Summer 1990, Vol.42 No. 2, pp. 126-140.

Jon Alexander:
      Job Considered as a Conversion Account

Several interpretative problems in the Book of Job can be resolved by considering the story as an account of a religious conversion process similar to those typical of American religious.

Jon Alexander, O.P., is director of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He holds a Ph.D. from Temple University the M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and the M.Div. from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He has published several articles on spirituality and most recently edited William Porcher DuBose: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1988). The author acknowledges with appreciation the assistance of Professor Thomas Brodie, O.P., in preparing this essay, an earlier version of which was presented at the 1987 Rocky Mountain Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

THE Book of Job and American religious conversion accounts are separated by millennia, yet there is a striking similarity in the scriptural description of Job's experience of God and the characteristic pattern in which Americans from John Winthrop to Dorothy Day describe their transforming encounters with the divine. The presence of an experiential aspect in the Book of Job has been noted by many scholarly commentators; however, in assessing the purpose of Job, the experiential aspect which gives Job its biographical flavor is subordinated to its doctrinal and didactic aspects. Although there is little scholarly consensus about interpretation, nearly all scholarly commentators find the consideration of theodicy, the theological question of innocent suffering, to be the preeminent purpose of Job. Without minimizing the doctrinal and didactic aspects, the present experiment in comparative religious literature will exploit the similarity between Job and American conversion accounts to read the Book of Job as a conversion account.(1)

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with St. Augustine's Confessions that conversion accounts tell a story that includes doctrinal, didactic, and experiential aspects. Since Job includes each of these three aspects, a reading which minimizes Job's experiential aspect inevitably finds "problems" with the canonical text. Nearly every scholarly commentator finds the text of Job haphazard, repetitious, inconsistent, and lacking in logical development. Because virtually nothing is known about the specific context in which Job was composed, the strategy of clarification through contextualization is not possible. The "problems" found by the scholarly commentators are resolved, therefore, by proposing that the canonical text is fragmented. To cite three examples, it is proposed that the long middle section written in verse has been conflated with the introduction and conclusion written in prose, that Elihu's speech is an interpolation in the text, and that material in the third cycle of speeches has been lost. Yet none of these proposals has succeeded in extracting a unified text from the putatively disorganized canonical text. Rather, in spite of the fact that Job is universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of religious literature, the consensus of contemporary scholarly commentators is that Job is not a unified composition belonging to any literary genera, but a disorganized alluvium that is appropriately studied in fragments like a pile of broken pottery.(2)

By suggesting that Job be read from the perspective of a genera that includes experiential, didactic, and doctrinal aspects, the similarity between Job and American conversion accounts holds out the possibility of a more holistic reading. Before employing this similarity as a perspective for reading Job, however, it is necessary to describe the characteristic pattern of American conversion accounts that corresponds with the structure of Job.


Even before William James' classic study of religious experience, it was known that conversion accounts exhibit a characteristic pattern of narrative development. Although the narrative . pattern of conversion accounts has been analyzed in different ways, the narrative pattern of American conversion accounts which describes a transit of consciousness in terms of four stages will be employed for the purpose of this essay. American conversion accounts describe a transit of consciousness because they tell the story of how someone moved from one state of thinking, believing, feeling, or being to another. In its general outline, this transit is analogous to the pattern of intellectual change considered in Thomas Kuhn's studies of scientific revolutions and the pattern of social change examined in Anthony F. C. Wallace's studies of revitalization movements.(3)

The first stage of the transit of consciousness begins when the authors' complacent consciousness is shattered by discovering or encountering something that challenges their customary understanding or paradigm of things, in nearly all cases because it is fundamentally other than they had expected. The most frequently described 'trigger' that shatters the complacent consciousness is illness or death. The second stage of the authors' transit is a period of struggle (short or protracted) during which they try to come to terms with the 'otherness' they have encountered. During this period, the authors are ill at ease and many experience deracination, alienation, despair, isolation, stagnation, and illness. They feel caught between the discredited complacent world they can no longer accept and a new world they cannot yet fully conceive or affirm. They spin around and around trying to reintegrate things without success, and at this point some authors consider or attempt suicide. Sooner or later they realize that their discovery or encounter requires a basic change -- a difficult transformation and submission to someone or to something or to God -- that is beyond their old selves and world. The third stage occurs in what the authors describe as a miraculous moment when they find the power to accept and submit. The moment of resolution seems like a miracle because they had come to see their situation as hopeless and because the force that resolves their struggle between two worlds seems to come from outside them -- something that happens to them after they have exhausted all their conscious resources. The fourth stage, which is frequently noted only briefly in the accounts themselves, describes the authors' new consciousness. Once the old self and its world are transcended, the authors experience the universe as hospitable, the self as hopeful, and they find a new faith, a new generativity, and a new capacity to give of themselves.


