Canonical context of Job’s narrative
For many, the Book of Job is one of the most important and beautifully crafted compositions among religious texts, which addresses the problem of evil. Set in an indefinite—though characteristically Levantine—pastoral landscape, the book leads its readers through a basic, yet complex question: if there were no justice in this life, no reward for righteousness, how then would you live? Would you forsake the covenant God if his promises were not realized before your eyes?
To answer this question, the author introduces his audience to a character named Job—a faithful steward who was blessed beyond measure. But then, God retracts the material blessings, apparently on a wager, and Job loses both health and prosperity. Through a course of poetic dialogues between Job and his closest friends, various theological viewpoints are teased out to explain Job’s misfortune, whether by his own sin or some divine malintent. In response to God’s final speech, which leaves the problem of evil partially unanswered and in the realm of a dialogical paradox, Job recants his curses and repents before God, who restores his previous blessings multiple times over.
For those familiar with the Bible’s stories, this dilemma should sound familiar. In 586 B.C., Israel’s sovereignty was vanquished by a foreign Babylonian invader, and the temple was destroyed. All hope and glory surmised by the Davidic monarchy, which was backed by a covenant promise, seemed lost in the exile. Even after Israel returned from exile through the sympathies of Persian royalty, and the temple was rebuilt, there was never a sense among Israelites that the exile had truly ended or that its former glory had been restored. Wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible therefore addresses Job’s question more than any other issue: In light of our exile, is our faithfulness to the covenant still worth anything? Has God forsaken us and treated us like enemies? If so, why?
This theodical dilemma was addressed earlier, however, in one of the most famous of the patriarchal narratives, recorded in Genesis 22. After revealing to Abraham that Isaac was in fact the promised seed, and that his descendants would be innumerable, God leads Abraham up to a hill and asks him to sacrifice the miracle child. Abraham’s faith, at last, does not hesitate or waver, and he raises the knife to slay the only heir to the covenant kingdom. In the final moment, God stays his hand, saying “Now, I have known your faithfulness.” The moral of the tale, though widely debated, is essentially the same as for Job: if there were no justice in this life, no reward for righteousness, how then would you live? Or do you follow God only for personal gain? Abraham’s story teaches, in a nutshell, that the intrinsic worth of righteousness lies not in manifest, physical comforts and rewards.
Job and the post-Flood Ice Age
For decades now, young-Earth creationists have purported that the Book of Job provides an early witness to the last ice age. So-called Flood geologists recognize that widespread evidence of a recent ice age is indisputable, but given their pseudo-biblical constraints on Earth history and the geologic column, they believe it must have occurred sometime after Noah’s flood (~4,500 years ago, give or take). To fit the ice age into a young-Earth timeline, therefore, they propose that global cooling during the centuries after the flood resulted in rapid accumulation of ice sheets around the world (including those that remain today in Greenland and Antarctica). Interestingly, this would imply that literate human beings would have existed simultaneously with the last glacial maximum. Surely somebody would have noticed and written it down?
To my knowledge, the modern creationist views on the ice age, as well as the claim that glacial conditions were recorded in the Book of Job, derive from Henry Morris, who ultimately summarized this viewpoint in his book The Remarkable Record of Job. Very briefly, Morris’s view entails the following premises:
- The multiple ice ages documented in the geologic record represent stages in a single ice age that occurred after the Flood (roughly ~2,300–1,800 B.C.). Anomalously cold and snowy conditions were brought on by a unique combination of warm oceans (remnant from the high-energy Flood) and persistently cooled summers (related primarily to volcanic aerosols).
- Job is one of the earliest books of the Bible and was written by Job himself, who lived during the early generations after the Flood. Therefore, Job was a literate witness to the post-Flood ice age.
- Job’s multiple references to snow, ice, and frost are scientifically accurate testaments to the relatively cold climate that characterized his day.
