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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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.

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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.