Darkness, light, and water in the Genesis creation account

Q. First I will like to say that discovering this site has been very refreshing to my faith, big thanks to you and your team on this good work.
Over the past months I have been reading through my Bible from Genesis all the way down to Revelation, which i have not done in a while. I realized that some of the questions i had as a young believer when doing the same still had not been answered. While these questions do not challenge my faith as they once used to, I still feel a deep intellectual curiosity and I do feel there is something to be gained, even spiritually, from knowing more. So here are the first few couple things I would like to get more insight into:

(1) When was darkness created ? In Gen. 1:1-4 we see darkness mentioned in v. 2, before the creation of light, and again in v. 4, when God separates the light (day) he had created from the darkness. God was and is before all things, including darkness. So what exactly is darkness, and at what point did it come into being? To merely say it is the absence of light does not satisfy me at all.

(2) How was there light before the sun was created? In Genesis 1 we see light created on the first day and the sun and stars created later on the fourth day. To me, even from a purely observational point of view, it seems much too obvious an experiential fact to miss that the sun gives out the light we see. IMO one does not need science to come to this conclusion, just seeing. Perhaps there is a different way of understanding light as it is seen in Genesis 1 that i am not aware of.

(3) In Gen. 1:6-8 we see the sky (vault) created to separate the waters into two. Consequently in verse 9 we see the “waters below” gathered to form the “seas.” Presently, based on scientific discovery, we know that what we have above the sky is “outer space.” So what became of the “waters above”? Are the waters above outer space? (Verse 2 gives a picture of darkness and water existing together, which to me supports this view.) If so, why would the waters above (outer space) and the waters below (seas) differ so much in make when logically they should not. Also, is it possible that darkness and water are somehow equated to each other? And in another line of thinking, did the waters above become “clouds,” since clouds are kind of floating water bodies?

A. Thank you very much for your appreciative words. I’m glad that this blog is an encouragement to your faith. I commend you for reading all the way through the Bible again, and for asking questions about it. I agree with you that there is much to be gained by asking questions and learning from them, even when we do not feel that our very faith is at stake in the answer. I call this blog Good Question on the premise that “there’s no such thing as a bad question.”

In terms of the specific matters you asked about, several other readers of this blog have asked about similar things. So let me start by referring you to the thoughts I have shared in response to them. If you find that these posts address many of your concerns, but not all of them, you can always ask a follow-up question in the comment section of those posts or this one.

Regarding question (1), however, I actually do not have a separate post about darkness on this blog. That is because, simply stated, I do think that darkness simply is the absence of light in the Genesis account. It is not a positive entity that came into existence at one point.

But regarding question (2), please see this post: How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

And regarding question (3), please see this post: Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post you will also find a link to a chapter about the Genesis creation account in an online version of the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation that I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, the curator of paleontology at a museum here in the United States. I think that this chapter will offer some broad answers to your questions, including some thoughts about question (1). In fact, you might find the whole book to be of interest. It begins here.

Keep reading the Bible, and keep thinking about it and pursuing the questions that raises!

How could the Holy Spirit have moved upon the waters before the earth was created?

Q. Most English Bibles translate the first word in the Old Testament, bereshith, as “in the beginning.” This implies that the statement that follows is telling us what was created first: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” So if this is the case, how is it possible that the Holy Spirit “moved upon the the face of the waters,” as it says in the next verse? The waters had not been created yet!

One may argue that the word “earth” in the first verse includes the entire face of the planet, including the oceans—the water. However, this only works in English. In ancient (and modern) hebrew, the word ‘eretz, “earth,” specifically refers to dry land alone, not water (mayim). See Rashi, who discusses this question and translates bereshith slightly differently. However my question specifically refers to the usual Christian translation.

Thank you for your question. I discuss essentially the same question in the following post, so I think that if you read it, you will find an answer to your own question:

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

It is possible grammatically to translate the opening of Genesis this way: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth …” At least two English Bibles, the Common English Bible and the Living Bible, translate it that way. But you’re right, overwhelmingly English Christian Bibles translate it as, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And as I say in the post for which I have provided the link above, I think that is the correct translation. The solution to the problem is instead that the ancient Hebrews regarded water as effectively equivalent to “nothing.” As I say in that post, for them, de aqua was the equivalent of ex nihilo.

