Friendship and Virtue Ethics in the Book of Job

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Patricia Vesely
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     299 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Patricia Vesely’s Friendship and Virtue Ethics in the Book of Job is an important interdisciplinary work. Vesely uses classical virtue ethics as a tool that allows her to open a new avenue of interpretation on the biblical text of Job. Specifically, the author argues that the role friendship plays in Greek concepts of virtue helps to understand how Job impresses on readers a vision of genuine friendship that illuminates the virtues demonstrated by a good friend. Reading Job with these themes in mind cannot help but generate a moral vision of friendship that challenges us to become the sort of friend that Job was and expected his friends to be—people who nurture the virtues of loyalty, compassion, courage, hospitality, honesty, humility, and practical wisdom.

In chapter 1, Vesely begins with a succinct account of Aristotelian virtue before considering Alasdair MacIntyre’s contemporary retrieval of Aristotelian virtue and Old Testament scholar Bruce Birch’s work pioneering the use of virtue ethics to interpret biblical texts. She concludes that common features in all three accounts are emphases on dispositions, intentions, and perceptions. Thus, she proposes to study Job with an eye toward how each of these features figure into the vision of friendship proposed by the Hebrew text.

Greek notions of virtue might reveal something about friendship in Job because friendship is a key theme in Greek texts as well, according to Vesely, who explores this possibility in chapter 2. Aristotle’s lengthy treatment of friendship in Nichomachean Ethics (University of Chicago, 2011), for example, distinguishes between friendships that are based on usefulness or pleasure and true friendship, which is based on virtue. A true friendship occurs when we see “another self” in a friend—someone who demonstrates the virtues of solidarity and loyalty especially. Greek literature is rife with warnings against false friends, who abandon you in times of misfortune or injure you through betrayal.

Unsurprisingly, these themes find resonance with biblical texts on friendship. In chapter 3, Vesely considers depictions of friendship in narrative and wisdom literature. The narratives of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and David and Abigail are exemplars of faithful friendship. These characters demonstrate the virtues of loyalty, wisdom, and hospitality. In the wisdom tradition, there are numerous exhortations to be a loyal friend and to avoid false friends, emphasizing the role that true friends play in giving wise counsel. Again, the virtues of loyalty and wisdom are front and center. Both generic features are instructive in approaching Job because Job is essentially forty chapters of poetic wisdom literature bookended by a few chapters of narrative.

A more detailed study of the poetic dialogues between Job and his friends leads Vesely to determine in chapter 4 that a model for true friendship emerges that prizes the virtues of loyalty, compassion, courage, hospitality, honesty, humility, and practical wisdom. These are the virtues that Job implores his friends to demonstrate in their relationship to him, reminding them of his own prior demonstrations of these very virtues. Ultimately, according to Vesely, Job’s friends fail to embody these virtues; instead, they caution Job that he must be in the wrong and to submit to God and seek forgiveness. Job’s friends do not recognize his innocence and hedge their bets, siding with the presumably wronged God. This leads Job to call out for an advocate, someone who will truly take up his case and defend his innocence—a task that should have been taken up by a true friend. On the whole, the poetic discourse invites readers to become the sort of friend that Job needs by habituating themselves in the virtues of true friendship.

The reader sympathizes with Job’s friends to some degree. Each friend, in his own way, offers Job the sort of counsel he believes is required given Job’s circumstances. The reader knows, however, that Job is morally beyond reproach and cosmically wronged because the prose chapters that frame the poetic discourse pronounce Job’s innocence. In chapter 5, Vesely argues that the contrast in genres creates tension between the world described by the prose section, where good is rewarded and bad is punished, and the world of the poetic discourse, where Job challenges these same assumptions when they are posed by his friends. Or again, the prose section vouches for Job’s heroic bona fides while the poetic section challenges the reader to stick with the hero even as he questions God’s justice.

In chapter 6, Vesely develops a portrait of friendship from Job 29–31. Job’s vision for friendship is one based on his own life. As a wealthy man with status, he describes his own relationship to the various members of his community as one of responsibility. In this context, a good life is one where a virtuous person flourishes as they become a true friend to the people in their community, fulfilling their various responsibilities. Job’s rebuke of his friends is twofold. In the first instance, it is a plea for them to remember his prior acts of friendship before they determine Job’s guilt in God’s eyes. Second, it is a call to solidarity—a reminder of the responsibility Job’s friends have to be loyal and compassionate in his time of need.

In her final chapter, Vesely evaluates how the book of Job functions to form contemporary readers into virtuous people. According to Aristotle, the genre of tragedy cultivates the dispositions of pity and fear in its readers. Audiences learn that suffering is not always deserved and that tragedy can occur to anyone at any time. Vesely determines that Job shares enough generic similarities with Greek tragedy to argue that Job ought to make its readers better friends. The more interesting point, however, is that it is not Job, but God who fulfills all the distinct features of a tragic hero. This leads Vesely to consider whether God has been the sort of friend that Job deserves, thereby returning to the question of theodicy, albeit through a new and insightful avenue.

Vesely’s work is an important contribution to both biblical studies and theological ethics. On the one hand, she demonstrates how virtue ethics can be a useful lens through which to interpret biblical texts. On the other, she pushes ethicists to consider whether they have unhelpfully limited their engagement with scripture to narrative—and New Testament narrative at that. Regarding Job specifically, Vesely poses an alternative way to read the text that does not neglect questions of theodicy and divine agency but brackets them off to explore more fully the manner in which Job might form human moral agents that might inform questions about God’s moral character.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David B. Hunsicker is Associate Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.

Date of Review: 
April 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patricia Vesely is Instructor in the Hebrew Bible at the Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.


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