The Book of Job

The book of Job challenges the simple equation of suffering with punishment, by telling the story of one righteous man's confrontation with overwhelming misfortune.

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This article is excerpted from The Book of Job, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The book of Job begins with a prologue (chapters 1-2), which describes a wager between Satan and God, in which Satan ("the adversary") bets God that Job--a particularly pious man--will abandon his piety and curse God if all his wealth and well-being are taken away. At the end of the prologue, Job has suffered many terrible losses, including his children and his health, but he nevertheless remains "patient," refusing to speak against God.

The tone of the work abruptly changes, however, in chapter 3, as Job begins his poetic speeches by cursing the day on which he was born. This central section consists of the "comforting" words of his friends, who try to persuade Job that if he is suffering he must have sinned, and Job's increasingly bitter retorts that he is innocent, and that his punishment is undeserved.  Job ultimately calls God to court (as it were), to answer the charge of injustice, and Job does receive an "answer"; two speeches by God from the midst of a storm, or whirlwind--the meaning of which have been the subject of much theological speculation.

The book closes with an epilogue (42:7-17), conventionally, as it began, almost as though Job had not uttered a single negative word; he recovers and is given a new family.  It is generally understood by modern scholars that the central poetic section of the book, in which Job is forced by his changed  circumstances  to reject his simplistically  pious views, was ironically and  intentionally set between the beginning and end of a conventionally pious story of a man called Job who remained faithful to God in his suffering. The result is a work which overturns, in many respects, the conventional biblical view that suffering is the result of sin.

job and his daughtersWhat the Book of Job is About

Job is a book not so much about God's justice as about the transformation of a man whose piety and view of the world were formed in a setting of wealth and happiness, and into whose life burst calamities that put an end to both. How can piety nurtured in prosperity prove truly deep‑rooted and disinterested, and not merely a spiritual adjunct of good fortune ("God has been good to me so I am faithful to Him")? 

Can a man pious in prosperity remain pious when he is cut down by anarchical events that belie his orderly view of the world? The Book of Job tells how one man suddenly awakened to the anarchy rampant in the world, yet his attachment to God outlived the ruin of his tidy system.

Job is a pious believer who is struck by misfortune so great that it cannot be explained in the usual way as a prompting to repentance, a warning, let alone a punishment (the arguments later addressed to him by his friends). His piety is great enough to accept the misfortune without rebelling against God (1:10): "Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?"

But his inability, during seven days of grief in the company of his silent friends, to find a reasonable relation between the misfortune and the moral state of its victims (himself and his children) opens Job's eyes to the fact that in the world at large the same lack of relation prevails (9:22‑24; 12:6‑9; 21:7‑34).

The Purpose of the Prologue

The prologue of the book, telling of Satan's wager and the subsequent disaster that befell Job, has been a scandal to many readers. But the prologue is necessary, first of all, to establish Job's righteousness, To depict the effect of dire misfortune that demolishes the faith of a perfectly blameless man in a just divine order is the author's purpose. The book is not merely an exposition of ideas, a theological argument, but the portrait of a spiritual journey from simple piety to the sudden painful awareness and eventual acceptance of the fact that inexplicable misfortune is the lot of man.

Without the prologue we should lack the essential knowledge that Job's misfortune really made no sense; without the prologue the friends' arguments that misfortune indicates sin would be plausible, and Job's resistance to them liable to be construed as moral arrogance. The prologue convinces us from the outset of Job's integrity, hence we can never side with the friends.

For Job is a paradigm ("He never was or existed," says a talmudic rabbi, "except as an example" [Baba Batra 15a]). He personifies every pious man who, when confronted with an absurd disaster, is too honest to lie in order to justify God. The author must convince his readers that Job's self‑estimation is correct, and that therefore his view of moral disorder in God's management of the world is warranted.  That is one purpose of' the prologue.

The Poetic Speeches

The speeches of Job reveal the collapse of his former outlook. For the first time in his life he has become aware of the prevalence of disorder in the government of the world. In his former state of well‑ being, Job would hardly have countenanced in himself or in others a death wish; in his misfortune, however, he expresses it vehemently (3:11‑23). Could Job, in his prosperity, have appreciated the anguish of victims of senseless misfortune, or have regarded God as an enemy of man (7:17‑21; 9:13‑24; 16:9‑14;12:5)?

