The religious texts of the ancient Near East share core themes in common related to the theme of personal piety. Personal piety becomes a powerful, poignant theme in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Book of Job. The story of Job is laden with lessons related to the nature of human suffering and the role it plays in the development of personal piety. Moreover, the nature of human suffering is also linked with the spiritual, cosmological, and metaphysical relationship between the human being and God. God is established as paradoxically personal and impersonal; God's will is existentially beyond that of the human being, who can never presume to understand God's motives. It is not up to the human being to speculate, as Job's friends do, but it is up to the human being to continually praise God.
Background: Character Analysis of Job
In the New International Version of the Hebrew Bible, Job is introduced as a "blameless and upright" man who fears God and thus understands his place in the cosmological hierarchy outlined by religious authority (Job 1:1). Job is a hard-working but wealthy family man who has seven sons, three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three hundred camels, five hundred oxen, and five hundred donkeys (Job 1:2-3). Because of, or in spite of, his material success, Job is referred to as being "greatest among all the people of the East," (Job 1:3). In addition to his familial and work-related duties, Job piously conducts his religious affairs and looks out for the spiritual welfare of his sons and daughters. He performs religious sacrifices, especially after overt displays of material wealth such as feasts. Such religious customs were "regular" habits for Job, who provides burnt offerings (Job 1:5).
The unassailable character of Job is challenged by external circumstances beyond the man's control. First, Satan colludes with God. God submits to Satan's temptation to test Job, as God describes the man as his model human being. According to Satan, human beings are more fallible than God presumes. Job will be the human guinea pig to prove that God's creation will, in Satan's words, "surely curse you to your face," (Job 1:11). Thus, Satan and God make a deal to interfere with the affairs of Job and cause him great suffering in order to test his loyalty.
Before long, Job's fortune vanishes. His livestock disappears, as the Chaldeans and Sabeans attack, loot, and plunder. To top it all off, Job's entire family -- all his ten children -- are struck dead in a freak accident at the house of the eldest son. Job's initial reaction is shocking: he "fell to the ground in worship," and utters a prayer. He states, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, / and naked I will depart. / The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; / may the name of the Lord be praised," (Job 1:21). Satan has been foiled, at least temporarily.
God agrees to test Job more vigorously, as Satan is challenging God's power again. This time, God agrees to let Satan impact Job's physical health and well-being so long as Job can remain alive. When Job comes down with a serious illness with "painful sores" all over his body, his wife is the only one to react (Job 2:7). In typical misogynistic format, the wife is the one who tries to coax Job away from God but Job suffers with dignity. His suffering attracts the attention of three of Job's dearest friends: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite. Their first reaction to seeing the suffering of their friend is sympathy rather than anger. Job falls into a deep depression coupled with morbid self-reflection and self-pity. However, his curses are directed at himself and not at God in Chapter 3.
Analysis and Comparison
Chapter 3 of the Book of Job corresponds with the Middle Kingdom Egyptian text "Man and his Ba." In the Egyptian Middle Kingdom text "Man and his Ba," the central character is similar to Job in that he is driven to morbid self-reflection due to deep suffering caused by external circumstances beyond his control. Like Job, the speaker in "Man and his Ba" is driven to contemplate his own death as a viable solution: "My ba would deceive me, but I heed him not; / While I am impelled toward a death whose time has not yet come," (p. 179). As with Job, the man comes short of cursing God, but he does dwell in a mire of self-pity and refers to the "agony of life," (p. 180). Finally, the man heeds the deep wisdom in his suffering, communicated by his ba, and exemplifying the existential meaning to his suffering: "Are you not a man? At least you are alive!" (p. 180). The main difference between the Hebrew Book of Job and the Egyptian "Man and his Ba" is that the latter presents the topic of personal piety within an Egyptian cosmological, metaphysical, and theological framework. The Egyptian model presents the soul as the bearer of wisdom and that which mitigates suffering, whereas the Book of Job is concerned mainly with the glorification of God as the supreme source of both suffering and respite. The Middle Kingdom text known as the "Prophecy of Nefer-rohu" establishes a cosmological order that more closely resembles the Hebrew one, with its strict hierarchy.
The reactions of Job's friends have a great impact on the development and evolution of Job's personal piety. Eliphaz the Temanite first offers Job some inspiration and encouragement by stating, "But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; / it strikes you, and you are dismayed. / Should not your piety be your confidence / and your blameless ways your hope?" (Job 4:5-6). However, Eliphaz reveals a bit of potential lingering jealousy and soon suggests that Job must have done something to deserve his suffering. God has cursed Job because Job is only human, and human beings sin: "For hardship does not spring from the soil, / nor does trouble sprout from the ground," (Job 5:6). Eliphaz's response to Job's suffering mirrors the sentiments echoed in the Proverbs from Mesopotamia," in which evil deeds are presumed to be the root of all human suffering. Both texts also use a metaphor of planting. "You are placed into a river and your water becomes at once stinking; you are placed in an orchard and your date-fruit becomes bitter," (p. 357).
Eliphaz's insistence that Job must continue to glorify God and pray reflects the sentiments expressed in the ancient Sumerian text "Man and his God." In "Man and his God," a nearly identical cosmological framework is established whereby expressions and practices of personal piety are directly dependent on the individual's need to supplant himself with humility before God; and that God does indeed have the power, right, and ability to inflict suffering as He sees fit. "Let a man utter constantly the exalt3edness of his God," states the speaker, no matter how deep the man's physical suffering or material losses (p. 354). Eventually, the suffering will be alleviated via aggressive applications of faith and personal piety and "turn…suffering into joy," ("Man and His God," p. 356). However, the "Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World" text presents a more pessimistic version of human suffering "Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World" provides a structure of human suffering and piety that more closely reflect that of Job's three friends than Job himself. In "Nergal and "Ereshkigal," the concept of personal piety is linked directly with sacrifice and suffering. This ties in neatly with Elihu's observations related to Job's suffering.
Akkadian didactic and wisdom literature such as "Observations on life: A pessimistic dialogue between master and servant" also echo the worldviews of Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite…