The Book of Job

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Natasha Mann 15th Feb 2019

The Book of Iyov (Job) is a story about a universal human struggle: the problem of undeserved suffering. Iyov is a non-Hebrew man from the Land of Uz, who is described as a good man with a good life. However, due to a cosmic game of chess between the Divine and Satan, Iyov becomes a good man who suffers terribly. The book begins and ends with theological narratives: first, we see God allowing the suffering of Iyov; later, God responds to Iyov’s outcry. Between those theological bookends is a set of poetic dialogues between Iyov and his three friends. Iyov’s friends are adamant that the good are divinely rewarded, and the evil are divinely punished. They therefore conclude that Iyov must have done something terrible to deserve his misfortune. Iyov, however, responds to each explanation by asserting his innocence. Iyov demands his fair trial before God. And eventually, God listens and appears before him in a whirlwind.

The majority of the Book of Iyov is human response to the problem of suffering. It is only in this ending that we are given a response from the Divine. However, the Almighty does not approach Iyov with explanations for his dire situation; instead, God reminds Iyov that humans cannot possibly understand the totality of the universe, cannot possibly understand the mind of God. “Where were you,” asks the Holy One, “When I laid the foundations of the earth?” It is a powerful and humbling scene. God makes no attempt to explain away the condition of the universe; instead, the Divine states that Iyov needs to accept the limits of his understanding. While this response may be frustrating for some readers, it has significant impact on Iyov: Iyov is finally able to move on. Iyov’s need for closure kept in stuck in place; now, having accepted the limitations of human comprehension, he is able to move on and live again, with his good life restored.

There are two easily-overlooked verses at the very end of God’s speech (42:7-8) which recolour much of our tale. After conversing with Iyov, God turns to Iyov’s friend Eliphaz and says: “I am incensed at you and your two friends, because you did not speak the truth about Me as did My servant Iyov!” The last piece of information that we are given from the Divine is anger that Iyov’s friends insisted on their simple transactional theology when it contradicted reality. Iyov’s friends refused to acknowledge that their view of divine reward and punishment was flawed, but Iyov was right to protest his unfair treatment.

I see two distinct lessons in the example of Iyov. The first lesson is that we must learn to live with lack of closure, because insecurity is a part of the human condition. We learn this from the appearance of the Divine, who offers no new understanding to Iyov, but aids Iyov’s healing by reminding him that he cannot examine the universe from the perspective of God. The second lesson is that we are permitted, and perhaps even obligated, to express our lack of understanding and the frustration that may bring; Iyov’s words, after all, are described as being ‘truth about [God]’. And related to that second lesson, we may learn from the example of Iyov’s three friends that we are not permitted to passively accept strict truths and insist that reality conform to them. In the words of Voltaire: ‘Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.

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