The Book of Job – a widely misunderstood book

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The Book of Job, in my view, is widely misunderstood – it is the classic book of the Hebrew Bible that seemingly is orthodox (correct belief) and theological in nature in dealing with the philosophic question of evil in a direct way.  The Book of Job, on the face of it, represents an internal criticism within the Hebrew Bible itself of Biblical theology (according to which God is conceived not only as the Creator of the universe, but as a moral God) in seemingly raising the philosophic problem of theodicy of why a moral God does not prevent evil.  However, I want to suggest that the Book of Job actually completely ignores the philosophic problem of theodicy, and is orthoprax (correct deeds) in nature, concerned with the pragmatic and psychological issue of coping with pain and suffering.

The classic formulation of the philosophic problem of evil (theodicy) is:

If God is powerful (omnipotent), then God must be able to prevent evil.

If God is moral (benevolent), then God must be willing to prevent evil.

Since evil occurs, then God is either unable or unwilling to prevent evil.

In the face of evil, such as that faced by Job, at best only one of these aspects, God’s power (omnipotence) or God’s morality (benevolence), can be maintained.  That is, if we acknowledge that evil has indeed occurred to Job (which is denied by Job’s friends in attempting to defend God’s goodness by claiming that Job has committed some sin or wrongdoing justifying his hardship), then the conclusion is necessarily that God is either not omnipotent or not benevolent.

In Biblical terms, this argument is based upon the contradictory aspects of God reflected in two central Biblical terms for God – YHVH and Elohim.  The distinction between the two terms YHVH (the name of God usually translated as the Lord) and Elohim (usually translated as God) is a fundamental distinction of the Bible and a key to understanding the Bible and Jewish tradition.  The distinction between YHVH and Elohim is reflected in a number of important Biblical sources, in Talmudic sources and in traditional Jewish prayer books and prayers.  But, as far as I am aware, the first to speak of the distinction explicitly and to explain it from a philosophic point of view, is Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari (the great philosopher who lived in the 12th century) – and, incidentally, at the beginning of the fourth part of the Kuzari he says something remarkable that precedes modern academic scholarship.  He suggests that the term Elohim is not original on our part as Jews, and the term comes from the pagan world – and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi points out that the term is plural as it referred to forces or powers of nature.  The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is reflected in the use of the term YHVH, which signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption as distinct from Elohim, a God of creation and power.

In the Biblical conception, Elohim is the transcendent God of nature and power – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1, 1).  YHVH, by contrast, is the God of revelation and redemption who demands morality, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18).  The great revolution and fundamental theological conception of the Hebrew Bible is that “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)”, which means that the God who is powerful in creating the universe (Elohim) is a moral God (YHVH).

In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power.  The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice – and, ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion.

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of as a God who acts within history, as an expression of moral will in order to redeem (as a God of revelation and redemption), and demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature – and this revolutionary conception of God in turn transforms the essence of religion from ritual practice (as in the pagan conception) to morality.  Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character and moral action.

The Book of Job thus represents an internal criticism within the Hebrew Bible in the sense that it seemingly challenges this revolutionary, Biblical conception that God is ultimately a moral God.  The Book of Job does not challenge the conception that God is powerful but that God is moral in that God is unwilling, though able, to prevent the evil that occurs to Job.  I want to offer three pieces of evidence, though, that the Book of Job is not concerned with, and actually ignores, such a philosophic problem of theodicy (of why a moral God allows evil).

First, the Book of Job is written in the form of a long extended poem, which includes a short prose introduction and conclusion.  If the Book of Job truly intended to address the philosophic question of evil, then a poem is very likely the worst possible literary form that could be chosen for such a purpose.  Poetry does not lend itself to clarifying abstract, philosophic questions in a systematic and analytic way (the ultimate purpose of philosophy).  Rather, poetry, by its metaphorical nature and in allowing for many different interpretations to fit the same text, actually blurs and clouds issues far more than clarifying them.

Second, the very end of the Book of Job is strange.  Job has suffered terribly, including the loss of his property and wealth, bodily afflictions and the loss of his children.  At the end of the story it is written, “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42, 10).  This restoration also includes the giving to Job new children in place of those he lost (42, 13).  Anyone who has lost a child will testify that it is not possible to compensate for the loss of the child with the receiving of a new child, or children, in its place.  Property and wealth can be restored.  One’s health can likewise be restored.  But, there can be no restoration regarding the loss of children, for children are irreplaceable.  This strange ending indicates that the Book of Job is not attempting to justify or defend God in terms of resolving the question as to why a moral God allows evil, since such a restoration of children can in no way justify God morally.

