The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

True Wisdom in Job: A Diatribe against Existing Values?

Bendt Alster notes that “a critical attitude towards existing values…may be considered an unmistakable sign of ancient Near Eastern ‘wisdom’ literature” (Wisdom of Ancient Sumer, 5). In Job, there is a full-blown clash between the traditional and the critical—between Job’s friends’ wisdom and what Job presents as a sort of counter-wisdom. In light of Alster’s statement, Job’s extremely critical position on traditional wisdom, voiced through his observations relating to the prosperity of the wicked, could be viewed as the essence of wisdom in the book. Perhaps it is through Job’s challenge (based upon his experience—see ch. 21) of the traditional wisdom espoused in Proverbs and in the Torah that the book of Job makes its greatest contribution to the wisdom tradition.

The conventional biblical principles concerning divine retribution that Job criticizes are held in common with several thematically comparable ancient Near Eastern compositions that use similar imagery and rhetoric to address the same issues as Job (e.g., The Babylonian Theodicy, Ludlul bel Nemeqi). Therefore, the idea that Job provides wisdom in presenting an argument contrary to that which was generally considered to be wise in the Bible and the ancient Near East deserves further investigation. This is particularly evident with regard to the issue of just retribution.

In this paper, I investigate Job’s overt claims that challenge other biblical and ancient Near Eastern traditional wisdom. This paper will examine how Job breaks with ancient Near Eastern traditional wisdom and will observe the vestiges of this opposition all the way up to the second Temple Period. I will conclude with suggestions concerning how reading Job as polemic literature in its ancient Near Eastern environment allows the composition to make a unique contribution to the wisdom corpus.