The structure of the Book of Job, and why it matters

I used to wonder why almost all commentaries on biblical books began with an analysis of the structure of the book, and not finding this particularly interesting I would immediately skip to the next chapter. Now I find myself actually getting excited when I discover a structural chiasm or a pattern which provides a clue to some riddle in the text (yes, I know what you’re thinking: if I find that exciting I need to get out more!)

In a previous post I raised a few questions which I said I would explore later. One of them was:

If God is culpable for Job’s suffering, and pays restitution, then what is this saying about the cause of human suffering?

Before attempting to answer that I think we need to determine what are the ‘big’ questions that the Book is asking and exploring, and to do that I would like to tease out the idea that Job is a ‘play’ – perhaps more specifically a courtroom drama – and how it may have come about. Hence, we need to analyse its structure.

I noted earlier that the Book of Job is largely poetry. The speeches of Job, his three friends, and the LORD, are all in poetry. This alone should tell us that the Book of Job is not historical narrative. Even if it was based on real historical characters and events, the sole fact that it is in poetry should immediately tell us that this is a dramatisation. Real people don’t conduct conversations in poetry! Shakespeare’s characters spoke in poetry, but we wouldn’t for a moment suggest that poetry was the common speech of everyday folk, not even in Elizabethan England. Some Hebrew scholars have detected varying degrees in the quality of the poetry in the speeches. Job’s speeches are a higher quality (in terms of the poetry alone, let alone the arguments) than that of his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. The most refined poetry is found in the speeches by the LORD. A skillful poet was at work in the composition of these speeches. The poetical speeches are ‘framed’ by a Prologue and Epilogue which are in narrative prose.

The prose of the frame-story is straightforward Hebrew, easy to translate. The poetry, on the other hand, is a minefield of difficulties for the translator. The technical term for a word which occurs in only place in the Bible is  hapax legomenon (the plural is hapax legomena). There are more hapax legomena in Job than in any other book of the Bible, making it enormously difficult for the translator who has no other usages with which to compare a difficult word. Take a look at the footnotes of most translations and you will see “The Hebrew is uncertain” (or words to that effect) occuring on page after page. Scholars have proposed several theories for this, but the one which (currently) seems most convincing to me is that the speeches were originally written in another Semitic language (now lost) and then incorporated at a later date into the form in which we now have it. We are told that Job was from the land of Uz, Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah and Zophar from Naamah (probably all in Arabia). The majority of hapax legomena are probably words which were carried over from the original Semitic language (the native language of Job and his friends perhaps) and incorporated into the book because the audience at the time were familiar enough with them, although their meaning is now lost to us.

This suggests that the writer of the Book of Job as we have it drew his material from another source, or sources, and then added material of his own. This is speculative, of course, but it’s possible that he based his story on real historical characters (although even if they were mythical ones it wouldn’t change the main point of the book), and used some of the native language of his characters in his re-telling of the story. It’s also possible that the poetical speeches already existed in some form, in this other language, and that our writer framed a story around them.

There are further clues of some ‘editing’ or ‘compiling’. We find that there are three cycles of speeches, with each of Job’s friends presenting an argument (in the order of Eliphaz, then Bildad, then Zophar) with Job responding to each. However, in the third cycle there is no speech by Zophar. Is it missing? Furthermore,  in Job 27 (which initially looks like Job’s response to Bildad’s third speech) there are eleven verses which don’t sound like Job at all (13-23). They actually sound like Zophar! Several  scholars attribute this section to Zophar as the opening words are almost identical to the closing words of his second speech (20:29). Has this material somehow become dispaced? I personally think these scholars may be right, otherwise Job is contradicting himself in this section and the structure of the book is disrupted. (Of course, there are other theories to explain this and I’d love to discuss them. I appreciate that the idea that some parts of the Bible are ‘mixed up’, or that there are scribal ‘errors’, or that some books of the Bible were edited or compiled from earlier sources, will sound foreign to many Jewish and Christian readers. I’m more than happy to discuss it.)

With this in mind, if we go back to Chapter 24 it appears to be Job’s answer to Zophar’s ‘third’ speech in 27:13-23, but obviously out of place. Some scholars think the third cycle of speeches is so disrupted and confused that there may have been a scribal mix-up at some stage and things became out of order, and that chapter 24 should follow 27:13-23 as Job’s response. [1]  Other scholars think that the whole debate “broke down” in the third cycle and the disjointed speeches are intentionally designed that way to show this breakdown. If so, that would be a clever way for the playwright to dramatise the breakdown. I have come across at least one commentator who thinks 27:13-23 belongs to Bildad [2], so the answer to what is happening in this part of the book is not easy.

Immediately following this block of displaced or confusing speeches is a chapter commonly called a Hymn to Wisdom (chapter 28). The placement of this ‘hymn’ here is very odd. Its style is very different to the preceeding and following speeches by Job. It doesn’t appear to follow Job’s argument at all, nor does it deal with any of the matters raised by his friends. To me it appears to even contradict Job, but I could be wrong about that. Some scholars suggest Job is here quoting a known ‘wisdom hymn’ as part of his speech. Perhaps. But to me it doesn’t fit neatly. It looks like it has been ‘dropped in’ there. If so, why? Interestingly, the Hymn to Wisdom resonates with other biblical wisdom literature. The line “the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom” (28:28) is out of place in a book that does not otherwise deal with wisdom (despite being categorised as a ‘wisdom book’ Job is more about justice and innocence, and not wisdom) but fits perfectly with Proverbs (where “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” is a central theme) and Ecclesiastes (and also with the non-canonical Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus).

