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The Poetic Section of Job

In my last couple of posts I dealt with the short story of Job and evaluated its view of suffering.  For the next two or three posts I’ll talk about poetic section that takes up the bulk of the book, chs. 3-42.   This is how I discuss these sections in my new Bible Intro (due out in the Fall).


Since the same characters appear in the poetic section of the book as in the prose narrative, either the author of the poetry was familiar with the story in a written form, or there were various accounts of Job and his friends floating around in oral circulation in ancient Israel.   Along with Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, a fourth friend comes to be introduced as well into the poetic section, a man named Elihu.

I have a called this large middle section a “poetic dialogue.”  That is because, obviously, it is set in poetry and because it involves a discussion between Job and his friends, whose friendly advice is actually filled with animosity and condemnation.   The dialogue involves a series of complaints by Job (who never complained in the prose narrative; in fact, the point of the narrative is that he never complains), each one followed by a response by one of the friends.   Job complains that he does not deserve what he is getting, the first friend responds by telling him that he in fact probably does deserve it; Job complains again, the second friend responds similarly; Job complains again, the third friend responds.  Then that sequence is repeated two more times, so that the chapters present a series of three different rounds of complaints and responses.   The third round, unfortunately, got muddled a bit as scribes copied this long book over the centuries.   In the third round of complaints and responses, Bildad’s speech is only five verses long; Zophar’s speech is missing altogether; and most remarkably, Job himself starts arguing precisely for the position that in the rest of the book he has been arguing against.  It appears that (by scribal error) Job has been given Zophar’s speech, and a few other things got messed up in the process.


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Key Passages in Job’s Back and Forth
Evaluation of Job’s Short Story



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  July 20, 2013

    Scribal error or orthodox corruption, whereby Job must be forced to adopt the standard Deuteronomistic view of suffering?

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    BrotherGA2  July 20, 2013

    You have such an engaging way of writing, Prof. Ehrman! Great intro! I’m happy to be a member for over a year now.

    What do you think was intended by the scribe(s) who mashed these two renditions of Job’s suffering together? What might have their position on suffering have been? It amazes me how problematic some of these views on theodicy are…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2013

      He probably liked both accounts and didn’t think hard enough about them to realize they were in fact at odds….

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    Wilusa  July 20, 2013

    Reading all this makes me wish Job had wound up by saying, “Listening to you guys makes me realize what a crappy religion I’ve been fool enough to believe in. I’m going off to seek a better one. And if your god decides to kill me along the way, let him – I’d rather be dead than living in a world *he* dominates!”

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    dennis  July 20, 2013

    Hi Bart . In the midst of following this fascinating thread , a truly ” off the wall ” idea popped into my empty head . Is it possible that generations of readers have been misreading the metaphorical intent of the poet ? If the the word Life ( capital L ) is substituted for the various names of God in the poetic sections , it could actually work as an expression of existential angst in the face of the insecure and transitory nature of individual human life . Job’s non-comforting ” friends ” then become those inner critics that bedevil us with regrets for the past and fears for the future thus distracting us from full participation in the gift of the present moment . The final ” confrontation ” with God then becomes the poet’s urging the reader to quite playing pointless mind games and live his/her precious life on Life’s terms .
    What kept me from dismissing this thought out of hand ( though quite possibly I should have ) was something I once read by a translator of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to the effect that there were passages therein where it was difficult to discern if Marcus meant ” God ” , ” the gods ” , ” Nature ” , ” nature ” , some mixture of these or some other concept obvious to his contemporary readers but quite lost to us .
    Could it be that the poem actually has very little to do with modern Theism at all ?
    Once again , if this is too ” far out ” don’t hesitate to hit the Delete button .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2013

      That might be a good way to make sense of it all inthe modern period; but I don’t think ancient readers woould have ever thought of this. (Marcus Aurelius is a special case; he was living in a very different time and place, and as a Stoic he was accustomed to allegorizing techniques to “explain away” the myths about God, and yes, sometimes he does seem to speak of God, or the gods, in a very metaphorical sense in light of his Stoic cosmology)

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    dennis  July 20, 2013

    P.S. to my above comment . One of the things that possibly prompted this line of thought was that Job does not seem , at any point in this unfolding series of catastrophes , to be taking the obvious first step for any modern believer : he does not try to pray to God ” to cut him a break ” . He seems to assume that Whoever/Whatever
    is the source of his woes is utterly implacable ( impersonal ? ) .