Job would previously have responded to despair of God as his friends and Elihu responded to him in his misery and despair. For Job's friends were his peers ideologically no less than socially; he belonged to their circle both in deed and in creed. A chasm opened between him and them only because of a disaster that Job alone knew to be undeserved.

God's Answer to Job

The outcome of the drama is that the collapse of a complacent view of the divine economy can be overcome. For Job this came about through a sudden overwhelming awareness of the complexity of God's manifestation in reasonless phenomena of nature. Job's flood of insight comes in a storm--we may suppose, through the experience of its awesomeness.

One may compare and contrast the midrashic word play, that has Job hearing God's answer out of a "hair" (which is a homonym of "storm" in Hebrew)  from contemplation of a microcosm. The grand vista of nature opens before Job, and it reveals the working of God in a realm other than man's moral order.

Job responds to, and thus gets a response from, the numinous presence underlying the whole panorama; he hears God's voice in the storm. The fault in the moral order--the plane on which God and man interact--is subsumed under the totality of God's work, not all of which is reasonable. Senseless calamity loses some of its demoralizing effect when morale does not depend entirely on the comprehensibility of the phenomena but, rather, on the conviction that they are pervaded by the presence of God. As nature shows, this does not necessarily mean that they are sensible and intelligible.

The God of Nature:  Powerful and Uncanny

It has been objected that God's speeches (chapters 38‑41) are irrelevant to Job's challenge. God--the objection runs--asserts His power in reply to a challenge to His moral government. But this sets up a false dichotomy. To be sure, God's examples from nature are exhibitions of His power, but they are also exhibitions of His wisdom and His providence for His creatures (38:27; 39:1‑4; 26).

Through nature, God reveals Himself to Job as both purposive and nonpurposive, playful and uncanny, as evidenced by the monsters He created. To study nature is to perceive the complexity, the unity of contraries, in God's attributes, and the inadequacy of human reason to explain His behavior, not the least in His dealings with man.

For it may be inferred that in God's dealings with man, this complexity is also present--a unity of opposites: reasonability, justice, playfulness, uncanniness (the latter appearing demonic in the short view). When Job recognizes in the God of nature, with His fullness of attributes, the very same God revealed in his own individual destiny, the tumult in his soul is stilled. He has fathomed the truth concerning God's character: he is no longer tortured by a concept that fails to account for the phenomena, as did his former notion of God's orderly working.

Job's Transformation and the Epilogue

Job ends up a wiser man, for he sees better the nature of God's work in the world and recognizes the limitations of his former viewpoint. The manifestation of his peace with God, of his renewed spiritual vigor, is that he reconstitutes his life. He is a vessel into which blessings can be poured; he who wished to have died at birth now fathers new sons and daughters. That, in addition to answering the demands of simple justice, is the significance of the epilogue (which many critics have belittled as crass).

The Book of Job Challenges Reward and Punishment

This concept of God contradicts not only that of the Wisdom of the Proverbs (in which the principle of just individual retribution is iterated in its simplest form) but that of the Torah and the Prophets as well. These writings bear the imprint of God's saving acts, the Exodus and the Conquest; they represent God as the maintainer of the moral order, and interpret events in terms of reward and punishment.

A More Complex View of God's Justice

The religious sensibility apparently absorbs or even affirms the contradictions embodied in these books. That may be because these contradictions are perceived to exist in reality. One can see in individual life as in collective life a moral causality (which the religious regard as divinely maintained; indeed, as a reflection of God's attributes): evil recoils upon the evildoers, whether individual or collective; goodness brings blessings.

At the same time, the manifestation of this causality can be so erratic or so delayed as to cast doubt on its validity as the single key to the destiny of men and nations. Hence the sober believer does not pin his faith solely on a simple axiom of the divine maintenance of moral causality, but neither will he altogether deny its force. No single key unlocks the mystery of destiny: "Within our ken is neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous (Avot 4:17)."

But, for all that, the sober believer does not endorse nihilism. Wisdom, Torah, and Prophets continue to represent for him one aspect of causality in events which he can confirm in his own private experience. But one aspect only. The other stands beyond his moral judgment, though it is still under God: namely, the mysterious or preordained decree of God, toward which the proper attitude is "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him (Job 13-15)."

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Moshe Greenberg

Moshe Greenberg is professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and recipient of the Israel Prize in Bible, 1994.