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Proverbs and Job: The Wisdom of Israel

1 Introduction

2 Proverbs

3 Job

4 Apocryphal Wisdom

Study Guide


Fear of Yhwh, Job, Leviathan, Personification, Proverb, Retribution theology, Satan, Theodicy, Wisdom, Wisdom literature

Woman at the Window

Woman at the Window

I looked out the window of my house, through the lattice I saw a young man who lacked discernment” (Proverbs 7:6–7). The prologue of the book of Proverbs repeatedly warns young men of the seductions of evil, personified as an alluring woman.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on Woman at the Window from A Guide to the Babylonian and Assyrian Antiquities (London: British Museum, 1922), plate 41, no. 13.


Every culture finds ways to transmit its accumulated knowledge, sometimes through storytelling or through institutions of learning. In the old days, seated around the campfire or the kitchen table, grandparents passed on wisdom, and parents taught

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their children by word and example. In the Hebrew tradition, no less than any other, parents instructed the next generation on how to cope with life and be productive citizens. Such traditions on life and success are gathered in the book of Proverbs, one of the books of Israel’s wisdom literature.

However, not everyone who adopts the tried and true habits of success will actually find success. The circumstances of life sometimes seem to frustrate every effort to achieve happiness and prosperity. How can this be so? Where is the justice of life? How should one cope with failure? The book of Job asks just such questions.

1.1 Wisdom Literature

The category wisdom literature is a literary genre designation, a scholar’s category to define a large body of literature that is present not only in the Hebrew Bible but also in the literature of Egypt and Mesopotamia. As far as we can tell, it was not a distinctive category within the ancient Middle East itself. Scholars generally reckon the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible to be Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (see RTOT Chapter 15), and the wisdom psalms (see RTOT Chapter 13). Because of its purported Solomonic authorship, the Song of Songs might also be included. And if we take the Apocrypha into consideration, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach, short for the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach) would be added.

The books of wisdom literature share a number of characteristics, one of which is an interest in instruction, or pedagogy. This is especially evident in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, though less obviously so in the book of Job. We cannot be sure where and how character training and moral instruction took place in Hebrew culture. Some authorities who discuss the setting in life of wisdom suggest wisdom may have originated in a family or clan setting, but others associate it with the royal court.

Whatever the original context of instruction, the content of instruction eventually came to be written down. The wisdom books provide direction to those who sought to conduct their lives in a moral and productive way. They may have functioned as textbooks for those who were teaching and learning how to manage life: how to think, how to cope, how to succeed. They appear to be very early examples of the “how-to” genre that we still have with us today: books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Who Moved My Cheese?

1.1.1 Themes and Types

The notion of wisdom is difficult to define precisely. The terms wisdom and wise as used in the Hebrew Bible apply to human efforts to master self, society, and environment. Von Rad, an influential Old Testament scholar, considers biblical wisdom “a practical knowledge of the laws of life and of the world, based upon experience” (1962: 418). Much of the wisdom needed for a happy and successful life is gained by personal experience gathered over a lifetime of reflection on the lessons of life. Such wisdom is gained by astute observation and the search for patterns, especially the observation of the relation between cause and effect. Insights gained in this way might get passed on by parents who are eager to spare their offspring the pain of hard-earned lessons. Wisdom handed on in this way eventually accumulates over generations and sometimes ends up being considered common sense.

Von Rad (1972) characterizes the biblical program of wisdom as the search for order in creation and society. Behind the search for order is the belief that God

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created the world to be harmonious and consistent. The goal of wisdom’s search is to discern this order—to think God’s thoughts after him— and then to design ways that human beings can align themselves with this order. The wise person is the one who discerns this order and lives in conformity with it. Seen in this way, wisdom research in the biblical mold has a lot in common with the modern academic disciplines of the natural and social sciences whose job, broadly conceived, is to discover the laws of the world of nature and human society. But it does not necessarily take a doctoral degree. Attentive students of human nature can also discern fundamental principles of happiness and success.

Crenshaw (1969) understands the task somewhat differently than von Rad and says that wisdom is “the quest for self-understanding in terms of relationships with things, people, and the Creator.” He argues (1981) that the dynamic tension between order and chaos is a fundamental concern to Israel’s faith as a whole and was not limited just to the wisdom literature. In Israel’s worldview, the ordered realm of God’s creation is constantly being threatened by the forces of disorder and dissolution. The Creation theology of wisdom literature affirms the divine order by finding it and recommending conformity to it, thereby upholding the goodness and integrity of God. As such, wisdom literature has a strong connection with Priestly Creation theology (see RTOT Chapter 1).

Murphy (1983) argues that wisdom literature is not so much concerned with the so-called natural order as with human conduct. In other words, he claims that it is ethical rather than philosophical in its orientation. Wisdom literature is the attempt to impose order on human life rather than to discover it in the realm of creation.

Whybray (1974) views wisdom not so much in terms of the literature that gave it expression but as an intellectual tradition or way of thinking that was not restricted to any one class of people. He says wisdom is innate intelligence and “simply a natural endowment which some people possess in greater measure than others.” He argues that within Israel (and more generally the ancient world) the wisdom approach to life differed from the priestly, prophetic, and legal approaches. The wisdom approach used logic more over revelation to master life.

Wisdom literature deals with everyday life and experience. It might seem to have a secular flavor because it is based on human observation and reason, as distinct from divine revelation, as in the Torah and the Prophets. But, as the very inclusion of wisdom literature in the canon makes clear, any division between secular and sacred is foreign to the Hebrew Bible. Human rationality and the truths that it discovers are no less sanctioned by God than prophetic oracles.

This discussion only goes to show that wisdom can be difficult to define. Part of the difficulty lies with the breadth of the notion. Crenshaw (1969) uses four different labels to classify wisdom literature, and these will help us appreciate the scope of the wisdom enterprise:


1. Nature wisdom is based on observations of the real world that enable humankind to understand and coexist in harmony with it. This is represented by the onomastica, or lists of names, of Mesopotamian wisdom literature and is a precursor to what the physical sciences do in classifying and analyzing flora and fauna. One indication that this took place within Israel can be found in 1 Kings 4:33 where we learn that Solomon “spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he spoke of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish.

