Sunday School Lesson 32: Job

TS_scrollWord Biblical Commentary quotes this very nice poem from W. H. Auden, “Thomas Epilogises”:

  Where Job squats awkwardly upon his ashpit,
Alone on his denuded battlefield,
Scraping himself with blunted Occam Razors
He sharpened once to shave the Absolute . . .
Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad rise together,
Begin to creak a wooden sarabande;
“Glory to God,” they cry, and praise his Name
In epigrams that trail off in a stammer.
Suave Death comes, final as a Händel cadence,
And snaps their limbs like twigs across his knees,
Silenus nods, his finger to his nose.

One lesson on Job and, so, about one week of reading and thinking about it rather than several months is so little that it is difficult to know what to do. The scholarly material on Job is enormous. The Anchor Bible volume on Job is over 400 pages long. In Word Biblical Commentary, the bibliography of recommended reading runs to 53 pages, and there are additional bibliographies for each of the commentary’s subsections. However, even if we ignore the scholarly material in the interest of focusing on the book as material for Sunday School and for self-reflection and meditation, a week is scarcely long enough. But, of course, were we to devote all the time needed for many of our lessons, we certainly wouldn’t finish the Bible this year. We might not ever get to some of the other Standard Works. So I will bite this bullet and proceed.

But before proceeding I need to remind those who have come to this site that my notes are designed primarily as study notes rather than as notes for preparing lessons. Presumably studying the book of Job would help a person prepare a lesson, so I hope the notes can also be helpful to Sunday School teachers. But the members of the class rather than the teacher are my primary audience. As a result, I not only try to say some things about the book, I try mostly to ask question, what teachers often call “thought questions.” I don’t give answers to those questions precisely because they are intended to help produce thought about Job rather than answers about him. Sometimes I have in mind some particular answer, but often I don’t. And even when I do have an answer in mind that is irrelevant to the question’s usefulness to someone else as a study question. So now I really will proceed.

Part of the Hebrew Bible called “The Writings” (see the notes on lesson 31 for more about the Writings), the book of Job is an unusual book of scripture. We do not know who wrote it; the narrator never identifies himself, and it doesn’t appear to have been written by someone named “Job.” The only other place in the Old Testament where Job is mentioned is in Ezekiel 14:14, where he is mentioned as an example of an exemplary righteous person. The book may well have more than one author. For example, some scholars think that chapter 28 was inserted by someone after the main part of the book was written. Many believe that the ending (42:11-17) was added by another writer. And some think that Elihu’s speeches (chapters 32-37) were inserted later. We also do not know when the book was written, nor where it was written (though it has a non-Israelite setting), and we do not know its intended audience.

There are sometimes debates among LDS members about the question of whether this is a true story. Was there a person named Job who had this experience? These notes avoid that debate because I don’t believe the answer is relevant to our study of the book as something that teaches us. If it is fiction, it is inspired fiction. If it is not fiction, it is inspired history. Either way the important question for us is not “Did Job live?” but “What does this story, historical or fictional, teach us about our lives and our relation to God?”

Job has been praised as one of the most important literary contributions to our culture by writers as gifted as Tennyson, Carlisle, Blake, and Frost. Perhaps because of its literary importance, people tend to find in Job what they are looking for. It tends to act as a mirror of our questions and beliefs: Calvin wrote 159 sermons on Job, using the book to demonstrate his understanding of divine grace and predestination. In contrast, the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire saw Job as a rebel and the book as describing the universal human condition, a view still shared by many contemporary readers. And psychiatrists have seen in it a description of the grief process.

Job is not an easy book to interpret. In fact, many have found its message disturbing, and some have even thought that it teaches things that are contrary to faith. Because Job is not easy to understand at first glance, we often deal with it by proof-texting, choosing passages that support something we believe, without regard for whether that is what the book of Job is actually teaching. For example, it isn’t uncommon for someone to quote one of Job’s friends approvingly, though it is clear that the book rejects their ready-made, moralizing answers to his suffering. Or we often assume that we know what Job is about—most often we assume that it is about the problem of suffering. But is it? If so, why is it about the suffering of only one particular person? It doesn’t really give us an explicit answer to the problem of suffering for Job, much less something we can universalize. So, though we assume that this is a book about that problem, we should ask ourselves whether that is right. Isn’t it perhaps more about how to suffer than why we suffer?

