The Book of Job

The book of Job challenges the simple equation of suffering with punishment, by telling the story of one righteous man's confrontation with overwhelming misfortune.

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This article is excerpted from The Book of Job, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The book of Job begins with a prologue (chapters 1-2), which describes a wager between Satan and God, in which Satan ("the adversary") bets God that Job--a particularly pious man--will abandon his piety and curse God if all his wealth and well-being are taken away. At the end of the prologue, Job has suffered many terrible losses, including his children and his health, but he nevertheless remains "patient," refusing to speak against God.

The tone of the work abruptly changes, however, in chapter 3, as Job begins his poetic speeches by cursing the day on which he was born. This central section consists of the "comforting" words of his friends, who try to persuade Job that if he is suffering he must have sinned, and Job's increasingly bitter retorts that he is innocent, and that his punishment is undeserved.  Job ultimately calls God to court (as it were), to answer the charge of injustice, and Job does receive an "answer"; two speeches by God from the midst of a storm, or whirlwind--the meaning of which have been the subject of much theological speculation.

The book closes with an epilogue (42:7-17), conventionally, as it began, almost as though Job had not uttered a single negative word; he recovers and is given a new family.  It is generally understood by modern scholars that the central poetic section of the book, in which Job is forced by his changed  circumstances  to reject his simplistically  pious views, was ironically and  intentionally set between the beginning and end of a conventionally pious story of a man called Job who remained faithful to God in his suffering. The result is a work which overturns, in many respects, the conventional biblical view that suffering is the result of sin.

job and his daughtersWhat the Book of Job is About

Job is a book not so much about God's justice as about the transformation of a man whose piety and view of the world were formed in a setting of wealth and happiness, and into whose life burst calamities that put an end to both. How can piety nurtured in prosperity prove truly deep‑rooted and disinterested, and not merely a spiritual adjunct of good fortune ("God has been good to me so I am faithful to Him")? 

Can a man pious in prosperity remain pious when he is cut down by anarchical events that belie his orderly view of the world? The Book of Job tells how one man suddenly awakened to the anarchy rampant in the world, yet his attachment to God outlived the ruin of his tidy system.

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Moshe Greenberg

Moshe Greenberg is professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and recipient of the Israel Prize in Bible, 1994.