The Book of Job is often referred to as one of the great classics of world literature. Its subject matter is the all-important question, "Why, in a world over which Yahweh has jurisdiction, should innocent persons have to suffer when at the same time the wicked escape suffering and are permitted to have comfort and security?" All people — not just Jews — sooner or later confront this universal problem. Some of the Hebrew prophets attempted to deal with this question insofar as it affected the nation as a whole, but the writer of the Book of Job deals with it on an individual basis. The book, in its present form, loosely divides into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. As a whole, the book appears to have been written as a direct challenge to the time-honored doctrine that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.
The prologue, which consists of the book's first two chapters, is believed to have been based on an older folktale in which a wager is made between Yahweh and Satan. Satan contends that no one serves Yahweh except for selfish reasons, but Yahweh disagrees and presents Job, a righteous man who "fears God and shuns evil," as an example to counter Satan's claim. In order to prove to Satan that Job's loyalty is not based on material reward, Yahweh permits Satan to take from Job all of the material benefits Job has received and to afflict him with the most severe and excruciating pain. Through all of this suffering, Job never complains. His only response is "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." However, Job's wife urges him to "curse God and die" in order to gain relief from his suffering. Three friends — Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite — come from afar and express their sympathy by remaining silent and by clothing themselves in sackcloth and sitting in ashes.
The symposium, consisting of speeches by Job and by each of his three friends, tells a very different story. In the first speech, Job curses the day that he was born, insisting that life under the conditions that he must bear is not worthwhile. Because he is conscious of no wrongdoing, he sees no justice in the way he must suffer. To this speech, Eliphaz replies that righteous people do not suffer; only the wicked are tormented in this fashion. For Job to declare himself innocent is to charge Yahweh with injustice; that a man should be more just than God is unreasonable. Eliphaz argues that in God's sight, no human being is righteous. All humans have sinned, and any suffering they must endure is a just punishment for their transgressions. Bildad adds his support to what Eliphaz says by insisting that God does not pervert justice; neither does he ever act unrighteously. Zophar goes even further in his accusations against Job: Job is not being punished as much as he deserves, for Yahweh is both a just and a merciful God, and mercy always means treating a person better than that person deserves.
To each of these speeches, Job makes an effective reply. He challenges his accusers to point out any evil deed that he has committed. If he has failed simply because he is mortal, it is not his fault, for he was created that way. His conduct has been as good as that of his accusers. After the first round of speeches, the cycle is repeated, with Job again making a reply after each friend speaks. In the third cycle of speeches, only Eliphaz and Bildad speak. In Job's final reply, he makes a masterful defense of his own position, at the conclusion of which we are told, "The words of Job are ended."
The speeches of Elihu represent a further attempt to find justification for Job's affliction. Elihu admits that the arguments of the three friends have been adequately refuted by Job, but he believes he can present other ones that will show how Job has been in the wrong. He suggests that Job's suffering may be a warning so that he won't sin, and then he repeats the same arguments that the three friends made.
The nature poems are presented as speeches by Yahweh that are addressed to Job. They picture in the most exquisite language the wonders and the grandeur of the created universe. However, as beautiful as the poems are, they do not deal with Job's problem. True, they contrast the power and wisdom of the deity with the inferior lot of human beings, but they still leave unanswered the question of why innocent people have to suffer in the manner that Job experiences. In the epilogue, which is found in the last chapter of the book, Job acknowledges the justice of Yahweh and repents for all that he said in his own defense. After this admission, Yahweh recompenses Job by returning to him all the material wealth that was taken away from him and even doubling the amount of property Job originally possessed.
The Book of Job does not present concrete solutions about why innocent people suffer. As far as the symposium is concerned, the author's purpose seems to be none other than to challenge the view presented by both prophets and historians to the effect that suffering is in itself evidence of wrongdoing. For centuries, it was accepted as true that because Yahweh is a just ruler of the universe, the distribution of rewards and punishments must be in strict accordance with what people actually deserve. The author of the symposium is convinced that this line of reasoning is not true. In order to make his position clear, he constructs the story of a righteous man named Job. As an introduction to his theme, the author makes use of a popular folktale in which a good man suffers in order to prove to Satan that he does not serve Yahweh for selfish reasons. That the author of the symposium did not accept this solution to the problem is shown very clearly in the arguments between Job and the three friends. Job's final speech in his own defense is probably where the book originally ended.
The skeptical character of the symposium, with its challenge to time-honored views, most likely would have kept the Book of Job out of the canon of Old Testament writings had some additions not been made to the original book. The speeches of Elihu appear to be added for the purpose of giving to the book an interpretation more in accord with the older views of the prophets. Quite possibly the same is true of the nature poems, which are presented as words spoken by Yahweh. Although neither the speeches of Elihu nor the nature poems gives any direct answer to the question of why innocent persons suffer, their presence in the book as a whole suggests that there may be a reason for such suffering that human beings are unable to grasp. The epilogue is, of course, a kind of anticlimax in that it tends to support the charges made by Satan in the prologue. However, it also presents an ending to the book quite in keeping with the older and more orthodox position concerning suffering.