Job as ‘theatre’

The Book of Job lends itself to dramatic presentation. There have been several performances of it in churches and theatres and even, I believe, as a Broadway stageshow. It’s easy to adapt to the stage; so easy that one could suspect it was actually written for the stage! In fact, Yehuda Sommo, a 16th century Italian Jewish theatrical producer, noticed the dramatic style of the Book of Job and argued in his Dialogues on the Art of the Stage that Job was the first dramatic text in recorded history. He even asserted that this Biblical theatrical form was appropriated by the Greek playwrights. If he is right, then theatre began with the Bible rather than the Greeks! [1]

It is actually an old idea, going back at least to Christian bishop Theodore the Interpreter (c. 350 – 428), who argued that the Book of Job was a drama on the pattern of Greek tragedy (although, if Sommo is right, Greek tragedy was actually based on the pattern of Job!)

Some of the theatrical elements in the prologue of Job are quite striking in my opinion, and suggest that rather than being an historical account, the prologue is a dramatic backdrop designed to ‘set the stage’ for the debate which follows. For example, the announcements to Job that he has lost his herds and his children come through four messengers and there is a striking pattern to their announcements. The first messenger tells Job that the Sabeans stole his oxen and donkeys and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, “and I alone have escaped to tell you“. Then “while he was yet speaking, there came another” messenger and said “fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then “while he was yet speaking, there came another” who announced a raiding band of Chaldeans had stolen his camels and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, “and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then (wait for it …) “while he was yet speaking, there came another“! The formula by now is predictable. We aren’t meant to take this as serious history – this is drama! The fourth and final messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed and (by now we all know what is coming) “I alone have escaped to tell you“!

The repetition of the words  “while he was yet speaking, there came another” and  “I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:15, 16, 17,19) is unrealistic, but it is suspenseful and theatrical.

There’s more. A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his sons as though they are still alive: “I am loathsome to my children” (19:17 JPS). While some translations interpret this as “the children of my own mother” (ESV) or “my brothers” (NIV), the Hebrew (לבני בתני) literally reads “sons of my belly”[2] and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. In the prologue it doesn’t say Job’s children died, only that a messenger said his children had died (1:18-19), and if the literal meaning of לבני בתני is correct then it suggests that Job’s children were still alive later in the story. This further supports a dramatic rather than historical reading of the prologue.

In Job’s first speech in chapter 3 he lamented his life and cursed the day he was born. Strangely, Job accepted the deaths of his children rather philosophically (“the LORD has given and the LORD has taken away” [1:21]), but when he is afflicted with an illness he says it would have been better not to have been born. Again, there is something unrealistic about this. Given the choice of personal suffering or losing one’s children the usual human reaction would be to choose suffering rather than see one’s children die. This suggests that Job’s response may have been hyperbolic or satirical – jolly good theatre –  and this may be providing another clue about how to interpret the rest of the book.

In my next post(s) I want to look at the role of Satan in the prologue. I think there is even more evidence here that we might be reading one of the oldest plays in history!


[1] Yoni Oppenheim, The Origins of Jewish Performance: From Prohibition to Precedent.

[2] Elsewhere in Job בתני is ambiguous, being used in reference to a man’s belly as well as a womb. Moreover, as it is in the first person (my belly/womb) then it is more likely to be a reference to his own children who came “from his loins” rather than his mother’s womb.

3 comments on “Job as ‘theatre’

  1. Regina says:

    I like what you say about Job being theatre/theatrical and possibly the most ancient of ancient forms. It is, moreover, a mythical account. As myth, the line between theatre (as fiction) and history (as fact) is blurred I suppose. And yes the narrative is striking for the prevalence of the legal metaphor/trope/motif that serves to structure and unify the plot. This has been noted in various ways with interesting conclusions by Zuckerman (1991), Lasine (1992), Lamb (1995), Steinman, (1996) and Hoffman (1996). As legal trials go, it’s Kafkaesque alright (see Lasine)…. Still, concerning the staging of the trial, two questions seem crucial although withoutstraightforward answers: Who or what is on trial exactly? What is the outcome of the trial or Job’s ordeal?

    I support the view that it is not so much Job on trial but what he represents (is there a difference, you may well ask) – i.e. the complexity and limits of human understanding of God’s ways. For one thing, Job can be seen to represent earnest human wisdom concerning God’s law at its best (he is, after all, a righteous man in God’s sight). Job’s ordeal (and his sense of being unjustly tried being a means to an end) forces him to seek/challenge God’s sense of justice (with concern to act and speak properly or lawfully nonetheless). As an outcome of seeking (or say… Job’s begging to be let in), what Job seems to gain is legal standing – i.e. the right to approach and to stand before God or an entitlement to address and plead (for himself and others) to God, which seems to be confirmed in 42:8. This can be seen as advancement or simply a transition/change from being excluded from (without wisdom of) to being included within (with wisdom of) divine presence.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Regina, it’s great to get your legal mind working on this too! 🙂

      I like Robert Sutherland’s view that it is God who is on trial here. But I also agree with your point that it is not so much Job that is being tested, but rather the various philosophies and theologies about suffering. I like what Maimonides had to say about this and should research it some more and then post something. If any Maimonides experts are reading this I would love some input! (We both know a Maimonides expert – I wonder if I can get him to contribute).

  2. […] an earlier post I wrote: A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his […]

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