Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


An Introduction to
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 against it.

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 body though."

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," says God.

So ha 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 with it."

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 important lesson.

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 scripture.

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:

  1. If you live wisely and follow God's laws, you will prosper and your life will go well for you.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 religious.

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 him.

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' orthodox way.

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.

The Question

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?