Why does Matthew say that Jesus healed two blind men outside Jericho when Mark and Luke only say one?

Q. Mark and Luke both tell the story of Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight on the road outside Jericho. Matthew tells the same story, but he says that two men had their sight restored. Why is there a difference?

Václav Mánes, “Healing the Blind Man,” 1832 (National Gallery, Prague)

You’re asking about the phenomenon that gospels scholars sometimes refer to as “Matthean doubling.” This isn’t the only place where Matthew seems to turn one character into two.

First, in the story you’re asking about, there definitely seems to have been just one person involved. Mark even tells us what his name was—Bartimaeus. The details of the story are the same in all three gospels. In Mark and Luke, this man calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tells him to be quiet, but he shouts all the louder. Jesus hears him and calls him over and asks what he wants. He asks to have his sight restored, and Jesus heals him. In Matthew’s version, two men call out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd tells them to be quiet, but they shout louder. Jesus calls them over and asks what they want. They ask to have their sight restored, and Jesus heals them. The only difference is the two men in Matthew versus the one in Mark and Luke. All three writers specify the same setting, on the road outside Jericho, and the same time, as Jesus was heading to Jerusalem at the end of his life. So Matthew doesn’t seem to be relating a separate incident. He’s doubling a character in the same incident.

Similarly, Mark and Luke tell how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man in the area on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They tell how no one could restrain him, how he came screaming out at Jesus and the disciples, and how the demons inside of him begged Jesus not to torture them. They asked to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs instead, and Jesus agreed. (If you’re wondering why he agreed, consider this post.) The demons left the man and went into the pigs, which all rushed down a hillside into the lake and drowned. Matthew tells exactly the same story, with all the same details, except he says that there were two men involved, not one.

A further instance occurs in the story of Palm Sunday. As Mark and Luke tell it, Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, and he sends two of his disciples to a nearby village to get a colt (a young donkey) for him to ride into the city. He tells them that if anyone challenges them, they are to say that “the Lord needs it.” They bring the colt back, throw their cloaks over its back, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem, where he is cheered by the crowds. Matthew tells the same story, with the same details, except he says that Jesus told the disciples to get two animals, a donkey and her colt. He says that if anyone challenges them, they are to say that “the Lord needs them.” Matthew then reports that the disciples “brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” We can at least recognize that Matthew means that Jesus sat on the cloaks, not on the two animals at once. But this is still one further instance of “doubling.”

So what’s going on here? The best explanation I’ve heard, and I find it convincing, is that two is the number of witness in Jewish culture, and Matthew is writing primarily for a Jewish audience. He is the only gospel writer who records how Jesus reinforced for his disciples the rule in the law of Moses, “Let every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

These three episodes are all well-known stories that circulated widely during the generation between the time when Jesus lived and when the gospels were written down. The times and locations and even some of the names involved are all documented. So Matthew isn’t trying to fool anybody. If he were, he would make up stories that don’t appear anywhere else, so that no one could check up on him. Instead, he’s beginning with the premise that his readers will know the stories only too well, and so they will be struck by the difference in detail. They will wonder what it means, and if they read carefully, they will find the answer right in his own gospel: The testimony of two witnesses establishes a matter.

So Matthew “doubles” characters as a way of saying that these particular episodes bear witness to who Jesus is. Interestingly, in each of them, there is explicit witness to Jesus’ identity. The blind man calls out to him as the “Son of David.” The demons say, “We know who you are, the Son of God.” The crowds who greet Jesus on his way into Jerusalem call him the king who comes in the name of the Lord. So it does indeed seem to be Matthew’s purpose to portray these episodes as bearing witness to who Jesus is.

In our own time and culture, we might still think this isn’t quite proper. What right does Matthew have to change the details in a story from Jesus’ life? But if we can appreciate that he is making use of symbolism even as he otherwise tells the story of Jesus realistically, we can understand his purpose and accept his method.

