Sunday 13 April 2014

The Book of Job - obviously a fiction (not a history)


I have noticed that Christian apostates and anti-Christians in general, often focus their attacks on The Book of Job - above and beyond any other part of the Bible.

For example, when the mythologist Joseph Campbell was giving his most mockingly anti-Christian lectures, he would often provide a summary of Job which emphasized God's nastiness and highlighted an irrational and authoritarian message. CG Jung wrote a whole book about Job (which I fund incomprehensible). And Robert Frost wrote a glibly facetious 'Masque of Reason' which was a continuation of The Book of Job.

Yet - from the perspective of someone who is analyzing Christianity - it is surely tendentious to focus on Job of all the books in the Bible: because it is either the least-Christian or else the least-understandable section of the whole Bible.


For a start - Job is very obviously a fiction, a story, a fable, a myth - and it is not a history, an Annal, nor a piece of theology - the whole way it is written makes that very clear.

Furthermore Job is - in the Authorized Version  - astonishingly beautiful as prose; although I personally find it vastly overlong as a narrative. But the sheer sensuous beauty tends to suggest that it was substantially an aesthetic work (like the Song of Solomon).

Thirdly, it is perhaps the least transparent, hardest to understand, most contradictory Book of the whole Bible. Job strikes me as a puzzle to which the key has been lost - it is as if we nowadays lack some link or fact which makes sense of the whole thing.


At any rate, for anti-Christians to 'pick on' The Book of Job is a bit of a giveaway - it is the dishonest rhetorical trick of picking on the least relevant, most ambiguous, and least central thread of an opponent's case, as a way of trying to discredit, rather than refute, their whole argument.


Note: That a person 'Job' really existed is irrelevant to the point I am making - just as the reality (or otherwise) of a Celtic 'warlord' King Arthur is irrelevant to the status of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as a fiction. 


Bruce Charlton said...


"I'm not sure Job is the biblical book "least relevant" to Christianity. St. Gregory thought it central enough that he wrote his Magna Moralia in the form of a six-volume commentary on Job.

Nor do I think its (probable) fictional nature exempts it from criticism. Even if Job is as fictional as the Good Samaritan, the story is still clearly intended to make points about God, man, and evil, and those points can be discussed and criticized.

However, I do agree with you that Job is an essentially poetic and highly ambiguous book, and as such it is poorly served by unsympathetic point-by-point fault-finding. (One is reminded of Voltaire's embarrassingly point-missing criticisms of Shakespeare.)"


@WmJas - One particular fictional 'conceit' is the idea of God letting Satan torture Job in any way he likes for as long as he like, as a bet so as to prove to Satan than man could be faithful (etc).

Clearly THIS DID NOT REALLY HAPPEN - the Christian understanding of God as our Heavenly Father means that God would not do this *under any circumstances* - any more than a human Father would do this to his beloved child. Nobody would even do this to a faithful dog. The idea is absurd.

Yet this is the fictional frame for Job - and it is merely a shorthand for setting up the situation.

To take this torture-bet business seriously as either evidence that real Christians are the kind of people who would do this, or that they admire this attribute in God, or that this is really the kind of thing that God does... well it is like taking 'once upon a time' or 'far away and long ago' frame of a fairy tale as evidence that it really happened - rather than being evidence that the story is (of course) fictional.

william zeitler said...

Except for a short prose prolog and epilog, Job is in poetic form in the Hebrew. (A form with far more sophistication than meets the eye. See (Hebrew poetry in general exhibits a highly sophisticated numerical structure -- not to be confused with that 'Bible Code' silliness about the Torah predicting Elvis Presley, etc.) and ) Who dismisses the Epic of Gilgamesh because it is not 'literal history'? May as well dismiss all the parables of Jesus for the same reason. And why stop there?... I hereby dismiss as worthless everything I don't understand!

Bruce Charlton said...

@wm - I agree (I hope you don't mistakenly think I was dismissing the book of Job?)

Nicholas Fulford said...

You may find this link pertinent, as it is an exegesis on Job by the scholar Northrop Frye - see

Page down to 18. JOB: A Test.


Northrop Frye was regarded as one of the leading lights on Biblical interpretation. His book, "The Great Code" is a must read, which you would no doubt enjoy.

Don said...

It's an Old Testament parable. If you read the parable's in the New Testament in the wrong fashion you'll come away with the entirely wrong message. Like believing that the parable of the Unjust Steward advocates for cheating and theft.

Job shows that it is possible for man to continually praise God even when Job is being sorely tested. It shows that man's love for God is not dependent on the favor that God shows but on the very fact of his existence. And it is a warning to the old Hebrews who believed that God's favor was always reflected in a person's fortune and status as if we were worshiping pagan spirits or bargaining with God as Faust did with the devil.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Don - That sounds fine to me - but of course there is a lot more to it - not least in terms of length and repetition.

@NF - I don't find Frye's explanation to be very satisfying. Seems to miss the point.

Bruce Charlton said...

Those who do not know the Church of England Book of Common Prayer may not know the wonderful service for burial of the dead - which paraphrases liberally from Job:

I AM the resurrection and the life (saith the Lord): he that believeth in me, yea, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall not die forever. John 11

I KNOW that my redeemer liveth, and that I shall rise out of the earth in the last day, and shall be covered again with my skin, and shall see God in my flesh: yea, and I myself shall behold him, not with other, but with these same eyes. Job 19

WE brought nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Even as it hath pleased the Lord, so cometh things to pass: blessed be the name of the Lord. 1 Tim. 6, Job 1

MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, an is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death: of whom may we seek for succor but of thee, O Lord, which for our sins justly art displeased. Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful savior, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, shut not up thy merciful eyes to our prayers: but spare us Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful savior, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee. Job 11