For the purpose of illustrating how the Book of Job corresponds with the characteristic transit of consciousness described in American conversion accounts, the text of Job will be divided into four sections corresponding to the four stages of the transit: complacency shattered (1:1-2:8), the struggle between two worlds (2:9-37:24), the miraculous moment (38:1-42:6), and the new consciousness (42:7-17).


Before the tempest crushed Job (9:17; 30:22) he is described as blameless and upright, a prosperous patriarch living with his numerically perfect family, attendants, and flocks. The text supplies the authoritative testimony of God to Job's righteousness (1:8; 2:3), but somehow Job seems uneasy and scrupulous. After his children's banquets, Job sanctified them and offered sacrifices for his sons lest they sinned secretly and cursed God in their hearts. "Thus;" the text reports, "Job did continually." As Job describes himself in his speeches, it is clear that he is a righteous man, but a man who understands righteousness individualistically, anthropocentrically, and deterministically. The law of retribution seems to govern his moral world just as much as it reigns in the moral worlds of his friends. Indeed, it would seem that his scrupulosity and his fail-safe sacrifices for his sons are integral parts of his complacent world view. As Job later recalls, "For I was in terror of calamity from God..." (31:23).

Job's complacent world view is shattered by four catastrophes (two caused by human agents and two by natural forces) that strip him of his wealth and children. Job responds by mourning. Then a fifth catastrophe, loathsome sores, afflicts him and compels Job to withdraw from society to the dung pile.


As described in the canonical text, these catastrophic misfortunes are unjustified and foreign to Job's world view. The omniscient author provides two scenes in heaven to definitively establish the truth of Job's repeated assertion that he has done nothing to warrant these disasters. Thus, Job has encountered something beyond his individualistic, anthropocentric, deterministic perspective, something that shatter his complacent world view because it is inexplicable within this perspective.

Like many subjects of religious experience caught between two worlds, Job is mentally distraught, physically sick, and even tempted to take his life. As the text is divided, Job's temptation to suicide by cursing God is the first event in his struggle between two worlds. Suggested by Job's wife, the temptation implies that Job is a second Adam, but an Adam cast out of paradise through no clear fault of his own.

Although Job rejects suicide, he repeats his wish for death or extinction again and again in his speeches in the long middle section of the book written in verse. This section, which contains the speeches of both Job and his friends, prominently exhibits three features characteristic of the description of the struggle between two worlds in conversion accounts. First, Job's recurrent wish for death is only one instance of the repetitiveness and circularity of these speeches. Lacking a perspective that integrates Job's theology and experience, the speeches circle over and over the same ground. The speakers seem unable to move forward logically in their 'dialogue' or to respond to each other's thoughts. Indeed, the speakers keep repeating themselves like the traumatized characters or voices in a stream-ofconsciousness novel. Second, the speeches are full of contradictory or inconsistent ideas juxtaposed beside each other. This tendency to speak in antinomies reflects the cleavage between theology and experience characteristic of a subject caught between two worlds. Third, in the course of the speeches virtually all the details are presented which will later be integrated in Job's new consciousness in the miraculous moment (4) but at this point they are either ignored or rejected. The inability of the speakers to accept these ideas or to integrate them is characteristic of the stagnation and confusion that authors of conversion accounts describe as they exhaust their conscious resources in the struggle between two worlds.


The repetitiousness and circularity of the speeches in Job is both structural and thematic. Structurally the middle section of Job is composed of three cycles of speeches by Job's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Each of these speakers seems to exhaust his fund of wisdom in his first speech, and the second and third speeches of each take into account neither the responses of Job nor the comments of the other friends. This propensity to reiterate rather than reply is exemplified in the three speeches of Eliphaz. His first speech presents six points, his second speech repeats four of these points, and his third speech repeats three of these points again. The most prominent thematic repetition is the individualistic, anthropocentric theory of retribution which is repeated over and over like the groove of a stuck record. Job's friends circle back again and again to the complacent theology, restating its teachings -- God afflicts sinners; Job is afflicted; therefore, Job is a sinner. Likewise job, unable to let go of the theory of retribution in spite of the inconsistency of the theory and his experience, keeps repeating 'I have not sinned; I am afflicted; therefore, nothing makes sense.'


