium BC, roughly 2000 to 3000, with two societies, two civilizations, the Sumerians and the Egyptians. The Egyptians of course are in
Egypt in the Nile Valley. We talked about the homelands of Sumer located in the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valleys. Again, these peoples are very, very early. Their society, their civilization ended before pretty much anything we think of as the Old Testament world. So they are not only pre-Israelite, they are pre-Abraham. They are really, really ancient societies.

B. Early Assyrian

After that we have the early Assyrian period. The Assyrians again were located along the Tigris River; and from about 2350 to 2050 BC the Assyrians had an
empire in that period.

C. Early Babylonia

After the Assyrians, there was an empire of the Babylonians. This was an ancient Babylonian Empire, of course located at Babylon. This was probably well-known to you because they had a very famous king by the name of Hammurabi and Hammurabi is the one who left behind a law code that has been heavily studied since. This is the Old Babylonian Empire, roughly 1800 to 1700 BC.

D. Egypt

Now we can do a quick survey of Egypt. Egypt historically is divided into two parts. There is the northern part of Egypt, which is called lower Egypt or the delta. The reason the northern part is called “lower” is because the river flows from south to north. So lower Egypt is the delta and then all the Nile River Valley south of the delta is upper Egypt. Very early Egypt was divided actually into two kind of separate kingdoms, one centered in lower Egypt, the other in upper Egypt. That was united and we began what was called The Old Kingdom Period. The Old Kingdom Period goes from about 2700 to 2200 BC, that is when the pyramids were built.

You then have a period called The Middle Kingdom Period, that is roughly 2050 to 1710 BC and that was a period when Egypt had a great empire and was
flourishing. Perhaps Joseph was in Egypt at that time, it is hard to fix the dates precisely.

You then have The New Kingdom Period, 1550 to 1070 BC. This was another period when Egypt was a great empire and very powerful. The exodus of the
Israelites from Egypt fits within this period.

Then finally you have First Millennium Egypt during the period from 1000 BC to the time of Christ, and this was when Egypt was typically weaker, but still an active player and you have a lot of involvement of Egypt with Israel at this time.

E. Elam

Other kingdoms to be aware of. Elam, I mentioned, was a kingdom that is
mentioned here and sometimes appears in the Old Testament.

F. Middle Assyrian

There was a Middle Assyrian Kingdom. This was a kingdom again in this heartland of the Assyrian Empire, so it was another Assyrian empire after the old one had fallen. Not a whole lot of direct interaction with the Bible from this period, but you do have a number of texts that they produced that are similar to Biblical texts.

G. Hittites

You have the Hittites. The Hittites appear in the Bible. We remember that Abraham purchased a cave from some Hittites. The Hittites had an empire
centered in what we now call Turkey or Asia Minor, though they did spread out and some Hittites made it as far south as Canaan.

H. Mitanni

There were other kingdoms that we can be aware of, some of which directly interacted with the Israelites, some that didn’t. There was, as I said, a kingdom for a time called the Kingdom of Mitanni.

I. Syria and Damascus

There was the Kingdom of Syria. The Kingdom of Syria had its capital at Damascus. It had a lot of involvement with the Israelites. Damascus and the northern kingdom of Israel were constantly fighting wars, roughly from 1000 BC to 730 BC.

J. Arabia

We then have a couple of areas that I have already mentioned, so just to remind you, in Arabia we had the Kingdom of Midian and the Kingdom of Saba, or Sheba.

Midian had relationship with the Israelites in that the Israelites went through there. Moses married a Midianite. The people of Saba sent their Queen of Sheba to visit Israel in the time of Solomon.

K. Neo-Assyrian Empire

We then come to the period of the Bible that is most familiar to us, when the Israelites were fighting with great empires. They fought for a while with the Neo-Assyrian Empire, so there were actually three different periods of Assyrian Empire. There was an Assyrian Empire in the old period, in the middle period and the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Neo-Assyrian Empire is the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. In 722 BC they came through and they destroyed the northern kingdom and in the process destroyed their capital city of Samaria. The Neo-Assyrian Empire is 911 BC to 609 BC.