In spite of the variety of interpretations, there is almost universal agreement that the book of Job teaches that the natural order of the world is not a moral order. Like Koheleth in Ecclesiastes, Job teaches us that the good do not always prosper, nor do the wicked always come off worse in this life. (If the natural order were a moral order, then it would be obvious to everyone that goodness is better than wickedness and people would be good so as not to suffer rather than because it was good. In other words, righteousness would not be possible if the good were always rewarded and the wicked always punished in proportion to their goodness or wickedness.) Job also teaches that we cannot judge God using our understanding of morality. Thus, though James emphasizes Job’s patience in suffering (James 5:11), that is probably not the main theme of the book. Instead, it is an attribute one acquires if she understands the lessons of the book of Job.


Chapters 1-2: The prose prologue.

The prologue takes us back and forth from Uz to heaven. We first see Job living happily and prosperously in Uz. Then we see the confrontation between Satan and God in heaven, in which Satan doubts Job’s virtue. Shifting back to Uz, we see the calamity that befalls Job when Job loses everything, including his children. Finally, we see the Lord tell Satan that Job has passed the test and remained faithful, and Satan replies that he has passed it only because it didn’t touch his body. If Job suffers bodily, says Satan, he will blaspheme. The Lord allows Job to suffer bodily, and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to comfort him.

2. Chapters 3-31: A poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends.

This is a cycle of complaints by Job followed by responses by his three friends, who insist that his suffering results from something evil he has done but refuses to acknowledge. The first cycle is chapters 4-14, the second is chapters 15-21, and the third is chapters 22-26. In these cycles, Job is sometimes confused and angry (for example 19:21-24), but he is also faithful: 13:15-16, 16:20, 19:25, and 26:14. The cycle ends in chapters 27-31 with Job continuing to insist that he has not done evil (for example, chapter 31). He praises God’s wisdom, which he cannot understand (chapter 28).

3. Chapters 32-37: Elihu’s interruption—poetry.

A young man, Elihu, cannot stand it any longer. Brashly and angrily, he interrupts to condemn Job for justifying himself rather than God and to condemn Job’s friends for condemning Job without being able to refute Job’s claims to innocence. After his outburst, Elihu disappears from the poem.

4. Chapters 38-42:6: The Lord’s answer to Job from the whirlwind—also poetry

Several times in the second part of Job, Job has asked that the Lord appear so that he can demand the reasons for his suffering. In these chapters, the Lord appears from out of a whirlwind and answers Job, asking him who he is to speak out of such ignorance. The Lord reminds Job of the many things he has created and that Job cannot even understand such things, much less create them. Job responds in 40:3-5: “Then Job answered the Lord, and said, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further.” Then the Lord repeats the substance of his demand: Do you have divine power? You can’t create thunder, much less save yourself. Job repeats and expands his response in 42:1-6.

5. Chapters 42:7-17: The prose epilogue.

Job’s friends are condemned by the Lord but saved by Job’s intercession. Then Job is given twice as much as he had before his trial.

Study Questions

1:1: What does it mean to say that Job was perfect (or “whole-hearted”) and upright?

The Hebrew word translated perfect (tm) can also be translated blameless. What does it mean to be blameless? The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon gives these definitions of tm: “1. complete, perfect; 2. sound, wholesome; 3. complete, morally innocent; having integrity.” The Hebrew word translated upright (ysr) means “1. straight, level; 2. that which is right, pleasing in the eyes of, agreeable; 3. straightforward, just, upright.” Do those definitions help us understand better what this verse says about Job?

“Perfect and upright” is probably what literary critics call a pleonastic pair, two words used to mean one thing rather than two different things. If you think of that phrase as a pleonastic pair, how do you understand Job’s character?

The Septuagint, a 2nd or 3rd century BC translation of the Hebrew Bible, says “A certain man was in the land of Uz by the name of Job and that man was a truthful, blameless, righteous , God-fearing person, far removed from all evil deeds.”

