A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Were there originally two endings to the Book of Job?

October 30, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Here's a biblical question for you. Some years ago, the professor in my Philosophy 100 course stated that there were actually two endings to the Book of Job. The original ending had Job accepting his misfortunes as part of life; but people found that ending far too depressing, and so the ending that appears in most bibles, wherein Job essentially hits the lottery in exchange for being God's good servant, was written. Was my professor correct? (Mind you, I have no reason to doubt her, but I've never found a reference to this outside of her classroom.) If so, where can we find the original ending?

This is a long though interesting story. Here's hoping you've got the patience of Job.

The best we can say about your professor's claim is, well, maybe, but not very likely. If there ever was a such version, it hasn't survived. The burden of proof would be on your professor to produce such a document (or evidence that such a document once existed).

The difficulty in dealing with the history of almost every Biblical book is that we don't really know very much for sure. With the book of Job, there isn't even general agreement within the religious community, and certainly not within the scholarly/academic community, on basics such as when the book was written. Or even whether the book was written by one author, or by several. The oldest actual scrolls of Job that we have are from the Qumran sect, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, in use about 100 BC. The first sixteen chapters are missing, but what has survived is very, very close to our present book.

On the other hand, the book that we have today is obviously fragmentary. Clear patterns are disrupted by missing text. It is possible that there was major accidental damage after the text was finalized, so that no complete versions have been passed on. Thus, much of the analysis is surmise and guesswork.

First, it might help to summarize the text and story.

PROLOG Chapters 1 and 2

The Prolog is a prose description of how the Satan (See NOTE 1 below) is suspicious that Job's piety is put-on, fair-weather, and makes a wager with God that if Job were not so well off, he would lose his faith. Job loses his wealth and his children, to both man-made and natural disasters, but his faith is not shaken. The Satan then afflicts Job with a skin disease (often mistranslated "leprosy," but not the bacterial leprosy that we know today), and three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) come to comfort him.

DIALOG

The middle section of Job is in poetry, not prose.

In Chapter 3, Job laments his fate, says that he cannot stand the burdens of life and wishes he were dead. For the next 25 chapters, there is a pattern or cycle: each of the three friends makes a speech, and Job responds. This cycle is repeated three times, although we only have fragments of the third cycle. The friends argue basic religious dogma, that suffering is punishment brought on by sin. Job finds these words meaningless and irrelevant; he responds that he has not committed any major sins, and that the punishment is way out of proportion to any minor sins. Job is angry with his friends for not being helpful, and with God for being unjust. His tone is fiercely accusatory and argumentative, that the universe is not governed by morality, and he calls God to justice (might does not make right.) Job calls God a capricious tyrant (9:18), a savage beast (16:7), and a treacherous assailant (16:1).

The after the cycle of argument and response, there is a hymn to wisdom (Chapter 28)

Job then delivers a Soliloquy (Chapters 29-31), remembering happier days, expressing his misery in the present, and setting forth a "code of honor," ethical behaviors that he did not violate. He calls upon God to answer him.

Another person (Elihu) then makes four lengthy speeches (Chapters 32-37). Elihu presumably is one of several witnesses to the debate. He takes a middle ground, angry with Job for impugning God's justice, and angry with the three friends for defending God so inadequately. He rejects the notion that suffering comes from sin, and the notion that God is unjust; instead, Elihu says that suffering is sometimes a trial or test or warning.

God then speaks to Job from a whirlwind (Chapters 38-41), challenging Job to understand creation, expressing joy in living creatures, and stating explicitly that the universe is a mystery to man. Implicit is the notion that the universe was not created exclusively for mankind, and cannot be judged by human standards.

Job responds in the first few verses of Chapter 42, and submits. There is reconciliation and vindication.

EPILOG

Back to prose, the narrative describes how Job is restored to wealth and a new family.

The Book of Job is fascinating, and the last 2,000 years volumes have been written about it. The theological and philosophical questions are beyond the scope of this report, except to note that the book raises but does not actually answer the question of why suffering exists. Instead, we'll focus on the literary and historical implications.

We start by trying to date the story itself--when did Job live? The text gives no references. The Talmud cites eight different rabbinic opinions, ranging from the time of Jacob (say 1700 BC) to post-exile (after 580 BC). There is even a Talmudic opinion that Job is a parable and did not exist at all. We do know that the name "Job" was fairly common--an Egyptian text from about 2000 BC refers to a Canaanite chief by that name, and there are other archaeological findings that name other Jobs.

In analyzing the text to try to determine when it might have been written, we note (as above) that the book of Job is divided into three sections--a prolog in prose, a lengthy dialog in the middle in poetry, and an epilog in prose.

The poetry in the middle section shows a very different Job from the prose at the beginning and end. While the Job of the prolog and epilog is stoic, the Job of the middle section curses the day of his birth, protests strongly to God, and throws a temper tantrum (modern psychology describes anger as one stage of reactions to loss). Although Job has come to be regarded as the paragon of patience, the text shows a very impatient Job--this guy is NOT long-suffering. 

Finally, the narrative sections (prolog and epilog) reads almost like a folk tale--the Satan sets up a wager with God, Job is tested and comes through with flying colors, and is restored to wealth and position. The middle poetic section is far more profound, argument and debate, with Job quoting his friends to refute them.