Caught between a complacent world view that has proved inadequate yet unable to envision a new perspective, Job not only reiterates the cleavage between his experience and the theory of retribution, but he also speaks in contradictions and paradoxes that depict his struggle between two worlds. The most prominent of numerous contradictions in Job's speeches are his dichotomous descriptions of divine immanence and transcendence, his conflicting views of human worthlessness and grandeur, and his inconsistent assessments of God's justness. Job's experience of God is described in paradoxes because God has hedged him in and so is immanent, yet Job is unable to find God. On the one hand Job laments: "I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him," (23:8) and on the other hand Job finds, "Thou puttest my feet in the stocks, and watchest all my paths; thou settest a bound to the soles of my feet" (13:27). Again, Job lauds humanity for its technological accomplishments (28:1-11), but he also laments human ignorance (28:12-22), sinfulness (24:lff), and transitoriness (7:1-2; 14:1-6). Finally, Job asserts his certainty of vindication: "Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated" (13:18). Yet in the next breath he asserts that God "destroys the blameless and the wicked" (9:22; 13:15-17; 24:1-25) -- an assertion that leaves the disposition of Job's case uncertain.


Throughout the long middle section virtually all the details and ideas that will be noted when God speaks out of the whirlwind are suggested by Job's friends or noted by Job himself. Both Eliphaz and Elihu propose the possibility that affliction can be a source of spiritual growth or sever a redemptive purpose (5:17; 33:15), but Job makes no response to their proposal except to reiterate that his experience clashes with the theory of retribution. Likewise Job does not pursue the possibility suggested by him and each of his friends that the vastness of God's domain is indicated by divine control of the seasons, days, and weather. God's care for wildlife and the plenitude of creation requires a more comprehensive paradigm than individualistic, anthropocentric retribution. Indeed, Job's only response to this line of thinking is to question the possibility of his vindication and to lament that God may not be just in Job's terms (i.e., in terms of his complacent paradigm).

A number of striking images drawn from nature that will later play a role in forming Job's new consciousness also appear in the speeches of the middle section. These images suggest the complexity and multifariousness of existence, but none of the speakers develops the theological possibilities suggested by these images. Indeed, in spite of the repetition, particularly of the images of water and air, it seems almost that the speakers employ the images unreflectively or unconsciously. Taken collectively, these images suggest a redemptive potential in disaster and a complexity beyond the individualistic, anthropocentric, deterministic paradigm, but the speakers seem unaware of the implications of their words. For example, air is the breath of life, the breath that God holds in His hands (12:10), but it is also an image for the insubstantiality of life (7:7). It is the destroying tempest (27:20-24; 30:15) and the whirlwind from which God speaks; it is both the life-giving breath of wisdom ,(32:8) and the great winds of ignorance (6:27; 8:2; 15:2; 16:3). Water sustains life (5:10; 8:11; 12:14; 26:8) but it is also the torrent that sweeps everything away (6:14f; 8:11; 12:15; 14:19; 27:9; 36): at the scent of water the tree will bud (14:9), yet "the waters wear away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth" (14:19).

In addition to the nature images which point to Job's new consciousness, the speeches of the middle section contain specific premonitions of his resolving miraculous moment. For example, Job describes a mystical vision of his vindication (19:25-27). His friends also express premonitions of resolution. In the case of Zophar a prediction is spoken ironically in anger: "But oh that God would speak and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom" (11:6). Likewise, because Bildad doubts Job's innocence, there is an element of irony in his prediction: "Behold, God will not reject a blameless man, nor take the hand of evildoers. He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting. Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more" (8:20-22).

An element of irony in such premonitions of the miraculous moment is characteristic of subjects during the struggle between two worlds. Unable to envision their new consciousness they keep envisioning their resolution in terms of their complacent consciousness, and so they correctly anticipate a resolution but a resolution almost opposite to the one they will experience. Thus the juridical paradigm of retribution underlays the premonitions of Job and his friends: Job expecting vindication and his friends anticipating Job's judgment.