L. Neo-Babylonian Empire

The Neo-Babylonian Empire dates from 612 to 539 BC. Again, they were obviously centered at Babylon. There was an old Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi, this is 1,000 years later. The Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar the Second is the empire that destroyed the city of Jerusalem.

M. Media and Persia

After that we have the Medians and the Persians that formed the Persian Empire, which lasted from roughly 600 BC to 331 BC. The Persians, of course, came out of what we now call Persia. It was originally Media and Persia, the two came together. They conquered Babylon, they conquered this area here. They also, of course, took all of this land and they allowed the Jews to go back from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild their city.

N. Israel

At the middle of it all in the Biblical story is of course Israel.

III. Job Does Not Locate Its Story Geographically or Historically

That is a really fast, broad overview of almost 3,000 years of ancient history. All these peoples, all these kingdoms, all these places. Where does the book of Job fit in? That is a really good question because Job does not tie its events to anything in Ancient Near Eastern history. It does not tie it to any people or places that we can readily or easily identify. But let’s try to make a go of it.

IV. The Raiders Who Attacked Job Were Sabeans and Chaldeans

Let’s begin with the raiders who attacked Job’s household. You remember, in chapter 1 Satan has challenged Job. God says to Satan, “Okay, you can go ahead and take away all of his stuff, all of his possessions, just don’t harm Job the man.” Job is just at home, minding his own business, everything is fine; and he starts to get these really terrible messages from people.

So we read in Job 1:13: “One day Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only person who escaped to tell you!’”

A. Sabeans

Who are the Sabeans? It’s possible that they are from Saba or what we call Sheba, way down in southwestern Arabia, the same people that sent the Queen of Sheba. It is possible that the Sabeans are from here. Most scholars, however, believe that the Sabeans are from Cush. Where was Cush again? Here is Egypt, Ethiopia, way down here. Either they came from way down in southern Arabia or they came from way down south of Egypt. Anyway you look at it, they came from far, far away.

Then the passage goes on, verse 17: “While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword and I am the only one who escaped to tell you.’”

B. Chaldeans

So the Chaldeans were another raiding party that attacked Job. Where in the world were the Chaldeans from? The Bible refers to the Chaldeans a great deal. The first place we hear of the Chaldeans is Genesis 11:28 where it says, “Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees.” So Ur is this city in the land of Sumer. It flourished around 2200, 2100 BC, before it was destroyed. So perhaps this is the Ur that Genesis 11 is talking about. That is not entirely certain, however.

There is a good argument to be made that the Ur that Genesis is talking about is actually up here. Up here is where we have the city of Haran and that is where Abraham always sent his family back to. That is where he sent his servant to go find a wife for his son, Isaac. That is where Jacob fled after he was threatened by his brother Esau. There is good reason to think that the Ur of the Chaldees of Genesis 11:28 is not this Ur, but it is some city up in this area. So we don’t even know where Ur was that the Bible is talking about. But that is the only place where you have Ur of the Chaldees.

For the most part, the Chaldees are very familiar as the people who ran the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Remember, that is around the year 600 BC. It was centered here at Babylon. When you read the book of Daniel, for example, you see that the people who controlled Babylon, who ran Babylon, were all Chaldeans. Nebuchadnezzar the Second was a Chaldean. Elsewhere the Chaldeans are always described in this general region in the Bible. They only appear at earliest in any of our historical texts around 900 BC. That is quite a difficulty. We don’t quite know what to make of the Chaldeans who attacked Job and his family. But we do have the two peoples – the Sabeans and the Chaldeans; the Sabeans from way down in Arabia, or perhaps way down in Ethiopia; the Chaldeans apparently from this region of Babylonia, perhaps from Elam here. There is some association of the Chaldeans with Elam.

