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A Man in the Land of Uz: Job I

March 19, 2012

The book of Job is not one that many people seem to like. It’s not an easy read and it doesn’t seem to come to any clear conclusions. I find that a lot of people believe that the book is dealing with the question of why bad things happen to good people. However, it’s less clear what the answer to this might be. Some seem to think the book of Job answers by saying that there is no reason why bad things happen to good people, but that you shouldn’t question God. Others are sure that this is wrong but are unable to articulate exactly why.

I would like to propose that the book of Job is not primarily attempting to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people. While that subject does come up, I believe that a close look at the book reveals that no answer is given although a possible answer is rejected. Instead, much of the book appears to be about how one reacts when bad things happen to good people.

Part of the difficulty with the book of Job is its length (forty-two chapters) and its style (most of it is poetry). Poetry, at least ancient Near Eastern poetry, tends to slow the action down. A point that might be made in a few sentences in prose may be extended into an entire chapter’s worth of repetition and elaboration. Don’t get me wrong – I think the poetry in Job is beautiful stuff, with some wonderfully evocative lines. However, the style stretches the arguments out and makes it hard to keep them all in your head while you read the book. I solved this difficulty through the simple expedient of taking notes. It is also worth using the information that is clear (like the prose) to tackle the more difficult parts. If it is clear that we end with outcome X what might the unclear sections have said that naturally lead up to outcome X?

Another difficulty with Job’s genre is that it starts with very little introductory material. There are a lot of things we might like to know about Job, Uz, his friends, and other story elements that are not answered. Some people (going back to the writing of the Babylonian Talmud if not further) believe that the style of Job, especially around the introduction, is meant to suggest to us that Job is a fable, an Old Testament parable. I’m less sure that this is an answerable question (you’d need a large body of such writings to compare Job too and those certainly aren’t present from the right time frame in Hebrew, although they might be present in another Near Eastern language). However, if this were the correct genre for the book then it would make a lot of sense for many of these details to remain obscure.

Moreover, it doesn’t matter for my purposes here. The point of the story remains the same, just as the point of the Good Samaritan is independent of its fictional status. (I will also be ignoring the suggestion that the prose sections of Job are tacked on later and that the poetry is the original story – I’m interested in asking what the book of Job, which contains prose and poetry together, means.) While I will bring together some readily-discernible information on some of the details of Job, these details do little for understanding the story. I ended up searching for answers to many of the questions I’m about to answer after I finished working my way through the story and it did nothing to hinder me in that project.

The time frame of Job is an open question. Is it very early? I’ve heard this idea kicked around quite a lot and while some details might fit this assumption (an apparently tribal, not monarchical, political structure) others seem not to (the description of war-horses seems more like the later practice of riding horses and not the earlier one in which horses draw chariots). It doesn’t really matter, though, for interpreting the story. In fact, the timelessness of Job, the way it could come unmoored from history and drift through centuries of Near Eastern time, is part of the reason to categorize it as a fable. This timelessness, though, certainly makes it easy to ignore such issues as the exact placement of Job within time.

Not only is the time frame of Job vague but the placement of Job on a map is vague, too. Uz, the land Job lives in, is not a clearly-locatable place. If we assume that his friends are from nearby locations and that the Chaldean raiders mentioned in Chapter 1 are also not venturing too far afield, we might place Job near the Dead Sea. However, only one of his friends (Eliphaz the Temanite, Teman being a name for Edom) has an easily-placeable name. This general location would fit with what we do know about Uz – that its name means “East” and so it is probably east of Israel, that it is associated with foreigners (Jeremiah 25:20), Aram (Syria) (Genesis 10:23, Genesis 22:21, and 1 Chronicles 1:17), and that it might be in Edom (Lamentations 4:21). However, again, this story could take place nearly anywhere and still work.

The placeless-ness of Job ties into the next point: Job is also people-less. Job is a wealthy man of the land of Uz. However, we don’t know his tribe or family. We don’t know whether he is an Israelite or a foreigner. There’s a long stream of thought that claims that Job is not a Jew. One solid point in favor of this is that he never mentions Torah. In his long discussions of what it means to be righteous the Law simply never surfaces. This would be odd for a Jew, but not perhaps so odd for a very early Jew. In either case, the book of Job takes place outside of the lines drawn by Torah, at least in its explicit content. No doubt this is useful for us as Christians discussing Job.

Only this last point really has much bearing on understanding the story. Job could be a story about a 15th-century Chinese noble and the point of the story would remain the same. Obviously, the way that we would approach the point would differ, but that’s a different topic for another time.

