Define the place the book of Job occupies in the history of Israelite religion. In answering this question, make sure to address questions of linguistics, composition history, and history of ideas.
Looking for the historical context of Job is difficult because there are few if any historical markers within the text itself, and the questions that the text raises and the answers it proposes have been attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East for a long span of time. Ways at getting at a chronological period in order to assess Job’s place in the “history” of Israelite religion are to examine its linguistic character, the possible strata of its composition, as well as to examine the concepts and ideas that are developed within the text against a wider context.
To begin with, Job is only mentioned once outside of the book, in Ezekiel,—an exilic prophet—(which is not noteworthy by itself since most biblical characters are never cross-referenced) where he is mentioned as a paragon of righteousness together with Noah and Dan(i)el (Ezek 14:14;14:20). Many commentators argue, with the consonantal text, that it is not Daniel from the biblical book that is being referred to, but the Danʾel known from Ugaritic texts. As for Noah, although the character is known from biblical tradition, this figure is also mirrored in Mesopotamian tradition as Ut-napišti, Atra-ḫasis, or Ziusudra. If these figures are known in the wider ancient Near East as model examples of righteous living, it stands to reason that the character of Job also had a tradition surround him for similar accomplishments. The book of Job is likely an example of a story from a wider Job tradition.
These figures mentioned in Ezekiel are known from texts from the 2nd millennium and it has been argued that the contextual setting for the book of Job is in the distant past, a world mirroring the era of the patriarchs. This is shown by the long age of Job, the fact that wealth is measured in large numbers of livestock, Job as a non-priest can sacrifice with impunity, and a unit of money (qĕśîṭā) is mentioned that is only mentioned in Genesis and Joshua. True to the other figures paired with Job, Job is a non-Israelite from the land of Uz and the story is set in a distinctly non-Israelite setting.
The book of Job is also shares similarities with a group of texts that modern scholars have identified as Wisdom Literature. It has been argued that one of the salient characteristics of wisdom literature is its silence concerning the essential elements of “salvation history” that are highlighted in other books, like the patriarchs, sojourn in Egypt, the theophany of Sinai, etc. The sharp divide between the theologies of the wisdom books from other books of Bible was argued by G. von Rad, and it is argued by Walther Zimmerli that creation theology is wisdom theology. This kind of thinking has lead scholars like Crenshaw to propose that the worldview in wisdom literature was a viable alternative to Yahwism in antiquity. With this kind of outlook, finding the place of Job in Israelite religion would be problematic indeed. However, the recent trend has been to eschew attempts to compartmentalize professional classes within Israelite society and instead see the constraints of genre as the real reasons that “worldviews” can appear varied between texts. The fact that wisdom literature as s genre approaches issues outside of precise historical frameworks and expresses unique aspects of theological discourse make it difficult to cross-reference with any kind of chronological development of an alleged monolithic entity called “Israelite religion.”
Nevertheless, the lack of hard data has rarely deterred scholars from making proposals for the date and context of a biblical book, Job not being an exception. The composition of the book of Job can be divided easily between a narrative prose frame (Job 1-2, 42:7-14) and a poetic center (3-42:6). Avi Hurvitz using his methodology for linguistic dating has argued that the prologue demonstrates features of late biblical Hebrew. Hurvitz’s analysis has been accepted by most, but Ian Young, a staunch opponent of linguistic dating in general, has argued that according to Hurvitz’s own methodology that although late features can be demonstrated there lacks a significant cluster to assign the text to the late period. Other arguments, however, may be advanced to confirm Hurvitz’s linguistic assessment. Others have pointed to the use of haśśāṭān in the prologue in connection with its use in Zechariah 3 and 1 Chronicles 21. The fact that it has the definite article in Job and Zechariah point to a date for Job before Chronicles, but perhaps similar to Zechariah. The presence of a śāṭān among the divine beings that present themselves before God seems to be a precursor to the complex angelology of later Judaism. This date for the prose prologue is paralleled by correspondences between the poetic language of Job with Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations. This, coupled with the fact that the only reference to Job is in an exilic prophetic text, has made most scholars point to a mid-sixth century date for the book of Job.
Although this might be a general date for Job in some form or another, the compositional structure also hints that the book itself went through compositional stages. As already mentioned, the book is neatly divided between prose and poetry. The poetic sections feature a triad of revolving dialogues in which Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar take turns speaking and Job responds to each. However, Bildad’s third speech is very short (Jo 25:1-5) and Zophar’s third speech is lost. Job’s last response is quite long, expresses uncharacteristic views in light of the previous speeches, and has repetitive introductions that break up his speeches (Job 26:1, Job 27:1, Job 29:1). Something may have been garbled in transmission that cut short the speeches of Job’s friends and attributed them to Job. Job 28 is often considered a separate wisdom composition that was later inserted. A new character, Elihu, bursts onto the scene in Job 32-37 who is not previously or subsequently mentioned or replied to. Many scholars see Elihu’s contribution as minimal, not saying anything new. Thus, the composition itself shows signs of development. However, recent trends in looking at the final form of biblical texts, whether through literary approaches or canonical approaches have sought and found cohesive readings for the Job as a whole and its individual parts.
