Book review

Making sense of Job's undeserved suffering

Rabbi returns to vexing problem of undeserved afflictions

jmurawski@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2012 

  • Nonfiction The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person Harold S. Kushner Knopf Doubleday, 224 pages

It’s been more than three decades since Harold S. Kushner published “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a pop-theology blockbuster that launched the young rabbi into literary orbit. That book was written to help the author cope with the premature death of his 14-year-old son from rapid aging syndrome.

Making sense of a perfect God and a flawed world has long vexed Kushner, and he turns his attention to another afflicted innocent, Job of the Old Testament. Kushner regards Job as the most sublime and troubling text of the Jewish Bible, both for its soaring poetry and an unchecked rage that many commentators have noted borders on blasphemy.

For those reasons, Kushner declares in his latest effort, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” that Job is “a thoroughly Jewish book, especially in its preference for truth and honesty over received doctrine.”

It bears noting that scholars have come to believe there were originally two stories about Job. One was a simple Mesopotamian folk tale about a pious Everyman who endures hardship in passive humility. This is the story most people have in mind when they talk about the patience of Job.

But there was a later Jewish treatise about a defiant Job who shakes his fist at the heavens and rails at his Maker. The duo is paired in the Bible as a single story, though in modern editions it’s differentiated by prose and verse. Most readers seem to be unaware of the fulminating Job who takes up most of the book that bears his name.

Kushner writes that “90 percent of the biblical book of Job portrays a Job who repeatedly challenges the fairness of God.” Therefore “it makes far more sense to read the Poem as a challenge to, and a rejection of, the theology of the Fable.”

Still, Kushner notes that Job’s searing indictment of God is so shocking that it’s a wonder the book was included in the Bible. The fact that Job is a gentile, rather than a Jew, helps explain how a biblical character could spout ungodly rage that presumably no God-fearing Jew would dare whisper. When Job’s wife suggests to her disease-wracked husband that he curse God and die, Job takes to the task with the moral fervor of a prophet.

“I insist on arguing with God,” Job declares at one point – after he has accused God of mocking innocents who suffer.

This is a topic that Kushner had long wanted to take on in a book-length study, but he was advised in graduate school to put if off until he reached intellectual and spiritual maturity. Now, a lifetime of scholarship and reflection have yielded a digressive but accessible volume that surveys centuries of commentary on Job by such learned lights as Moses Maimonides, Isaac Luria, Baruch Spinoza, Martin Buber, Robert Alter and Archibald MacLeish.

The basic outline of the Bible story is well known. Satan wagers that the wealthy and contented Job will backslide from his easy faith and blaspheme God if he is put to the test. God agrees to the cruel experiment and steps aside to let Satan inflict torment after torment on God’s faithful servant to see if the man’s will can be broken.

Readers might be tempted to see this cosmic prank as a vindication for Satan, but sages ancient and modern have come up with creative ways to exonerate God. Kushner concludes the Creator must not be Almighty, and therefore, is not in a position to prevent pain and suffering.

“Who taught us to worship power as the ultimate virtue?” Kushner writes. “Better a limited God than a cruel, uncaring one.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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