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    RonaldTaska  July 20, 2013

    It was helpful to learn that scribes may have “muddled” some of the copying. That helps me understand why I have trouble following parts of the story.

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    lfasel  July 21, 2013

    The book of Job is just that, a story.One could just as easy say”Once upon a time in the far East.” Maimonides and other sages say that the book never existed till around the 4th century B.C. The opening chapter resembles a play, the stage is set , the actors all take their places. A cosmic picture comes into play. I really like as you call it the “supernatural wager” taking place. While there are some very old words used in Job as opposed to the rest in Hebrew I don’t think that’s enough to give it credence as the tradition goes to be written by Moses or even earlier. Even the word UZ has different meanings (see Gen 22:21) it is also the imperative of the verb Uz,”to take advice” comp UZU ” to take counsel” (Isa 8:10). Still it is considered a great literary piece.

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    Steefen  July 25, 2013

    Job does not know the cause of the effect.
    God will not tell him.
    Job does not consult a prophet or astrologer.
    His friends do not tell him the real cause of the effect.

  9. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  February 7, 2015

    This reminds me of back and forths I’ve had with fundamentalist Christians who tell me we are all sinners and, unless I repent and believe in Jesus and the resurrection, I shall be punished. I think that I am, if not innocent, not deserving of anything approaching eternal suffering. I want God to come down (if there is a God who could come down) and explain to me why I would have to suffer not because I might have murdered or stolen or lied, etc. (10 Commandment stuff), but because I simply don’t believe something or recognize that a gift exists that these fundamentalists say exists. Since when is it a sin not to believe something?

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  August 7, 2015

      It is not a sin to believe what you want to believe. It is part of the guilt trip they play on those who refused to be saved by their savior. It is what they are trained to do–save another soul.

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    shakespeare66  August 7, 2015

    Thanks for this explanation of this section. I have always had difficulty with it. Now I can see it more clearly as I read it.

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    HawksJ  October 15, 2019

    Bart, you may have commented on this elsewhere with respect to the afterlife, but I could not find it.

    What do you make of Job 19: 25-29, both with respect to the ‘my redeemer lives’ comment as well as the references to ‘seeing god’ standing on the earth ‘at the last’, after his ‘skin has been destroyed’?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      I”ve never dealt with it on the blog to my recollection. It turns out that “my redeemer liveth” is a mistranslation. The reality is that the Hebrew text is garbled, and no one knows what to make of it. In it’s context it appears to be an appeal by Job to appeal before his accuser or the judge. But Hebrew scholars will all say the text is a complete mess, that it’s not clear how to translate it, but it is not embracing a Christian doctrine of life afterdeath, the way the King James translators made it into.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  October 16, 2019

        Thanks. That is interesting. Do you mean that the text is ‘garbled’ in just that section (Job 19), or is translation of the book at-large (or at least significant chunks) in serious doubt? And what do you mean by ‘garbled’ and a ‘complete mess’? Do you mean that the documents were physically damaged so as to be not easily readable, or do you mean it just doesn’t make sense and can’t be easily translated out of the original Hebrew?

        This might make for a good blog post!

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2019

          Other parts are notoriously difficult as well. It’s rather (in)famous that way. But I’m afraid my Hebrew isn’t good enough to do a sustained analysis. The manuscripts themselves are not damaged. Either the author is simply unclear, or irretrievably complicated at these points. It’s impossible to know what he means when reading it in Hebrew and worse trying to put it into English!

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