Were Adam and Eve historical, and if so, does this require a young earth?

Q. Do you believe in a historical Adam and Eve? If one does, do they need to believe in a young earth?

Please see this post for my thoughts on whether Adam was necessarily a historical individual. In that post I observe, among other things, that “the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives. Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement: ‘When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.’ But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God. Note how ‘adam in that statement takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female: ‘When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.'”

In light of such considerations, I conclude that the Genesis narrative, and other Scriptures such as Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans about humanity being “in” Adam—the passages I address specifically in that other post, do not “require Adam to have been a historical individual. We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.”

But does someone who does conclude that Adam and Eve were historical individuals also have to believe in a young earth? I’m perhaps not the best person to offer a judgment about that, so let me just say that I know some people who do consider them to have been actual individuals but who do not believe in a young earth. Rather, these people I know are intrigued by the findings of anthropological genetic research that suggest that all modern humans are descended from a single female—someone scientists refer to informally as “Eve.” This does not mean that this woman was the only female human in existence at the time when she lived; the scientific perspective would be rather that her offspring survived while the lines descended from other early women died out. But these people I know suggest that God chose this “Eve” in some way to be the first bearer of the divine image, and so she was the first human “created in the image of God.”

Apparently all modern humans are also descended from the same man, although he didn’t necessarily live at the same time as “Eve.” Rather, once again, the lines descended from other early men would have died off while his offspring survived. I have no expertise in this field and for all I know the findings may have been updated since I last heard about them, so I would encourage you to search more about this topic if you’re interested. But the bottom line for our purposes here is that while I personally don’t feel that the Bible requires us to consider Adam and Eve to have been historical individuals, even if we do, that doesn’t necessarily commit us to a young earth.

(If you are interested in how issues of biblical interpretation relate to questions of the age of the earth and of the origins of humanity, you can also have a look at another blog of mine, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.)

 

Nebuchadnezzar and Amytis

Q. At what age did King Nebuchadnezzar get married? And at what age was Amytis married?

The Bible gives us no information about the marriage of Nebuchadnezzar and Amytis. Legend says that he built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for her because she was homesick for the landscape and foliage of her native Media. But this is another case like the one I discuss in my post, “Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?” As I say there, “The Bible’s silence about ancient wonders doesn’t indicate that it actually lacks a firsthand perspective on the events it describes. Rather, the Bible wants us to ‘praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven,’ not any earthly ruler, whatever their achievements.” (And whatever Median princess they may have married.)

 

Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?

Q. Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?

That’s an interesting question, because those pyramids are apparently visible from Goshen, where the Israelites lived in Egypt. (See the photograph below from the Matson Collection in the U.S. Library of Congress. The photo is entitled, “Egypt. Pyramids. The land of Goshen with pyramids in the distance.”)

But let me try to answer your question. For one thing, the pyramids were constructed well over a thousand years before the time of Moses, so the Egyptians weren’t actively working on them in biblical times. Rather, the book of Exodus tells us that the Egyptians “put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” So the Bible does refer to major construction projects in Egypt, but it describes the ones that intersect with the story of the covenant people.

However, I think an even more important reason why the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids is that they were assertions of power and even immortality by the pharaohs. Rather than acknowledge those claims and dispute them, the Bible simply ignores them!

The case is similar with another of the “seven wonders of the ancient world,” the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While it’s unclear whether they actually existed, tradition says that they were created by King Nebuchadnezzar. While the book of Daniel describes life in Babylon under that king, it never mentions the gardens. If they did exist, the Bible doesn’t give us any evidence for them. It quotes Nebuchadnezzar as speaking of “great Babylon I have built  . . . by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty,” but it doesn’t provide any details that would glorify Nebuchadnezzar rather than the God he ultimately had to admit “is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So the Bible’s silence about ancient wonders doesn’t indicate that it actually lacks a firsthand perspective on the events it describes. Rather, the Bible wants us to “praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven,” not any earthly ruler, whatever their achievements.

What happened to the ark of the covenant?

This post is the third and last in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here. The second post, about what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, is here.