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Many take this to mean that he undertook himself or the royal court sponsored efforts to label and categorize flora and fauna. Such an effort is analogous to scientific efforts to classify and create taxonomies of virtually every component of material reality.

2. Practical wisdom analyzed the social order, modern analogues being sociology and psychology. Practical wisdom, and probably nature wisdom, originated from the everyday life of the family and clan.

3. Judicial wisdom sought ways to adjudicate disputes such as when Solomon settled the matter of the two women who both laid claim to the living child (1 Kings 3:16–28). This type of wisdom originated from the royal court.

4. Theological wisdom, sometimes called speculative wisdom, sought answers to deeply puzzling issues such as the explanation for human suffering and God’s role in upholding justice among humankind. Crenshaw attributes this type of wisdom to professional scribes.


Wisdom literature cannot easily be defined by literary genre. Included within wisdom literature are proverbs, parables, discourses, songs, and poems. What unites these various materials that we call wisdom literature is something bigger: an approach to reality and a theory of knowledge. The thought contained in wisdom literature approaches the world of experience through the power of human intellect, not through divine revelation, as is the case with the Torah and Prophets.

The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible is evidence that Israel had a lively community of observers and thinkers, perhaps even an intellectual class. Sages searched for the abiding principles of human behavior, sought the laws of the universe, pondered the nature of human life, and raised questions of ultimate meaning.

1.1.2 Setting in Life

Social and literary research has investigated the areas of Israelite life that may have given rise to wisdom literature. Was it common folk wisdom originating out of the family? If so, it would tell us about everyday life and what ordinary people valued. Was it something produced professionally by “academic” wise men? Then it is more a product of sages employed by the royal administration and religious institutions, and as such it reinforced and encouraged the kinds of behavior that they were interested in promoting. It is a question of who set the ethical agenda and determined basic social values. Was it the home or the state?

Von Rad (1962) champions the view that the wisdom tradition was closely connected with the royal court in Jerusalem. According to his sociological reconstruction, the monarchy of David and Solomon involved an intellectual as well as political revolution. A new way of thinking developed that attended less to cultic matters and tended to view the world more humanistically. This intellectual enlightenment was centered at the royal court where professional scribes and sages promoted the new outlook.

Crenshaw (1976) has questioned whether there was such a radical turnabout with the rise of the monarchy. He suggests that many of the sayings of Proverbs could have originated in family and clan settings. Royal wise men did not make them up but may have been the first to collect them and write them down. The connection between Solomon and wisdom, therefore, should not be understood in terms of authorship. Rather, Solomon should be considered the royal sponsor of

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the business of collecting and organizing family and clan wisdom. He is the one who took an official interest in it and made it the object of study and reflection.

1.1.3 Wisdom and the Canon

Wisdom literature was treated as the orphan of Israelite theology when the study of theology was dominated by a salvation–history paradigm (see Childs, 1970). The salvation–history approach located the central theological importance of the Hebrew Bible in the historical material of the Torah and the Prophets. These collections portrayed God directing historical events in order to provide salvation for his chosen people. Because wisdom literature did not directly deal with such matters and in fact seemed nontheological when defined in these terms, it was neglected.

The salvation–history approach no longer dominates the study of biblical theology. One of the results is that wisdom literature is now more appreciated in its own right and as a reinforcement of other biblical traditions. In fact, many important points of contact with the Torah and the Prophets can now be recognized. Common interests are found in their Creation theologies (compare Proverbs 8:22–31 and Job 28:20–28 with Genesis 1–2) and in their concern with education and the importance of instilling values in the hearts of Israel’s next generation (compare Proverbs 1–9 with Deuteronomy 6:20–25). Furthermore, wisdom literature’s concern with faithfulness in worship activities—including offering sacrifices, making vows, and praying—shows its commonality with the formal religious regulations of the Torah (see Perdue, 1977).

Traditional wisdom, especially the kind expressed in Proverbs, correlates blessing with right moral behavior. In this it is quite like the prophetic perspective of the Deuteronomistic historian, who correlates the behavior of Israel and its kings with the prosperity of the nation. In this way, wisdom’s theology of retribution has important points of contact with the Torah and the Prophets, especially with the Deuteronomic tradition, and probably should not be seen as an entirely independent conceptual framework.

Wisdom literature also rests on a basic belief in the goodness of God’s created order. This is a premise that gets it into a theological bind, especially on the issue of theodicy. Literally, theodicy means “the justice of God” and is a label applied to the problem of reconciling the belief that God is a good god who controls the world that he created with the facts of suffering and injustice in the human world. In Israel’s case, the issue of theodicy was occasioned most pointedly by the conflict between the Torah–Prophets worldview of a God-given order and the plight of the postexilic community, which suffered at the hands of unrighteous idol worshipers. This issue is perhaps behind the theological discussion carried on in the book of Job.

Certainly within the various books of the wisdom literature and then more broadly between Torah–Prophets and the wisdom literature, there is a lively theological conversation, perhaps at times even an argument, between viewpoints in tension while still accepting the same basic premise that Israel’s God is behind all activity in history.

1.2 Reading Guide

Read Proverbs 1, which explains the reason why people need to attain wisdom. Read Chapter 8, which poetically explains where wisdom gets its authority. Then read Chapter 10, which is typical of the remainder of the book—a huge collection of

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self-contained couplets, each laying out the value of wisdom and recommending how a righteous person should live.

Job is a long book that was built around a cycle of dialogues between the man Job and his friends. The book is framed at the beginning and end by narratives that describe the experiences of Job. Read Chapters 1–7, which establish the premise of the book and contain the first cycle of dialogue between Job and his three friends. Then read Chapters 38–42, which contain the climax of the book: the theophany of Yhwh and the narrative resolution.


