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423. Conclusion: So Why is The Book of Job Actually in the Bible?
A natural question arises. If the Book of Job is about leaving God or departing from faith, Why is it in the Bible? Isn’t the Bible supposed to be a book promoting, rather than attacking, faith in God? Isn’t faith supposed to be unalloyed good, something to be encouraged in young and old alike? Is it really ever a good thing to choose not to follow God? Three answers can be suggested, one historical, one literary and one philosophical. None may fully be satisfying, but often in the realm of faith one is left with partial or incomplete answers to urgent questions.
The historical argument is that from the evidence that remains Job was uniformly seen in antiquity not as a querulous questioner but as a patient sufferer. For example, the only reference to Job in the New Testament, in the Epistle of James, speaks of the patience of Job. “Indeed we count those blessed who showed endurance. You have heard of the patience/endurance (hypomene) of Job and have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). Most twenty-first century readers of the Book of Job would say, ‘Well, Job did exhibit a species of patience—for about two chapters!’ But those two chapters seem to have been the focus in antiquity.
The Testament of Job, for example, a Jewish work in twelve long chapters written about the same time or slightly earlier than the Epistle to James, devotes the first half of the work (Test Job 1-6) to a deep and florid retelling of Job 1-2; the next four chapters (Test Job 7-10) to the arguments and mistakes of the friends who visit Job, and the last two chapters (Test Job 11-12) to Job’s benevolent work and faith upon his restoration. Nary a mention is made of what we in the twenty-first century would consider the central point of the work, that is, an attempt to understand how deep loss and faith in a good God are compatible. Interesting also in the Testament of Job is a much larger role played by Job’s wife, called Sitidos, in this work. But Job is simply the patient sufferer.
Finally, that picture is confirmed by a work written between the writing of the Book of Job and the New Testament/Testament of Job. The Apocryphal Book of Tobit (probably end of third century BCE) presents the endearing story of a faithful person, Tobit, who endured all kinds of trials in his faithfulness to God. He is presented as an Israelite whisked off into captivity in Nineveh when Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BCE. When the reversals came to him, including blindness and loss of all his possessions, the text tells us: “Now this trial the Lord therefore permitted to happen to him, that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, as also of holy Job” (2:12). One of the reasons, then, that the Book of Job might be in the canon and also be read in the way suggested in these essays is that was read through the lens of Job as a patient sufferer in antiquity. Once that idea becomes fixed in the mind of readers, it becomes the interpretive filter or mental channel through which the book is read.
Examples abound in law or theology of how new meanings were “discovered” of passages or doctrines that were written long ago. Most recently, for example, Professor James Patterson was awarded the 2019 Grawemeyer prize in religion for his book on an early Christian baptismal formula, found in Galatians 3:26-28, in which he argued that its original and true meaning (sounding very twenty-first century) was to show earliest Christianity’s opposition to and struggle against bigotry, slavery and sexism. Later generations of Christians, either offended by or not ready to accept the radical message of this formula, quickly retreated to more comfortable categories of societal stratification and oppression of women. Patterson’s argument seems, to me, strained at various points, but the structure of his argument is not much different from mine. Explosive meaning in classical or sacred texts is often “overlooked” only to be “(re)discovered” much later. One might even look at the entire history of Protestantism as being launched by a “re-reading” of a text in Romans 1 that Luther took to mean that one is justified before God by faith alone. Thus, proposing a new reading of the Book of Job, a reading that might even undercut cherished values of faith, is certainly not unprecedented either in the history of religions (and law) or in the study of Job itself.
From a literary perspective, one might say that the Book of Job made it into the canon (and there apparently was never any debate on that one) because it was ‘too good to lose.’ Even if the Book of Job only presented a paean to the value of fidelity in suffering, it was still too good to lose. Job faced a reversal more debilitating than any human could imagine, and still was faithful (Job 1-2). The language of Job 3-41, though often confusing, is full of memorable quotations and vivid phrases. When compared with other works from antiquity on suffering, such as the Ugaritic “Story of Keret” or what has been dubbed “The Babylonian Job” or even the Book of Tobit, the literary grandeur and sophistication of the Biblical Book of Job stands out head and shoulders above the rest. It would be like Shaq in his prime playing with a group of ten year-olds. When this magnificent work was then read through the filter of Joban patience rather than Joban complaint, it is easy to see why it received zero “No votes” in the (Jewish) Council of Jamnia, which officially recognized the Books of our current Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.
Finally, from a philosophical perspective, the presence of Job in the Bible suggests the brimming confidence of Israel, a people really never lacking in self-confidence, with respect to its faith. The point would be that the story of Job in its full dress, presenting Job as patient and complaining sufferer, is no threat to a vital religion. Sometimes it even is good to recognize that, for some people, leaving faith in which they were nurtured and the God whom they were told would never leave them, is a good thing to do. Whether this departure from God may be termed a “sabbatical,” as I described Job’s “Sabbatical in Sheol” in my consideration of Job 14, or a more long-term departure, is up to the person who leaves. But how could you not respect a religion which says to people, ’Here is our experience of living, warts and all. Here is our experience with God, warts and all. It is a compelling story to us, and we hope it is so for you. But just maybe you will discover that such a belief in a good and compassionate God doesn’t make sense for you anymore. In that case, we even have a book for you! Take it with our blessing and read it as you leave!’ Rather than shunning a person who leaves the movement, as is the case with many religious groups today, such an approach would actually bless the person, sending them out, along with the Book of Job, into their new journey on the “ash heap” of their lives.
For all these reasons, then, it is a good thing, even a divine thing, that the Book of Job is in the Bible.