My current theory about the Hymn to Wisdom is that is comes from another source; not from the speeches of Job and his friends, but either from the editor who put the Book of Job together, or from another of his sources. If Habel’s reordering of the third cycle of speeches is correct, then chapter 24 should follow what is rightly Bildad’s speech in 27:13-23 and then we have a pause, an interlude, an ‘intermission’ in the play. The writer inserts his Hymn to Wisdom at this important climax to give his audience something important to ponder, something that hasn’t been raised already (possibly something from his own ‘wisdom school’). Then the play resumes in chapter 29 with Job’s summary defence.

But enough structural analysis for now. I will try to relate this to the overall message and themes of the book in my next post.

[1]  For example: Habel, Norman C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985)

[2] Hartley, John E., The book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). I’m actually going from memory here, so I hope it serves me correctly.

8 comments on “The structure of the Book of Job, and why it matters

  1. Jen says:

    Thanks Stephen; we totally miss the change in writing styles in translation; it seems to be fairly effectively masked by the elegance of the KJV…

  2. Very intersting Steve . Will have to read Job again with this new info.

  3. Stephen Cook says:

    Yes Jen, the KJV is elegant. But the sublime poetry of the Hebrew is lost in translation. Many modern translations do better: at least in the way the text is formatted we can distinguish the poetry from the prose. I personally like the 1985 translation of the Jewish Publication Society (not their earlier 1917 one, which was too “King James”) which I have in their JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh edition (1999).

    Yes Col, you will have to read it again (and again, and again …)

  4. Jason says:


    I’m interested in how your academic knowledge of scripture has affected your faith. To what degree do you believe the Bible is inspired? In knowing so much about the history, formation, errors, etc, can you put faith in that the knowledge you gain from scripture is correct, and as God would want you to receive it, without worry of scribal error and things along that line? Do you feel your studies strengthen your faith, or introduce doubt?


    • Stephen Cook says:

      Jason, great questions! I could give what sounds like a ‘politicians’ answer and say that my academic studies neither strengthen nor diminish my faith. And in fact that would be true. I have had a love for the Bible for as long as I can remember, and like every believer my faith has its ups and downs. Academic studies have deepened my love for the Bible and help me to gain some clarity about what the writers originally intended and how the first readers/listeners would have understood that message. I think the ups and down of my faith have more to do with my life experiences rather than my study of Scripture. So far I haven’t come across a single “scribal error” that has threatened my faith. To what degree do I believe the Bible is inspired? Well, that’s one of the subjects I’d love to explore in future posts so if you don’t mind I’ll hold off on answering that. The short answer would be that I believe all Scripture is inspired; but the longer answer would need some discussion of what we understand by “Scripture” and what we mean by “inspired”.

      • Jason says:

        Thank you for your response. I realized after posting and asking you for your understanding of Biblical inspiration, I needed to ask myself that same question! I believe the whole of scripture to be inspired, but not any single translation to be prefect, and even then I am open minded to the fact that scripture can be tampered with (such being the case with 1john 5:7, in my very unprofessional opinion). The inspiration of scripture is something that could be better defined, and I look forward to hearing your blog on that subject.

        • Stephen Cook says:

          Jason, I might have to start that discussion sooner rather than later! But in the meantime please feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject. For me one starting place would be to look at what “inspiration” meant to the writers/readers/listeners of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I suspect Christians read back into that word “inspiration” ideas which have been influenced by the much later discussion sorrounding the formation of the canon. Apart from the one use of the word “inspiration” in 2 Timothy 3:16 is inspiration a biblical idea?

  5. Stephen Cook says:

    I have recently come across some a fascinating commentary by N.H. Tur-Sinai (The Book of Job: A New Commentary, Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1957) which suggests on linguistic grounds that the speeches in Job were originally composed in Aramaic probably in the early part of the Babylonian captivity and then translated into Hebrew after the return from exile. The frame-story was composed at that time in Hebrew, but included Aramaic elements which had been assimilated into Hebrew during the captivity. The Aramaic-to-Hebrew translation hypothesis resolves many of the difficulties with the hapax legomena, as Tur-Sinai argues that many of these difficult words and phrases are in fact incorrect translations from Aramaic. He renders them back into Aramaic and then retranslates into Hebrew, giving a clearer understanding.

    The speeches of Elihu, he argues, are younger than all the other parts of the book, even younger than the frame-story (which explains why he doesn’t get a mention in the epilogue). He says that Elihu’s speeches are in Hebrew, although influenced by Aramaic, and shows no evidence of being translated from Aramaic.

    If I get the time I will post some examples of how this works.

    However, what I am personally interested in is the final form of the book, the form in which we now have it in the Masoretic Text. However the material was sourced and compiled is interesting, but the final form is a literary unit in itself and was intended by its author/compiler/redactor to convey a theological message, and it is THAT message which fascinates me.

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