As children growing up, we tend to attract advice from our parents, teachers, counselors, coaches, peers, and even younger siblings—whether we want it or not. Some of it might even be useful, if we could ever find the patience and humility to use it. Advice can take a negative form such as “You shouldn’t eat so much candy.” Or it can be framed as a rhetorical question such as “Wouldn’t you be happier with a different guy?” Sometimes advice comes by way of slogans that we have adopted from the worlds of sports and product advertising, such as “No pain, no gain” or “Just do it!” Other advice just seems to be part of the culture, proverbs such as “A stitch in time saves nine” or “A watched pot never boils.” Sometimes we know the sayings because we have heard them repeatedly, even if we do not actually know what exactly they mean. These are all ways that the culture tries to pass on the wisdom learned by others in the school of hard knocks to those who look like they could use some help.

Through the ages, insights into human behavior and prudent practice have been distilled into short memorable sayings called maxims and aphorisms. Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, with sayings such as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” is an American cultural artifact. A proverb, much like a Ben Franklin maxim, is a short, memorable saying that encapsulates a truth about life. Every culture has its proverbs, some of which are shown in Table 14.1.

Proverbs are typically presented as matter-of-fact statements describing the way things are. But really they are lessons about the way that you and I should be. For example, the proverb “One wise-of-heart keeps commandments; a muttering fool comes to ruin” (Proverbs 10:8) consists of declarative statements, not commands. Nonetheless, the command is obvious: Be a wise and moral person! Although such declarative statements comprise the bulk of proverbs, there are other types of statements in the book, including riddles, allegories, taunts, and autobiographical sketches (for example, see 24:30–32).

TABLE 14.1 Proverbs from Around the World


Into an open mouth a fly will enter.
Arabic A scholar is mightier than a soldier.
Japanese Even monkeys fall from trees.
Chinese fortune cookie Wise learn more from fools than fools from the wise.
First American Nothing is as eloquent as a rattlesnake’s tail.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

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Like many English maxims, biblical proverbs frequently contain a play on words or a bit of alliteration, at least in the original Hebrew. Most biblical proverbs take the form of couplets containing parallel A- and B-lines. For example,

A-line: The plans of the heart belong to humans,
B-line: The answer of the tongue comes from Yhwh. (Proverbs 16:1)

Parallelism is typical of biblical poetry generally, including the Psalms (see RTOT Chapter 13) and much written prophecy.

There is a clear division in the book of Proverbs between the prologue and the proverbs proper. The prologue consists of poetic discourses on wisdom topics such as the nature of wisdom and the desirability of attaining it. The proverbial wisdom consists of lists of proverbs.

2.1 Prologue (1–9)

The first collection within the book of Proverbs is Chapters 1–9. It serves as an introduction, or prologue, to the rest of the book by developing themes in brief poetic essays. The topics of these essays include the origin of wisdom, justification for studying wisdom, the contrasting character of wisdom and folly, and the role of wisdom in creating the world.

Of all the collections, the prologue contains the most variety and, compared to the remainder of the book, more references to God. This has led some authorities to date the prologue later than the rest of the book and to say it was composed to form an introduction to the proverb collections of Chapters 10–31. This inference operates on the assumption that early wisdom was secular and that wisdom was incorporated within a religious worldview only later. However, a comparison with the Egyptian wisdom tradition, which predates Israel’s, calls this view into question. Egyptian wisdom uses an instructional literary form similar to that found in the prologue, and it also personifies Lady Wisdom as a goddess similar to the prologue.

2.1.1 Wisdom Instruction

The purposes for proverbs are stated in 1:2–6, which functions as the introduction to the book. Proverbs are

For learning wisdom and discipline,
   for understanding insightful words;
for getting instruction in wise behavior,
   righteousness, justice, and impartiality;
for giving shrewdness to the unlearned,
   knowledge and discretion to the young—
Let the wise also hear and increase learning,
   and the sophisticated improve skill;
for understanding proverb and puzzle,
   words of the wise and their riddles. (1:2–6)

Note all the words referring to education: learning, understanding, instructing, teaching. The book of Proverbs is introduced as a textbook in wisdom. This paragraph is especially helpful because, by way of recommending itself, the book provides a number of terms that are at least partially synonymous with wisdom, thus enabling us to get a sense of the scope of this foundational notion. The notion of wisdom is

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associated with discipline, instruction, understanding, shrewdness, knowledge, discretion, learning, and skill.

The prologue is framed as the instructions of parents to their son. Wisdom is the knowledge of the right way to live, and they look to give him guidance based on their experience:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
   and do not reject your mother’s teaching. (1:8).

Though perhaps self-evident, this bears mentioning: wisdom is something that can be taught and learned. The son has a choice to make. Will he choose the practice of wisdom, or will he be a fool? It is up to him. Wisdom, unlike intelligence, is neither genetically determined nor a matter of divine endowment. It can, indeed must, be acquired.

2.1.2 Fear of Yhwh

A fundamental theme of Israelite wisdom is that the fear of Yhwh is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. This affirmation is made immediately after the purpose statement quoted above, and serves as that statement’s culmination:

The fear of Yhwh is the beginning of knowledge;
   wisdom and discipline fools despise. (1:7)

The phrase “wisdom and discipline” is also found in 2a and functions as a way to bind verses 2–7 together as the thematic introduction to the proverbs. This literary device is called an inclusion. Placed before the actual instructions, the “fear of Yhwh” statement serves as the basic postulate of the book. It conditions all that follows and serves as a reminder that even though wisdom’s instruction has to do with matters of personal behavior, family responsibility, business ethics, and community loyalty, it is grounded in the fear of God.

What is the intent of the phrase “fear of Yhwh”? The notion may have originated in that edge-of-death fear that Israelites felt in the presence of God, such as when they were gathered at Mount Sinai after the Exodus. But in a wisdom context, fear is not to be understood as terror or fright. It refers to the deep awe and reverence for God that one must have to live properly. One must always be aware that there is a God and that he holds persons responsible for their actions. Knowing that Yhwh keeps account of behavior is a marvelous incentive to act wisely and properly.

The truth that “the fear of Yhwh is the beginning of wisdom” is well-nigh universal in biblical wisdom literature. It is found additionally in Proverbs 9:10 near the conclusion of the prologue, in Job 28:28, in Psalm 111:10 (a wisdom psalm), and in apocryphal Sirach 1:14.

