The Book of Job
Question: Whatever would possess the rabbis to include
The Book of Job as one of the official books in the canon
of holy writ?
At one point in history, perhaps
somewhere around the sixth century A.D., a certain eminent and
venerable colloquium of rabbis weighed a whole wide variety of
issues and considerations and finally determined which of the
many ancient holy books should be formally included in the official
canon of holy writ (what today is called The Hebrew Scriptures,
or what Christians call the Old Testament). One of the books
they considered was The Book of Job, and I contend that
there must have been some powerful arguments voiced against
including it in the canon.
What I would like to do here is
briefly outline for you what some of the arguments might have
been against including the Book of Job. And then,
after laying out those arguments, we'll consider some of the
responses to those arguments, and some of the reasons the rabbis
may have had for including the book, despite all those reasons
The arguments against including
it, it seems to me, might well have included the following.
First problem: The book's
depiction of God
The "Prologue in heaven"
between God and "ha
satan," does not show God in a very flattering light.
Recall the story: the
adversary has just returned from traveling on the earth.
"Did you see my servant, Job?" God asks.
"Yes I did."
"He sure loves me dearly, doesn't he?" says God.
"Of course he does," says ha satan. "You treat
him so well it's no wonder he loves you. But I'll bet he wouldn't
love you so much if you mistreated him a little."
"He would too still love me," says God.
"I doubt it," says the adversary. "Let me torture
him a bit and see if he still loves you."
"OK," says God, "Just to prove he'll still love
me, go ahead and cause him some suffering. Just don't harm his
So the adversary goes back to earth
and arranges for all Job's crops to be destroyed, all his livestock
to be killed, his house to be destroyed, all his servants to
be killed, and all his children to be killed.
Job is terribly distraught, of
course. He rends his garments and cries out to the heavens, but
he does not curse God. Instead he prays deep in his soul, "Naked
came I from my mother's womb and naked shall I return thither.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name
of the Lord."
Back in heaven God says "See,
he did not curse me, despite what I allowed you to do to him."
"Maybe not this time," says the adversary, "but
just let me cause some pain to his body. Then he'll curse you."
"No he won't," says God.
"I'll bet he will," says ha satan.
"OK, you can harm his body. But just don't kill him,"
satan returns to earth and causes all the worst imaginable
diseases and pain to attack Job. Job is in constant physical
and mental anguish day and night. He cannot sleep. He wishes
he would die, or even worse, that he had never been born. He
is in unrelenting pain. Even his wife is not much support. She
says, "Why don't you go ahead and curse God and be done
Job is mightily angry at God and
at the injustice of everything that is happening to him, since
he has done nothing to deserve any of this. He raises his fist
in anger to rail against the awful wrongness of what he is suffering,
but he does not curse God.
We do not see any more of this
little betting contest between God and the adversary, but it
is evident that God has won the bet.
Nevertheless, we cannot help but
wonder what sort of God, or even what sort of average human parent,
would allow this kind of torture of a good person just to prove
that that person really loves him. This seems cruel and obscene
in the highest degree. It seems, in fact, more characteristic
of something that two little second-graders might do on the school
playground. "I bet he will." "I bet he won't."
"Yes he will." "No he won't." "He will."
"He won't." and so on.
According to this story God, in
effect, takes a dare, much like a second-grader might take a
dare, just to prove a point. (If God ever had to explain his
behavior here, we might even imagine him answering "The
devil made me do it.") When human beings grow up and mature
they usually learn to not let themselves be provoked into doing
stupid or cruel things. Why, we might ask, should we expect any
less of God?
But this God, at least as depicted
here in the prologue of the book, seems not to have learned this
For that reason alone, it would
seem, -- that is, because of the seemingly childish and cruel
way that God seems to behave in the prologue -- the rabbis might
well have chosen to not include this book in the canon
of holy writ.
Second problem: the problem of evil
A second possible reason for not including
this book is that it
raises the virtually insoluble "problem of evil," and
then offers no solution to it.
Click here to see a more detailed
outline of what the
problem of evil is (and what some responses to it have been).
In brief, though, the problem is this: How could a God who is
all good and all powerful ever allow so much undeserved misery
and suffering throughout all his creation and among his people?
If he truly is all good and all powerful, then such unjust and
unjustified misery should not be allowed. The fact that it exists
in such mammoth proportions seems to argue convincingly against
the existence of a God who is all good and all powerful.
The problem of evil is for many
people one of the most insuperable of stumbling blocks to believing
in an all good God. If for no other reason than this, the rabbis
might well have decided to not underscore that enormous problem
in all its dramatic intensity right here in the canon of holy
Third problem: may contradict earlier wisdom teachings
A third possible reason for not including
this book is that the
Book of Job seems to directly contradict all the wisdom teachings
outlined in the Book of Proverbs
and even in the Torah.
As we saw in the Book of Proverbs
(and in parts of the
Torah), the summation of the wisdom teachings in that book
can best be stated thus:
- If you live wisely and follow
God's laws, you will prosper and your life will go well for you.
- If on the other hand you live
foolishly and disobey God's laws, you will probably suffer and
your life will go badly for you.
- Therefore, it would seem to
follow that if you are suffering and your life is going badly,
it is probably because you have done something foolish and/or
have disobeyed God's laws.
The Book of Job clearly
contradicts those teachings. Job is described in the book as
a "perfect and upright man," one who loves God deeply,
who follows God's laws, and who has done no great wrongs in his
life. And yet now he is suffering.
Job's "friends," you
will discover in your reading, are firm believers in the wisdom
teachings of Proverbs. They hold firmly to those three
truths stated just above, that good people prosper and bad people
suffer. So when they see their friend Job suffering, they can
only conclude that Job must have done something to deserve it.
