Friday, March 10, 2017

The genre of Job

Most Biblical narratives are historical by design. Very prosaic. There are only one or two exceptions. The Book of Revelation, with its heavy symbolism and surrealism is in a different class. That's in large part because it's an extended vision, or perhaps an edited series of visions. Allegorical visions. 

Another possible exception concerns the genre of Job. Take the long poetic speeches. Even very conservative scholars like Gleason Archer and E. Y. Young admit that's unrealistic. Likewise, the fire-breathing monster in 42:19-21 is naturally impossible.

Then there's the antithetical parallelism between the status quo ante and his restoration:

2 He had seven sons and three daughters, 3 and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants (Job 1:3).  
12 The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. 13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters (Job 42:12-13).

That seems artificially symmetrical. 

One possibility is that Job is a fictional rather than historical narrative. There are, however, problems with that classification. For one thing, it robs Job of much of its relevance if it has no basis in fact. If someone like Job really existed, if he underwent an ordeal similar to the book, if he survived the ordeal, then that's something Jews and Christians can turn to and relate to when we or our loved ones experience inexplicable suffering. In the example of Job we have some assurance that everything happens for a reason, everything ultimately happens for the best, even if we can't fathom what that might be. If, however, the story is imaginary from start to finish, then it fails to edify.

And that in turn connects to a larger issue: in general, the Bible operates on a principle of precedent. What God has done in the past gives us reason to expect that the same God can be trusted to do the same kinds of things in the future. Predictability furnishes a measure of stability. If, however, the book of Job is fictional, then it's not something we can build on–because we have no reason to think that's realistic. 

It might be objected that the parables of Jesus are fictional. However, those are clearly stories designed to illustrate a teaching. We don't have that contextual clue in the case of Job. 

There is, though, a mediating position. Perhaps Job is historical fiction. By that I mean a narrative that has a backbone in some real characters, events, and setting. To take a comparison, consider Tombstone (1993), starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, and Sam Elliott. That's based on a "true story". About real people (the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday), a real place (Tombstone, Arizona), a real time (1881), a real event (gunfight at the OK Corral). 

If Job is historical fiction, then that would, on the one hand, account for the stylized elements. But it would be grounded in the searing experience of a real person. he came through it, although he was a broken man. 

A function of good art is to intensify reality. So much of what we experience in life is ephemeral and forgettable. By bringing the important incidents into foreground, while allowing the unimportant things to fade into the background, it brings into high relief what really matters.  


  1. So, if this is the case, how, interpretively, might it change things with emphasis on Satan's zeroing in on Job and attempting to prosecute against him before God?
    Can we view this as based in some, much or most truth and if so, to what degree and may it still be understood as a possibility by Satan against our person in this fashion? Or does it change the interpretive scales? A bunch of questions at once. And I'm not necessarily looking for a certain answer, just some interpretive anatomy.

    1. Although the depiction is necessarily anthropomorphic, given the subject matter, there's nothing unrealistic about the scenes between God and Satan, given Biblical angelology and demonology.

  2. I love Tombstone!
    Also, where do Archer and Young say those things?

    1. In their OT introductions, as I recall.