The book of Job is the longest and most thematically and linguistically challenging of the “wisdom books” in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In the book’s prologue (Job 1–2) the narrator introduces readers to a man named Job (Hebrew ‘iyyōb; etymology unclear). Job’s prosperity extends into all areas of his life, and seems at least potentially linked to his moral status as completely righteous and blameless before God. The earthly scene then gives way to a heavenly setting, where a figure called “the accuser” (literally “the satan”; haśśātān) appears before God. God boasts about Job’s righteousness, but the accuser counters, suggesting that Job’s moral achievement has been merely the byproduct of God’s protection. The accuser and God enter into a bet: Job’s children will be killed, Job’s possessions stripped, and Job’s body afflicted with a painful disease—all to see whether Job will curse God. Job initially responds to the distress with pious statements, affirming God’s authority over his life. In a state of intense suffering, Job is joined by three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and then eventually a fourth, Elihu—who offer rounds of speeches debating the reasons for Job’s situation (Job 3–37). Job responds to the friends in turn, alternately lamenting his situation and pleading for a chance to address God directly and argue his case as an innocent man. The friends accuse Job of committing some great sin to deserve his fate; they urge repentance, and defend God as a just ruler. God enters the dispute in a forceful whirlwind (Job 38), and proceeds for several chapters (Job 38–41) to overwhelm Job with resounding statements on creation (38:1–38), animal life (38:39–40:14), and visions of two powerful creatures, Behemoth (40:15–24) and Leviathan (41:1–11). The book ends with Job acknowledging to God the fact that he is overmatched in the face of divine power. God condemns the friends for not speaking “what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7), and then restores Job’s lost possessions and children (42:10–17). Job has enjoyed a rich reception history in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible except Genesis, as a world literary classic in its own right. Within the Bible, it is the most bracing statement on the problem of suffering, as it presents a situation wherein a clearly righteous person suffers immensely—putting it at odds with more straightforward descriptions of why people suffer in Proverbs, Deuteronomy, and other texts. Scholarly research on Job has focused on the book’s place among other ancient Near Eastern wisdom materials, on questions of language (given the large amount of difficult Hebrew terms in the book), on historical-critical concerns about authorship and the way the book may have come together in its present form, and on the history of the translation of the text into Greek and other ancient languages. In the 21st century, interpreters have increasingly taken up readings of Job that situate it among concerns related to economics, disability, gender, and the history of its reception in many different eras and communities.
The relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel and Judah was far more complex than is often recognized. Egypt figures prominently in their national myths of origin as a way station for the patriarchs and as the “house of slaves” and starting point of the Exodus. Although no Exodus event can be confirmed from extrabiblical sources, its significance in the Bible suggests an historical kernel. The diverse existing traditions about Egypt in the texts of the Pentateuch and other early biblical writings, combined and written down at a later date, seem to reflect different experiences on the part of the groups that coalesced into Israel By the time of the monarchy, there is more direct evidence for Egyptian influence on Israelite culture, particularly in administrative affairs. It is also clear that Egyptian religion was practiced in the Levant at this time and would have been known in Israel and Judah. By the time of the divided monarchy, the historical picture comes into better focus. Relations between Egypt, Israel, and Judah were quite variable. Although Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant had ended, the region continued to be a useful trading outlet, and the pharaohs were not above raiding to assert their power. However, there are numerous examples of fugitives from the Levant finding refuge from their enemies in Egypt. In the interest of maintaining a buffer zone against the northern empires that encroached, Egypt and Kush gave military aid to Israel and Judah at times, through both direct action and supplies. The prophets had not forgotten Egypt’s role as an oppressor and frequently condemned it, as well as the tendency of Israelite and Judahite rulers to seek its help. But at times the prophets also envisioned peace with Egypt. There are a number of specific Egyptian texts that supply mutually illuminating points of comparison with biblical texts, including wisdom instructions, prayers, hymns, creation accounts, and autobiographies. These are indications of the extensive, ongoing, cultural interactions between Egypt and the cultures that produced the Old Testament.
Richard S. Hess
Emerging from the academic study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures during the Enlightenment and Reformation, Israelite religion became a topic of study in terms of the presentation in the Bible of Israel’s worship of its God. Gradually this separated into a synthesis of biblical teachings on worship and its prescribed practices, on the one hand, and a study of the history of biblical Israel in terms of beliefs and practices toward one or more deities, on the other. The former branch evolved into biblical theology, while the latter developed into the topic of Israelite religion. Beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations and the interpretation of ancient Near Eastern texts preceding and contemporaneous with the period of the Bible broadened the picture. Comparing and contrasting archaeological and textual sources with the application of anthropological models derived from comparative religious studies led to modern syntheses of the subject. Initially these were heavily based upon the biblical text, often with the application of theories of literary and historical criticism. Since the 1980s, however, a focus on texts from the same time and region, as well as interpretation of artifacts with religious significance, has challenged older models of Israelite religion. Influences and the interactions of believers and their deities appear increasingly complex. No longer is there an understanding of a mere one or two religions in Israel (e.g., worshippers of Yahweh and worshippers of Baal). It now seems clear that various religious practices and texts attest to the presence of multiple religions followed by people in the region of ancient Israel, sometimes reflecting differences in gender, culture, ethnicity, and other factors. While a form of worship as described in biblical accounts may have been followed, there were other forms which, in various ways, syncretized Yahweh with other goddesses and gods. This has led scholars to question the factors that led to, and the time of emergence of, belief in a single deity in Israel, as well as to question the nature of that deity. Answers and models remain in a state of flux; evidence remains to be reviewed and interpretations demand critical interpretation.
Magic in the Graeco-Roman world is a disputed concept among modern historians, whose interpretation has changed significantly over the last 200 years of study. In studying it we may either focus on terms from ancient languages translatable as “magic,” or examine materials and practices that may be classified as “magic” according to modern definitions. Ancient terminology centers around terms such as the Greek word mageia, and its Latin cognate magia, referring to superhuman practices that often involved the manipulation of the natural and divine worlds through secret knowledge and ritual. Objects identified by modern scholars as magical include curse tablets, written objects intended to injure, bind, or render harmless their victims, magical handbooks written on papyrus, providing instructions for rituals, and amulets, often in the form of semiprecious stones inscribed with images of deities and short texts. While some of these practices are reflected in ancient literary sources discussing magic, literary texts also show an exaggerated discourse, in which magic-users may be stereotyped according to their ethnicity (exotic magicians from Egypt, Syria, or Judaea) or gender (lurid images of witches), and practices are depicted as fantastical and extreme, involving acts such as human sacrifice. Popular images of magic and actual practice come together in laws and regulations against magic and its users, primarily from the period of the Roman Empire. These may be in the form of imperial law, or else Christian and non-Christian cultic rules, which prescribe social exclusion or even death, so that accusations of magic could be a potent tool in social conflicts.