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Bible Q

Is the Book of Job history or story?

An emotive subject

This is a subject that can excite emotions. For many Christian readers the idea that the 66 books of the Bible could include a ‘story’ is a shocking and offensive idea.

The immediate reaction to the question is to state that Job is mentioned as a historical figure in Ezekiel 14:14 and 14:20  and James 5:11.

“even if these three men, Noah, Danel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God. ” (Ezekiel 14:14)
“Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” (James 5:11)

This, they say, therefore proves that the Book of Job is history, not story.

But of course it doesn’t. It only proves that Ezekiel knew of a historical individual called Job. And that James, one assumes, was familiar with the character of Job in the book. It is not even proof that Ezekiel knew of the Book of Job, as the Book of Job may be later than Ezekiel.

Consider this: A similar example would be the mention of King Arthur by an English writer. If written by an early chronicler, referring to the 5th or 6th Century Battle of Badon between the English Celts and Anglo-Saxons, then it would indicate that chronicler was referring to what he believed was a historical figure. But any English writer after 1485 would simply be referring to the King Arthur in the epic story by Thomas Malory.

In fact it looks as this is exactly what the Book of Job is. A much earlier figure, a historical Job, updated as an everyman figure in a work of Hebrew wisdom literature.

The Book of Job is not journalistic history

Job is placed in the wisdom books of the Old Testament for a reason. It is quite evident to most readers that the prologue is not a historical-realist depiction of events. Even readers who argue that the prologue is a journalistic account must accept that the long philosophical dialogues of Job, the three friends and Elihu and God himself are not dictaphone transcripts of actual conversations; they are poetry. So the Book of Job consists of a prose prologue and prose epilogue, which act as bookends to cycles of poetic dialogues and monologue.

In this sense Book of Job is an artistic work – like Song of Songs, not a straight telling of the life and ordeals of an ancient patriarch.

Does it matter?

It could be said that the truths of Book of Job do not depend on whether the book is history or story. And that is true of the bigger picture of the book’s arguments about God and suffering.

However making the book into a literal history creates some problems. The primary one being the relationship of God with the Satan figure – clearly an angel-type being of some sort.

The first part of this problem is the morality of the prologue: God giving a cynical and accusing angel (this Satan is not yet the later Satan of the New Testament) power to kill Job’s servants with “the fire of God”, and then Job’s children, and afflict Job with boils.

16 While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

The second problem is the whole nature of a conversation between God and Satan bartering over Job in this manner. The only story in the Bible to which it bears any semblance is to Micaiah’s parody of the debate of the lying spirit in the divine council (1 Kings 22:22-23). Micaiah’s parody can only be read as literal with extreme laziness from the reader.

The question ‘Does it matter?’ depends on how one views taking the Job prologue of a literal depiction of how God orders death and sickness to form a sound basis for knowing the God of the Bible.

If it is literal-historical, not just poetic or dramatic, then every action of God comes into the same framework. That literally means that a person being afflicted by trials, bereavement, illness today is a pawn at the whim of a bet between God and a cynical angel?

Moreover, if it is true for Job, why would it not be true of God’s own Son, the Lord Jesus? Are we to imagine that Satan came into God’s throne room suggesting the crucifixion? Evidently not. So if the device of a heavenly throne room bet is not a sufficient explanation for the trials of Christ, or for the trials of every other man and woman today, then why is it a sufficient literal explanation for the trials of Job, if Book of Job is intended, as it seems to be, as an everyman story.


It is this last comment on the trials and ordeal of Christ which should focus the minds of those who take Book of Job as a literal historical and journalistic account of a man’s ordeals. If the idea is ludicrous for Christ, then the prologue of Job cannot be applied literally to any other human tragedy either, and ultimately not even to the historical man Job whose real story, we assume, played out in the mists of time before Book of Job was penned.


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