seeing that the Genesis thread has been revived…
Job is one of the better known characters of the Bible, and the Book of Job is one of the most difficult, controversial, intriguing, philosophical, contradictory books of not just The Bible, but of all literature. The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happen to a Good Person by Harold Kushner is a highly readable summary and discussion of Job’s story.
Several years ago I read another book by Rabbi Kushner called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I can’t remember all the details but I do recall being impressed by his philosophical take on suffering, particularly by those who don’t deserve physical or emotional pain. When I saw his new book at the library, I couldn’t help but take it out.
For those who do not know the story of Job, here is a brief summary. God and Satan are talking. Satan is not the horn-headed, pitchfork carrying, curly tailed, hellish red monster that we generally envision but as Kushner tells us is actually a watcher of humans coming to tell God about what he has observed. God asks about his pious servant Job and when Satan tells God that Job is pious only because God has bestowed great fortune on him, a wager is made. In other words, let’s see how Job reacts when bad things happen to him. (I have trouble with a supposedly good god doing this.)
Immediately, all of Job’s cattle, sheep and camels are killed or stolen. His crops are destroyed. His 10 children are murdered. Finally, Job is covered with boils. His wife asks him to curse God and die and three friends try to get Job to admit that he must have done something wrong to have this happen to him. Job refuses both. All he wants is an explanation from God. God comes down and tells Job that Job cannot begin to understand what it is like to be the Creator and that God does not have to answer to anyone. However, because Job remained righteous, Job is given back his possessions (in fact doubled) and he fathers 10 more children. (His poor wife.)
One of the advantages of being an atheist is that I don’t have to tie myself in a knot trying to reconcile this conundrum: if God is all good and all powerful, why does evil exist? Why do bad things happen, especially to good people? After detailing the story of Job, Kushner spends the rest of his book wrestling with that problem including summaries of Jewish philosophers from the past. All of it makes fascinating reading, but in the end, if I were a believer, I am not sure how satisfied I would be at the explanation.
According to Kushner, God is not completely powerful. He really doesn’t have total control of the chaos that he overcame at Creation. He has no control over the evil that occurs from the free will given to humans. There needs to be challenges for humans to overcome and improve. (But don’t you think a little intervention say when Hitler was constructing concentration camps or when the hurricanes are about to touch land might be helpful?) Kushner even goes so far as to remind us that though God cannot control everything he is always there guiding the people who try to do good in difficult times. In other words, God can’t be criticized for things going wrong but does get praise when things go right.
Despite my biases going in and coming out, I would highly recommend the book for anybody who wants to struggle with the philosophy and especially for anybody who wants to learn more about one of the most fascinating pieces of world literature.