That doesn’t help us a whole lot. We do know a little bit about these people who are raiders, but not much.

V. Major Characters in the Book of Job

A. Job

What about the major characters themselves? Job is said to be from Uz. Job 1:1:”In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job.” What do we know about the land of Uz? It is mentioned several times in the Bible in Jeremiah 25:20 and Lamentations 4:21. The Lamentations passage indicates that Uz was in Edom. Where is Edom? Here is the land of Israel. You have Ammon and you have Moab and then Edom is here. Of course, Edom was the land of Esau, the brother of Jacob, the descendants of Esau.

So this passage implies to us that Job was from what we would now call Edom. However, there is a bit of a complication. Chapter 1:3 says “He was the greatest man of all of the people of the East.” People of the East translates a Hebrew phrase, [speaks Hebrew phrase] which means as translated, “people who come from the East.” That would seem to imply people from here somewhere. The Bible always refers to Edom as being in the south, not in the east. So on the one hand, Job is related to Uz, which seems to be related to Edom. But on the other hand, he is said to be the greatest of the men of the East, which implies he is from over here somewhere. It is very difficult to know what precisely to make of that.

B. Eliphaz

What about the three friends? Eliphaz was from Teman. We don’t know exactly where Teman was. Some say it was in Edom. Some say it was in Arabia. The name Teman just means “south.”

C. Bildad

Bildad was from a place called Shua. Bildad’s homeland of Shua was probably somewhere in the Assyrian area, in the middle of the Euphrates or Tigris Valleys area.

D. Zophar

Zophar is said to be a Naamathite from a place called Naaman, or perhaps Naamah. We don’t know where this was. There is no Naaman or Naamah, which would seem to be the place where Zophar is from. Possibly he too was from south Arabia.

E. Elihu

Elihu, the last guy to speak in all these big speeches, was said to be a Buzite from the land of Buz. This seems to be in Arabia, according to Jeremiah 25.

VI. Being Uncertain of the Geographical and Historical Background of Job Does Not Affect the Message

So we have again a lot of geographic diversity here. The three friends are seemingly probably from Arabia, maybe from around Babylonia. We don’t know
where they were all from. The people who raided Job were from way down in the south perhaps, or perhaps the Chaldeans from here in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

It is very, very difficult to pin down where these people were from and there is nothing in the story that relates to any specific historical incident.

When you put it all together, the book of Job just doesn’t tell us much of anything about his historical setting, when it was written, or even when the story is set. We have very briefly looked at the whole geography of The Ancient World. We have looked very quickly at the whole history of The Ancient World and frankly, it is very hard to know where the book of Job fits in.

Happily, that is not really an issue. Why do I say it is not an issue? Because when you are interpreting Isaiah, you have to know where Isaiah fits in relationship to the Assyrian Empire and the Assyrian invasion of Samaria, and then later of Judah. When you are studying the life of David, you have to know what were the major kingdoms of that time? Who were these people who he was fighting with? What was the geopolitical situation?

In the book of Job it is just not an issue. It may seem frustrating to us that we don’t know all of the answers to all these questions, but in terms of interpreting the book, it is really absolutely a non-issue.

VII. Language of Job

Before we get away from the background of the book of Job, I want to talk a little bit about the language. This is just so you will know what scholars wrestle with when they wrestle with the book of Job.

A. The Hebrew is difficult to interpret

The Hebrew of Job is regarded as the most difficult Hebrew in the entire Bible.

B. Possible explanations

There are four possible explanations for this. Why is the Hebrew so difficult? One is that it is a specific dialect of genuine Hebrew. It is Hebrew, but it is some kind of a dialect that is a little bit different from standard Hebrew, some would say.

Another possibility is that it is an artificial literary language that the author of Job has kind of modified Hebrew to sort of create his own version of Hebrew, and that is what the book of Job is written in.

