45. Suffering, as per the Book of Job

The ideas we have been discussing - man's free will, God's omniscience and providence - in short, why bad things happen to good people - are also the theme of the Biblical book of Job. [III, 22] The Rambam subscribes to the Talmudic opinion that Job never existed and that his story is basically a fable, intended to teach a moral. At most, if Job did exist, the story is a work of historical fiction. (There is broad array of opinions among those who assert that Job was indeed a historical figure: some say he was a contemporary of the Forefathers, others say of Moses or of David, while still others say he was one of the exiled who returned from Babylonia. The Rambam feels that this vast difference of opinion reinforces the position that the Book is a work of fiction.)

Regardless of whether or not Job actually existed, the Book addresses the complex matter of a how a pious and upright individual is afflicted by a series of escalating misfortunes, ranging from property loss to the death of his children to severe bodily afflictions.

Even those who believe Job to be a historical personage concur that the prologue to the story is a parable. In the prologue, God grants "The Accuser" ("Satan" in Hebrew[1]) license to afflict Job in order to prove how upstanding he is. After Job is afflicted, he is visited by three friends and they engage in debate as to the reason for which God is afflicting him. All of them agree on one point: they all ascribe Job's afflictions directly to God rather than to The Adversary as an agent. The Rambam notes that the Bible only describes Job as being particularly virtuous; nowhere does it say that he was especially wise. Were he wiser, he would have had no doubts as to the cause of his afflictions, as will soon be shown.

The troubles that befell Job occurred in increasing intensity. There are people who can sustain even catastrophic financial losses so long as their families are safe. Others can even bear the loss of their loved ones but they cannot handle to be afflicted physically. Human nature is to praise God as benevolent when things are good or when one's troubles are small. Unfortunately, such is not the case when one is beset by troubles such as those faced by Job. Some people are ready to deny God and to say that there is no justice in the universe even when they face mere financial reversals. Others can maintain their faith through such trials but the loss of a child would be more than they could handle. Still others could bear even that tragedy but being bodily afflicted would cause them to complain against God.

Job and his friends actually agree on several points; that God is aware of Job's suffering; that He is responsible for it; and that no wrongdoing can be ascribed to God, so it must be just. [III, 23] The opinions cited by Job's friends contain much overlap and repetition of ideas. The assumption on their part is that the evil will suffer and the good will be rewarded; if the righteous are suffering, God will heal them. There are, however, a number of differences in their approaches.

Job, who was suffering but could not think of any misdeeds to ascribe to it, decided that God must hold all mankind in contempt, considering even the righteous to be evil compared to Him. (See, for example, Job 9:22, "...He destroys the innocent and the guilty.") Job has concluded that man is too insignificant to be worthy of God's attention.

The Rambam tells us that the reason Job was able to make such fundamental mistakes in his understanding was because he only knew God through traditions that had been passed on to him and not through personal investigation. Once he gained some firsthand experience in the matter, he changed his tune. (See Job 42:5-6, "I only knew You through hearsay; now I have seen You for myself. Now I despise (what I have said) and recant....")

Job's friend Elifaz is of the opinion that God operates the world according to the rules of strict justice. Job must have been guilty of something for which he deserved such punishment. In Job 22:5, he asks Job, "Isn't your wickedness great? Aren't your sins without end?" He goes on to say that Job's good deeds do not erase the bad ones, which would still require punishment.

Bildad, another friend, supports the theory of compensation: if Job has not committed any sins and is suffering, he will surely be rewarded for that. For example, in Job 8:7, he says, "Though your beginning was small, your end will increase greatly."

Job's friend Tzofar feels that everything that happens is the result of God's unquestionable will. Why does He do things the way He does? That's beyond our place to ask or understand. He tells Job, "If only God would speak...then you would know the secrets of wisdom" (Job 11:5-6).

These opinions correspond with the various theories of divine providence, as discussed in section 39. Job's position is like that of Aristotle; Bildad's is like that of the Mu'tazila; Tzofar's is like that of the Ash'ari; Elifaz' is like the one we learn from Tanach. These are the ancient positions on providence but then along comes Elihu - described as being younger but wiser than Job's other friends - and he advances a new position on the matter.

Elihu criticizes Job for praising himself and being surprised that bad things happen to good people. He then criticizes the first three of Job's friends, saying that their more advanced age has muddled their thinking. Surprisingly, he then goes on to restate their various arguments, perhaps more clearly than they did. But Elihu adds something new of great importance: he discusses how sometimes an angel intercedes on a person's behalf. For example, a person might be seriously ill. If an angel intercedes on the patient's behalf, he might be spared and recover. (He also might not; there's no guarantee.) A person might enjoy such intercession two or three times at the most (see Job 33:29).

This line of discussion is unique to Elihu, who also discusses the nature of prophecy (33:14-15), as well as many aspects of natural science, astronomy, and other areas. He impresses upon Job (and us) the wonders of God's world, which we are unable to comprehend. If we can't understand the creatures and physical phenomena that God has created, how can we hope to grasp the manner in which He runs the world? We must be satisfied that God sees all and has everything under control, as Elihu says, "His eyes are on the ways of man and He sees all his footsteps" (Job 43:21).

The main lesson of the Book of Job is that God's management of the world is not the same as a human's management of his own affairs. As with such concepts as "alive" (see section 5) and "wisdom" (see section 43), the term means something completely different when applied to God. We say that God "manages" the universe because it is a concept we can understand but we must not trick ourselves into thinking that it in any way resembles human management.

Job (the Book) teaches us that we must have faith and not delude ourselves into thinking that God is like one of us. With this understanding, misfortunes become easier for one to bear. Quite the opposite, one's love for God will only increase, as Job's did once he understood things for himself (see 42:5-6, cited above).


1. While the English word "Satan" is derived from The Accuser's name in Hebrew, the Jewish concept has nothing in common with the stereotypical "devil." Satan is merely one of God's agents, whose job is to act as a prosecuting attorney. He is not a fallen angel, he doesn't rule Hell, and he doesn't want your soul.