Job’s Path to Enlightenment

By Ethan Dor-Shav

A new interpretation of the Bible's most enigmatic book.


According to conventional wisdom, the philosophical issue at the heart of the Book of Job—the biblical text which describes the horrendous sufferings of a God-fearing magnate—can be summarized in a single question: Why do bad things happen to good people? This question is, of course, relevant only if the sufferer is a good person. Fittingly, commentators have tended to view the book’s hero in a saintly light. Noted Bible scholar Yair Hoffman reflects the academic and theological consensus when he writes that: “Job’s disaster does not come about because of his wickedness but, on the contrary, because of his outstanding righteousness.”1 Maimonides quotes a presupposition that: “a simple and perfect person who is upright in his actions… is afflicted by successive misfortunes.”2 Christian interpretations have taken a similar position. The Epistle of James, for instance, describes Job’s endurance “as an example, brethren, of suffering and patience.”3 Catholic doctrine goes so far as to see Job as an anticipation of Jesus, a “pure, white lamb” whose suffering represents a redemptive sacrifice: “As a virtuous man who experienced suffering, Job became a type and prefiguration of the crucified and resurrected Christ.”4 In all these traditions, Job is portrayed as a righteous soul whose torments are wholly undeserved.
Indeed, a casual reading of this most challenging book of the Hebrew Bible—and especially its short prose prologue and epilogue—is likely to yield a similar conclusion. At the beginning of the narrative, we are told that Job is respected by all who know him for his piety, which is evidenced by the burnt sacrifice he offers God as a penance for his sons’ wanton behavior. Skeptical about the wealthy Job’s apparent righteousness, Satan challenges God to put Job’s faith to the test. God grants Satan’s request and gives him power over all that Job holds dear. In short order, Satan does away with Job’s riches, livestock, house, and servants, and then, most cruelly, his children. Throughout, however, Job remains faithful, refusing to “curse God.”5 Even when Satan afflicts his person with painful boils, Job continues to endure his tragedies stoically, as it is written: “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”6
Job is soon visited by three friends—Elifaz, Bildad, and Zofar—who intend to comfort him but nonetheless insist that his misfortune must stem from his own wrongful behavior. God, they argue, does not mete out suffering arbitrarily. Over the course of twenty-eight chapters, they urge Job to repent and thereby earn relief. Job, in turn, staunchly refuses. This impasse is broken by a long speech from a fourth character, Elihu, who condemns the three friends and Job, insisting—according to the standard interpretation—that man lacks the capacity to understand God’s justice. Finally, God himself enters the fray. While he rebukes the friends for vilifying Job, he also stresses Job’s shortcomings and ignorance in judging his Creator. Nevertheless, in the book’s epilogue, he rewards Job for refusing to be swayed, restores his family and health, and doubles his original riches.
The book’s epilogue would seem to reinforce the message of its prologue—that Job’s suffering was merely a satanic test of blind faith, one that he passed with flying colors. It is easy, therefore, to understand why Job is seen as a saint, completely undeserving of his torments. Be that as it may, if Job’s story is viewed in this light, it is equally easy to sympathize with readers who feel that the book is extremely drawn-out, monotonous, and repetitive. As a chronicle of a good man’s sufferings, the continual condemnation by the three friends is excessive. In the same vein, researchers tend to view many of the book’s speeches as superfluous, inserted into the text later. Such interludes as Elihu’s speech and even God’s own responses to Job sidestep the essential question of why God would subject a righteous man to such torments. The reader is understandably tempted to simply skim through the book and dismiss the role of many speeches in favor of the simple, trite message to be religiously steadfast in the face of cosmic injustice.7
Yet such an interpretation suffers from an inherent weakness. If we know from the beginning the purpose of Job’s hardships, then the theological discussion within the book is moot. Indeed, we might rightfully ask, if the book’s central question and its answer are evident in the terms of Satan’s charter from God—i.e., a test of faith—what need is there for this book at all, let alone for such a long one? The wisdom literature of the ancient East, as well as the Hebrew Bible itself, is rich with such trials, but they are most notable for their brevity.8 The binding of Isaac, for example, is described in a few verses. Even God’s revelation to Abraham about his motive for demanding the sacrifice is delivered not in a fanciful monologue, but in a single sentence: “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son; that in blessing I will bless you.”9 Abraham is tested, Abraham is rewarded—end of story.
The Book of Job, by contrast, consists of forty-two chapters between the culmination of Job’s misfortunes and his eventual reward. More important, these poetic chapters—Job’s dialogues with his three friends, followed by the oration of Elihu, and finally God’s revelation—consistently reject any interpretation of Job’s suffering as a mere challenge. The idea they are assumed to express—that man cannot expect to fathom God’s motives—is in direct contradiction to the prologue, which explicitly depicts Job’s suffering as a contrived trial, a rationale we can easily appreciate. Furthermore, the claim that Job’s faith remains unshaken over the course of the book is obviously incorrect. In facing his tragedies, the pious Job of the first chapter simply declaims: “Blessed be the name of the Lord,”10 whereas later he lashes out rebelliously at God: “who has taken away my justice,”11 and proclaims: “You have become cruel to me.”12 In fact, the narrative does not describe Job’s resolute and unshakable conviction, but rather recounts the mounting loss of his reflexive belief in God’s justice. Indeed, his unavoidable surrender to God’s direct words notwithstanding, if patience and loyalty are the basic criteria of Job’s goodness, the longer we wait, the less Job seems to deserve his ultimate reward.
In order to propose a deeper and more comprehensive interpretation of the Book of Job, one must be willing to look beyond the book’s prosaic opening chapter and the simplistic meaning it evokes. Moreover, we must credit the book’s author with a mastery of literary nuance, in addition to his universally acknowledged poetic genius. Only by peeling back the story’s superficial outer layer does the author’s intent—and the book’s true story line—emerge. Only then can we see that it is here, in the supposedly extraneous content of the book’s slowly unfolding plot, that the real meaning of the text can be found.
What is this alternate narrative? To begin with, it is defined by two extremes: Who and what Job is at the beginning of the story and who and what he is at the end. If we acknowledge as our starting point the radical idea that the early Job is not portrayed as a saint, but rather as a severely flawed individual, the tale of suffering that constitutes the book proves to be quite different from the accepted interpretation. It is not a story of sheer endurance and blind faith but one of existential awakening, leading to the attainment of prophecy in the book’s final scenes. The story, in other words, is about one man’s painstaking ascendance from a normative religious life to a deeply spiritual one. As this process takes place, the narrative also expounds on the biblical secrets of the cosmic order, the nature of man, and, above all, heavenly redemption through the light of wisdom.
Interpreted this way, the Book of Job deals with a very different question than the one we have likely been taught: not “why do bad things happen to good people?” but how a man’s honest response to worldly suffering serves as the basis for his awakening and enlightenment. Indeed, the forty oft-dismissed “interim” chapters of the Book of Job tell the story, step by excruciating step, of one man’s eventual direct experience of God. His suffering plays a critical role in his ethical, intellectual, and spiritual transformation, enabling him to move from egoism to morality, from ignorance to wisdom, and, finally, from alienation from God to a personal relationship with him. Over the course of the book, Job becomes a true tzadik, or righteous man; a hacham, or sage; and finally, a navi, or prophet. No transformation is more profound.

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