The book of Job is a profound work on human suffering, worthy of a lifetime of study and reflection. But was Job himself a real, historical character (like John Bunyan), or is Job a mythic legend (like Paul Bunyan)? And does it really matter in the end which he was — fact or folklore? The question comes to us from a listener named Lori.
“Dear Pastor John, I have enjoyed your messages on the book of Job. Recently, I was at a memorial service at a Reformed church in which the pastor said Job was a fictitious character. The lessons of the book, he said, are still helpful. But what do you think? Was Job a real person or not? Why or why not? And do you think it matters?”
Fact or Fiction?
Yes, if I heard my pastor make the confident statement that Job was a fictitious character, I would seriously consider finding another church. (Now, I want to be sure here that I’m not assuming that Lori got it right — that she’s really quoting her pastor accurately. She may not be.) I say that I would consider finding another church not because the pastor’s statement can’t be true and the Bible still be infallible. I say it because there are no grounds for being dogmatic that Job is fictitious. That’s my first reason.
“If I heard my pastor make the confident statement that Job was fictitious, I would seriously consider finding another church.”
My second reason is that the inclination to take the book as fiction with a moral truth betrays a mental leaning that I think throws the pastor’s biases into question. That’s the way I would put it for myself. I’d say his biases are leaning in the wrong direction. That’s my concern.
Now, are there good reasons for taking the book of Job as an accurate account of events that really happened, or do we just say, “Well, it’s a draw”? I read some commentators who said, “It’s just a draw. We don’t know if it’s a parable or if it’s history. It doesn’t matter,” they say. Let me give three reasons for taking the story as real history rather than a parable with good morals and good theology.
Man from Uz
First, take the way the book opens: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” (Job 1:1). Now compare that with the beginning of Judges 17:1, which begins a story: “There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah.” Or compare it to the beginning of 1 Samuel: “There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah” (1 Samuel 1:1).
Now, one of the ways to assess whether a piece of writing is history or whether it bears the traits of fiction would be to compare how the books are written. The fact that Job begins the way those chapters begin, which are not presented as parable or fiction, is at least one pointer to the way readers would have taken it as they began to read this book. They would have taken it the way they took Judges or 1 Samuel — as an account of things that really happened. That’s my first argument.
Linked to History
Second, in Ezekiel 14:12–20, where the prophet is showing how helpless Jerusalem is under God’s judgment because of how much immorality there is in the land, it says this:
And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness. . . . Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.” (Ezekiel 14:12–14, 19–20)
“James treats Job like one of the prophets. He puts him in the category with others in history who remained steadfast.”
Now, I know that there are more or less conservative scholars who say that these names — Noah, Daniel, and Job — are mentioned here not because they’re historical, but because they’re all eminently righteous in the books that tell their story. Nevertheless, the case of Jerusalem is so bad that this writer, Ezekiel, chooses three people, two of which are manifestly historical, and the other we would presume is historical.
Think with me as we notice two things. Noah and Daniel are unmistakably historical. The Bible does not treat them as fictional ever, and Job is listed with them with no distinction made at all. That would be really strange if Job were not like them historically. Here’s the second thing to observe: Ezekiel entertains the hypothetical possibility that Noah and Daniel and Job might be “in the land.” It is a real stretch to think he is saying Noah and Daniel, the historical persons, might be in the land as real people, but Job has to be thought of as in the land in a totally different way.
In other words, it just seems to me that we would need very strong reasons to think Job is fictional if we’re going to take Ezekiel 14:14 and 19 in such an unnatural way. Two historical figures and one fictional functioning in the same way? I doubt it.
Testified by James
Here’s the last point. In James 5:10–11, James says this:
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets [that’s important] who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
“The readiness to treat the book as fictional signifies a mindset that leans more easily toward critical trends than I think is healthy.”
Now, again, there are those who say, “This proves nothing about Job’s historical reality. He’s just being used as a fictional character the way we might use Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example of tragic indecision, for example.” Job, they say, is being used as an example of perseverance.
Really? I mean, James says, “Take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job.” He’s not speaking about Job in a vacuum. He’s treating Job like one of the prophets. He’s putting him in the category with others in history who remained steadfast.
Why It Matters
I would say that we have at least these three lines of evidence that Job is historical: (1) the internal similarity to some of the other historical works, (2) the treatment of Job in Ezekiel, and (3) the treatment of Job in James.
Then Lori asks, “Do you think it matters?” Of course, fiction can teach real flesh-and-blood truth. The parables of Jesus do that. It’s not wrong to write fiction to communicate truth. So it’s not as though the theology of Job would have to be sacrificed if the book were inspired fiction.
But I would say it matters for other reasons. Given the way Ezekiel and James treat the book and the person of Job, the readiness to treat the book and the man as fictional signifies a kind of mindset, a kind of soul inclination, which leans more easily toward critical trends than I think is healthy. That would be a concern to me.