Q. What happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role protecting it?

As I write this last post in response to your questions about the book of Jeremiah, let me commend you again for reading through the whole book thoughtfully and asking good questions about it. That’s exactly how we should be reading the Bible.

Contrary to what movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark would suggest, the ark of the covenant was almost certainly destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. It’s not “lost” and waiting to be discovered somewhere.

We can infer this with a high degree of certainty from the biblical text itself, because it actually lists for us what the Babylonians took out of the temple before they destroyed it. We’re told at the end of the book of Jeremiah, “The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried all the bronze to Babylon. They also took away the pots, shovels, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, dishes and all the bronze articles used in the temple service. The commander of the imperial guard took away the basins, censers, sprinkling bowls, pots, lampstands, dishes and bowls used for drink offerings—all that were made of pure gold or silver.

Later in the Bible we get an actual inventory of these articles, which “Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.” This was the typical thing to do in the ancient world with articles taken from a conquered nation’s temple. They were displayed as trophies to show how much more powerful the conquering nation’s god was than the conquered nation’s god. (The Philistines followed a similar practice when they displayed Saul’s armor in the temple of their god after killing him in battle.) When the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed exiled peoples to return home, King Cyrus sent the articles from the Jerusalem temple back with the returning Judeans. There’s even a detailed inventory at the beginning of the book of Ezra: 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls, etc.

What’s significant is that there’s no mention of the ark of the covenant in any of these passages. The Babylonians probably understood that it was not meant to be a depiction of the God of the Israelites. If it had been, they would certainly have put it in their temple as a highest-value trophy. But they probably knew that the Israelites never had any idols representing Yahweh. Instead, the ark was a sacred object intended to represent his presence. As such, the Babylonians would not have put it in their own temple. Instead, they would have treated it as an object made of precious metal and cut it up or melted it down, the way they did the bronze objects. The Hebrew Scriptures don’t depict this destruction, probably out of reverence for the ark and its meaning.

But significantly, early in the book of Jeremiah, there’s a prophecy about the time when Israel will be restored and “all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord.” At that time,” Jeremiah says, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.” Jeremiah is foreseeing the time when God’s redemptive purposes will open up to include all nations. The ark will no longer be referenced, because it was a symbol of the “particular” phase in redemptive history, when God was reaching out to the whole world through one single nation. In the “universal” phase, God reaches out directly to all nations. (There’s a symbol of this in the book of Revelation when an angel declares, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,” and then “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.” The true ark is now in heaven, and it speaks of God’s redemption extending to all nations.)

So even if Jeremiah could have had some role in preventing the Babylonians from destroying the ark (which is unlikely, since Jeremiah was kept under guard by the Judeans until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and set him free), he probably wouldn’t have tried to do so. That would have been working against his own prophecy!

Illuminated manuscript page from the Apocalypse of 1313 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) depicting “the temple opened in heaven” and the “great sign” that followed, of a woman and her child. The image does not show the ark within the temple as the book of Revelation describes, but perhaps that’s appropriate in light of this post, since Jeremiah said the ark wouldn’t be remembered or missed.

Why did Pilate have Jesus flogged, and could he really have survived such suffering?

Q. When Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, was there no agreement between him and the High Priest that Jesus would be freed after the flogging? Why was Jesus flogged? According to Luke, when Pilate said he would flog Jesus and then set him free, the crowd shouted all the more, “Crucify him,” so “Pilate decided to grant their demand.” Here, the crowd did not demand Jesus to be flogged, they demanded that Pilate crucify Him. So what is the connection between flogging and crucifying Jesus? Pilate did not have to flog Jesus when he gave in to their demand.

Also, one Bible scholar has suggested that the degree of suffering Jesus underwent is actually much more than what is portrayed in the movie, The Passion of the Christ. Would a human body in that condition even be able to walk, never mind carrying a cross, due to loss of blood?