Job, on the other hand, knows he
has not. Nothing in the book suggests that Job has done anything
to deserve his suffering, so the whole book clearly calls into
question the validity of the wisdom teachings in Proverbs
(and in the Torah).
For this reason too, therefore
- viz., that the book calls into question the wisdom teachings
of earlier scriptural books - the rabbis might well have chosen
to not include the Book of Job in the canon of holy writ.
Fourth problem: not a properly religious attitude?
Finally, the Book of Job seems
to not support or endorse the properly orthodox way of being
By "the properly orthodox
way of being religious" I mean the following three things:
i. An attitude of humility toward
God and acceptance of his ways, not the angry questioning of
God's ways that Job exemplifies.
ii. If one were somehow forced
to choose between standing up and defending God's justness or
standing up and defending a friend's, a properly orthodox religious
believer should more likely defend God's ways rather than any
human being's ways.
iii. A properly orthodox religious
attitude would unquestioningly accept, based on faith, all the
formal teachings in the canon of holy writ.
And yet by the end of the Book
of Job, God (and everything else in the book) clearly supports
and endorses everything that Job has said and done, and clearly
disapproves of the way the "friends" have acted and
spoken. And yet the friends more closely approximate the properly
orthodox way of being religious than Job does. The friends are
never angry at God and never question him. Job, on the other
hand, is angry (though he does not curse God), and he does question
God loudly and often. He literally demands that God explain himself.
And do the friends stand up for
Job and support his justness, or do they stand up for God and
support his justness? Clearly the latter. They support God over
Job. "God doesn't make mistakes, Job," they seem to
say to him. "Men make mistakes. You undoubtedly have made
a terrible mistake to bring on such suffering. God does not bear
the responsibility for your suffering; you do," they tell
And yet in the end God disapproves
of the friends' choices and actions. "Do not worry about
me and my reputation," God would almost seem to say to the
friends. "I can take care of myself. You should take care
of my bleeding and hurting children on earth; they're the ones
who need your support and care."
The friends, in other words, are the ones who are being properly
religious according to normal standards, not Job. And yet in
the end God approves of Job's way and disapproves of the friends'
And finally, the friends unquestioningly
accept the wisdom teachings in the Book of Proverbs, viz.,
the teachings that say good people prosper and bad people suffer.
Job is clearly questioning, with much intensity, those teachings
from the earlier books since he knows that he is a good person
who has been made to suffer terribly and unjustly.
Job, in other words, is not being
properly religious in the way that the friends are, and yet everything
in the Book of Job clearly in the end supports Job's ways
and clearly disapproves of the friends' ways. The book thus would
seem to disapprove of the properly orthodox way of being religious,
and to endorse a new and different way of being religious.
Thus, to sum up, there would seem
to be several very good reasons for the rabbis to not include
the Book of Job in the canon of holy writ. It depicts
God in a most implausible and unpalatable way. It raises the
problem of evil, a problem which seems to make belief in an all
good God almost impossible. It seems to contradict all the wisdom
teachings in the Book of Proverbs and
in parts of the Torah. And it seems to disapprove of many
properly religious ways of being such as not questioning God's
ways, supporting God's reputation no matter what the cost to
human relationships, and believing in all the teachings in the
books of holy writ.
So we might again ask: with all
these good reasons to not include the Book of Job
in the canon of holy writ, why would the rabbis choose instead
to include it. I think there may be two primary reasons, but
before I mention those reasons, let's briefly go back to that
first objection, viz., the unpalatable way the book depicts God.
This is an important objection,
but I think it can be answered rather quickly: This is not a
book about God; it is a book about Job. It is not titled the
Book of God, but the Book of Job. This book is
not so much to teach us about God as it is to teach us about
Job, and to help us learn about how a truly good and religiously
authentic person can bear up under extraordinary and almost unbearable
suffering. That's what the book is truly about.
It is my contention that the Prologue-in-heaven
portion of the book is merely an attempt on the part of the book's
author to get the story started. The author had to come up with
some barely plausible explanation for how it might come about
that a perfectly good man might have to undergo great suffering.
The explanation offered is not a particularly good one in my
estimation, but it is probably the best the author could do.
It is put there in the beginning merely as the set-up for the
rest of the story, the important part.
And then having done that, the
author goes on to do the main work the book is trying to accomplish,
namely to see how a truly good and religiously authentic man
would undergo the trials of a deep and unbearable suffering.
How does he do it? What can we learn from this book, and from
this good man, about how to bear the unbearable? What
does God admire about Job? What does God (in the end) approve
of in Job and disapprove of in the friends? What does God love
about Job and the way he handled his suffering? How is a truly
good and religiously authentic person to bear up under the burden
of what can almost not be borne?
These are some of the things we
can learn from this book, and it would be my contention that
this may have been one of the main reasons the rabbis would choose
to include it in the canon: it is one of the central life problems.
This problem how does a good person bear the unbearable
is a problem that most of us will have to ask ourselves
at some point in our lives, and there is much that this book
can teach us about that question.
So some of the questions for you
to consider in your reading of this book are those questions
mentioned above: what can be learned from this book about bearing
what is too terrible to bear? What
does God love about Job and the way he handled his suffering?
Is it merely that he was patient (which he seems not to have
actually been, when you read closely), or is there something
more? Is there something about his deep personal authenticity,
something about his absolute trust in God "Though
he slay me, yet will I trust in him" and perhaps even
something about the total truth and directness with which he
communicates with God?
A Discussion Question
What would be some of the main lessons you
see that might be learned from this book about what to do and how to
live in the face of the worst things you might ever have to endure?