Thirdly is that it is a mixture of Hebrew with some other language. Some people will say the Hebrew of Job has a lot of Aramaic in it or perhaps a lot of Arabic in it. We’ll talk about that in a moment.

Finally, some people say the book of Job was not originally written in Hebrew, it was written in some other language and translated into Hebrew.

These are four common theories that are used to explain the difficulties and the confusion around the book of Job. How can we respond to this? I would say first of all, it is possible that Job is in some specific dialect of Hebrew, but there is no way we can know that. Unless we find actual examples of this other type of Hebrew, this other dialect of Hebrew, it remains just a guess and a postulate. I don’t think we really need to pursue that. I don’t think there is any help in doing that.

Again, the first possibility is that it is some kind of dialect, but we cannot prove that, we cannot find any evidence to verify that. Is the language of the book
artificially literary? I think the author of Job drew upon a wide range of sources. Some of his language may be deliberately archaic; that is to say, he is writing in kind of an old style. Some of it may use dialects of Hebrew. So to some extent, he may have drawn upon different aspects of Hebrew, from different regions and different times, to sort of create this very high literary Hebrew that we see in the book of Job. That does not mean it is an artificial language, it just means he drew on a lot of different sources.

A third possibility is that his language drew heavily on Aramaic or Ugaritic or some other language like Arabic.

First of all, what is Aramaic? Aramaic is the language that was spoken up in the north. If you went north of Israel up into Damascus, to Syria, that would have been the language they spoke up there. Some people will say that there is a lot of Aramaic in Job, so maybe the book just drew heavily on Aramaic. Other people will say, “No, the best way to explain Job is by looking at Ugaritic.”

What is Ugaritic? There was an ancient city state that was destroyed in 1200 BC called Ugarit. This was located to the north of Israel. In the city of Ugarit
archeologists found all these clay tablets and on these clay tablets they discovered the language that was spoken at Ugarit and they deciphered it; and it
is now known as Ugaritic. A number of scholars said, there are a lot of similarities between Job and Ugaritic, so maybe he drew on Ugaritic. Other scholars, as I have already mentioned, think that there is a lot of Arabic type language in the book of Job. They can explain words in Job by looking for Arabic words that are similar, Arabic cognates.

All of this has value, all of it has some truth in it, but actually no single language dominates the book of Job. Let me put it real simply. The book of Job is Hebrew. It is not Aramaic. It has words that are similar to Aramaic, but it is not Aramaic. The book of Job is not in Ugaritic. It has words that are similar to Ugaritic and words that Ugaritic helps us to understand it, but it is Hebrew. Again, the book of Job is not Arabic, it is Hebrew. Again, Arabic is useful for understanding the Hebrew of Job, but it is a distinctive language.

Finally, the idea that Job was translated from either Aramaic or Arabic, this has been proposed by a few scholars, but nobody I think really buys it. What can we say about the language of Job? What would be my suggestions to you?

I would say this. First of all, the language of Job, for all of its difficulties, in my opinion it is basic Hebrew. It is not some other language. It is, however, the
language of a very skillful poet who had an enormous vocabulary. His vocabulary has parallels or similarities in these other languages. But that does not mean he drew on those languages, that doesn’t mean he copied those languages. It just means he had an enormous Hebrew vocabulary, much bigger than most people did, or most scholars do, for sure. Often the only way to figure out what some of his words mean is by looking to these other languages and trying to figure out, what does this word mean?

The real difficulty of the Hebrew of Job is not that the Hebrew is a strange Hebrew. It is not that the grammar is weird. It is not that it has peculiar structure
to it, or anything like that. The real problem with the Hebrew of Job is that he has, as I’ve just said, a gigantic vocabulary. There are many, many words in Job that appear nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. There are many words in Job that are in fact only used one time in the Hebrew Bible, and that is in the book of Job.