Third, the answer that God gives Job to Job’s questions and accusations toward the end of the book (Chapter 38) is actually not an answer at all from a philosophic point of view.  Job’s friends blame Job himself for his suffering, arguing that he must have committed some sin or wrongdoing to justify such suffering (and in so doing are able to maintain that God is both omnipotent and benevolent).  In their view, no evil has occurred to Job because his suffering is justified.  They are unwilling to question God and God’s morality, and thus it follows that Job must be to blame in some way for his suffering.  However, their position that Job is to blame for his suffering cannot be maintained, as it contradicts what is plainly written in the text itself, and testified to by God that Job is “a perfect and an upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil” (Job 1, 2 and 1, 8).  In the plain meaning of the story then not only is Job’s behavior not worse than others who have not faced such terrible suffering, but his behavior is exemplary.  Moreover, Job’s friends are defending God at the expense of Job, and they are criticized by God at the end of the story (42, 7).

Job, in distinction to his friends, maintains his own innocence before God in arguing that he has done nothing that could justify his suffering.  This is approved of by God in criticizing Job’s friends – “for you have not spoken of Me the one thing that is right, like My servant Job” (Job 42, 7).  Job refuses to blame himself, instead questions God, and accuses God of injustice.  Toward the end of the book (Chapter 38), God comes to answer Job.  However, God completely avoids answering Job’s questions, and silences Job by asking him who is he, a mere creature, to question God, the Creator of the universe.  To silence one from questioning, or to inform one that he or she is incapable of comprehending, certainly does not constitute a reasoned, philosophic response.

In my opinion, the key to understanding these three things, and the Book of Job, is found at the beginning of the book, and repeated again at the end, when it is written that Job’s friends “come to mourn with him and comfort him” (Job 2, 11 and 42, 11).  Job’s friends, in blaming him for his own suffering, defeat their very purpose in coming to him, as it is clearly not very comforting to be blamed for one’s suffering.  Their position is unacceptable not so much from a philosophic point of view as from a psychological and moral point of view.  However, more importantly, in my view, the main theme of the Book of Job is revealed in this repetition – to comfort Job.  In other words, the focus of the Book of Job is psychological (comforting Job and helping him overcome his pain and suffering), and not philosophical (answering an abstract question of philosophy of how a moral God can allow evil).

Although the harsh words spoken by God in silencing Job toward the end of the book (Chapter 38), due to their harshness and because they are spoken “out of the storm wind“, are representative of Elohim, the transcendent God of nature and power, it is YHVH, the God of morality and compassion, who strikingly answers Job with such harsh words – “Then the Lord (YHVH) answered Job out of the storm wind” (Job 38, 1).  By the way, in the great books of the wisdom literature of the Bible (the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes), which are universal in nature, there is very little reference to acts of worship or ritual, very little reference to the historical aspect of Biblical theology (with strikingly little or no reference to the exodus from Egypt or the election of the people Israel) and the name YHVH is not used often – and here in this central passage of the Book of Job it strikingly appears.

Judgment and compassion are two pillar values of the Hebrew Bible (and the Jewish tradition) – based upon the differing conceptions implied in the terms for God, YHVH and Elohim.  Elohim, as the transcendent God of creation and Judge of all the earth, is associated with judgment, while YHVH, as the God who is revealed in the world as a God of redemption, is associated with love and compassion.

The Hebrew term judgment, that is used in connection with Elohim, is sometimes understood as justice, but is better translated as judgment or law – as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice).  The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a king or judge who issues judgments.  A king or judge in issuing judgments establishes justice.  But, justice is imposed by the king or judge as a function of his or her power and authority.  One may disagree with a ruling of a king or judge, and consider it to be immoral.  The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the king or judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher political or judicial authority.  In the case of God, no such option exists.  Thus, the term judgment or justice, as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power (as opposed to YHVH, the source of morality) should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.

The image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional.  A king or judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial.  However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused.  A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child.  Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion contains within it the word womb.  The image then of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb.  YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Bible and Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.