2.1.3 Lady Wisdom and Mistress Folly

Throughout the prologue, wisdom and its opposite are made to look like real people through the use of a literary device called personification. Wisdom is portrayed as a respectable and proper woman (1:20–33; 8:1–36; 9:1–6). Folly, on the other hand, is pictured as a loose woman, ready to deceive the young man with sensuous pleasures and lead him to his death (7:6–27; 9:13–18). The description of Mistress Folly is so sexually explicit that it no doubt held fascination for the young man under instruction. Perhaps the literary device of sensual personification was used to ensnare

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the young man’s attention, just as modern advertising uses attractive women to sell everything from toothpaste to Toyotas.

There are a couple of further observations that we can make about these personifications. First, wisdom is a woman!—a remarkable concession for a patriarchal society (see Newsom, 1989). In part this was linguistically natural because hochmah, the Hebrew word for wisdom, is grammatically feminine in gender. Still, this literary personification develops the notion above and beyond the demands of grammar.

Second, the opposite of wisdom is not so much stupidity as it is willful disregard for right order. Wisdom’s opposite is personified as a mistress or prostitute. This figure tries to entice its victims into abandoning honorable behavior for immediate gratification. This is wisdom literature’s analogue to the personifications of prophetic literature. Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all characterized the covenant unfaithfulness of Israel as its whoring after other divine pretenders such as Baal.

The importance of female figures in embodying wisdom notions is reinforced in the last chapter of the book in which there is a return to female imagery. The concluding acrostic poem praises the ideal wife (31:10–31):

A virtuous wife, who can find?
   Her worth is more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her.
   Profit he will not lack. (31:10–11)

This passage contains perhaps the most profuse appreciation of real women in the Hebrew Bible, at least women in their role as wives. The description recalls the positive picture of wisdom, personified as a woman, in Chapters 8–9. There is the hint that the industrious wife is the incarnation of Lady Wisdom. All the ideal qualities of Lady Wisdom are read into the ideal wife. Or, if the prologue was in fact composed after Chapters 10–31, perhaps the virtuous wife was the model for Ideal Wisdom! In either case, this poetic conclusion to the book of Proverbs concretizes the virtues of wisdom and recommends its practice.

2.1.4 Creation Theology

The most profound personification of wisdom occurs in 8:22–31. She describes herself as the first thing that Yhwh acquired or created, even before the physical world took shape. Wisdom was God’s “mastercrafter,” present with him through the entire process of world formation. The implication seems to be that wisdom was God’s instrument or tool for creating his realm. Yhwh founded the earth by wisdom, he established the heavens by understanding, the depths broke open by his knowledge, and the clouds drop down the dew (3:19–20).

This association of wisdom with Creation, combined with the priestly notion that God created the world by the word of his mouth (“And God said, ‘Let there be . . . ’”), ascribes a powerful role to wisdom. Some have suggested that this is the closest Yhwh comes to having a consort, or female companion, in the orthodox Hebraic tradition (see Lang, 1986). Creation by word and wisdom was picked up by the New Testament writer John, who intentionally conjoined Jesus of Nazareth with Creation, word, and wisdom when he started his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.

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2.2 Proverbial Wisdom (10–31)

Chapters 10–31 are mostly single-couplet proverbs in list form, one after another in almost random order thematically. This contrasts with the wisdom poems of the prologue, which are the form of more extended poetic essays. The proverbs articulate a world of moral values and character traits in a binary way using antithetic parallelism. Opposites are contrasted and the positive virtue is clearly identifiable. The most frequent opposing pairs are these:

• Wisdom and folly: Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it, but folly is the chastisement of fools (16:22).
• Righteousness and wickedness: The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land (10:30).
• Wealth and poverty: A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, the poverty of the poor is their ruin (10:15).
• Industry and laziness: A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich (10:4).
• Humility and pride: When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom (11:2).

Proverbs are presented as observations, yet they are not simply statements of the way things are. Given their instructional setting, they intend to recommend the way things ought to be. The sentence wisdom of Proverbs upholds the traditional values of family, hard work, honesty, humility, and loyalty. These proverbs function, then, as an instrument in the socialization of Israel’s youth, and probably especially its potential leaders, and a way to instill the time-honored values of the community.

Proverbial wisdom is also situational, or pragmatic. Although proverbs are framed as universal statements, they need to be applied with discernment. Folk wisdom often sounds contradictory taken in the abstract. Put “Look before you leap” alongside “He who hesitates is lost.” Which is correct? Well, it depends. Sometimes caution is advisable, but at other times speed is essential.

Likewise, the sage advice of the proverbs needs to be applied situationally and not automatically. The collector of the proverbs recognized this and wryly made his point:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
   or you will be like a fool yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly
   or he will be a fool in his own opinion. (26:4–5)

2.2.1 Retribution Theology

The traditional wisdom of Proverbs divides humanity into two groups, the wise (equated with the righteous) and the foolish (the wicked). The characteristics and behaviors of each group are identified. But proverbs go further than just classifying two types of people. They indicate what will become of each:

Wise men store up knowledge,
   but the nonsense of a fool draws ruin near. (10:14)

In this way the community values summed up in the notion of righteousness are given divine sanction. That is, righteous behavior is recognized and rewarded by

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God, and folly is punished. Retribution theology maintains that God uncompromisingly and unfailingly punishes the wicked for their evil deeds and rewards the righteous with long life and prosperity. The book of Proverbs affirms retribution theology as intentionally as the Deuteronomistic tradition. It maintains the strict correlation between the practice of wisdom and earthly reward, contrasted with the foolish life that leads inexorably to tragedy and ruin:

The righteous will never be removed,
   but the wicked will disappear from the land. (10:30)

The book of Proverbs thus projects a vision of the world as an ordered moral universe where truth and justice rule. This basic theological perspective of the proverbial wisdom outlook will be challenged and refined in other wisdom literature, including the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.

2.3 International Connections

Israel did not exist in political, religious, or intellectual isolation from its geographical neighbors. Intellectual and even direct literary contact is nowhere more evident than in Israel’s book of Proverbs.