These differences have led most scholars to believe that there were at least two authors, one for the poetry section and one for the prose sections.

If we try to date the authors, we have problems. As with the other Biblical books, there is no external evidence, only internal, and not much of that. There is no hint of an historical period in the text itself--no comment about "during the reign of so-and-so," for instance--and no interest in traditional motifs, like the history of Israel, that might help to date the text.

There are some possible clues. Job is not an Israelite but an Edomite. Around the 500s BC, the Edomites invaded Judean territory, and were viewed negatively (see Obadiah chapters 10-14, for instance). It is hard to believe this story would have circulated during a time of animosity towards the Edomites. Hence, the prose story most likely pre-dates the 6th Century BC.

The most common scholarly opinion is that the folktale is indeed ancient, perhaps earlier than 1700 BC, perhaps written down around 1000 to 800 BC. The poetic middle section was probably added later, perhaps written around 6th Century BC. The poet took the older prose story as the frame for his poetry, wrestling with the philosophic questions of suffering. Elihu's speech may have been an even later insertion by someone who felt that the text did not uphold orthodoxy strongly enough.

The poetic section has some parallels of thought with the second Isaiah writer (around 540 BC), but which came first, there's no way of knowing. Job is mentioned by Jeremiah, so probably the book as we know it was finished by (say) 600 BC, although some date it much later--for example, Jeremiah could have known the folktale, but not the poetry.

On the other hand, the book is possibly the work of one author, who took a well-known, familiar folktale for his prolog and epilog. One tradition says that the single author is Moses. The differences of style and language and content are noticeable, but not totally irreconcilable. The theory of a single author portrays a poet who wrestled with the problem of justice and suffering for many, many years. Sections of poem may have been written at different times of his life--thus, for example, the speech by Elihu could have been written many years later than the debates with the three friends, as the poet had new ideas and put them in the mouth of a new character. The poet could have changed his vocabulary, concepts, poetic style; all those could change during the course of a lifetime--indeed, we know for fact that some modern authors, such as Goethe, did exactly this with their works.

In short, the differences in style, vocabulary and content mentioned above are not incompatible with the theory of one author. Thus, the question of authorship and dating is far from settled.

Now, one more area before we get to the question at hand: the subject matter. The topic of Job is the universal human situation, not confined to a particular time or place. Regardless of social level, historical concepts, or religious tradition, Job raises the question: what is the meaning of my life? The poet looked internally, and intensively, using one person's existence to raise the broad human question.

The earliest biblical books pose a fairly simple concept of justice: good is rewarded, evil is punished. Sometimes the reward or punishment is long coming, sometimes it is not immediately perceivable to the characters, but it is always perceivable to the astute reader. There is no "unnecessary" suffering, in the sense that we think of it today.

Job raises the question of how absolute goodness and absolute justice can be reconciled in God. The book does not pose answers, but wrestles with the question, and probes into the nature of the personal relationship with God. As such, it stands as a profound work.

Martin Buber noted that God's answer to Job from the whirlwind does not respond to Job's challenge--in fact, doesn't even touch on it. Job is told that he is not the one to ask questions, or to test God--it is God who asks the questions to test man. Job is told that he is frail creature with finite vision, and cannot judge the Creator of the universe. God's response to Job is: (a) Where were you when I founded the earth? I am the Creator who began the cosmos; and (b) God is the one who upholds the cosmos, so that it remains ordered and does not fall into chaos. Job had presumed to know too much, and is silenced by this answer, admitting that he has no grounds for arguing with God (other than his personal unhappiness), retracts his charges and repents humbly.

So, now, finally, to your question of whether there could have once been a different ending.

If there were multiple authors, it is possible that God's speech from the whirlwind was added later. God speaks of the beauty of nature, and barely mentions mankind or the human condition, let alone Job's individual situation. It is possible, therefore, that God's speech was an independent composition. In that case, the original poem could have ended with Job simply challenging God to respond, with no answer provided. A minority of scholars believe this interpretation, and that would have been a "different ending" as per your inquiry.

However, no copies of Job exist that would prove or disprove this opinion.

The ending you suggest seems unlikely. The epilog and prolog seem to be a much older folk-tale than the middle section. So, most likely the earliest versions did indeed have Job restored to wealth and a new family. It is possible that the poet, in creating his new version from the older familiar story, changed the ending. But frankly, that does not sound plausible.

My guess is that your professor got the scenario of two authors confused, and thought this implied an earlier version that was suppressed. As we said earlier, this is possible--lots of things are possible--but there is no evidence supporting such a theory, and there is lots working against it.

On t'other hand, if you mean, was there an ending where Job accepts the Satan's offer to become a rich and famous baseball player and lead the Washington Senators to the pennant, then no. That's a different story altogether.

NOTE 1: The term in the Hebrew book of Job is clearly "The Satan," with the definite article. In the early Biblical books, such as Samuel and Numbers (say, before 1000 BC), "the satan" is the foe, the adversary. By Zechariah, around 520 BC, "the satan" seems to be a superhuman opponent, and by the book of Chronicles (perhaps 400 BC), "Satan" has become a proper noun and the definite article is dropped. In the book of Job, there is implication that "the Satan" is one of the heavenly host, but there is no background or history as a character; rather, it seems to be a position, like "prosecuting attorney."

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