Having lost everything, Job begs for pity from his friends as he sits in a dunghill in front of his ruined house, on this page from the Office for the Dead in the French prayer book Les Très Riches Heures. In a cascade of disasters, Job’s ten children are crushed beneath a collapsed house; his sheep are burned; his camels, donkeys and oxen are stolen; and he becomes painfully ill and isolated from his community. To compound his troubles, Job does not understand why he is suffering. His friends maintain that since God is just, Job must have done something wrong. Job insists on his innocence and is finally rewarded for his faithful perseverance by God, who restores his life and fortunes but denies him understanding.

The books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes form the core of the Hebrew Bible’s Wisdom literature, a curious mixture of optimism and pessimism distinct from other biblical genres, such as the Law and the Prophets. The Book of Proverbs, whose maxims and instructions are the literature’s most basic form, lays out the path of wisdom by indicating what behavior will ensure success in life and in relationships. Ecclesiastes and Job question whether people can achieve an ideal life—Ecclesiastes by examining how elusive wisdom is despite all strivings, and Job by chronicling the horrible and mysterious plight of a righteous man who suffers even though he lived according to the dictates of wisdom.