The central question of Job and the format for pursuing this question have a long history in cognate literature in the ancient Near East, mostly strikingly in Mesopotamia. It is important to see the uniqueness of a given composition within a given genre, and recent scholarship on Job seems to highlight how Job is unique against its ancient counterparts. However, exalting the book of Job is often done at the expense of ANE counterparts, and is rooted in underreading and undervaluing their contributions (this is my opinion).
Of course the question that the book of Job is setting out to answer, and the answer that it gives are still open to scholarly debate, especially when one considers that the book and its message may have undergone development over time. The prose narrative presents one account of what is going on that is completely unknown to Job and is never revealed to him. The narrative tells us that it is not Job himself that is being tested so much as the policies of retribution and whether this creates adherents solely for personal benefit. However, within the poetic section, this larger purpose is completely unknown and Job who merely observes that disaster has befallen him, he bears it patiently in the prose section, but is asserts vigorously that this is in contradiction to retributive theology and that Job has done no wrong. The three friends assert that Job should merely repent and placate divine wrath and offer the voice of standard retributive theology characteristic of most of the Bible and the ancient Near East. Elihu argues that Job’s reaction itself to the situation deserves punishment (Job 34:36-37). Yahweh’s answer itself deflects Job’s direct challenge, since Yahweh highlights through imagery of creation and cosmic warfare that Job is limited in both knowledge and power to properly judge Yahweh and his dealings. Job’s reaction is to submit to reply he has received, expressing that he now new experiential knowledge since he has seen Yahweh. The prose narrative picks up in which Job’s words are vindicated and his friends chastised and Job is restored to his former material abundance.
This kind of composition I place within the “Righteous Sufferer” category of wisdom literature which includes of number of compositions written in cuneiform attested in Syria and Mesoptomia. Comparisons have been made to the Babylonian Theodicy that depicts a dialogue between a sufferer and his friend where the sufferer bemoans his sorry fate despite his obedience. The composition ends noting that the gods made humanity with the ability to sin and this has caused much collateral damage and ends with supplication to a personal god. The composition seems to shift blame to humanity for humanity’s own problems. Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi (“I will praise the lord of wisdom”) is probably the most complex composition of the Righteous Sufferer genre in cuneiform. Although arguably the entire composition is meant to praise Marduk, the fact that Marduk is unfettered by the retributive system (he is said to impute sin at will) and his actions are unfathomable finds parallel in Job. Thorkild Jacobsen argued that Ludlul had to answers the question of unjust suffering with an answer of the mind and one for the heart. The work tells us that man is too limited to assess god (mind) and in the face of suffering we can only hope and trust (heart). These answers in this first millennium text are part and parcel of Job.
In the end, although the present character of the book of Job may show signs of 6th century exilic composition, the questions with which it wrestles have been proposed centuries earlier and the answers that it proposes are nothing new (a nod to Qohelet here). Placing this within Israelite religion is certainly an imperative since this is an important piece of evidence for issues, thoughts, and struggles that were real to the Israelite people. But to place this along a continuum of religious development is probably impossible and undoubtedly unwise. These ideas were probably in circulation long before the book was composed and the historical circumstances that contributed to its composition have probably always been present since the beginning of the human condition.
Coogan, Michael David. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Crenshaw, James L. “Job, Book of.” Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday, 1992. Hurvitz, Avi. “The Chronological Significance of ‘Aramaisms’ in Biblical Hebrew.” Israel Exploration Journal 18, no. 4 (January 1, 1968): 234–240. ———. “The Date of the Prose-Tale of Job Linguistically Reconsidered.” The Harvard Theological Review 67, no. 1 (January 1, 1974): 17–34. Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Mesopotamia: The Good Life.” In The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man an Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East, edited by H. Frankfort, H. A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin, 203–219. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946. Moran, William. “The Babylonian Job.” In The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature, edited by Ronald S. Hendel, 182–200. Washington DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2002. Walton, John H. “Job 1: Book of.” Edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns. Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008. Young, Ian. “Is the Prose Tale of Job in Late Biblical Hebrew?” Vetus Testamentum 59, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 606–629. doi:10.1163/004249309X12493729132673.