Is the Story of Job Historical? (Job 1)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1 There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4 His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.
—Job 1:1–5

ESV Expository Commentary

Three Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.

An Exemplary Man from the Land of Uz

The prologue to Job (Job 1:1–5) introduces us to an unusual world. In verse 1, we meet a man with an unprecedented name (Hb. ʼiyyob, “Job”) from an uncertain place (“the land of Uz”) who worships (as of yet) an undefined “God” (Hb. ʼelohim).1 However, it is this man in that place and his relationship with that God that sets the scene for the unfolding of one of the OT’s most spectacular dramas. Verses 2–5 build upon this unusual opening with an unexpected description of the “perfect” man. Job is “perfect” in a numerological sense in that he has ten children (“seven sons and three daughters”; Job 1:2) and ten thousand animals (Job 1:3).2 Moreover, he is “perfect,” or as near to perfect as is any character in the OT, in a spiritual sense. He gains the distinct designation of being “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3) both because he is rich and because he is righteous. He fears God. He turns away from evil. He provides for his children physically and spiritually.

Was there really a man named Job? Did he live in a land called Uz? Was he perfectly righteous with a perfectly blessed life? Did he in one day lose everything but his troublesome, unnamed wife? Did he have friends who sat silently for seven days? Did he then suffer the accusations of Eliphaz, the blame of Bildad, the zings of Zophar, and the admonishments of Elihu? Did God hold a heavenly chamber room conference with Satan at which he granted permission to afflict Job? Did God really speak audibly to Job? Are Leviathan and Behemoth real creatures? Put simply, did the author of Job create the whole drama out of whole cloth, much like Shakespeare did with his characters from foreign countries who speak in poetry?

The answer is not easy, and by no means should we be dogmatic. Who can know for certain? While Uz appears to be an ancient region, the names of Job’s daughters provide a tinge of historic realism (Job 42:14), and Ezekiel mentions Job alongside Noah and Daniel (Ezek. 14:14, 20; cf. James 5:11), such clues do not solve the riddle. Authors often set fictional works in real places (e.g., the Canterbury of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), and Ezekiel and James could be referencing Job as a literary figure (similar to our saying, “We should not emulate the Wife of Bath’s lusts”).3 Tremper Longman offers a helpful balance:

The truth may be between the view that Job was a historical character, with the book describing events of his life in detail, and the view that Job is a purely literary figure. Job could have been known as a particularly righteous person who suffered. His story would then lend itself to further elaboration for the purposes of discussing the issue of an innocent sufferer and wisdom. Indeed, the highly literary nature of the prose and poetry . . . would suggest that this at least is true. The genre signals help us to see that the book of Job is certainly not a precise historical report. It is either the elaborated story of an actual historical figure or of a literary figure.4

My view is that Job was a historical person, not a fictional character, someone whose legendary sufferings were the historical ground on which the author of Job built with magnificent literary flair. Thus, while I give poetic license to how the author retells the narrative (e.g., I do not take the speeches as verbatim reports of the interchange between Job and his friends), I take all of the characters named (including Satan) and the details of the story told (including the amazing catastrophes) to be historically accurate.

Meeting the Historical Job

In Job 1:1 we are told that Job is “blameless and upright,” or, in a more spatial translation, “whole and straight.” We might say, in the language of our Lord Jesus, that as Job walks the straight and narrow way that leads to life, he treats others the same way he wishes to be treated; his wholehearted submission, reverence, respect, and love for God show themselves in his whole (or “perfect”; Matt. 5:48) love for others. And because of this, his neighbors—and even his enemies—have nothing against him. He has treated them with fairness and equity and charity. He is a “man of peace [Hb. shalom],” namely, a “blameless” and “upright” man (Ps. 37:37). In this way, Christians should imitate Job.

We should also imitate Job in the way he cares for his children. Think afresh about Job 1:4–5. Why does Job offer sacrifices for his children? They are presented in a positive way. The sons are independent; each of the seven has his own house. They all get along. Everyone attends all of the festivals, which might be something like birthday parties (“his day,” Job 1:4, perhaps equals “his birthday”) or, more likely, seven religious feasts throughout the year.5 Job’s household is harmonious. They are all also happy—based on the fact that they eat and drink together all the time. Eating and drinking are often symbolic in the Bible for joy (e.g., Eccles. 9:7). But within all of this wholesomeness, harmony, and happiness, something is amiss. God’s will in heaven is not yet done perfectly on earth. Satan is yet to appear in the book, but sin is already present.

As ideal as the introduction to the book of Job is, we are not in Eden—we are east of it. Job thinks it necessary to sanctify and sacrifice because he fears his children might have sinned. We are not sure if he thinks their cursing God would be due to the deceitfulness of riches (they are quite wealthy), the lure of pagan idols (they live in “the east”), or simply some unintentional attitude or action (cf. Num. 15:28). Whatever the case, the description of Job’s scrupulousness is intended not to seem neurotic or in any way negative, but rather as sin-sensitive and God-honoring. He cleanses his children and sacrifices for their sins because he cares for their souls. As Christians, and in a Christian way (due to Jesus’ atoning death, there is no need for animal sacrifices), we should also pray for our children and do all we can to “consecrate” them, that is, set them apart from the world.

However, with all of that noted, the apt response to Job 1:4–5 is not merely imitation. The text also foreshadows two other sacrifice scenes. The first is Job 42:8–9. Job offers blood sacrifices only at the beginning (Job 1:5) and end (Job 42:8–9) of the narrative. That final scene is the lens by which we are to read the whole narrative. But it is more than a lens that helps us look backward; it also—like the lens on a telescope—helps us look forward to the ultimate scene of sacrifice. In Job we see a righteous sufferer vindicated, sinners atoned for through a costly blood sacrifice, and the sovereign freedom and justice of God upheld. Likewise, in Jesus, we see a sacrificial death that demonstrates how innocent suffering can both show forth the justice of God and also save sinners.


  1. Job was written in Hebrew for Israelites to read. Thus, surely the “God” referenced in 1:1 is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. This is made plain by how God is spoken about throughout the book, especially in chapters 38–41, where God speaks for himself about himself. Also, to settle the matter, “Yahweh” is used thirty-two times in the book, including in 1:21 and 12:9, where Job addresses God as such.
  2. On the round numbers representing perfection, see David J. A. Clines, “False Naivety in the Prologue of Job,” HAR 9 (1985): 127–136.
  3. Yet, to the point, John H. Walton gives a few helpful insights: “Though there may be purely literary characters in the literature of the ancient world, ancient authors were more likely to construct their literature around epic figures of the distant past than to fabricate ‘fiction’ as we understand it today. . . . [Moreover,] we lose nothing by accepting Job’s story as historical, and we gain nothing by concluding that he is a fabricated, fictional character.” Job, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 25.
  4. Tremper Longman, Job, BCOTWP (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 33.
  5. That last reading fits the idea of their “blessing” God in their hearts at these events. Seow provides three common interpretations of “his day,” the second being that some commentators “imagine a weeklong celebration during some annual holidays . . . , like the ‘annual sacrifice’ that involved the whole family (1 Sam 20:6, 29), or the Feast of Ingathering (Exod 34:22), or the Feast of Booths, which entailed seven days of offerings, followed by a day of holy convocation (Lev 23:36; Num 29:35; 2 Chr 7:9)” (Job 1–21, 269).

This article is by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ezra–Job (Volume 4) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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