Book Review: Solving the puzzle of Job

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One of my favorite interpretations of the Book of Job is a decidedly offbeat one: Robert Schlobin compares Job to a horror story ("Prototype Horror: The Genre of the Book of Job" in volume 6 of the journal Semeia). His analysis works in a quirky way, with the God-Job relationship mirroring that of the monster-victim relationship found in the genre. While thought-provoking, it doesn’t deal with the theological questions the book raises, though. Fortunately, there are two new works that offer interesting insights into this atypical biblical book: "The Book of Job: Annotated and Explained" translated and annotated by Donald Kraus (Skylights Publishing) and "The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happen to a Good Person" by Harold S. Kushner (Schocken Books), the latest work in the Jewish Encounter Series. Unlike the first five books of the Bible, with their promise that God will reward good behavior and punish bad, Job raises the question of why terrible things might happen to a righteous person.

While each book works well on its own, reading them together reminded me of just how complex and stimulating a discussion of Job can be. The two authors approach the book from different perspectives. Kraus, who is not Jewish and serves as an executive editor for Oxford University Press, views Job from an academic point of view. In his introduction, he discusses the history of the work, placing in its appropriate time frame and outlining its different sections, before offering his translation and commentary. That makes his book an excellent starting place for those either unfamiliar with Job or looking to refresh their memory.

Kushner, on the other hand, is a retired pulpit rabbi who views Job from a Jewish theological standpoint. Although he’s written more than a dozen books, Kushner is best known for "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," a work inspired by his search for meaning after the loss of his 14-year-old son to a rare disease. In his new book, he mines insights from Job into the nature of good and evil in order to find a satisfying answer to the question of how God can allow good people to suffer. Although Kushner quotes extensively from Job, his assumption is that readers are already familiar with its storyline and characters.

Both authors comment on the basic set-up of the book, noting that the first and last prose sections come from a later period than the central poem. The plot is relatively simple: the first two chapters describe a bet made between God and a member of heaven Kraus calls a "Provoker," the result of which is that Job loses his possessions, family and health. In the final chapter, Job is given a new family, and his wealth and health are restored. The central poem has no direct plot; it is instead a series of poetic dialogues that discuss the nature of God and God’s relationship to the world.

Kraus examines the entire book, while Kushner focuses on the poem. Kushner dismisses the prose sections (which he calls a fable) since he believes few people still accept a theology of a direct reward-and-punishment manner. That makes the fable irrelevant to his search for meaning, particularly since he believes the poetic sections of Job also dismiss this theological approach. Kraus, on the other hand, writes that the fable sets the tone of Job, showing us that we are not meant to take it as fact. For Kraus, the book serves as a "what if?" tale: "What if there were a truly just man who suffered greatly?" The poetic dialogues then explore several potential answers to this question. They include discussions between Job and several friends who visit him after his many losses, in addition to a long speech by God about the nature of creation.

One fundamental point on which the authors disagree is Job’s reaction to his friends’ initial comments. Kraus claims that Job wants his friends to sympathize with him, to acknowledge the horrible things that happened to him. Instead, they start lecturing him, trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong. The translation of the verse 19:21-22 helps make this clear: Job says, "For pity’s sake, my friends, pity me! Why do you, like God, chase me down? Haven’t you gotten enough of my flesh?" Job wants his friends just to listen, to acknowledge his tale of woe, rather than trying to find a reason behind his troubles. He’s mourning for his life and his family, and he hears his friends saying he brought this on himself.

Kushner, however, views this interaction in a different light. He believes Job’s friends are trying to comfort him. When they first speak to him, they use a theology they expect Job to share, one that says everyone makes mistakes and must pay the price. What Job does is jump down their throats for suggesting he has done anything to deserve this. As the conversation continues, Job’s friends lose patience with him and their dialogue deteriorates. Kushner notes that Job is angry with God, something his friends don’t see as acceptable, but which Kushner considers "heroic." Unlike a great deal of rabbinic commentary, which condemns Job’s reaction, Kushner believes that being angry with God "may be one of the hallmarks of a truly religious person. It puts honesty ahead of flattery." Job is open and honest with God when he demands that God explain the reason behind his afflictions.

The breakdown in the conversation between Job and his friends helps Kushner explain sections of the text that have been traditionally difficult to translate. Kraus, like many scholars, feels that these chapters contain corrupted text: scribes made mistakes in their handwritten documents, which were then passed down to the next generation. Kushner, though, prefers to treat these sections as accurate transcriptions. He believes that, for example, the words that don’t sound like Job are really his "mocking paraphrase of what the friends have been saying" – a biblical example of sarcasm. As Job and his friends continued to argue, seemingly disconnected verses could be an overlap in dialogue, which would make it difficult to know who was talking.

The central question for both authors is whether or not Job explains why righteous people suffer. For Kraus, the biblical book shows us that there is no single abstract answer; instead, "it is an existential question that can only be answered in the context of an individual, lived human life." Kushner uses the last 40 pages of his work to explore different Jewish suggestions, only to dismiss most of them. His life experiences have taught him to find God "not in the perfection of the world," but "in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty." He believes Job has also learned this lesson: it’s enough for the two men to "know" that God is with them, even in their darkest moments.

This review cannot do justice to the depth of the interpretations offered by Kraus and Kushner. Reading their works together offers a richer exploration of Job than either would have on its own. Neither completely satisfied me, though: Unlike Kushner, I prefer to view the Book of Job as a whole, rather than dividing it into fable versus poem, because that’s the text found in the Jewish canon. I also disagree with both authors about God’s speeches to Job, which seem more bluster and noise than any real attempt to either answer Job’s questions or explain the unknowable nature of the world. However, both works show the importance of studying Job in contemporary times; I was grateful for the opportunity to once again explore this fascinating and puzzling work.