The book of Proverbs looks a great deal like the instruction literature that has survived from ancient Egypt. The Maxims of Ptahhotpe and The Teaching for Merikare are major Egyptian writings that contain the advice and instruction of a father to his son (see Simpson, 1972). Likewise, the book of Proverbs is addressed to a son. This literature gives practical advice on how to behave and act in business with different classes of people and how to be a good and effective public servant. The commonality of the book of Proverbs with Egyptian instruction literature suggests that it may have been the court wisdom that was used to train the next generation of Israel’s leaders for effective public service.

The Instruction of Amenemope has the most direct bearing on the book of Proverbs (see Table 14.2). Written in thirty chapters and probably dating to 1200 BCE, it has close parallels to many verses in Proverbs 22:17–24:22.

A study of parallels between biblical and Egyptian wisdom literature reveals that there are varying degrees of dependence, from direct literary borrowing to

TABLE 14.2 Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope


Direct your ear and hear wise words. Set your heart to know them. For it is pleasant if you keep them in your inmost self (22:17–18a). Give your ears and hear what is said, give your mind over to their interpretation: It is profitable to put them in your heart (3, 10).
Have I not written for you thirty counsels and teachings to teach you what is right and true? (22:20). Mark for yourself these thirty chapters: They please, they instruct, they are the foremost of all books (27, 7).
Do not make friends with people prone to anger. With the hotheaded person do not associate (22:24). Do not fraternize with the hot-tempered man, nor approach him to converse (11, 12).
When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe what is before you. Put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite (23, 16).
Look at the cup in front of you, and let it suffice your need (23:1–2).

*Simpson, (1972).

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TABLE 14.3 Proverb Collections



1:1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David king of Israel 1:2–9:18
10:1 The proverbs of Solomon 10:1–22:16
22:17 Stretch your ears and hear the words of the wise 22:17–24:22
24:23 Also these are of the wise 24:23–34
25:1 Also these are proverbs of Solomon 25:1–29:27
30:1 The words of Agur son of Yakeh, an oracle 30:1–33
31:1 The words of King Lemuel, an oracle his mother taught him

“thought” borrowing; the latter is barely recognizable because it has been so seamlessly integrated (see Bryce, 1979). Although there are differences in wording, proverbial parallels with Egyptian instruction sayings seem quite close here in Proverbs. This could be evidence of direct literary borrowing, or it could signal that there was a common Middle Eastern wisdom culture with universal insights of which both literatures partook. Ancient Mesopotamia also had a tradition of proverbial wisdom (see ANET, 425–427, 593–596, and Lambert, 1960).

2.4 Proverbs as a Book

The book of Proverbs is an anthology, actually a collection of seven collections (see Table 14.3). Each consists of a set of short sayings, except for the first, which consists of wisdom essays. Only the first collection (Chapters 1–9) and the last (Chapter 31) have longer subunits with thematic continuity (for example, Chapter 31 is an acrostic poem about the ideal wife). Each collection of sayings is identifiable because it is introduced with a title.

The second through fifth collections allude to a monarchy, suggesting a preexilic setting. The first, sixth, and seventh collections are generally considered postexilic. The book as a whole does not demonstrate logical movement or plot. It was probably edited into its final form late in the 400s BCE.

About the only one who argues that the book has an overall structure is Skehan (1971), who devised an ingenious theory that the book of Proverbs is a “house of wisdom” (9:1). He claims that it was designed on analogy with the Solomonic temple, with a front (1–9), nave (10:1–22:16), and inner sanctuary (22:17–31:31). The “seven pillars” of wisdom’s house (9: 1) are the seven columns of text into which Chapters 2–7 can be divided, each having the same number of lines as letters in the alphabet.


The book of Proverbs is an effective representation of traditional ancient Middle Eastern wisdom for the way it promotes righteousness and upholds a moral universe. However, other wisdom books, such as Job (covered in this section) and Ecclesiastes (covered in RTOT Chapter 15), boldly take issue with the traditional definition of righteousness. In particular, the book of Job is a frontal assault on the glib retribution categories of traditional wisdom as represented by the book of Proverbs and the

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Deuteronomistic tradition. It recognizes that the standard recommendation to “do right and you will be blessed” does not actually work out in every situation.

In this it has much in common with certain Mesopotamian writings (see Lambert, 1960). The Sumerian composition “A Man and his God” counsels one to turn to God with prayer and supplication in sickness and suffering (ANET, 589–591). Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, translated “I will praise the Lord of wisdom,” is an Akkadian composition dating to around 1000 BCE. It describes a man’s sufferings and blames Marduk, the lord of wisdom. Yet in the end, the sufferer finds deliverance (ANET, 434–437, 596–600; see also the Babylonian Theodicy in ANET, 438–440, 601–604). The story of Ahiqar, late 400s BCE, is about a scribe who suffers misfortunes and is later restored to a place of honor (ANET, 427–430).

The biblical book of Job (rhymes with robe) ponders the nature of the moral order of the universe, and it does this by examining the microcosm of the man Job. In his experience, there is an obvious misfit between the world of doctrine and the world of experience.

3.1 Story Line

The basic story line is straightforward. Job was a morally upstanding individual. The text sums up his character in the first verse by telling us “he fears Elohim and shuns evil.” He had considerable wealth and a fine family. When the Divine Council met in heaven, Yhwh expressed pride in Job, but he was challenged by one called the adversary, known in Hebrew as the satan. Note that “the satan” does not have a capital s because it is a title, not a name. This is indicated by the definite article the (ha in Hebrew) that attaches to this word.