Henry Morris’s view became standard among many creationists, but particularly those tied to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which he helped found. Recently, ICR author James Johnson published an Acts and Facts article, entitled Job’s Icy Vocabulary, in which he explored (i.e. reiterated) the speculative connection between Job and the ice age. Citing Dr. Morris, he writes:
Does the Bible provide evidence that corroborates the idea of a recent ice age? Yes. Although ignored by most readers, the vocabulary of the book of Job actually corroborates the scenario of a recent ice age caused by the global climate conditions that likely followed the worldwide Flood. ICR’s founder Dr. Henry Morris wrote, “There are more references to cold, snow, ice, and frost in Job than in any other book of the Bible.” How can a book’s vocabulary be forensic evidence of global climate conditions?
Morris is technically correct in that the Book of Job references snow and ice more frequently than any other book, so perhaps Johnson’s pursuit is justified? He goes on to explain that Job’s icy vocabulary is characteristic of a pattern that may be distinguished from other biblical authors. In his mind, this habitual allusion to wintry weather corroborates Morris’s speculation that Job himself lived during the ice age. But how strong is this argument? Here is a complete list (to my knowledge) of passages in Job that allude to snow, ice, or frost:
First of all, we should note that four of the seven references appear within two chapters near the end of the book. In this section, the author phenomenologically employs natural processes to describe and uphold the sovereignty of God over his cosmos. Of these processes, weather makes the list several times, likely due to its relationship to water supply, crop yields, and, consequently, the prosperity of Israelites. This ties in well with the central theme of the book. Secondly, snow is utilized by the author as a metaphor for cleanliness, which is the most common reason behind its biblical usage. Thirdly, in the same breath, the author also refers to drought and heat (Job 24:19)! Thus the list is balanced by a description of characteristically Mediterranean summers.
Given these observations, consider now how Job’s winter vocabulary compares to that of other biblical authors. Snow, ice, and/or frost may be mentioned seven times in Job, but that hardly stands out compared to the four occurrences in the Psalms, three mentions in Proverbs, two in Isaiah, and at least one reference in a dozen other books of the Bible (including the New Testament). Therefore, Job’s knowledge of winter is not anomalous within the spectrum of biblical composition, and his usage of wintertime vocabulary is anything but habitual. If this terminology is forensic of a particular climate, as suggested by Dr. Johnson, it was approximately the same climate as experienced by the Psalmist and the Apostles: the Late Holocene climate of the Levant region.
The science behind Job’s wintertime vocabulary
Given its relatively low latitude and proximity to one of the warmest seas on Earth, Israel enjoys a notably mild climate that attracts tourists from across the globe. The climate is also highly seasonal, oscillating between warm, dry summers and wet, cool winters. Though most of Israel’s precipitation falls during the winter months, however, average monthly temperatures never fall below freezing—a principal requirement for snowfall, frost, and ice. Perhaps it is feasible, then, that Job lived during a much colder climate than is described by modern climate graphs, right?
Not quite. Anyone who has lived more than a decade in Israel has experienced snow and subzero temperatures at least once, and the same could be said for its Bronze-age residents. This rule of thumb is especially applicable to those living inland (e.g. Jerusalem) or in the hill country of northern Israel and Lebanon. Consider, for example, that Mt. Hermon’s peaks are typically covered in snow from October to March. Despite that average monthly temperatures never fall below zero, individual winter storms bring freezing temperatures, snow, frost, and even hail to the region at least 2-3 times per decade. In fact, snowstorms have reached as far south as Egypt in recent years.
As the photo below documents, even the occasional snowfall in Jerusalem would be sufficient to inspire a biblical writer to attribute the unique weather to divine oversight. Snowfall brings long-lasting water supply and appears to blanket the city in a pure white garment. Hence even New Testament audiences would have understood the common biblical metaphor “as white as snow” (Matt. 28:3; Rev. 1:14).