The description of Job's struggle between two worlds concludes with two long speeches by Job and Elihu. Job's speech is in the form of an oath, a rhetorical form that allows him to restate his blamelessness in an intense way from the perspective of the individualistic, anthropocentric, deterministic paradigm. By climaxing Job's speeches with this summarizing oath, the omniscient author indicates that his position has not changed one iota. If anything, it has hardened. Elihu's speech, which wells up from an inspiration (32:18-20), recapitulates the dialogue of Job and his friends. Ehhu restates the possibility that affliction is redemptive (33:19-20), the charge that Job has sinned (34:5-9), the vastness of God (35:5-9), the inscrutability of God (36:26-37:24), Job's intractability as a sign of rebellion (34:36-37), the theory of retribution (34:10-30), the hope of Job's restoration (33:32; 36:15-16), and the disproportion between Job and God (37:14-24). Elihu's speech serves to indicate that the dialogue has not advanced anyone's understanding. The friends stand by their first speech as Job stands by his. Through their own efforts Job and his friends have not advanced; they remain trapped between two worlds bound to the theory of individualistic, anthropocentric retribution in spite of its inability to explain Job's experience and in spite of their apparently unconscious awareness of bits and pieces of a larger paradigm they have proposed.


Job's miraculous moment is described as a theophany in which God addresses Job first with a challenge to face him and, second, with two sets of questions in two speeches. Virtually all the ideas and details mentioned in the divine speeches were mentioned by Job or his friends in the preceding dialogue, but now these same ideas and details which Job had earlier ignored provide a basis for a new consciousness that replaces his complacent consciousness. Although Job's mental process in his miraculous moment is not explicitly described in the text, it seems similar to conversion. Like conversion, which William James describes as the shifting of one's habitual center of personal energy so that ideas previously peripheral become central, Job's miraculous moment is described primarily as a reconstruction and reinterpretation of what he knew.5 Job's miraculous moment enables him to submit to the divine authority which his experience had led him to question, and to accept with trust a universe more complex and mysterious than the closed universe of scrupulous, individualistic, anthropocentric, retributive determinism.

Although it might seem that the appearance of God would distinguish Job's miraculous moment from the moments described in American conversion accounts, this does not appear to be the case. First, the appearance of God in Job's miraculous moment, like the heavenly scenes in the prologue, serves a canonical function of definitively certifying Job's righteousness and the inaccuracy of his friends. Second, the consistent reference throughout the book to Job's experience as a whirlwind, along with the fact that the divine speeches recapitulate previously mentioned ideas and details, suggests that God was speaking to Job all along. Indeed, Job experienced the vision of God before the theophany (19:15f) which he described as a vision of his vindication. However, Job's actual vindication in the miraculous moment is more like an intellectual and affective submission. What seems to happen is that Job receives the ability to see and hear, and to accept and integrate what he already knew: "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee" (42:5). Since nearly all the subjects of personal religious accounts describe the reception of this intellectual and affective ability as a passive experience in which something comes from outside themselves, Job's miraculous moment is quite similar to the miraculous moments described in the American conversion accounts. Even though less than a fourth of these conversion accounts describe an actual visitation in the miraculous moment (e.g., Augustine, "take and read"), the emphasis on the passivity of the subject receiving power from outside gives the description of the miraculous moment in the majority of conversion accounts a visitation-like quality.


The description of Job's life after he attained his new consciousness is characteristically brief. He is portrayed as reunited with his family, a restored patriarch with double the sons and flocks, and three (doubly?) beautiful daughters who are given an inheritance. Where he had formerly interceded compulsively for his sons, he is now commissioned by God to intercede for his friends. Although the text does not describe Job's healing, it is assumed in his rejoining society. Whether the omission of a description of his healing indicates that his illness was more spiritual in origin than the prologue implies, is uncertain. It is also unclear what happened to Job's wife, if Job's temperament changed, or if the Satan changed his mind about human nature.

Although the text leaves a number of questions unanswered, Job's willingness to intercede for his friends, to be reunited with his family, and to start life over indicates that he gained a degree of forgiveness and trust quite beyond that of his scrupulous, complacent consciousness. It takes very little reading in survivor narratives to realize that the strength to forgive and trust, to work and love again, is no small grace.


The preceding programmatic examination illustrates that as a whole, Job corresponds with the general pattern of an American conversion account and that it contains many features characteristic of these accounts. This examination does not prove that Job is a conversion account, or more accurately a historicized fictional conversion account, but it illustrates that Job may be classified heuristically as a conversion account and read in this ,way without forcing the canonical text.

Although it would be necessary to consider the Hebrew text and questions about this text before concluding that Job should be read as a conversion account, it is worthwhile summarizing the six advantages of this reading.