First, you’re right that there was no need for Pilate to have Jesus flogged after he had given in to the crowd’s demand that Jesus be crucified rather than flogged. Crucifixion itself was such supremely agonizing physical torture that there was no reason to add flogging to it, as if that would make it worse. In fact, a prisoner who had been flogged first would likely die sooner on a cross and thus suffer less of the agony of crucifixion.

So why did Pilate do that? Historians tell us that he was a puzzling combination of stubbornness and pliability. He could be influenced by others (as by the crowd in this case), but at the same time he could insist on having his own way in various particulars. For example, when the chief priests wanted Pilate to change the sign above Jesus’ cross to read “This man said, ‘I am the king of the Jews,'” Pilate responded stubbornly, “What I have written, I have written,” that is, “I’m not going to change the current sign that reads, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.'”

So it may be the case that Pilate, having offered flogging instead of crucifixion, but then having given in to the crowd’s demand for crucifixion, nevertheless stubbornly insisted on “doing it his way” by flogging Jesus first. (While Luke himself does not say specifically that Pilate had Jesus flogged, the other three gospel writers note this detail. For example, Mark writes, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”)

This indeed appears to be the action of a weak, petulant ruler who couldn’t control the big picture and so insisted on his own prerogatives in small matters. But in the providence of God, it fulfilled Jesus’ prediction about the Son of Man, “After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” And in the mercy of God, it may also have shortened Jesus’ time of suffering by weakening his body so that it could not endure the crucifixion any longer. Not that the work of Jesus on the cross was in any way incomplete—”It is finished!” he cried, and we know that he fulfilled his task as the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.

As for your second question, when the movie The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, I saw doctors quoted to the effect that no human being could have lived through the amount of torture that Jesus was depicted suffering in the film. So even if the amount wasn’t much greater, as you heard suggested, no one would have been walking around or carrying a cross afterwards.

But it’s important to realize what the genre of that movie was. It was made in a time-honored tradition of meditations on the sufferings of Christ. Another example of this genre, in painting rather than film, is the so-called “Man of Sorrows” portrayal of Jesus, in which the viewer sees Jesus after the crucifixion standing or sitting with all of his wounds visible. This is a non-historical moment that never actually occurred, but it’s designed as a vehicle for devotion. Hymns such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Man of Sorrows, What a Name” are written in this same tradition. Keeping an antique nail in a prominent location, or growing a crown of thorns plant, are other approaches to being mindful of Jesus’ sufferings for us.

It’s consistent with this devotional practice for a film to portray Jesus’ sufferings individually and extensively so that we can recognize all that he did for us, even if this style of portrayal becomes non-historical by exhibiting the sufferings in such an extended way that they represent more than anyone could have survived. Our response can only be, as in the hymn “Man of Sorrows, What a Name”: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Hans Memling, “Man of Sorrows,” c. 1490

 

Did Pharaoh drown with his army?

Q. When God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, and when God then made the waters sweep back over the pursuing Egyptians, did Pharaoh drown with his army?

This question is much debated by biblical scholars. Many say yes, while others say no. I can only give you my own opinion on the matter, which is that Pharaoh did not drown with his army.

The book of Exodus does say that when the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled . . . he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him to pursue the Israelites. So it seems that Pharaoh did personally accompany the army out into the desert.

However, the further details in the account suggest that he didn’t join the actual pursuit of the Israelites. Rather, Exodus says that all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. It describes God telling Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” And the book then says that “the water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea.”

Pharaoh himself was apparently not included in this group (“the entire army of Pharaoh”), because when Moses and the Israelites  compose and sing a song afterwards to celebrate the event, they say:

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.

It seems to me that if Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt, had also been killed, the song would have mentioned this as the high point of the victory and not spoken only of his best officers.

I think that in this light, we should understand the statement in Psalm 136 that God swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea to mean that God swept Pharaoh, personified in his army, into the sea. This would be in keeping with the view in the ancient world that the host of a ruler (that is, his army or troops) was an extension of the ruler himself. (In Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, God is depicted that way, surrounded by the heavenly host emanating from his throne: A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.)

As I said, others might answer the question differently, but this is what the biblical account suggests to me.

“Crossing the Red Sea,” a wall painting from the 1640s in Yaroslavl, Russia

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