Saadiah on Evil: Suffering is Good For You

If suffering is beneficial, then the existence of evil is not a problem.

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Saadiah ben Joseph (882-942) was the first major medieval Jewish philosopher. He wrote a commentary on the book of Job, called the Book of Theodicy. In this work he extensively analyzes the problem of suffering and evil. Reprinted with permission from Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy, published by Cambridge University Press.

For Saadiah, there are three purposes resulting from the phenomenon of human suffering—education, punishment and testing. Suffering can help discipline us and point us in the right direction, that is, the direction in which we shall ultimately benefit. Saadiah has both a retributive and a deterrence view of punishment, in that our suffering helps to clear our guilt while at the same time making us motivated to avoid the actions which led to the pain. The third purpose is obviously what the Book of Job is about, namely: 

“The third case is that of trial and testing. An upright servant, whose Lord knows that he will bear sufferings loosed upon him and hold steadfast in his uprightness, is subjected to certain sufferings, so that when he steadfastly bears them, his Lord may reward him and bless him. This too is a kind of bounty and beneficence, for it brings the servant to everlasting blessedness (BT, pp. 125‑6).”

man sufferingAs it stands, this is a rather perplexing statement. If the master knows that the servant will bear the sufferings, why subject him to them? Saadiah goes on to strengthen his claim even further by asserting that it is not unjust for a creator to kill his creature in the midst of his normal life span, provided that he is promised recompense. Indeed, he further claims that such sufferings are a sign of divine benevolence, since the future reward is greater than the span of life foregone.

He obviously feels unhappy with the way in which he has made his point here, since he gives a variety of examples to try to show how reasonable his view is. He points out that we may grow accustomed to a particular form of existence, and may dislike being obliged to move onto a different form even if it is to our advantage. This certainly has some merit as an argument when applied to changes within our lives, but when we die we might wonder how we are going to benefit in the future.

Appeals to Divine Mystery and Justice

Instead of saying that if we deserve to benefit, we shall benefit in our next life, Saadiah takes the course of claiming that God’s wisdom is superior to that of his creatures, and he knows best. As it stands, this is not much of an argument, but is rather an excuse to close the discussion. We may not understand how we are to be compensated in the next life for our undeserved sufferings in this [one], and we might expect to be made aware of what arrangements we can look forward to when we face death.

Appealing to the mysterious wisdom of the deity is perhaps not really enough. It might be said further that were we to know to what we are going when we die, we might be in a position to bear our mortal lives more equably.

Saadiah points to three kinds of benefit which God institutes. First, he created us, then he promises to remunerate us for our actions, and lastly he will recompense us for our tribulations which he has caused and which we have borne stoutly. These latter are there not due to our sins, but for a future benefit—they point to the future and not to the past. If we really understood the future, we would understand how much better off we are as a result of the divinely imposed suffering compared with how we would be without it.

Saadiah backs this up with some rather Ash’arite [a school of Islamic philosophy] principles. God is completely just and can do no wrong—“Indeed, the very notion of being able or unable to do wrong is inapplicable to him (BT, p. 127).” This is very much in line with Ash’arite interpretations of the sense of moral language, in terms of what God does and does not do. If God does something, then it is right that it be done, and its having been done by God provides the rightness of the action. “Right” means what God does.

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Oliver Leaman

Oliver Leaman is a Professor of Philosophy and Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies at University of Kentucky. His publications include Averroes and His Philosophy and Moses Maimonides.