Introduction to our discussion of “Job”

According to a website that lists the top ten best books of all time (, the Bible is the best book ever, outranking even “The Return of the King” and “The Hunger Games”. Yet our book club has never read any of it. I chose Job, because it is the most accessible book in the Bible.

Now, there is a sense in which Job is the least accessible book in the Bible. The vocabulary is amazingly complex (about one-half of the words in the Hebrew scriptures are in the book of Job). The poetry — and it's all poetry — is unbelievably difficult. It's not like Gwendolyn Brooks poetry, it's like John Donne poetry — late John Donne poetry — only about ten times worse.

But there is another sense in which Job is the most accessible book in the Bible, because it deals with the most universal of themes — or, more precisely, with the only universal theme. There is no one to whom it does not speak. Even the Song of Songs is less universal than Job, because there are those who do not love, but there are none who do not suffer. Job is the only book in the Bible in which there are no Jews, and I think this was intentional on the part of the author, to express its universality.

There's some discussion in the Talmud about Job (Hebrew: אִיּוֹב, Iyyov, first syllable rhymes with “bee”, second syllable nearly rhymes with “stove”, accent on the second syllable): Where did Iyyov live? When did Iyyov live? And, who wrote the book? No conclusive answers are given to these questions, but the majority opinion on the last question — Who wrote the book? — is that it was written by Moses. The Sages of the Talmud might not have meant that literally, however; ascribing the book to Moses might have been their way of saying that there is nothing in the book of Iyyov that is in any way incompatible with the tenets of our religion. That's a remarkable and an important thing to say, because the book seriously questions Divine justice, and the question is unanswered. As for the other questions — Where did Iyyov live? When did he live? — there is not even a majority opinion. The opinions that are offered span a huge range of times and places. One of the opinions is that Iyyov never existed, that the story is fictional, a parable.

Here are a couple things you might not have known about the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, the books are arranged in three sections. The first section is תּוֹרָה, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books are literally the word of God, dictated and transcribed verbatim. The second section is נְבִיאִים, the prophetical books. These are books that contain prophecy, books where God speaks, but the prophecies are not literally the word of God. Rather, each prophet expressed his prophetical experience using his own vocabulary and in his own style, and no two prophets express their prophecies in the same style. The books in this section are arranged more or less chronologically, starting with Joshua and Judges, ending with Haggai, Zekhariah, and Malakhi. The third section is כְּתוּבִים, miscellaneous sacred writings, books in which God does not speak, like Psalms, Proverbs, Esther (in fact the name of God doesn't even appear in the book of Esther). In Christian Bibles the ordering of the books is different. For example, the story in the book of Ruth takes place during the time of the Judges — that is, in fact, the very first sentence in the book of Ruth, that it took place during the time of the Judges — so, in Christian Bibles, the book of Ruth is next to the book of Judges, which is where it belongs chronologically. But in Hebrew Bibles, the book of Judges is in the second section, prophetical works, because there is prophecy in the book of Judges, whereas the book of Ruth is all the way over in the third section, miscellaneous sacred writings, because there is no prophecy in the book of Ruth, God does not speak anywhere in it. Or another example, Christians consider Daniel a prophet, so they put the book of Daniel among the prophets. Jews put the book of Daniel in the third section, the miscellaneous sacred writings, because there is no prophecy in the book of Daniel. Daniel has a vision of God, but God does not speak in that vision, so that makes Daniel a visionary, but it does not make him a prophet.

In Hebrew Bibles, the book of Iyyov appears in the third section, the books in which God does not speak. This is quite interesting, because God does speak in the book of Iyyov, quite a lot, in fact. But it makes sense if Iyyov is a work of fiction, a literary work, a story that did not, actually, happen.

The other thing you might not know is that there is quite a bit of discussion in the Talmud about what books belong in the Bible and what books do not belong in the Bible, and some of the books that made it into the Bible were controversial, and did not make it in unopposed. The Song of Songs was controversial: What is this openly erotic love poem — barely G-rated — doing in the Bible? Ecclesiastes was extremely controversial. Ecclesiastes almost didn't make it in. There are parts of Ecclesiastes that are verging on atheism. Iyyov, however, was never controversial in the slightest. Even though it questions (and, you could quite plausibly argue, denies) Divine justice, there was never any question about whether it belongs in the Bible.

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