Returning to the Book of Job, Elohim is the God of creation, associated with forces of nature, such as a storm wind.  Yet, YHVH, the God of love and compassion, is speaking from “out of the storm wind” (Job 38, 1) such harsh words, and in effect silencing Job.  I want to suggest that such harsh words “out of the storm wind” uttered by YHVH (the God of love and compassion) are actually an expression of care and compassion for Job.  Job is being silenced for his own sake psychologically and emotionally.  Such harsh words, silencing Job, may not constitute a satisfying answer philosophically to Job’s questions, but they are effective considering his emotional state.  If Job continues to cry out against God, accusing God of injustice, he will only eventually fall into despair and depression.  God never responds to Job’s questions and accusations because God’s purpose in coming to Job is not to justify or defend God.  Rather, God’s purpose, like Job’s friends, is to comfort Job, and thus God appears as YHVH, the God of compassion.  Furthermore, YHVH, the ideal Parent, silences Job, the child of God, only after Job has had an opportunity to pour out his soul and voice his feelings and complaints, serving as an emotional catharsis and release.  There is no hint that Job’s questions and complaints constitute heresy or disrespect.  It is only after Job has poured out his soul that YHVH silences him because there eventually comes a point when such a release is no longer productive.  There comes a point when Job must reconcile himself with the Heavens, and with life, in order to continue living.

The parallel and contrast, between Abraham in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Job are striking.  Both the parallel and contrast are in two senses.  In terms of parallel, both Abraham and Job question, and argue with, God.  In addition, they both recognize their creatureliness (they are but “dust and ashes”) standing before the Creator.  Regarding the contrast, Abraham himself recognizes his own finiteness and creatureliness in acknowledging that he is “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18, 27), while Job’s awareness of his creatureliness in acknowledging that he is “dust and ashes” (Job 42, 6) is imposed upon him externally following his being silenced by God (who asks Job who is he, a mere creature, to question God, the Creator of the entire universe).  Furthermore, by way of contrast, Abraham is relating to the suffering of others, while Job is relating to his own personal suffering.  Abraham is depicted in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as one who refuses to accept the suffering of others, and ultimately God is held accountable to Abraham’s questions.  Abraham’s own self-awareness of his subjectivity does not prevent him from questioning, and arguing with, God, on behalf of others – and, though, he himself is aware that he is “dust and ashes” he continues to argue with God.  However, Job’s awareness of his creatureliness is imposed upon him externally by YHVH in silencing Job from continuing to question, as an act of caring and compassion in order to help him, psychologically, overcome his own personal suffering.

The central question of the Book of Job then is not the philosophic question as to why God allows evil but the psychological question of how to comfort Job, and help him to continue living in the face of such terrible suffering.  It is only after Job accepts that he cannot continue to question God regarding his own suffering (Job 42, 1-6) that he can try to go on living.  It is at that time that God restores his fortune and gives him children to replace those he lost (Job 42, 12).  This is not a compensation in order to defend or justify God, but simply a reality that, although no lost child can be replaced, nevertheless new children are born (or may be adopted), and Job must continue living even in the face of such terrible suffering as the loss of his children.

It is also now clear why the Book of Job is written in the literary form of an extended poem.  Although, a poem is perhaps the worst form for dealing with philosophic problems in a systematic, analytic way, it does lend itself to teaching about life and how to live, which is the purpose, in my view, of the Book of Job, and the Hebrew Bible as a whole.  The Book of Job is not concerned with an abstract question (of Greek philosophy) of theodicy (of why God does not prevent evil), but with the concrete, psychological issue of helping a particular human being, Job, learn to live with, or overcome, his pain and suffering (and deal with a very difficult test of character).  Even if one were to give Job a fancy and wonderful philosophic solution to the abstract, philosophic question of why God does not prevent his suffering, Job would nonetheless, in all likelihood, remain angry and resentful, and likely to fall into despair and depression, unless he were to change his attitude psychologically.

Thus, the Book of Job, on the face of it, appears to be the classic book of the Hebrew Bible that deals with an abstract, orthodox question of theology.  But, upon closer examination, from a literary point of view, the Book of Job (dealing with an existential question of how to comfort Job and help him learn to live with, or overcome, his pain and suffering) is actually a classic example of the orthoprax, pragmatic and anti-theological nature of the Biblical literature – concerned not with abstract philosophic truth and knowledge, but with teaching us how to live as human beings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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