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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The Book of Job Challenges Reward and Punishment

This concept of God contradicts not only that of the Wisdom of the Proverbs (in which the principle of just individual retribution is iterated in its simplest form) but that of the Torah and the Prophets as well. These writings bear the imprint of God's saving acts, the Exodus and the Conquest; they represent God as the maintainer of the moral order, and interpret events in terms of reward and punishment.

A More Complex View of God's Justice

The religious sensibility apparently absorbs or even affirms the contradictions embodied in these books. That may be because these contradictions are perceived to exist in reality. One can see in individual life as in collective life a moral causality (which the religious regard as divinely maintained; indeed, as a reflection of God's attributes): evil recoils upon the evildoers, whether individual or collective; goodness brings blessings.

At the same time, the manifestation of this causality can be so erratic or so delayed as to cast doubt on its validity as the single key to the destiny of men and nations. Hence the sober believer does not pin his faith solely on a simple axiom of the divine maintenance of moral causality, but neither will he altogether deny its force. No single key unlocks the mystery of destiny: "Within our ken is neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous (Avot 4:17)."

But, for all that, the sober believer does not endorse nihilism. Wisdom, Torah, and Prophets continue to represent for him one aspect of causality in events which he can confirm in his own private experience. But one aspect only. The other stands beyond his moral judgment, though it is still under God: namely, the mysterious or preordained decree of God, toward which the proper attitude is "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him (Job 13-15)."

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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.