The satan figure of the book of Job appears to be a member of the Divine Council and is not immediately to be equated with the devil of later Judaism and Christianity. Satan means adversary and accuser, and this may have been an official function within the council (see Pagels, 1995). The satan has an interesting if only very limited history in the Hebrew Bible. The term satan used in reference to an individual figure is found in only three settings: 1 Chronicles 21, Zechariah 3, and her:

Yhwh said to the satan, “From where have you come?” The satan answered Yhwh, “From going here and there on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” Yhwh said to the satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears Elohim and turns away from evil?” Then the satan answered Yhwh, “Does Job fear Elohim for nothing?” (1:7–9)

Here in the book of Job, the satan figure is the official heavenly cynic whose task is to challenge the moral basis of humankind’s relationship with Yhwh, and vice versa. In this case, the satan is playing the “devil’s advocate” by giving Yhwh a skeptical explanation of Job’s goodness. He asserts that Job is calculating, manipulative, and self-serving, and his apparent devotion to Elohim is designed merely to get the best treatment he can.
The adversary challenged Yhwh to take everything away from Job in order to see what his reaction would be. Yhwh gave the satan permission first to remove all of Job’s wealth and family (see Figure 14.1) and later his physical health. Job was reduced to being a suffering social outcast.

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Job's Misfortunes

FIGURE 14.1 Job’s Misfortunes

Source: Watercolor drawing entitled The Messengers Tell Job of His Misfortunes by William Blake in his Illustrations to the Book of Job (1805–1806).

Three friends appeared at his side to give him counsel: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In conversation with Job, they attempted to make sense out of his plight. But neither Job nor his friends resolved the conundrum of Job’s suffering. Elihu, another counselor-friend, later appeared, but he does not seem to further the moral argument. Finally, Yhwh came to Job in a terrifying theophany and commanded Job’s attention. Job was so overcome that essentially he gave up all moral claims and submitted himself to the power of the divine.

Yhwh never really answered Job’s questions directly. Instead, he questioned Job in a severely intimidating way, seemingly belittling Job because he presumed to question the divine wisdom—God, after all, created the world. But in the end, Yhwh vindicated Job by reprimanding Job’s friends and requiting Job with a new family and even greater wealth. The story line is relatively simple, the theological arguments not necessarily so.

There are three cycles of dialogue between Job and his friends, though the last cycle is incomplete (see Table 14.4). After these cycles, a new figure, Elihu, appears and thinks he is going to set everyone straight. Afterwards, Yhwh makes his appearance to Job.

TABLE 14.4 Structure of Job


Narrative prologue: Job’s tragedy
3 Job’s lament
4–31 Cycles of dialogue
     A. First cycle (4–14)
     B. Second cycle (15–21)
     C. Third cycle (22–31)
32–37 Speeches of Elihu
38– 41 Theophany
Narrative epilogue: Job’s reversal

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3.2 Dialogues

One way to savor the meat of the book is to survey the positions of the main players. But this should not substitute for experiencing the book firsthand. So much of the argument is in the telling. The following summary should not be taken as a replacement for reading the book itself because Job is a remarkable treatise and contains some of the best poetry in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

3.2.1 Eliphaz

Eliphaz observes that no one is ever completely sinless. In no uncertain terms, he upholds the theology of retribution that we know well from the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History:

Think about it.
   What innocent ever perished?
   Where were the upright destroyed?
I have seen that those who plow evil
   and sow trouble reap the same.
By Eloah’s blast they perish
   and by the heat of his anger they disappear. (4:7–9)

Eliphaz then goes on to say that everyone can expect at least a little suffering in life. Job is relatively innocent, so he will not suffer permanently. He should be patient; his suffering will soon be over. As an aside, note the appearance in this text of yet another way to reference the high God: Eloah is a synonym of Elohim and El.

3.2.2 Bildad

Bildad applies the theology of retribution relentlessly. He claims that Job’s children must have been notable sinners to be treated so brutally by God. No doubt they died justifiably:

Can El get justice wrong?
   Can Shadday distort rightness?
If your children sinned against him,
   he delivered them over to the consequences of their violation. (8:3–4)

Because Job is still alive, claims Bildad, he must not be too bad a sinner.

3.2.3 Zophar

Zophar claims that Job must be suffering for his own sin. Even though Job will not admit it publicly, he must be a sinner:

You say, ‘My principles are pure,
   and I am innocent before you.’
But if Eloah would speak
   and talk to you himself,
   and tell you the secrets of wisdom—
   there are many nuances to wisdom—
Know that Eloah is exacting less than you deserve. (11:4–6)

Job should honestly face his sin and ask God for mercy.

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3.2.4 Elihu

Elihu, who seems to appear out of nowhere, speaks after Job’s other three friends have had their say. In Chapters 32–37, he claims that suffering is the way that Elohim communicates with human beings to tell us that we are sinners and that sin a serious offense:

He opens understanding by discipline,
   and orders them to turn away from wickedness.
If they listen and obey,
   they will end up with good days and pleasant years. (36:10–11)

All four speakers, the three friends and Elihu, maintain the theology of retribution in some form. Their approach is very much “top down.” In other words, they hold a basic belief in retribution, and they try to square Job’s experience with the theological principles that they hold rather than by developing a theology out of human experience.

3.2.5 Job

Job has no particularly convincing or even coherent response to his calamity. He argues with his friends and attacks their counterarguments. But ultimately he remains confounded. He just does not know how to handle his predicament.

Yet there are certain claims that he maintains throughout, certain points that he will not relinquish. He never gives in and admits personal guilt in the measure that would call forth such suffering. He often urges God to reveal himself and state why he is afflicting him so. He challenges God in what amounts to a lawsuit, much in the manner of the covenant lawsuit popular with the prophets, even though he recognizes that if God actually would appear, he might be powerless to respond:

If I summoned him and he responded to me,
   I do not believe he would hear my voice.
If it is a contest of strength,
   he is the strong one.
If it is an issue of justice,
   who could take him to court? (9:16, 19)

Job’s skepticism is amazingly prescient of what would soon happen.

3.2.6 Yhwh

Yhwh does not respond to the intellectual arguments of Job and his friends, all of which have to do in some way with the theology of retribution. He quite ignores that business, neither affirming nor denying whether Job deserves all that has happened to him. By God’s bracketing the big question of retribution, the book seems to be saying that retribution is not the real issue. The deity does not conduct his affairs with humans on a strictly quid pro quo basis.

Yet God does address Job’s urgent plea that he at least show himself. He appeared in a storm theophany (38–41), but instead of answering Job’s questions, he put Job on trial:

Who is this confusing the issue
   with nonsensical words?!

