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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.

Harold Kushner
October 03, 2012
William Blake, Job Rebuked by His Friends, 1825.(National Gallery of Art)
William Blake, Job Rebuked by His Friends, 1825.(National Gallery of Art)

Interestingly, the Bible, which is the foundation of religious faith in the Western world, does not tell us a great deal about God. There is not a lot of theology in the Hebrew Bible. My teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say that the Bible is not Man’s theology but God’s anthropology, less about who God is and more about who human beings ought to be. There is a lot about the will of God, what God wants of us, but very little about the nature of God, what we can expect of God, how the mind of God works. What there is can be contradictory. When enemies do harm to Israel, they are sometimes seen as being God’s enemies as well, but they are often seen as God’s instruments sent to chastise a disobedient people. Sometimes prayer cures illness, and sometimes illness has to run its course despite prayers. How then are we to know whether misfortune is God’s doing or an affront to God’s will? In the time of Noah, God wipes out virtually the entire population of the earth to punish them for their wickedness. But in the time of Jonah, under very similar circumstances (there are intriguing parallels of language between the two stories), God pardons the wicked inhabitants of the world’s largest and most corrupt city when they heed His warning and change their ways.

When we read Homer’s Iliad, we learn a lot about the Greek gods, their moods, their quarrels, their playing favorites among mortals. We are given reasons why they do the things they do. But reading the Bible, we learn little if anything about God’s private life or God’s thought processes. Later in their history, Jews would fashion systematic theologies when they lived as a minority among Christians and Muslims and had to explain themselves and their beliefs to their neighbors. But in the Bible itself, theological discourse is rare.

There is one place in the Bible where serious theological conversation about the nature and thought process of God does take place, prompted by the conflict between the human wish to see the world as a moral sphere where people get what they deserve, where everything happens for a reason, and the inescapable reality that ours is a world where good people suffer for no apparent reason. The book of Job is a full-length argument about whether the misfortunes that befall ostensibly good people come to them from the hand of God. If we want to believe that ours is a moral world, the scene of justice and fairness, we need to confront the arguments presented in what is probably the most challenging book in the entire Bible: the book of Job.

In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Job is found in the third section, known as the Ketuvim, (Miscellaneous) Writings, which follows the Torah and the books of the prophets. Ketuvim contains the major books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, five smaller “scrolls” (megillot) that find their way into the synagogue calendar on various holidays, and several historical books. The three major presences in Ketuvim are sometimes referred to, in an acronym based on their initial letters in Hebrew, as sifrei emet, “books of truth,” referring to the spiritual truths of the Psalms, the practical truths of the Proverbs, and the philosophical-theological insights of Job.

The first thing you need to know about the biblical book of Job is that there are two of them. There is the Fable of Job, a very old, simple folktale of faith maintained and rewarded, found in chapters 1, 2, and 42 of the biblical book. And then there is the Poem of Job, a much later, more complicated work comprising the large middle section of the book. A lot of people reading the Bible don’t realize that. They assume it is a single work, a theological sandwich composed of two slices of pious theology wrapped around a dense filling of hard-to-follow religious poetry.

How then are we to know whether misfortune is God’s doing or an affront to God’s will?

The author of the epistle of James in the New Testament didn’t know there were two parts to the Job story. He writes, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). But the Poem of Job in the Bible shows us a Job who is not necessarily steadfast, who questions the compassion and mercy of God. In fairness to the author of the epistle, his letter is usually dated to late in the first century of the Common Era, and the book of Job may not have been an official part of the Bible at that time, even though the fable seems to have been well-known. The Coen brothers, who in 2009 made the movie A Serious Man, a retelling of the story of Job in modern dress, also seem not to have known about the divided nature of the biblical book. Their protagonist, like Job of the Fable but very much unlike Job of the Poem, wonders why bad things keep happening to him but never raises his voice to complain to God. Yet 90 percent of the biblical book of Job portrays a Job who repeatedly challenges the fairness of God. From time to time, a novel or screenplay will be described as “a modern version of the book of Job” when it tells of an innocent person suffering, but the profundity of the biblical book, once we get past the Fable, will be lacking. All of these people are responding to the first two chapters of the biblical book, the Fable of Job, the part of the book that is easiest to understand, and none of them seem to realize that there are 40 chapters of sublime and profound protest that come after that and reject the Fable’s theology as strenuously as any of these critics do. Even so thoughtful a writer as the late Prof. Paul Weiss of Yale, whose book Right and Wrong I have read and taught, is moved to write, “The book of Job … violates our sense of what is right and wrong.” The first two chapters of the book certainly do that, describing a vain God who does not hesitate to inflict suffering on His most devoted followers. The remainder of the book emphatically does not.

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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Harold Kushner, the author of The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts.

Harold Kushner, the author ofThe Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts.