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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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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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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.

    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.

      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.

    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.

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.

      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.

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.

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.