Legal Language in Job by Davis Hankins

The book of Job seems at first to concern the trial—and trials—of a human named Job. In the prose introduction, the satan—acting more like God’s prosecuting attorney than God’s divine adversary—charges Job with an inauthentic piety that is enabled and abetted by excessive material blessings from Yahweh (Job 1:9-11, Job 2:4-5). God and the narrator judge Job not guilty as he responds to the traumatic events that overturn his life (Job 1:22, Job 2:3, Job 2:10). But in the ensuing poetic dialogue, Job appears to his friends and to many readers as guilty of impropriety, if not of impiety, as he stubbornly insists upon his innocence. He even puts God on trial, using legal language and an imaginary courtroom to articulate some of his grievances against God. Nevertheless, at the end of the book God judges both that Job has spoken what is right about God, and that his friends have not (Job 42:7-8).

For some readers, the courtroom is the primary metaphor that gives Job’s complaints and hopes an overarching coherence. But an over-emphasis on Job’s use of legal language can neglect Job’s complaints about the limitations of the legal metaphor and his use of other symbolic codes. But why does Job turn to legal language and the courtroom metaphor at all? The answer requires a proper understanding of Job’s primary complaint. Job both complains about God’s disruptive presence and laments God’s frustrating absence. While these grievances seem contradictory, God consistently functions in Job’s speeches as a force that keeps Job from being at one with himself. The problem is neither God’s overwhelming presence nor God’s abyssal absence, but rather that God prevents Job from achieving a stable sense of self. Lacking this, Job cannot relate to any one—including God—as one to another.

For example, after reporting that he reclined in his bed for comfort and ease (Job 7:13), Job says, “You terrify me with dreams and frighten me with visions, so that my throat chooses strangulation” (Job 7:14-15a, my translation). Job’s own throat turns against him. He seeks rest but suffers nightmares. God is responsible for dividing Job against himself. Job’s forensic language becomes most prominent in chapter 9, as he proclaims his innocence but details numerous obstacles to justice (Job 9:14-24). In Job 9:27-29, even Job’s attempts to forget his troubles plunge him into a state of anxiety, and he consistently identifies God as the cause of his self-defeating division.

The courtroom promises a triadic structure in which Job and God can relate to each other through a third party’s mediation. Through the law, one may achieve a sense of identity as well as of responsibility and whether one has lived up to it. Job imagines that he might achieve a sense of himself and show God’s guilt if he can only take God to court (Job 9:2-3, Job 9:27-35, Job 10:1-7). He wishes for judgment from an arbiter, umpire, witness, or mediator (Job 9:32-35, Job 13:18-23, Job 16:18-22, Job 19:23-27). But as often as Job expresses this desire, he concludes that it is impossible. Readers must wonder whether Job has any hope that he deems possible.

Even if Job does not use legal language and the social space of the courtroom to articulate his deepest hopes, he certainly uses such rhetoric to communicate the problems that God causes him so that others can recognize that these problems deprive him of justice.

Davis Hankins, "Legal Language in Job", n.p. [cited 2 Jul 2022]. Online:



Davis Hankins
Assistant Professor, Appalachian State University

Davis Hankins is assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University. He also serves as faculty affiliate in both the Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies program and the Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies program. He is the author of a book on Job (Northwestern University Press, 2015) as well as articles on Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, 4QInstruction, and other texts and topics.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

Job 1:9-11

9Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have b ... View more

Job 2:4-5

4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his ... View more

Job 1:22

22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Job 2:3

3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away fr ... View more

Job 2:10

10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did n ... View more

Job 42:7-8

Job's Friends Are Humiliated
7After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against ... View more

Job 7:13

13When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,’

Job 7:14-15

14then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,15so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.

Job 9:14-24

14How then can I answer him,
choosing my words with him?15Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.16If I summoned him a ... View more

Job 9:27-29

27If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint;
I will put off my sad countenance and be of good cheer,’28I become afraid of all my suffering,
for I know you will not ... View more

Job 9:2-3

2“Indeed I know that this is so;
but how can a mortal be just before God?3If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand.

Job 9:27-35

27If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint;
I will put off my sad countenance and be of good cheer,’28I become afraid of all my suffering,
for I know you will not ... View more

Job 10:1-7

Job: I Loathe My Life
1“I loathe my life;
I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.2I will say to God, Do not conde ... View more

Job 9:32-35

32For he is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him,
that we should come to trial together.33There is no umpire between us,
who might lay his hand on us ... View more

Job 13:18-23

18I have indeed prepared my case;
I know that I shall be vindicated.19Who is there that will contend with me?
For then I would be silent and die.Job's Desponden ... View more

Job 16:18-22

18“O earth, do not cover my blood;
let my outcry find no resting place.19Even now, in fact, my witness is in heaven,
and he that vouches for me is on high.20My ... View more

Job 19:23-27

23“O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!24O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!25For I ... View more

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