One of the things we do need to do to understand the story of Job is to quickly map out the characters. Seven characters are central to the plot of Job. Two of these characters are non-human. God is a pretty important character in Job and so is Satan. Actually, it’s “the satan”. While most translations render Satan as a proper name here, the definite article marks this as a role and not a name. There’s a tangent we could pursue here about the transformation of satan (שטן) from a word meaning “enemy” or “accuser” to a proper name, but it suffices to say that here we are still dealing with a role. For instance, in Numbers 22:22 and 22:32 the angel of the Lord is a satan to Balaam. In 2 Samuel 19:22 David asks the sons of Zeruiah why they should be a satan to him. These show some of the earlier usages of this word as a noun that describes someone who opposes someone else.

There are also five important human characters in the book of Job: Job himself, Job’s three friends, and Job’s additional friend. The reason I note these characters in this manner is that this is pretty much how the book of Job does it. Job appears first, there’s some business in the heavenly court concerning him, and then his three friends Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite show up. Job’s fourth friend, Elihu (son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram), goes entirely unmentioned until Chapter 32 when he suddenly starts speaking.

The other reason for grouping these characters like this is that there are effectively only three human characters: Job, Job’s friends, and Elihu. All three of Job’s friends serve the same purpose in the plot. In fact, I suspect that the separate national origins of these three friends are meant to give us a sense of an even larger group, a sort of mass consensus that these three friends speak for. Even the names of some of the characters seem to be linked to their roles in the story. Job means “hated” (as an enemy), and he complains about being hated by God. Elihu means “he is my god”, and Elihu delivers a long speech in God’s defense. The three friends may not have names that mean anything special, but for completeness’ sake Eliphaz means “my god is pure gold” (it is ambiguous whether this means “my god is as good as gold” or “I worship gold”). It is unclear what Bildad and Zophar mean. Zophar may mean “departing” (although I also find “sparrow” listed) and Bildad might mean “confusing love”, with the implication that the confusion is created by the addition of love. However, some lexicons simply refuse to translate the name which indicates that there is a not a lot of certainty as to its meaning.

With this introductory material taken care of we will next turn to the plotline of Job.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. rick permalink
    February 23, 2013 7:20 pm

    It apears logical that Job lived after the flood in the land of UZ. (Edom) southern Isreal and extending outward over its borders.
    I am disapointed that he did not live preflood with the huge dinasours.(i was sure).
    But however more interestingly the possibility that there were sizabley large post flood dinasours. Re: Behamoth, Laviathon.

    Lamentations 4:21 reads: “Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that dwellest in the land of Uz”.

    From WIKI:
    Uz is sometimes identified with the kingdom of Edom, roughly in the area of modern-day southwestern Jordan and southern Israel.[3]Lamentations 4:21 reads: “Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that dwellest in the land of Uz”.Other locations proposed for Uz include more southern Arabia, especially Dhofar, said to be the home of the original Arabs;[4]Bashan in modern-day southern Syria/western Jordan; Arabia east of Petra, Jordan;[5] and even modern-day Uzbekistan.[6]According to the Dead Sea document, The War Scroll, the land of Uz is mentioned as existing somewhere beyond the Euphrates possibly in relation to Aram. In Column 2 verse 11, it is noted, “they shall fight against the rest of the sons of Aramea: Uz, Hul, Togar, and Mesha, who are beyond the Euphrates.”

    • Eric permalink
      February 24, 2013 9:41 pm

      Behemoth and Leviathan do not match any known animal, extant or prehistoric. “Behemoth” is also a name that means something like “beasts” and may not designate a specific species.

      The largest issue with placing Job in Edom is the Chaldean raiders. Edom doesn’t seem to be on the logical route for Chaldeans to attack. In fact, when the Chaldeans (Babylonians) do attack Israel it is from the north and not the south. Note also that the War Scroll’s placement beyond the Euphrates is also nowhere near Edom (but much closer to Babylon). It is possible that Uz is a name assigned to more than one place.

  2. rick permalink
    February 23, 2013 10:48 pm

    Genesis 46:13 Job was Jacobs grandson by Issachar. He lived in UZ or Edom.
    JOB 1:1 lived in the land of UZ. Edom today.
    Looks farely simple. Not sure why this is so often debated.

    • Eric permalink
      February 24, 2013 9:45 pm

      Most Hebrew texts read “Jashub” where you have “Job”. “Job” is a reading found only in the Samaritan Pentateuch and some of the (later, Greek) Septuagint manuscripts. Also, plenty of names are repeated in the Bible. Even if we accept that Genesis 46 mentions a Job and not a Jashub is it the correct Job?

  3. February 24, 2015 3:30 pm

    In the book of Job, Satan is portrayed as the accuser of mankind who roves the earth to steal, kill and destroy. The first proposition—as a premise for accusation—was basically, ‘destroy a man’s material wealth, and he will curse God.’ The second proposition was basically, ‘destroy a man’s health, and he will curse God.’ Both proposals were carried through, with the exception of the outcome, since Job remained faithful to God. And he was rewarded for it.


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