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Bad Things, Good Person

Is misfortune God’s doing? A new work on The Book of Job asks what kind of world we live in.

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William Blake, Job Rebuked by His Friends, 1825. (National Gallery of Art)
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Consider some of the major differences between the Fable of Job and the Poem of Job. The Fable is a simple story, in prose, using clear, simple language. The Poem, as you might imagine, is written in poetic form and employs a rich, and often obscure, vocabulary. At one point (4:10-11), the author uses five synonyms for “lion” in the space of two verses. Pity the poor translator. The Fable uses the most sacred Name of God, YHWH, a name that symbolizes God’s intimate ties to the Jewish people; the Poem never uses that Name until the very end. It uses less hallowed synonyms—El, Elohim, Shaddai. There are more instances of what is known as a hapax legomenon, a word that occurs only once in the Bible so that its meaning may be hard to infer, in the Poem of Job than in virtually any other biblical source. In the Fable, Job is a character; in the Poem, he is the most prominent speaker. But the most important difference is that, in the Fable, Job is never tempted to cry out or express anger toward God. He tells his wife, “Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?” (2:10), whereas the first thing that Job does in the Poem is to curse the unfairness of his fate. All these factors lead Prof. Marvin Pope to write in the Anchor Bible’s volume on Job, “Critics have generally regarded the Prologue-Epilogue [what I have called the Fable] and the Dialogue as having diverse authorship and origin.” Another scholar puts it this way: “Like oil and water, the prose frame story and the poem tend to disengage from one another despite all efforts to harmonize them.”

This book returns me to the issue that I believe I was put on earth to deal with, the question of what kind of world we live in. Is it a world designed to sustain and reward goodness, a world in which God is clearly on the side of the virtuous? Or is it a morally blind world, a morally neutral world in which events happen because they happen, with no deeper meaning? The rain falls equally on the fields of honest and dishonest farmers; malignant tumors afflict charitable and selfish people without distinction. Or is there perhaps a third dimension to our search for meaning—where the fable and the poem fit together—beyond the question of “Why did this happen to me?”

This essay was excerpted and adapted from The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, out today from Nextbook Press.


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I thought that G-d is “unknowable”, the Creator of “All”. As such, surely HE understands evolution, since HE created it. If there is no strife (physical and emotional) there is stasis. Thus “bad things” are required for all life to move on. The Hebrew Bible is a guide to this life, not the next. Jobs test was love of G-d. Such was Abrahams test with Isaac. If G-d seems capricious or cruel, it is because we CANNOT understand his purpose.

41953 says:

If God seems capricious or cruel it is because that is how he is depicted in most of the Bible. (The Book ofJonah is the exception that proves the rule.) To excuse God’s cruelty “because we cannot understand his purpose,” is the ultimate cop-out.
From an psychological stand point, God’s personality is that of the authoritarian father figure who tolerates no dissent and is quick to chastise his “children.”
It is wonderful that Job challenges God’s cruelty, not just toward himself, but all of humanity. When Job surrenders, it is only because God has intimidated him. God never explains his conduct. His response to Job is “might makes right,” a principle we should all abhorr.

paul delano says:

It is what it is and it’s not what it’s not. No books required.

Two things:
1. You are absolutely right.
2. Kushner might still be worth a read. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he muses on the death of his son at an early age and wrestles with theology to try to make it yield up its meaning. He confesses that, prior to his loss, when people would come to him to consult him in his capacity as a rabbi on their own losses, he would dole out consolation while thinking that they must have done something to deserve it. I think Harold Kushner is a big man for having transformed his faith. Your incision makes me think you might enjoy his work.

Geoffrey says:

“To excuse God’s cruelty ‘because we cannot understand his purpose,’ is the ultimate cop-out.”

I’m not sure why. If you accept God as the word implies (an omnipotent, omniscient divinity) then adjectives like “cruel” are relative to Him – “bad” is what God doesn’t like, and “good” is what he does. God by definition can’t be cruel, since he provides the yardstick for moral behavior. That’s not a cop-out, it’s the underlying assumption of Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

If you don’t accept that definition, of course, you don’t have this problem, but you’ve also managed to define away your opponents’ central assumption… which is a rather circular way to prove your argument. A God which is human isn’t God.

paul delano says:

Brad, I have no interest in Kushner’s book or any work in that genre. The only thing you’ll take away from anybody’s musings on the ‘meaning of Life’ is their own individual opinions. My take? Don’t try to figure it out. Live it, experience it and come to your own conclusions.

Hominid says:

We can all agree that LIFE is capricious & cruel. If LIFE is the product of a god, that god is de facto capricious & cruel. Only through very perverse thinking can one get around that connection.

41953 says:

What I am saying is the God’s conduct in the Book of Job is reprehensible.

treating Job as a “modern” text is a dangerous exercise; after all, in the classic vision of the Lithuanian school of Jewish learning, “an accidental or unintended heretic – is still a heretic”.

Job, to go for the cheap shot, is a full-time job; it’s not something that can be taken without a lot of strong belief as a predicate. For if it is viewed out of context, it lacks a real sense of purpose – men arguing about an issue that can never be resolved.

9Athena says:

Whoa! You have got a strangle hold on the definition, nature and essence of an entity that is unknowable. If you really want the finest discourse on the matter that I have read so far try Immanuel Kant’s ‘Noumena”. For starters, dispense with the masculine pronoun. Then eliminate the fuzzy wuzzy buzzwords “Judeo-Christian’ religious tradition. Those are mutually contradictory systems regardless of the spin meisters and their attempts at fusion..And just to incorporate some humility and awe, it is not for any human to ascribe characteristics to the Creator. If you do, you have just transposed your worship to yourself. Take a good look at the multi-universes and know that you don’t know.

perry collins says:

destroying and enlightening humankind, what an ingenious compound of desirability and appearance, as this thing is a most ancient occupation of the human mind, it shall exist until the end of time, and continually be commented upon, no solution in sight, I rest in the words of ancients, no matter what, the universe is unfolding exactly as it should, the words of someone desideratta or somesuch thing, hey, suffering ain’t as exclusive as it should be….

disqus_xfAcp8yliX says:

Are we not in a world where G-d rewards iniquity, often punishes the innocent and makes them unduly suffer, is manipulated by the clever, and allows evil to floursh all too often over the good? Or is it that we, as all too faulted and mortal beings, that by straying from the paths He has set out before us, has forced His hand towards a World foreign to his Divine preference?


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Bad Things, Good Person

Is misfortune God’s doing? A new work on The Book of Job asks what kind of world we live in.

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