Learning the Book of Job in a Pandemic

Before Covid-19 (BC for short), a group at a local synagogue invited me to learn with them a text of their choosing from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. As a newly minted Orthodox Rabbi, who happens to identify as female, I was expecting the choice to be one that reflected those pieces of my identity—perhaps the Megillot of Esther and Ruth or a survey of the matriarchs. But alas, they wanted to learn Job, Iyov, the quintessential piece in the Jewish canon of suffering and theodicy, God’s justice on earth. Even before the pandemic, Job, with its 42 chapters and hard to decipher Hebrew text is usually not the most popular or requested by Jewish learners. None of the characters are necessarily Jews, dating the writing of the text has confounded scholars for years and at least at the beginning, the narrative incorporates Canaanite and pagan mythology and folk tales. The vivid descriptions of Job’s physical suffering—he is stuck rotting in a refuse dump covered with sores-is admittedly hard to take. Initially, I didn’t mark it as the most uplifting or inspiring text in our tradition. I taught a Bat Mitzvah girl many years ago for our Women’s Tefillah Group. I instructed her how to lain and daven and her father, a physician and part-time Bible scholar reviewed the parasha and learned with her an additional book of the Tanakh for a siyyum. The book he chose was Job and I made fun of him immediately for his choice. I teased him saying, ‘ If your daughter is beginning to accept ol mitzvot, literally the yoke of observing the commandments as an adult, perhaps Job isn’t the best choice. Job seems to be an a-plus law abiding citizen who without warning or reason loses everything— his wife, his children, his property and his reputation in the community. Why would you want to teach this to anyone let alone a young woman who was just learning her responsibilities of Jewish adulthood?’

Yet, Job is what this intrepid synagogue group wanted to study and I accepted the challenge. To be honest, I had never really studied this book fully and for what I knew about it, I later found out, wasn’t really correct. I asked my father, Rabbi/Professor David Novak suggestions for research and he recommended ‘The Book of Job’ by his bible professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Robert Gordis.This master work includes not only commentary but linguistic, semiotic and archeological evidence that is a little beyond my understanding. However, Gordis’s careful reading gave me a true picture of the story that has been so corrupted by time and popular culture. (The Coen Brothers, 2009 movie, ‘A Serious Man’ being the latest disappointing treatment of the story)

Job is indeed a story of God’s law on earth and a man’s deep suffering. But, as with any story of Torah, it is so very much more. The entire arc of the Job story actually has a lot to offer us even more so during a worldwide pandemic when all of us are struggling, many are suffering and questioning God, “Why is this happening to us? What have we done to deserve this?”

The story begins as a cheery fairy tale describing Job’s good fortune. He has a large family, a lot of wealth and presides over a continuous feast and party in his home, open to all the members of the community. Job doesn’t seem to be totally unaware of the source of his good fortune. While he knows that he is good, he offers guilt sacrifices for his sons because, ‘Perhaps my sons have offended and cursed God in their hearts.’ (1:5) Job knows he has a good thing going and does what he deems necessary to let the good times roll.

It is here the narrative switches to heaven where a very strange exchange occurs between the Adversary (Satan) and God. (Many scholars believe that this initial encounter is copied from the Canaanite folk tale as a means to draw the reader in. It is interesting to note that the Satan doesn’t return at the end of the book to accept the ending to the contest). The Satan seems to challenge God and regarding Job he says, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not safely hedged him in and his house and all he owns on every side?’ (1:9-10) You God, the Adversary notes, have made everything easy for Job. Of course he will praise you. But if you take away all those good things including his family, perhaps Job will curse you and lose faith in You, God. God accepts the challenge and sweeps away everything from Job. And yet, he doesn’t curse God or deny God’s existence. ‘With all this, Job did not sin, nor did he put blame on God.’ (1:22)

The Adversary is not appeased that his challenge has been met, so he ups the ante and pushes God to punish Job bodily. ‘But put forth Your hand and touch his own flesh and bones and he will surely curse You to Your face.’ (2:5) It is important to note that the challenge is not that Job will deny the existence of God but rather will blame God for his misfortune. Throughout this entire ordeal, Job never gives up his faith that it is God that is in control of the universe. But rather, his trial is to see if he will blame and curse God—an offense for all humans as per the Noahide laws- for the catastrophe that has happened to him.

God follows the Adversary’s suggestion and afflicts Job’s actual body with such grave physical suffering that it is hard for anyone including his remaining loved ones to look at him. His wife implores him, ‘ Do you still cling to your innocence? Curse God and die.’ Yet, Job refuses to curse god, ‘…Yet even with all this, Job committed no sin with his lips.’ (2:10) Soon his friends come to console Job, but they are shocked by the very sight of him, ‘They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, no one saying a word, for they saw that his agony was very great.’ (2:13)

In Chapter three, Job slowly begins to complain about his predicament. Yet, he doesn’t curse God, rather curses his own existence. Using the passive voice, he avoids blaming God directly. ‘Afterwards Job began to speak and cursed the day of his birth… Why did I not die in the womb? Or perish as I came forth from it?’ (3:1,11) Job does however blame God for making life such a breeze for him. ‘Why is life given to the man whose way is hidden, whom God has fenced in?’(3:23). At the end of this chapter, Job seems to be resigned to his new reality. ‘I have no ease, no peace, no rest. What has come is agony.’ (3:26)

The friends, who at first were stunned into silence, now begin to speak and speak at length. (There are three rounds for each with an unknown visitor at the end). The first thing that is apparent is that their speeches aren’t exactly there to console. (In fact, the friends’ responses are precisely what one should not say to someone who is suffering.) Each one pontificates about the reasons for Job’s pain and offer a way for him to resolve his dilemma, implying that it was Job’s own actions that got him in this mess and it will be Job’s actions that will get him out of it. Job then responds to each claim thereby refining his complaint.

In the first round, the friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar make the following claims to Job:
-The truly righteous are never destroyed. Only the wicked, those who sin, are punished—either them or their children.
– God’s justice is infallible and only those who sin are punished. So, Job is arrogant and not as good as he appears, otherwise God wouldn’t be punishing him.
-All men are imperfect, so there must be a purpose to suffering.
– God only truly causes this suffering to those He loves to reprove them.
– And finally, God doesn’t create evil; man does.

Job, understandably, responds with anger. Remember, he is physically stuck in a garbage pit writhing in agony and instead of words of comfort or kindness, Job’s friends confront him with idea of theology and theodicy. ‘My brothers betray me like a desert stream, like the channel of brooks that run dry.’ (6:15) Job matches them claim for claim stating:

Why does God torture him if He can’t really change my fate? (‘My days are swifter than the weaver’s shuttle; they end in the absence of hope.’ 7:6) Job asks how he could be so important to God, that He would care about his deeds. Why would God need to torture Job in order to reprove him? The God Job sees is a God of violence who kills the good and evil together and won’t listen to him if he calls out. Job doesn’t have faith in this God, but he holds out hope for a God of justice, an arbiter, who will come and be an advocate on his behalf. (9:33-34 ‘If only there were an arbiter between us who would lay his hand upon us both, who would remove God’s rod from me so that my dread of Him- God of violence- would not terrify me.’) Job shows his disdain for what he sees as a false God who causes suffering (10:3- Does it do You good to practice oppression, to despise the work of Your hands and show favor to the plans of the wicked?)

In his initial reply to Zophar, we finally see what Job’s true complaint is. Job asks that if he has indeed sinned (which his friends are convinced that he must have), could God just please have the courtesy to tell him what he has done wrong? Job is not denying the existence of God at all, but rather is demanding that the real God, the God of Justice, come and reveal to him his crimes. (13:23-24 ‘How many are my iniquities and sin? Let me know my transgressions and my sin. Why do You hide Your face and consider me Your enemy?’)

In the second round, the friends again state their understanding of God’s justice and punishment. Again, there are no true words of solace as Job continues to visibly be in horrific pain. They bombard Job with the following:

-The wicked may seem to be living with security but they actually live with the worry that they will be punished by God at any time.
-Job is a sinner and deserves all the suffering and agony God has given you.
-The greatest punishment for evil doers is the loss of children. You have lost your children Job thus you must be a sinner.
-God is the only perfect being thus Job should stop insisting on his own perfection.
-Humans only get a glimpse of the greatness of God and can’t comprehend His ways.

