The book of Job presents us with a powerful account of a man named Job who was tested by God through suffering and yet remained faithful throughout. But does the book of Job present Job as a true or fictitious person? And more importantly, is this even important?
Scholars who believe Job is fictitious have argued that the narrative sections of the book of Job (chapters 1–2; 42) present a fictional story.
Scholars who believe Job is fictitious have argued that the narrative sections of the book of Job (chapters 1–2; 42) present a fictional story1. This is because, they would say, the events are unrealistic because of the supernatural forces (i.e., Satan, the adversary2) involved in Job’s affliction and also his restoration. However, we need to remember that these things are only unrealistic if God, angels, and Satan do not exist. The world Job lived in is God’s world (supernatural) and not Charles Darwin’s (naturalistic)3. Those who want to take Job as fictional already show that they have a certain theological framework that dismisses parts of Scripture that involve the supernatural.
Before looking at the question of Job’s historicity, it is important to consider the setting of the book. Although there is debate as to where and when the events of the book of Job actually take place, many of the circumstances in Job point to a setting in the early second millennium, when Job possibly was a contemporary of the patriarchs, such as Abraham. Job offered sacrifices without the benefit of a priest (Job 1:5). His wealth was measured in terms of flocks and servants (Job 1:3, 42:12). He interacted with historical people groups: the Sabeans and Chaldeans (Job 1:15, 17). He lived a long life—after his restoration Job lived 140 years and died “an old man, and full of days” (Job 42:10, 16–17), which hearkens back to Abraham who died at 175 and was described as “an old man and full of years” (Genesis 25:7–8).
Although, the setting of Job is likely in the times of the patriarchs, the book does not tell us who the author is or when it was written. This is one of the reasons scholars differ on when the book was written. Because the setting of Job takes place in the patriarchal period, some have suggested Moses may have been the author4. Others, however, argue that, because Job is wisdom literature, it was written in the era of Solomon5, or even in the time of Isaiah because of the book’s connection with the prophet (compare Job 9:8 with Isaiah 40:21–23, 44:24 and Job 28:20–27 with Isaiah 40:14)6. Some scholars even argue for an exilic date for Job; its purpose then would be to give God’s people strength during their suffering and hope for future restoration7. Even though the dating of the book of Job is complex, there are a number of good reasons to understand Job as a historical person.
The book of Job opens with the words: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job…” (Job 1:1). Some scholars have argued that Job may not be a real person because this introductory formula is similar to Nathan’s parable to David: “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.” (2 Samuel 12:1)8. However, unlike the parable spoken by Nathan, in the book of Job the man is identified by the personal name “Job” (ʾiyyôb)9. In contrast, parables generally don’t name the people in the story (see Matthew 13:18–50, 18:23–35, 21:28–41; Luke 15:8–32; 18:1–8,). The introductory formula “There was a man” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to introduce other historical individuals:
There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. (Judges 17:1) There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim … whose name was Elkanah . . . . (1 Samuel 1:1)
The book of Job begins not by presenting a fable or parable for us to consider, but by introducing us to a real, historical person. Job is even identified as living outside of Israel, for he was a great man “of the east” (Job 1:3) in the land of Uz, which is associated with Edom (cf. Lamentations 4:21; cf. Genesis 10:23) and is east of Israel. Even though Job is not an Israelite, he does clearly believe in the God of Israel. Job not only uses the covenant name for God, yhwh “the one who is or goes on existing” (Job 1:21; 12:9; cf. Exodus 3:14), but he also uses the name for God associated with the patriarchs; šadday “the almighty” (Job 6:4, 14, 13:3, 21:15, 20, 29:5, 31:2; cf. Genesis 17:1, 28:3, 35:11, 43:14, 48:3, 49:25; Exodus 6:3).
Two other books in the Bible attest to the historicity of Job. At the time of the exile, the prophet Ezekiel denounced the wickedness of Jerusalem by comparing Job with two other historical figures, Daniel10 and Noah, as the standard of righteousness:
Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch out My hand against it, destroy its supply of bread, send famine against it and cut off from it both 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, declares the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 14:12–14)
So, if Job is not real, then how could Noah and Daniel be in the land as real people but not Job? If Job did not exist, then why does Ezekiel use him as an example along with two other real individuals? The Bible clearly teaches that Daniel and Noah were real, historical individuals (see Genesis 6:9–9:29; Daniel 1–12; Matthew 24:15, 37–38). Ezekiel clearly saw Noah, Daniel, and Job as real people.
Just as Ezekiel used Job as an example of righteousness, so also in the New Testament the apostle James speaks of Job as an example of someone who persevered under trial:
As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, 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, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:10–11)
There is no doubt that James understood Job as a historical individual. Notice that James puts Job in the same category as the prophets (real people) who also persevered in their suffering. As in other passages (e.g., James 1:3–4, 12; Romans 5:3–4; 2 Corinthians 1:6), James focuses on the “steadfastness” or the “endurance/perseverance” of Job in order to encourage believers to endure in their own suffering as “you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” The word “purpose” is the Greek word telos, and James is using it to point to the end of the book of Job, when after his suffering: “the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (Job 42:12). James is emphasizing that “Job suffered and endured, ultimately receiving a merciful, blessed end from the Lord. So, be encouraged in the midst of your suffering11.” If Job is not a historical figure, then what would be the point of James using Job as an example to persevere through suffering? Michael Brown points out
Just think of the vacuous nature of James’s exhortation if Job only existed in the mind of the book’s author…What lesson is there for us to learn if Job is a fictional character?...We are moved to acts of bravery by the solider who earned a Purple Heart in battle, by the cancer victim who overcame all odds and survived, by the marathon runner who persevered to the finish line and then collapsed – not by a make-believe character whose exploits of courage exist only in the realm of the imagination, a realm where there are neither the constraints of reality nor the limitations of humanity12.
When we consider everything that the Bible tells us about Job, it clearly presents him as a historical person. Therefore Job, as a righteous man who endured tremendous suffering, is able to give hope to those who go through similar circumstances today.