What does it mean to say that Job feared God?

“Feared” is an excellent translation of the Hebrew, and the word is often used in the Old Testament to describe how the righteous feel about God.

Why would it properly be said that we fear God? Even if the word is a metaphor, why would the metaphor of fear describe our relation to our Father in Heaven? If Job did not fear God before these events, might he have had reason to fear him afterward? What does it mean to eschew evil? How does this book demonstrate Job’s perfection? What does Job’s story tell us about what it means to be perfect? Does Job say things in his discussion with his friends that surprise you? How does that fit with his perfection?

1:9-12: When Satan questions Job’s motivation for righteousness, suggesting that Job is good only because he has been rewarded, what question ought that to raise for us as readers? How do you think the first readers of Job probably thought about the connection between righteousness and material prosperity? Do we often think in the same terms? What does the book do with that way of thinking? Is Satan right when he says that people follow God because they expect a reward? If he is right, then why do we have the book of Job and its story? If he is wrong, then what is the point of rewards and the promise of prosperity and blessings?

2:9-10: How do you explain Job’s wife’s response to his suffering? How do you explain his response to her? If she believes that there is a causal connection between righteousness and prosperity (“if a person is righteous, then he will be prosperous”—which is not the same as “if a person is prosperous, then he is righteous”), what does she think that calamity that has just befallen her family means? Would that explain her response to Job, her demand that she commit what some have called “theological suicide”?

2:11-13: How do Job’s friends respond to his suffering at first? Does his friends response here fit with Alma’s injunction that those who are baptized are to “bear one another’s burdens” and “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8-9)?

3:1-19: What is happening in these verses? What does the fact that Job says these things after his friends have come and sat with him in silence suggest? Are there questions here that you have asked at some point or feelings that you have felt? If a friend has these feelings, how do you respond, as Job’s friends respond in chapter 2 or as they respond in chapter 4 and afterward? Is there another alternative? What would it be?

4:7-9: What is Eliphaz saying to Job? Does Eliphaz think that Job and he disagree? Explain your answer to that question. Sometimes we say that Job is about the problem of suffering. What do you make of the fact that only Job’s friends give an answer to that problem (though perhaps his wife has implied one)?

6:1-13: How does Job first respond to what Eliphaz has said? In verse 2 he wants to put his grief (“vexation”) and his calamity (“disaster” or “fall”) on one side of a balance scale. In verse 3 he says that if he did, they would be heavier than the sands of the sea, which are immeasurably heavy. Then he says that his “words are swallowed up,” in other words that he is unable to speak. Yet he does speak. When he speaks, what does he ask for (verse 9)? Why? What does he mean in verse 13 when he says that wisdom is driven from him?

6:14-15, 24, 28-29: What is Job’s response to his friend now? Regarding verse 15: a brook in a desert region cannot be counted on, for though it may be full in the spring, by August it is likely to be dry. Regarding verses 28-29: the word turn could also be translated “turn away.” Job is asking Eliphaz to change his judgment.

8:1-6: Is Bildad’s accusation any different than Eliphaz’s? What does Bildad tell Job that he should expect if he were righteous?

9:2-3: When Job says, “I know it is so,” what is he saying is so? Is Job contending with God or agreeing with what Bildad has just taught in chapter 8, that God does not pervert justice? Is that the issue for Job? If not, what is the issue?

9:14-22: What is Job saying here about his situation before God?

10:1-2: What is Job asking for that we, too, ask for?

11:1-6: How does Zophar expand Eliphaz’s and Bildad’s accusations?

13:4-8: How is Job criticizing Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar?

13:15-16: How does this show us Job’s faith? What does Job mean when he says, “I will maintain mine own ways before him”? (Another translation has “I will argue my ways before him.”)

A scholarly note: Most biblical scholars believe that the first part of verse 15 is mistranslated. It ought to be “He may slay me; I am without hope.” Does reading the verse in that way change Job’s teaching about how to undergo suffering?

14:7-14: What is Job’s question? Does he know the answer? What difference does the answer make to his situation? If Job lives righteously because he knows that God will give him a reward in the life hereafter, then isn’t Satan’s claim in chapters 1 and 2 (1:9-11 and 2:4-5) right, namely that even perfect Job is only righteous because God blesses him for it?