Job responds much as before. His friends are the worst consolers and if they truly wanted to help him they would take up his cause and demand that the God of Justice, not the God of Violence come down from heaven and tell him what he has done wrong. While some wicked people are destroyed many are not. Why does God punish the sinner’s children and not the sinner directly? If God means to do justice against the wicked, why does He wait and not punish them immediately? And while human beings may not completely comprehend God’s ways, there are limits to God’s wisdom and divine justice. Job repeatedly proclaims his innocence and that he has never blasphemed God. ‘My righteousness I have held fast, and never let it go; my heart harbored no blasphemy all my days.” (27:6) Job agrees to follow only the plan of the true God, the God of Justice. ‘Let me teach you, speaking on God’s behalf; what He has in mind, I shall not deny.’ (27:11)

At this point in the narrative, Chapter 28, the author includes a meditation on Divine Wisdom. Divine Wisdom is hard from human beings to find on earth and only God knows where to find it. ‘But God understood her way, and He knew her place, when he looked to the ends of the earth and saw everything under heaven. ‘(28:23-24) For one to be wise requires one to at least avoid evil. ‘But to man He said, ‘To be in awe of the Lord–that is wisdom and to avoid evil–that is understanding.’ (28:28)

Job then delivers his last soliloquy summarizing his experience thus far and responses to his so called friends. He begins by reminiscing about his life before the catastrophe. Life was wonderful and he felt that God truly took care of him. Man showed him honor and he, in turn, took responsibility and advocated for them. But now, all is lost and everyone hates him. Job feels rejected and hated by God but yet he still believes. Job pleads his case that he is undeserving of such cruel punishment as he is a man of honor and has always helped the misfortunate. Job avows that he neither has worshipped idols nor has ever hidden his sins. Job ends his impassioned plea by asking for the God of Justice to come answer him and tell him what he has done wrong. ‘O, that I had someone to hear me! Behold, this is my desire: that the Almighty answer me, and my opponent, write out his indictment.’ (31:35)

Logically, the story should continue here with God coming to earth. Instead, for the next six chapters, (32-37), we are introduced to another so-called friend, Elihu. (Scholars believe that this particular person was added much later to the narrative). Elihu’s four speeches repeat many of themes seen previously including:
-God only punishes those he truly loves, recapitulating the ‘Chastenings of Love’ idea.
-Job must truly be a sinner for God does not pervert His justice.
-Evil only occurs because of the sins of people. Human beings foment evil, not God.
-Humans cannot affect God’s behavior, only other human beings.
-The only reason one cries out to God is because of suffering not because of a true or real desire to actually talk to God.
-God only makes people suffer so that they will see their sins and repent.
-God is just beyond human understanding.
‘The Almighty-whom we cannot reach-is great both in power and in justice, the man abounding in goodness, He does not torment. Therefore do men fear Him; Yes, all the wise-hearted stand in awe.’ (37:23-24)

Finally, after Job’s fervent prayers and cries, God appears, out of the whirlwind.
God, arriving as the God of Justice, speaks directly to Job describing what it is like to God of the Universe and that Job has not even the slightest inkling of what it is like to be God.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have any understanding.’ (38:4) ‘Have you ever commanded the morning or assigned its place to the dawn? (38:12) ‘Have you observed the breadth of the earth? Declare, if you know it at all. (38:18) ‘Do you know the laws of the heavens; can you establish order on the earth ?’ (38:33) God rebuffs the idea that Job or anyone can teach God anything. ‘….Can he who argues with the Almighty instruct Him? Can he who reproves God answer all this?’ (40:2)

Job, possibly overwhelmed by God’s presence, responds meekly. “Behold I am of small account; how can I answer You? I lay my hand to my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not reply again; twice but I will proceed no further.’ (40:4-5)

God continues asking if Job will deny His justice so that Job will be in the right and God in the wrong. But God then also considers the possibility of Job being the Judge of the world, where God would then follow Job’s justice. ‘There I too will render you homage, when your right hand will have brought you victory.’ (40:14) Gordis, in his commentary, reads this statement of God to possibly imply that there may be small corners of the world where God’s power might not be all encompassing. While the book has continuously insisted that God does not create evil but people do, this statement posits another somewhat corollary idea for evil in the world. Evil may exist in those places where God is not completely present or where God cedes his power to human beings. When Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his wildly popular book, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, traditionalists excoriated him for suggesting that evil may happen in the world because God is not necessarily omniscient and omnipresent. Many accused him of simply popularizing the phrase ‘Shit happens’ ( This saying is prominently worn by the character Forrest Gump–a book and movie I might add was also hated by traditional theologians for this and the book’s other approaches to theodicy) However, it seems that this idea was not so revolutionary in as much as it comes out of God’s proverbial mouth in this story.