So what is the source of icy weather in this otherwise mild, Mediterranean climate? Interestingly, Job himself gives us the answer (Job 37:9), when he alludes to the cold from the north. Regional weather in the Eastern Mediterranean region is strongly determined by a dipole pressure system called the North Sea-Caspian Pattern. This pattern (known as a teleconnection in climatology) is most strongly expressed during winter and depends on the relative pressure gradient between the two regions. When atmospheric pressure is relatively low over the North Sea and high over the Caspian Sea (defined as the negative phase), cyclonic (counter-clockwise) rotation dominates in northern Europe, while anticyclonic (clockwise) rotation dominates in Central Asia. Working much like a gear system, these pressure fronts deliver warm, moist air masses from the Mediterranean into Central Europe and Anatolia. However, this configuration leaves the Eastern Mediterranean (including Israel) especially warm and dry.
When the pressure pattern reverses—relatively high over the North Sea and low over the Caspian Sea—so does the rotation of the ‘gear system’. During the positive phase of the North Sea–Caspian Pattern, anomalously cold winds from Central Europe are steered southward over Anatolia and across Israel and Lebanon. This configuration leaves the eastern Mediterranean several degrees colder, and significantly wetter, than average monthly conditions. Therefore, it is the principal driver of the extreme winter weather described by multiple biblical authors, including Job. It further explains how Job’s so-called icy vocabulary is nothing out of the ordinary, as was pointed out by several of my fellow bloggers on ICR’s Facebook page.
What would it have been like to live in Palestine during the Ice Age?
Despite that Job’s allusions to winter weather are consistent with the modern climate, Dr. Johnson insists that his world was notably different than we know today:
Cold comes from the north. God’s breath gives frost, there are treasuries of snow and hail, and ice is delivered like childbirth! Does Job’s icy vocabulary sound like Jamaicans talking or Alaskans? Job’s book, which records events that occurred a few generations after the global Flood, uses language that fits the life experiences of people living during the post-Flood Ice Age.
The pertinent question is one that Dr. Johnson is not well qualified to answer: just how different was the ice-age climate of Israel? Would it inspire any Levantine author to speak/write more like an Alaskan? Fortunately for us, numerous paleoclimate archives have been published, especially from the past two decades, which document the glacial climate of the Eastern Mediterranean. As it turns out, the average annual temperature in Israel during the glacial maximum (25,000–17,000 years ago) was likely ~10°C colder than today (Robinson et al., 2006; Almogi-Labin et al., 2009). At first glance, therefore, it seems Dr. Johnson could be right in his assessment, and Mediterranean winters could have looked notably more European.
Much of this ice-age cooling, however, occurred during summer and not winter, for several reasons. First, the Mediterranean Sea itself was 10–12°C colder than today, making it very similar to the modern California coast. Cooler oceans greatly reduced summer temperatures on land, but sea-surface temperatures near 12°C (Almogi-Labin et al., 2009) were still sufficiently high to keep winters well above freezing (anyone from the Pacific Northwest can testify to this). The effect of cooler summers can especially be seen in the Dead Sea record, because less extreme summer heat (mentioned in Job 24:19) meant less evaporation and a positive water balance for the Dead Sea, whose water level rose some 200 meters and joined with the Sea of Galilee to form glacial Lake Lisan during the last glacial maximum.
Secondly, sea level was nearly 120 meters lower than today, making Israel a more continental site during the Ice Age. Consequently, annual precipitation was slightly lower than today (e.g. Bar-Matthews et al., 1997), and Israel undoubtedly did not see a major increase in snowfall. Finally, the presence of massive continental ice sheets in North America and Europe had a strong impact on global atmospheric circulation. In particular, zonal winds (west to east) were stronger, while meridional winds (north to south) were relatively weaker. Therefore, conditions described above by the positive phase of the North Sea–Caspian pattern (that “cold, north wind”) would have been significantly less frequent than for the bulk of Israel’s national history.
