does the story of job reflect a national tragedy?

jobThe book of Job contains no explicit dating information and so determining its precise historical context is difficult. Although the implied date of the story is widely acknowledged to be in patriarchal times (when wealth was measured in goods and chattels, where people reputedly lived well past 100 years of age, and where there was no centralised religious cult), there is no reason to think that this reflects the date of composition of the work as a whole or its component parts (if indeed they ever enjoyed any form of independent existence).

So, rather than appealing to explicit information within the story itself, scholars appeal to other aspects of the book in order to propose a date of composition. One argument often raised in support of an exilic date is the idea that the story of Job offers an account of innocent suffering supposedly parallel to the experience of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians when they were carted off into exile — they suffered although they were innocent. Leo Perdue appeals to this argument when he writes that “[t]he poet’s rejection of the doctrine of retribution… would enable the people in exile to realize they were not responsible for the tragedies of the destruction of Jerusalem, the devastation of the land, and their consequent removal to Babylon.”1

It seems to me, however, that this argument is not as strong as is sometimes implied. First, it is by no means necessary for a national tragedy to prompt a writer to address the issues with which Job deals — personal tragedy or loss could easily offer similar impetus.

Second, it puts Job at odds with the prophets who unequivocally pointed to Judah’s sinfulness as the prime cause for the exile. Perdue suggests that the explanation offered by the prophets is one of a range of different responses to the tragedy and that Job offers an alternate perspective. While this may be true to some extent, I think that Job’s prologue counts against this interpretation. In a context where differing explanations were offered for the exile — in particular where national sin was held up as an underlying cause — the prologue to Job presents one who suffers in spite of exceptional and exemplary piety. There was, as the author states, none like him in all the earth. If the exiles were meant to see in Job’s predicament a reflection of their own, would they really have felt that they were as blameless as Job? In short, Job’s prologue makes Job too good to serve as a mirror to the nation.

Of course this is not to say that Job said nothing to the exiles about their own suffering. What I think it does say, however, is that the argument which sees Job as offering an explanation for the events surrounding the exile because Job’s predicament supposedly mirrors that of the exiles is far from compelling.

1. Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 84.

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