The Historical Context of the Book of Job

Edward L. Greenstein

Determining the time and place of the book’s composition is bound up with the nature of the book’s language. The Hebrew prose of the frame tale, notwithstanding many classic features, shows that it was composed in the post-Babylonian era (after 540 BCE). The poetic core of the book is written in a highly literate and literary Hebrew, the eccentricities and occasional clumsiness of which suggest that Hebrew was a learned and not native language of the poet. The numerous words and grammatical shadings of Aramaic spread throughout the mainly Hebrew text of Job make a setting in the Persian era (approximately 540–330) fairly certain, for it was only in that period that Aramaic became a major language throughout the Levant. The poet depends on an audience that will pick up on subtle signs of Aramaic. A geographic setting in the land of Israel, in the Persian province of Yehud, is also fairly certain. The Transjordan is referred to as the East (qedem), and the Jordan River is mentioned in 40:23.

The author displays a familiarity with several Semitic languages—Phoenician, Arabic, and even Babylonian, in addition to Aramaic—and an acquaintance with local Canaanite mythology and some genres of Mesopotamian literature, such as the descriptions of gods (see at the Deity’s Second Discourse) and incantations for the ease of childbirth (see at Job’s Opening Discourse). Several words and expressions can be properly understood only when foreign languages are brought into play. The poet appears to be a polymath whose knowledge of language, literature, and realia (animals, plants, law, astronomy, anatomy) is impressive. Most impressive, however, is his deep and wide familiarity with earlier works of Hebrew literature. He draws on numerous sources, and he dazzles like Shakespeare with unrivaled vocabulary and a penchant for linguistic innovation—in words, forms, and combinations.

The wide use of foreign, and particularly Aramaic, linguistic features in the poetic core serves distinct literary functions. On the one hand, the admixture of foreign words and sounds, together with the predominant Hebrew, yields additional possibilities for wordplay, assonance, and double entendre (see, for example, at 3:8). On the other hand, because the speakers in the book are Transjordanian, and to the east of Israel the Semitic idiom manifests many Aramaic features, the characteristic sprinkling of Aramaic colors the speech of the characters as dialectal, as foreign.

One may surmise that the poet who shaped the prose narrative and composed the bulk of the dialogues was an extremely well-educated Judean, probably living in Jerusalem, who was writing for an audience of like-minded intellectuals.

From Job by Edward L. Greenstein. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Edward L. Greenstein is professor emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and a prolific, world-renowned scholar in many areas of biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies.

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Featured Image: Photo of “Job and His Friends” by Ilya Repin on Wikimedia Commons

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