When you put it all together, it is just a man whose knowledge of Hebrew, whose vocabulary was immense. And he drew upon all of this to put together the book of Job. The most reasonable solution is that Job was by an accomplished poet with a large vocabulary. He drew upon all kinds of dialects of Hebrew. He drew upon various styles of speaking. He maybe would color the language of one of the speakers with the dialect he would use. But basically it is Biblical Hebrew. It is not something else.

C. The language of the book of Job gives some clue about when it was written

Does the language of Job help us to date the book? The answer is, no, not really, except for one thing. There is one thing about the book of Job and its Hebrew that helps us to date it. That is the spelling, which linguists call “the orthography.” The spelling of the Hebrew in the book of Job indicates that it is pre-seventh century BC, roughly 1000 BC up to at the very latest I would say 700 BC. What is going on there? How can I explain it to you? It is very simple. Later Hebrew uses extra letters to show vowels. If you know anything about Hebrew at all, you know early Hebrew was written with no vowels. But later on the Hebrews, the Israelites, developed a way of writing Hebrew that they would use extra letters to show different vowels. In the book of Job these extra letters are very rare; and that implies that it was written before the use of the vowel letters became common. Again, I would say it dates it to roughly 1000 BC down to I would say at latest, 700 BC.

D. Some scholars think that the text is corrupted

A few of the things about the language then and the text of Job. First of all, some scholars believe that the text of Job is heavily corrupted. When we say
“corrupted” we don’t mean bad or evil or something like that. We mean that it has a lot of scribal errors in it and that the only way to try to make sense of Job is to try to kind of fix the Hebrew, fix all the errors that scribes made. Personally I do not subscribe to this idea. I think that the thing about Job is, it’s
hard to understand again because it’s vocabulary is so immense and changing the text does not help us at all. Against some scholars, I do not think the Hebrew text of Job is corrupted or that it is filled with scribal errors or anything like that.

E. Ancient translations of Job

There are ancient translations of Job. These don’t really give us a great deal of help in understanding Job because the ancient translators had as much difficulty understanding Job as we do. So we simply have to work with what we have, with all the tools we have, to try to make sense of the Hebrew of the book.

F. Septuagint version is shorter than the Hebrew version

There is only one other thing about the language of Job that is kind of curious. There is an old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that is called the Septuagint. The Septuagint of the book of Job is shorter than the Hebrew text by about one-sixth. That is to say, the Hebrew text is one-sixth longer than this Greek translation.

What does that tell us? Again, I don’t think it tells us that the text of Job is corrupted or something like that. What actually seems to have happened is that
the translator of the Greek text of Job had a lot of problems with it. He had trouble understanding it; and to some extent he would summarize and
abbreviate. And especially when he got to some of the long, difficult speeches, especially when he came to the long speech of Elihu towards the end of the book, he really cut that down. I think, first of all, he found it hard to understand. Secondly, he just thought, this is really a long speech, so he cut it down. The ancient versions of Job really don’t tell us that much.

What have we covered today? First of all, the geography of The Ancient World and a brief overview of its history. What we learned is basically that it is hard to know where Job fits in this. Again, I don’t think that is a problem. In fact, I think it’s kind of a virtue, because if we knew the historical setting really well; if we knew exactly when and where Job came from, where he lived, where his friends came from; if we knew all of that precisely, we would try to use that historical understanding to interpret the book. But actually, none of that is necessary for Job.

The other thing we’ve looked at is the language and we’ve seen the language is difficult. Different scholars have different theories to account for this. But my answer would be again, very simply, Job is difficult because the poet was a great poet. If you think about a non-English speaker trying to read Shakespearean sonnets with all of his vocabulary and with all of his literary ability, it would be very difficult for them. That is what it is with Job. Job is a hard book, not because there is something wrong with the Hebrew, but because the author was such a master of Hebrew.

With that, we will finish up and next time we’ll look at a very interesting topic – I hope interesting to you – Job and apocalyptic literature.

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