      1. It allows the canonical text to be considered as a unified composition which exhibits stylistic and authorial integrity.

      2. It provides a rationale for the repetitiveness and lack of development of the dialogue section.

      3. It encompasses both the experiential (historical/biographical), didactic, and doctrinal (theodicy) dimensions of Job within a single generic framework.

      4. It provides a rationale of Elihu's speech and the omission of Zophar's third speech as appropriate stylistic means of indicating the stagnation characteristic of the second stage of personal religious accounts.

      5. It provides a rationale for explaining how the divine speeches, even though they contain virtually no new ideas or details, provide a resolution of Job's crisis.

      6. It provides a useful framework for interpreting Job in situations where it is read along with other religious masterpieces in translation. Because the transit of consciousness is a common theme in religious literature, this reading of Job provides a way of integrating it in the comparative study of reli- gious literature.

It may be objected that the reading proposed here is not definitive, that it is not based on the scientific methods of historical-critical scholarship and that it therefore fails to close the text. Yet, it seems inappropriate to propose a cut-and-dried reading of a text whose principal didactic and doctrinal message is a refutation of the certainty of the complacent consciousness.

  1. Generalizations about American conversion accounts are based on the author's American Personal Religious Accounts 1600-1980: Toward an Inner History of America's Faiths (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983). The references in the introduction of this book provide a bibliography of the secondary literature on American conversion accounts. The experiential aspect of Job receives perceptive attention in S.R. Driver and G.B. Gray, The Book of Job, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921), p. li; and it is noted with particular eloquence only to be subordinated in Matitiahu Tsevat, "The Meaning of the Book of Job," in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, ed. James L. Crenshaw (new York: KTAV Publication, 1976), p. 364. Norman C. Habel's work, The Book of Job: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), pp. 60-69 provides an outstanding synthesis of the experiential, didactic, and literary aspects of job. For a summary of the scholarly literature on Job see Marvin H. Pope, Job (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1965), pp. xxi-lxxviii; Dianne Bergant, What They are Saying about Wisdom Literature (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), pp. 4656; and Robert Gordis, The Book of Job: Commentary, New Translation and Special Studies (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1978).

  2. For a survey of the interpretive problem see Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 526-44, and Pope, Job, pp. xxix-xlv.

  3. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Anthony F.C. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist 38 (1956), 264-81.

  4. See table following footnotes.

  5. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1976/1903), p. 165.

  6. The term "historicized, fictionalized, conversion account" is adapted from Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 24. In the case of Job the historicization is biographical, and, perhaps, the externalization of inner questions as speakers. The present experiment considers the canonical aspect of Job only in passing, and it deemphasizes its didactic and doctrinal aspects for the sake of brevity. Previously Mentioned Details in God's Speeches.

Previously Mentioned Details in God's Speeches
Chapter 38 Previous location
2 darkens counsel 7:20
4 where at creation 15:17
5 determined measurements 9:8
6 bases and cornerstone 26:7
7 morning stars 9:7
8 shut sea 9:8
9 clouds, darkness 26:8
10-11 sea bounds 9:8
12 dawn 9:7
16 depth of sea 11:7-8; 36:30
17 gates of death 26:6
IS expanse of earth 28:24
79 dwelling of light [10:21]
21 your days great 15:7-9
22 snow 37:6
24 east wind 15:2
25 channel for rain 28:26
26 rain in desolate place 5:10; 37:6
28 father of rain and ice 36:27-28; 37:10
31 Pleiades 9:9
32 Mazzaroth [37:21-22] transliteration,meaning unclear
32 Bear 9;9
33 rule in heaven 28;24-27
34 cause rain 36:27
35 cause lightning 36:30
37 number clouds 36:29
39 satisfy lions' hunger 4:10-11
41 feed raven new detail
Chapter 39  
1 birth of mountain goats and hinds 24:5-7
5 wild ass 11:12
9 wild ox 24:3
73 ostrich 30:29
19 horse new detail
26 hawk new detail
27 eagle 9:26
Chapter 40  
1-7 dialogue 6:24; 7:20; 9:3
8 will you put me in the wrong 8:1-27
9 an arm like God to thunder 35:9; 36:29; 37:3
10 bring the haughty low 29:12-20
15 Behemoth 7:12
Chapter 41  
1 Leviathan 26:12
Chapter 42  
1-6 Job's response 6:3; 9:12
7 God's anger at friends 13: 7-10