Job’s reply here at first glance seems to have him cowering before God. But, in His speech to Job, God has indeed answered his plea. God has arrived as the God of Justice and has explained, albeit not completely, how he metes out justice and why evil befalls human beings. Job’s prayers have been answered and only now does he feel compelled to repent. ‘I know that You can do all things and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. You have said, ‘Who is this that hides My plan without knowledge?’ Indeed, I have spoken without understanding; of things too wonderful for me which I did not grasp. You have said, “Hear, and I will speak; I will ask you and do you inform Me.’ I have heard of You by hearsay, but now my own eyes have seen You. Therefore I abase myself and repent in dust and ashes.’ (42:1-6)

With Job’s repentance, one might expect the ‘friends’ to rejoice or possibly tell Job, ‘we told you so!’ The Satan should be returning at this point to concede his loss with his wager with God. However, God remains on scene to bolster Job in his recovery. God rebukes the friends and accuses them of lying. ‘After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My anger I kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as has my servant Job.’ (42:7) God now tells the friends that they must repent and must go through Job for forgiveness. (‘My servant Job must intercede for you…42:8)

Job does pray for his friends and in doing so God rewards him greatly. ‘And the Lord restored Job’s fortunes when he prayed for his companions and the Lord increased twofold all that Job had.’ (42:10) Job’s life is then immediately rebooted, beginning with his true friends coming to console him properly. God “…blessed the end of Job’s life more than his beginning…” (42:12) Job has an immense amount of cattle and livestock. He has fourteen sons and three extraordinarily beautiful daughters who unlike other women of the time are given an inheritance along with their brothers. Job lives another 140 years after his travail, living to see four generations of his family. The book ends simply, ‘ So Job died, an old man, satisfied with life.’ (42:17)

This very misunderstood sefer included in the wisdom books of the Tanakh offers us much to consider regarding our relationship with God and when we reach out to the Almighty. For although Job seems to only truly reach out in a personal way to God after he experiences an enormous trauma, God does indeed come to speak with him. And while God’s answer was possibly not the one Job wanted to hear, nevertheless, a conversation happens. God doesn’t come to rebuke Job but rather begins the discourse by lamenting how hard it is to be God. When offering Job a chance to take over for a while in the judgment chair, God reveals his longing to have a partner in ruling the universe. It is not only Job who searches for God, but as my father’s late revered teacher, Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, God is indeed in search of man.
Job tells us that when we are suffering the question to ask God is not why is this happening but rather simply to engage God in conversation. For as much as we need to ask during times of hardship, it is just as important for God to speak to us. This dialogue needs to be structured in a way not of rebuke and castigation but of real desire for connection and love. Job also teaches us that in times of hardship we must resist the urge to blame the victims or to assume to know why God acts as God does. This curious narrative also reminds us that personal introspection during a crisis has the very real danger of becoming a truly selfish endeavor. If we get so caught up in self-improvement we will miss the mark, we will sin, and miss our opportunity for a meaningful relationship with God.

The lesson however is not to say that this conversation can’t be heated and come from anger. My teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, relates that when doing marriage counseling, he has hope for a couple struggling even if they are screaming and yelling at each other because they are at least still engaging with one another. When, however, couples would come to his office and sit in silence, he knew that divorce was imminent. Yet, the justified anger that we have towards God must not be blaming or humiliating. It can kick start the conversation but can’t remain in that angry space.

We learn from Job that real repentance can only come with including God in the picture and to see and have faith in a God, not as the God of violence but the God of loving and compassionate Justice. When we pray on this Yom Kippur and at all times we need to allow ourselves to have that two way conversation. We need it and perhaps God needs it even more.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group.
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