If Job truly lived during the ice age, then his wintertime vocabulary likely would not have expanded beyond a Bronze-Age Israelite or even a contemporary of Jesus. The several passages in Job that allude to snow, frost, and ice are far more easily attributed to one living during the latest Holocene and not during the Ice Age. In fact, climate variability during the Late Holocene (the last 4,700 years) was high in the Eastern Mediterranean and was characterized by both cold periods and warm periods. For example, the Roman Era (~400–500 A.D.) was anomalously warm and dry, while the Davidic era (~1,000 B.C.) was anomalously cold and wet.
Concerning the origin, composition, and genre of the Book of Job
One final point worth considering relates to the second and third premises of Henry Morris’s view on Job: when was the Book of Job written and what kind of literature is it? According to most Young-Earth Creationists, Job is a historical narrative produced very early in Israel’s history (perhaps during it’s proto-history). The narrative was written by Job himself, and thus alludes to the environmental conditions during his lifetime.
Over the centuries, various scholars have proposed a wide range of compositional dates for the Book of Job, from the time of Moses (to whom some attribute authorship) right up to the 2nd century B.C. The main reason is that the book contains no historical markers, such as the reigns of kings or geographical references, that could help pin down a firm date. Neither is the author mentioned by name. Although the setting and lifestyle of Job resemble those of the Genesis patriarchs, however, there is far more support for later date of composition—specifically, after the Babylonian exile.
The main motivation for attributing a post-exilic date of composition derives from the overlap of themes between Job and the wisdom literature of second-temple Judaism. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Book of Job addresses questions that would have been most relevant and pertinent to Israelites who, like Job, saw every material blessing snatched away and had to wrestle with the justice of God (“Who sinned that we might suffer?”). In addition, the multiplied restoration of blessings to Job at the end of the book echoes many of the prophetic promises (e.g. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah) of a new covenant and a new age. Finally, this connection is supported by the canonical grouping of Job with post-exilic wisdom literature, rather than with the historical narratives of Israel’s ancient past.
Regarding the genre of the Book of Job, we have no indication that Job was a historical character or that any of the events in the book ever really happened, which—if true—would undermine Morris’s claims. At the risk of turning heads and making some cringe, I want to suggest that Job is better categorized as historical fiction, and I believe the text itself supports this claim. First of all, the very name Job (in Hebrew) is a double play on words. On the one hand, it evokes the Hebrew term for enemy, which is used frequently by Job throughout the book. For example, “Why do You hide Your face And consider me Your enemy?” (Job 13:24) can essentially be read as “Why do you treat me (Job) like a Job?” On the other hand, the name Job echoes an Aramaic term describing a repentant one, or one who calls God as father—the attitude embraced by Job in the book’s conclusion (Job 42:1–6).
The dialogical tension in the very name of the book’s main character reflects the dialogical tensions exemplified by the series of speeches. This literary structure is more likely an artifact of the author(s), who attempted to develop a comprehensive view of God’s sovereignty and justice, rather than a coincidence between one man’s name and personal history (not to mention, are we to assume that God might act capriciously on account of a divine wager?). Furthermore, the book’s various speeches, which contain heartfelt laments in response immeasurable tragedy, are incredibly poetic and hardly resemble authentic rhetoric. These dialogues are better understood through comparison to Shakespeare than to Herodotus.
Despite the anticipated concerns of biblical literalists, consigning Job to the realm of fiction would not mitigate its authority, historicity, or canonical importance. On the contrary, the literary masterpiece gains status, because Job becomes for us an eponymous figure—a transformative myth—whose narrative world challenges and reshapes our own theology. Job is historical, therefore, in the sense that he embodies the story of Israel and the church. By living out his tale, we wrestle with the justice of God and the intrinsic worth of a righteous life, just as the famed Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Conversely, the claims by Morris and Johnson, that Job was a documentary witness to a post-Flood Ice Age, turn one of the most important theological characters into a modern-day Santa Claus.
Featured image from JTA, December 15, 2013.