19:23-27: What is Job’s testimony? How is it related to his question in chapter 14? How does his answer overcome Satan’s claim?

There were no printed books when Job was written, so the King James translation of verse 23 is anachronistic. “Oh that they were inscribed” is a more literal translation of the last half of the verse.

23:3-7: Why does Job want to confront God? What does he think the outcome would be? When would a person be justified in arguing with God? Is Job implicitly accusing the Lord of acting unrighteously?

26:1-4: Of what is Job accusing Bildad in these verses? Are we ever like Bildad? If so, how? when? What does Job’s response say of us?

27:2-5: This is one of a number of places where Job speaks of his integrity, saying that he will not give it up.

The Hebrew word translated integrity could also be translated “wholeness” or “perfection.” It is a variation of the word translated perfect or “blameless” in Job 1:1.

Why is integrity so important to Job? What would giving up his integrity require him to do that he is unwilling to do? How can Job be so sure of his integrity?

38:1: This is the first time since chapters 1-2 the writer of this book uses the name “Lord” (Yahweh). Why do you think he has not used that name in the chapters between? How does the experience of this verse differ from Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:11-13) and how do you explain the difference? Is it relevant that Job’s friend, Elihu, has just spoken of a great storm at the end of the previous chapter? Is it significant that Job’s family was killed by a great wind (1:19)? What might that parallel suggest? Job prayed for this encounter several times. (See 23:3-7, for example.) How does what happens differ from what he demanded?

38:2: What does it mean to say that Job has darkened counsel? (This is a literal translation of the Hebrew.) Whose counsel has he darkened? How has he done so? How have Job’s words been “words without knowledge”?

38:3: Why does the Lord tell Job to gird up his loins? What does that phrase suggest about Job’s answer?

38:4-11: What is the point of the Lord’s questions?

38:12-15: Why is the Lord asking Job about Job’s power? The Lord has said that Job has darkened counsel. Now he asks whether Job is the one who created the day and its light. What is his point?

38:16-24: Why does the Lord ask Job about these many kinds of places on the earth and whether Job has been to them?

38:16: The sea was assumed to spring forth from the earth someplace, just as do the streams and rivers we know of. The writer is using that idea here in the Lord’s question of Job.

38:17: The gates of death, in other words, the gates to the place where the dead go, were assumed to be a place on the physical earth.

38:25-38: What point is the Lord driving home with these questions about how the world is governed and who does that governing?

40:4-5: What is Job’s response to the long series of questions that God asked him?

Another translation of the Hebrew word translated vile would be small or a trifle.

Job can say no more, but has he changed his claim of innocence?

40:6-41:26: Why does the Lord repeat his rebuke of Job after having rebuked him once and received Job’s humble response? Is it because Job has yet to disavow his claim of innocence?

40:8: Is this the problem: “Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?” If so, how has Job been doing that? Can you point to places where this has occurred? If Job has accused God of unrighteousness, how might we sometimes do that?

40:10: Job, God asks, if you’re not brave enough to take on Leviathan (a mythical beast that inhabited the sea, the embodiment of evil; see Psalms 74:14), what makes you brave enough to stand before me? Does Job have an answer to this question? If he does, what is it?

42:1-6: What has Job learned? We speak of this book as a book about suffering, but it never answers the question of why we suffer. Indeed, it solidly rebukes some answers to that question and condemns some who offer answers. But if it is not about why we suffer, what does it teach us about suffering?

From the lesson manual:

Elder Richard G. Scott said: “When you face adversity, you can be led to ask many questions. Some serve a useful purpose; others do not. To ask, Why does this have to happen to me? Why do I have to suffer this now? What have I done to cause this? will lead you into blind alleys. It really does no good to ask questions that reflect opposition to the will of God. Rather ask, What am I to do? What am I to learn from this experience? What am I to change? Whom am I to help? How can I remember my many blessings in times of trial?” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1995, 18; or Ensign, Nov. 1995, 17).

What did Job utter without understanding? What does he mean when he says in verse 5: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee”? When do we hear by the hearing of the ear but not see? How do we see?

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