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Brace yourself like a man.
   I will quiz you.
   You teach me!
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you really have such deep understanding! (38:2–4)

Yhwh continues in this same vein, badgering the witness, as it were, and impressing upon Job that he really knows nothing about how God created and runs the world. Job finally admits that he spoke presumptuously in demanding that the deity justify his actions:

Yhwh said to Job:
   “Will one in need of discipline complain about Shadday?
   Let the one accusing God answer!”
Then Job answered Yhwh:
   “I am worth nothing. How can I respond to you?
   I am putting my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but have no answer for you,
   Twice I spoke, but I will say no more.” (40:1–3)

By now Job seems properly contrite, having been put in his place by his God. The reader might expect Yhwh at this point to coddle Job or at least lay off a bit. Just the opposite occurs. Yhwh launches into a second discourse designed further to impress Job with his omnipotence. He describes in great detail his Creation and his harnessing both Behemoth and Leviathan. These creatures have been likened to the hippopotamus and crocodile, respectively, but the overblown language of their description suggests that God is really referring to the mythic monsters of chaos that he tamed and holds at bay (see Day, 1985).

Through the whole encounter, God is absolutely overpowering. One might wonder why God felt he needed to react in such an intimidating way. Yet God does give Job satisfaction of sorts, first, in the very fact of his appearing, and second, by putting the issue of suffering in perspective. The important outcome is that God ultimately affirmed Job, in fact had never abandoned him, even though it had seemed so to Job at the time.

Job wanted to know why, but God would not tell him. This effectively marginalizes the theology of retribution. Perhaps the real issue is trust—can one, will one, simply trust God and “leave the driving to him”? Job is the model of the one who suffers, with all the self-doubt, indignation, impatience, and spiritual agony typical of those in great crisis. But he is also the model of one who trusts in Yhwh even though he fails to comprehend why he is suffering.

3.3 Job as a Book

The book of Job consists of a poetic core surrounded by a prose narrative framework. The prose framework relates the story of Job, including the tragedy that strikes him and his family. The poetic core contains the theological heart of the book, including the dialogues of Job and his friends and the appearance of Yhwh himself. In the cycles of dialogue, each of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, speaks his turn, and Job responds to each.

The structure of the book raises problems for the interpreter. What is the relation of the prose framework and the dialogues? Who is Elihu? What is the function

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of the theophany, and how does it address the issues raised in the book? The narrative conclusion of the book seems especially artificial and unsatisfying to many readers—though, perhaps, not for retribution theologians. In the end, Job’s fortunes were restored. He was given sons and daughters to replace those he lost, and his former material wealth was doubled. Although Job was reduced to humble acceptance of the power of God, he was vindicated and told to pray for his three friends who were in the wrong.

Yet the ending is far from satisfying. In one grand narrative stroke, what we thought was the lesson of the book to this point seems to be undone. The lesson of the book seemed to be going in the direction that there is no direct and necessary correlation between righteousness and material well-being. Do we now, at the last, see Job rewarded for being in the right? If so, the theology of retribution seems to be upheld after all: In the end, Job is rewarded for his uprightness. It almost seems that the profound lesson of the theophany (38–41) is deconstructed by the triteness of the “and they lived happily ever after” conclusion.

If Job is first of all theological literature, it may be in the mold of theodicy, an attempt to cope with the impenetrable character of the governance of God. The ending may be the writer’s somewhat clumsy way of affirming the ultimate justice of God. Heaven as the place where rewards and punishments will be meted out was not an option at this stage of biblical religion. Everyone, whether good or bad, went to the same underworld, called sheol. Thus, Job’s reward had to come during his lifetime. The writer responsible for the final shape of the book was willing, it seems, to live with the resulting tension of the freedom and sovereignty of God as expressed in the theophany, the validity of the theology of retribution, and the reality of righteous suffering.

Other writers apply different categories to Job. Literary rather than theological approaches to the book abound, and many seem quite able to live with the moral ambiguity of the book. Whedbee (1977) interprets the book using categories of comedy and irony. Westermann (1977) reads it as if it were a biblical lament. Habel (1985) reads Job as an allegory of the people of Israel in the postexilic period experiencing suffering and alienation from God. Modern re-creations of Job creatively wrestle with the human condition and can be recommended for the interpretive possibilities they present. These include Archibald MacLeish’s J. B. (1956), Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite (1975), Robert A. Heinlein’s Job, A Comedy of Justice (1984), and probably Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925; see Lasine, 1992, for the connection to Job).

How, then, should we construe this wonder of literature? Many things could be said. For one, it represents Israel’s literary and theological attempt to get behind the phenomena of reality to an underlying truth. It asks the question “Why?” in a serious literary way. Wisdom writing typically approaches reality without dependence on divine revelation, a priesthood, or a theology of history. It uses reason, everyday experience, and the power of deduction in its attempt to discern how the power of God manifests itself in the world of human affairs.

Furthermore, Proverbs and Job represent an inner canonical dialogue on the theology of retribution. The book of Proverbs affirms it unreflectively and somewhat naively. Not to be too hard on Proverbs, this may have been a function of its role in providing clear and unambiguous moral instruction. On the other hand, the book of Job is a frontal attack on overly simplistic retribution thinking, especially when applied in an accusatory way such as the friends employed. It shows that the principle

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of retribution is not the only, or even the most important, factor at work in divine–human relations.

Theological reflection on the issue of retribution continues in the book of Ecclesiastes (see RTOT Chapter 15), but indirectly. Ecclesiastes deflects attention away from retribution by deconstructing it. Because the reality of death levels all rewards and punishments anyway, retribution is not the real issue; how you live your life is.

The body of wisdom literature attests to a lively theological tradition of dialogue and development within the Hebrew Bible. Upon examination, the wisdom literature reveals a spiritual and intellectual tradition within Israel that was not afraid to ask bold and ultimate questions, that tried to make sense out of the diversity of evidences, and that resisted dogmatism in favor of intellectual honesty.

The legitimacy of such theological discussion is affirmed by the very fact that these contrary voices were all included in the canon of Scripture. This recognition should encourage continuing the conversation.


