Are the characters in the book of Job for real?

Q.  As I started going through the book of Job with the help of your study guide, I found myself wondering whether Job and the other men could have been fictitious characters. But that was cleared up by what you said in the introduction to session 1: “The book of Job is something like the historical novels we know today, which begin with actual people of the past and describe what they might have said and done at important times in their lives.”
 
However, this left me with another question.  You also say, “Most commentators agree that the author started with an ancient account of Job . . . passed down from as far back as the time of Abraham . . . a framework.”  I wondered how much embellishment the author would have applied in order for this ancient account to eventually become, over the centuries, the literary masterpiece you say it is.
 
For me, the dialogue seems too good to be true, as a suffering Job respectfully waits for each of his verbal assailants to criticize him and add to his misery.  But with incredible tact, candor and apparent patience, Job attempts to exhort them and defend himself.  How badly was he really suffering if he was able to conduct himself so well?

To use a couple of technical-sounding terms here, it appears that you began with the question of veracity—“Did this really happen?”  Once that was resolved, you still had the question of verisimilitude—“Can these guys be for real?”  Or put another way, “Are we supposed to believe that someone would really act like this?”

You’ve already quoted the place in my study guide where I address the question of veracity. The place where I address the question of verisimilitude is in the material at the beginning of the guide, in the “Why Should I Use This Book?” section.  There I say:

“The book of Job is a masterpiece of world literature that occupies a unique place within the Bible.  No other biblical book is like it in form.  It’s an extended dialogue between speakers who answer one another in eloquent poetic speeches.  Some works like this are known outside the Bible, but this is the only one in the Bible.”

In other words, the author is following an accepted convention of this ancient style of writing by having the characters take turns giving speeches.  It’s kind of like the “soliloquies” in Shakespeare’s plays, in which characters talk out loud to themselves, all alone, at length, in eloquent poetry. People don’t actually do this in real life.  But this is how Shakespeare shows us what a character is thinking.  So in one sense it’s not true-to-life, because people don’t do this.  But in another sense it is true-to-life, because people do think things out in their heads.

Similarly, Job’s friends would likely have had an extended conversation with him, trying to help him, as best they could, within the limitations of their rigid theology. The author is compressing and summarizing their arguments all together, while in real life there would have been much more give-and-take, and movement between different subjects and themes, in a “live” conversation.  But these are the conventions of this kind of writing.  It’s simply a kind of writing we’re not used to, an exchange of speeches.

The closest we come to it in our time and culture is at a wedding reception.  There the best man, maid of honor, parents of the bride and groom, etc. may take turns giving speeches, and at the end the bride and groom may respond with speeches of their own at the end.  This isn’t “normal conversation,” and if someone saw the text of it written out, they might say, “People don’t really talk like that.”  (They might also wonder why the groom silently endured so much good-natured ribbing from the best man!)  But when we understand that all this talking took place within the tightly scripted context of a ceremonial occasion, it does make sense, and we recognize that it is “for real.”

Similarly, the exchange of speeches between Job and his friends takes place within the tightly scripted context of a recognized genre of wisdom literature, and if we appreciate that genre, these speeches, too, make sense, and we recognize that they are “for real.”

Ilya Repin, “Job and His Friends,” 1869

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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