An intense interest in man led certain of Israel's sages in time to devote their attention to more general philosophical problems, such as the moral order of the universe. In the earlier proverbs, prophetic histories, and laws, the doctrine that sin was always punished by suffering or misfortune, and conversely that calamity and misfortune were sure evidence of the guilt of the one affected, had been reiterated until it had become a dogma. In nine out of ten cases this doctrine was true, but in time experience proved that the tenth case might be an exception. While most of the teachers of the race denied or ignored this exception, certain wise men, faithful and unflinching in their analysis of human life, faced the fact that the innocent as well as the guilty sometimes suffer. Their quest for the answer to the eternal question, Why? is recorded in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
[Sidenote: The primitive story of Job]
The basis of the book of Job Is undoubtedly a primitive story. Traces of a tradition somewhat similar have recently been discovered in the Babylonian-Assyrian literature. The Babylonian treatment of the moral problem that it presents is even more strikingly similar. Ezekiel also refers to a well-known popular Hebrew version of the story of Job (xiv.14): though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it (the guilty land), they would deliver simply their own lives their righteousness, saith the Lord Jehovah (cf. also xiv.20). Evidently in Ezekiel's day these names represented three ancient worthies, each conspicuous for his superlative piety. The Hebrew word here used also indicates that the righteousness attributed to them was conformity to the demands of the ritual. This agrees closely with the representation of the prose version of the story found in Job i. ii. and xlii.7-17; here the supreme illustration of Job's piety is that he repeatedly sacrifices burnt-offerings, whenever there is the least possibility that his sons have sinned (i.4, 5). Also in describing his perfection (i.1), the same unusual term is employed as in the priestly narrative of Genesis vi.9, where Noah's righteousness is portrayed.
[Sidenote: Original teaching and application of the prose story]
It seems probable, therefore, that the ancient story of Job was committed to writing by some priest during the Babylonian exile. Since Job and his friends live out on the borders of the Arabian desert to the east or southeast of Palestine, it seems clear that the tradition came to the Hebrews originally from some foreign source; but in the prose form in which we find it in Job, it has been thoroughly naturalized, for Job is a faithful servant of Jehovah and the law. Ignoring for the moment the poetical sections (iii.1 to xlii.6), we find that the prose story has a direct, practical message for the broken-hearted exiles, crushed beneath an overpowering calamity. Jehovah is testing his servant people, as he tests Job in the story, to prove whether or not they fear God for nought (i, 9). If they bear the test without complaint, as did Job, all their former possessions will be restored to them in double measure (xlii.7-17).
[Sidenote: The problem of the poetical sections of Job]
This prose story has apparently been utilized and given a very different interpretation by a later poet-sage in whose ears rang Jeremiah's words of anguish, found in chapter xx.14-18 of his prophecy (cf. Job iii.), and to whose ears came also the cry of the pious voiced in Malachi ii.17: Every one who does evil is good in the sight of Jehovah, and he delighteth in them. Where is the God of justice? The old solutions of the problem of evil were being openly discarded. They who feared Jehovah were saying (iii, 13, 14), It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it to have kept his charge or to have walked in funeral garb before Jehovah of hosts? Even now we must congratulate the arrogant; yea, they who work wickedness are entrenched; yea, they tempt God and escape! With a boldness and thoroughness that must have seemed to his contemporaries dangerous and heretical, the great poet-sage presents the problem in all its intensity.
[Sidenote: The role of Job and his friends in presenting the problem]
He adopts the popular story, utilizing it as his prologue and epilogue: but as we pass to chapter iii, the simple, pure Hebrew yields to sublime poetry, shot through with the words and idioms and ideas of a much later age. The designation of God is no longer Jehovah but El or Eloah or Shaddai. The character of Job suddenly changes; instead of being the patient, submissive servant of the law, he boldly, almost defiantly, charges God with injustice. The role of the friends also changes, and they figure as champions of the Deity. In their successive speeches they present in detail the current dogmas and the popular explanations of suffering. In his replies Job points out their inapplicability to the supreme problem of which he is the embodiment. The action and progress in this great drama is within the mind of Job himself. By degrees he rises to a clear perception of the fact that he is innocent of any crime commensurate with the overwhelming series of calamities which have overtaken him; and he thus throws off the shackles of the ancient dogma. From the seemingly cruel and unjust God who has brought this undeserved calamity upon him, he then appeals to the Infinite Being who is back of all phenomena.
