Job’s Path to Enlightenment

By Ethan Dor-Shav

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


In order to understand the spiritual metamorphosis described in the Book of Job, we must first ascertain what kind of man Job is before his transformation begins. We must recognize that the early Job is hardly “good” in the full sense of the term. His attitude toward his faith is shown to be hopelessly shallow and naןve and conspicuously self-serving in relation to other people. It should not surprise us that just as Job initially views himself as a sinner, begging for pardon,13 his escalating claims to virtue are disputed by his three friends, by Elihu, and, finally, by God.14
In the very first verse, Job is introduced as “innocent and straight, and one who feared God and turned away from evil.”15 These traits are reiterated twice more in an identical formulation. Other verses never veer from these precise definitions.16 There is no doubt that we are presented here with a picture of a dutiful religious man. But we must also pay attention to what is not being said about Job, because the exclusions are deliberate and telling. For example, while Job is said to fear God, he is not said to love him, as the author omits the second half of the commandment from Deuteronomy: “To fear the Lord your God… and to love him.”17 Likewise, while Job is said to turn away from evil, he is not said to do good, omitting the proactive side of another biblical directive, this time from the Book of Psalms: “Turn away from evil, and do good.”18 There is also a conspicuous omission of the adjectives “wise,” “righteous,” and “good,” which, elsewhere in the Bible, are often paired with the terms describing Job. Significantly, we are left with strictly negative attributes, all of which describe a man whose piety is motivated by fear and compliance.
This analysis is reinforced through an examination of the specific words used to describe Job in the original Hebrew text. For example, his primary attribute, tam, is usually mistranslated as “perfect.” Literally, however, it means “innocent.” And indeed, just like “innocence” in English, tam can also carry the negative connotation of naןvetי. That is, of virtue devoid of awareness. King Abimelech, for instance, is described in Genesis 20 as tam, even as he abducts Abraham’s wife Sarah—and deemed “a dead man” for this atrocity—simply because he was unaware of Sarah’s marital status. Likewise, in I Kings 22, tam is used to describe an archer who kills a person unawares. In both examples, the offenders are far from “perfect” in any positive sense of the word. Their innocence is technical, legally exculpatory, but nothing more. Likewise, regarding the four sons in the Passover Haggadah, the innocent simpleton is called tam. Like Job, he is, by definition, neither wicked nor wise.19
Job’s “unaware” psyche is most strongly portrayed in his approach to religious observance. There are several indications that Job follows God’s laws just to “be on the safe side.”20 He makes his weekly offerings, for example, because “It may be that my sons have sinned”21 (emphasis mine). The oblivious Job does not bother to gain firsthand knowledge of his children’s behavior, nor does he think that, for the offerings to take effect, his sons need to repent for their sins. Instead, he imagines that he is capable of sanctifying them, mechanically, from afar.22
Indeed, the book’s author takes care to suggest that the early Job’s ideas of faith and piety are little more than observed routine: “Thus did Job continually,” we are told in verse five—summarizing his character. But what of Job’s inner world? What of his prayers? What of his love for and knowledge of God? These are nonexistent. One recalls the words of Jeremiah: “You are near to their lips but far from their mind,”23 and of God’s words in the Book of Isaiah: “With their mouth and with their lips they honor me, but have removed their mind from me, and their fear of me is as a commandment of men learned by rote.”24 The Book of Job deals directly with this kind of rote, fear-driven observance. By repeating “and a day came” three separate times to mark the onset of the disasters that befall Job, the author punctuates how his protagonist’s comfortable routine is shattered by his ordeals, breaking the numbing cycle of his religious life.25
The shallowness of Job’s innocent faith is tellingly obvious in his initial response to the calamities that befall him. When Job says: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there: The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,”26 we are hearing a conditioned response, a robotic reaction which appears all the more unnatural and problematic when contrasted with the response of other biblical figures to great loss and tragedy. Remember: Job has just lost ten children. Can anyone imagine Jacob responding similarly to the loss of Joseph? Or David to the loss of five sons? Hardly. Jacob “refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into Sheol unto my son mourning.”27 King David, lamenting the loss of Absalom, “cried with a loud voice… my son, my son!”28 Likewise, God glorifies Rachel for refusing comfort: “A voice is heard in Rama, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children… for they are no more.”29 Judged by these standards, Job’s response is almost repulsive. Whereas true sages express desolation with rage and tears, Job’s lip service to God merely enacts the last of a series of rituals that begins with rending his mantle and shaving his head.30 Mentally comatose, he does not know how to respond authentically to grief.31
Just as Satan predicted, Job’s mechanical stoicism begins to crack only after his own body is afflicted with a painful ailment. When his wife goads him, saying: “Do you still retain your innocence? Curse God and die,” Job again falls back on reflex, asking: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive the bad?”32 Yet this retort—as the text immediately reveals when Job curses life—is emotionally dishonest. Job is not being true to his inner devastation. Moreover, he is quick to insult his grieving wife, despite the immensity of their shared loss, shouting: “You speak as one of the degenerates!”33 This response stands in stark contrast to the conciliatory tone adopted by Abraham and Isaac when confronted with their wives’ resentment of God in moments of crisis, and it reveals a deep contempt toward those “degenerates” beyond his social circle. The author expects the attentive reader to intuit that this is something a tzadik would never say. Thus, as Job snaps, he exhibits a deep-seated insensitivity toward the suffering of others, and sensitivity is an essential trait of spirituality.34
In fact, a careful reading of the text reveals that the early Job is not a spiritual man in any sense of the term. Job’s understanding of God is deeply flawed. His formulaic responses—“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away”; “shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive the bad?”—indicate a belief in a God who demands pure, unthinking obedience.35 Job’s God evokes no feelings of wonder, love, and yearning; or of anger and bewilderment. He is defined by blind power and absolute authority and has no relationship with man, no presumption of justice, and no inner resonance with the conscience of humankind. For all intents and purposes, this God is no more than a pagan deity. And just as in pagan worship, this God can only be appeased.
The Job we have just described is no saint. His faith in God is shallow and unthinking. In his prosperity his observance is routine. In his grief he is selfish, unfeeling, and unaware of other people, including his own wife.36 It is with this Job that the true narrative begins.

Job’s first transformation results in his acquisition of compassion and social awareness, and qualifies him as a morally righteous man. Previously ruled by self-interest, and unmindful in his religious attitude, Job gains, in the course of this transformation, a positive, proactive attribute, namely empathy with the suffering of others and a sense of responsibility toward people in need. 37
As we have seen, the early Job verges on emotional autism. When he laments the tragedies which have befallen him, it is almost as if the true victims—his slaves and his children—never even existed: “Naked came I… naked shall I return,” he utters in self-obsession.38 Job’s early actions are also at fault. His sacrifices for his sons were fear-driven and impersonal, while his daughters were ignored.39 Elifaz, in attempting to compliment Job on his devoutness, can point only to pious words: the fact that he has “chastised many,” much as he has chastised his grieving wife.40 Noticeably absent is any mention of a positive action, i.e., any generosity toward the less fortunate. Elifaz emphasizes these failings later in the text:
Is not your wickedness great? And your iniquities infinite? For you have taken pledges from your brother for naught and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have not given water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry…. You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken.41
Elifaz clearly goes overboard with his accusations, an offense that will, at the book’s conclusion, require mild penance on his part. Nonetheless, given Elifaz’s comfort with voicing such accusations in public, it is clear that the early Job was hardly a paragon of charity.42

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