And the conversation did continue in the form of two lengthy books in the Apocrypha: the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.

4.1 Wisdom of Solomon

King Solomon is the premiere patron of the study of wisdom in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. This connection was exploited in the work called the Wisdom of Solomon, based on certain historical allusions in Chapters 6–9. It emerged from the Jewish Diaspora of the first century BCE, probably Alexandria in Egypt, and was attributed to Solomon. Certain features of the book, such as the use of the four cardinal virtues of Plato and Stoicism (see 8:7), prove that it was informed by Hellenistic philosophy. The book was designed to demonstrate the superiority of Judaism over Greek philosophy, and it urges Jews to remain committed to their traditional wisdom. It does, however, adopt certain Greek notions along the way, including the preexistence and immortality of the soul.

The righteous consistently stand in contrast to the wicked and the foolish:

The souls of the righteous reside in the hand of God,
   they will not be touched by torment.
Though others think they have been punished,
   immortality is fully their hope. (3:1, 4)
The righteous will live forever,
   and their reward in found in the Lord. (5:15)

Although it may seem that the righteous have been disciplined by God, he will deliver them.

The persona of Solomon exhorts other rulers to search for wisdom as he did. He describes wisdom as a wonderful woman who is eager to satisfy those who pursue her (6:12), using the literary technique of personification that was also used in the prologue to Proverbs. This was facilitated because sofia, the Greek word for “wisdom,” is feminine in gender, just as hochmah is in Hebrew. Wisdom is then

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described as an expression or manifestation of God himself and being of the same substance:

She is a breath of God’s power,
   an emanation of Almighty’s glory . . .
She is eternal light’s reflection,
   a perfect mirror of God’s action,
   and an image of his goodness. (7:25-26)

Everything about wisdom recommends her: She is light, she leads one on the path to immortality, and she is one with God—a powerful incentive for Jews of the Dispersion to follow her rather than the heady wisdom of Hellenism.

4.2 Sirach

The writer, Jesus ben Sirach, or just Sirach for short, is a wise man and teacher. His work, also known as Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), was to be used in the training of young men, the next generation of scribes. He wrote the book in Hebrew in Jerusalem around 180 BCE. Later it was translated into Greek in 117 by Sirach’s grandson, who then prefaced the book with his own prologue.

Sirach itself begins with a hymn is praise of personified wisdom (1:1–10). The Lord created her before all things and poured her out upon all else he brought into being. Above all, he bestows her upon all who love him. Perhaps building upon Proverbs 8:22–31, this section, along with Chapter 24, is evidence of the near divine status of wisdom, taking on independent being and a dynamic personality. Some have suggested this talk masks the memory of woman wisdom as the consort of Yhwh, present with him from Creation (see Sinnott, 2005).

Sirach has a great deal in common with Proverbs. Both are framed as the instruction of a father to a son. Both make extensive use of synonymous and antithetic parallelism, and the book largely consists of couplets on topics such as wealth, honesty, happiness, justice, family, friendship, and, of course, wisdom. The traditional retribution outlook is upheld, and there is no talk of immortality because death is inevitable and happens to everyone:

Do not fear death’s decree for you . . .
This is the Lord’s decree for all flesh . . .
Whether life is ten years or a hundred or a thousand,
   no questions get raised in Hades. (41:3–4)

Therefore, accept what befalls you, fear the Lord, and devote yourself to wisdom all your days. Because “those who fear the Lord will have a happy end” (1:13).



1. Wisdom. What is the basic biblical notion of wisdom?

2. Wisdom literature. What books are contained in the category wisdom literature?

3. Solomon. Why and how is wisdom literature connected to King Solomon?

4. Fear of God. What does the phrases “fear of God” and “fear of Yhwh” mean? How is this notion related to wisdom?

5. Proverbs. What is the purpose of the book of Proverbs?

6. Job. What is the story line of the book of Job?

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7. The Satan. What does the Hebrew word satan mean, and what is the role of “the satan” in the book of Job?

8. Retribution. What is the basic argument of Job’s three friends and of Elihu, and what is Job’s response to their arguments?


1. Social science. The wisdom tradition represents an empirical, evidential approach to understanding reality. How is this different from a revelational model of truth? How is the biblical wisdom tradition like the modern scientific approach to understanding the world? How is it different?

2. Moral education. The original setting of biblical wisdom may have been either the family or the state. Does it make a difference if wisdom comes out of the home rather than the state? How does the setting of values education in the biblical world compare and contrast with the issue of where values should be taught today?

3. Fear of God. The wisdom tradition claims that the fear of Yhwh is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Do you think that this is true? Do you think that a basic knowledge of and respect for God is essential for understanding reality?

4. Coherence of Job. Consider the ending of the book of Job. How does the ending of the book relate to the issues raised in the dialogues? Are you satisfied with the ending of the book? Does the ending of the book support or refute the argument of Job in the dialogues?

5. Character of Job. Compare the Job of the prologue and epilogue with the Job of the dialogues. Do they have the same personality? With whom is the narrator sympathetic? Job? The friends? God? Or does the writer not take sides?

6. Retribution. Does retribution theology adequately account for the human situation in the real world? Consider the retribution theology of the book of Proverbs in relation to the book of Job. Do you see two theologies in conflict? Is there a way to reconcile the two?

7. The real Job. Will the real Job please stand up? Evaluate the following characterizations of Job and decide which, if any, fit the picture of Job that you got from the book.

He was blameless and upright, he feared God and avoided evil.—Job 1:1

You have heard of the patience of Job—James 5:11 (New Testament)

Job is a good man, not a wise one —Maimonides (1135–1204)


The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, by Roland E. Murphy (2002), examines each wisdom book of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha as well as the wisdom outlook generally. Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples, by Claus Westermann (1995), explores the purpose of Proverbs. In Turns of Tempest: A Rereading of Job, with a Translation, by Edwin M. Good (1990), is a scholar’s rendition, and The Book of Job, by Stephen Mitchell (1987), renders the book into verse. The most famous contemporization of Job is Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play J. B. (1956). When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner (1981), uses the argument of the book of Job as its centerpiece.