[Sidenote: The message of the book]
The reply to this appeal, and the author's contribution to the eternal problem of evil, are found in xxxviii. I to xlii.6. It is not a solution, but through the wonders of the natural world, it is a fuller revelation to the mind of Job, of the omnipotence, the omniscience, the wisdom, and the goodness of God. Even though he cannot discern the reason of his own suffering, he learns to know and to trust the wisdom and love of the Divine Ruler.
I had heard of this by the hearing of the ear;
[Sidenote: Teaching the Elihu passage xxxii-xxxvii]
Faith triumphs over doubt, and the problem, though unsolved, sinks into comparative insignificance. Apparently another poet-sage has added, out of the depths of his own experience, his contribution to the problem of suffering in the speeches of Elihu (chapters xxxii-xxxvii). It is that suffering rightly borne becomes a blessing because it is one of God's ways of training his servants. This indeed is an expansion of the explanation urged by Eliphaz in v.17, Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth. While these speeches of Elihu are written in a different literary style and have, in fact, no vital connection with the original poem of Job, they nevertheless contain a great and intensely practical truth; they have rightly found a place in this marvellous book. Similarly the sublime description of wisdom in chapter xxviii. makes good its title; it can, however, be studied best by itself apart from Job's impassioned protestations of his innocence (chapter xxix.).
[Sidenote: Probable history of the book of Job]
Thus the book of Job, like so many other Old Testament writings, has its own literary history. Somewhere and sometime, back in an early Semitic period, there doubtless lived a man, conspicuous for his virtue and prosperity. Upon him fell a misfortune so great and apparently undeserved that it made a deep impression, not only upon his contemporaries, but also upon the minds of later generations. Thus there grew up a common Semitic story of Job which was in time thoroughly naturalized in Israel. Probably a Jewish priest in the exile first committed it to writing in order to assure his fellow-sufferers that could they but be patient and submissive Jehovah would soon restore them to their former prosperity. The painful experiences that came to the Jews, especially to the pious, during the middle and latter part of the Persian period (sometime between 450 and 340 B.C.), convinced a poet- sage that the old interpretations of the meaning of suffering did not suffice. Accordingly into the heart of the familiar story of Job he injected his powerful, impassioned message. Later writers, inspired by his inspiring genius, added their contributions to the solution of the perennial problem. Hence by 200 B.C., at least, the book of Job was probably current in its present form.
[Sidenote: Age and point of view of Ecclesiastes]
The same ever-recurring, insistent questions regarding the moral value and meaning of life led another later wise man to embody the results of his observation and experience in what we now know as the book of Ecclesiastes. Although i.16 and ii.7, 9 clearly imply that many kings had already reigned in Jerusalem, the author seems to put his observations in the mouth of Solomon, the acknowledged patron of wisdom teaching. The evidence, however, that the book is one of the latest in the Old Testament is overwhelmingly conclusive. The language is that of an age when Hebrew had long ceased to be spoken. The life mirrored throughout is that of the luxurious, corrupt Greek period. If not directly, at least indirectly, it reflects the doctrines of the Stoics and the Epicureans. It was a crooked, sordid, weary world upon which its author looked. It is not strange that a vein of materialism and pessimism runs through his observations and maxims. All is vanity is the dominant note, and yet light alternates with shadow. He loses faith in human nature; yet he does not give up his faith in God, though that faith is darkened by the desolateness of the outlook. While the book has practical religious teachings, perhaps its chief mission, after all, is vividly to portray the darkness just before the dawn of the belief in a future life and before the glorious rising of the Sun of Righteousness.
[Sidenote: Significance of the later additions]
Its teachings naturally called forth many protests, explanations, and supplements, and these have found the permanent place in the book that they rightfully deserve. Its fragmentary structure and abrupt transitions also made later insertions exceedingly easy. These are the simplest and the most natural explanation of the sharp contradictions that abound in the book (cf. e.g., ii.22 and iii.22, or iv.2 and ix.4, or iii.16 and iii.17, or viii.14 and ix.2, or iii.1-9 and iii.11). The preacher, whose painful experiences and prevailingly pessimistic teachings are the original basis of the book, appears to have been consistent throughout. He ends in xii.8 with the same refrain, Vanity of vanities; all is vanity! In a divine library like the Old Testament, reflecting every side of human thought and experience, such a book is not inappropriate. Its contradictions provoke thought; they beget also a true appreciation of the positive notes thus brought into dramatic contrast with the ground tones of pessimism which resound through all literature and history.