Avraham ben Yaakov


The book of Job is unique in the entire Bible canon as being a complete work devoted to one question: Why do good people suffer? This question has proved to be a most difficult and, at times, insuperable challenge to many people's faith in the God of justice.

The identity of Job himself and that of the author of the book bearing his name are both obscure in the extreme. The Talmud in Bava Basra (15b) brings no fewer than eight different opinions as to the period of time in which Job lived: at the time of the Exodus / in the time of the spies / in the time of Ezra / in the days of the Judges / in the time of Ahasuerus / during the ascendancy of Sheba / during the ascendancy of the Chaldeans / in the time of Jacob. The same passage in the Talmud also brings another opinion - that Job never existed at all but is a purely allegorical figure. Perhaps this opinion comes to emphasize that it hardly matters when Job actually lived or, because in truth he is a universal figure and the lessons to be learned from his book apply in all ages.

They apply not only to the people of Israel , to whom most of the books of the Bible are primarily addressed, but to all humanity. Thus although, according to some of the rabbinic opinions cited in the Talmud, Job could have been an Israelite, the most widely accepted opinion is that he was a righteous gentile, and it is precisely this that gives the book its universality. Job's own testimony about his upright path (chapter 29) provides a shining ideal to which all mankind should aspire.

When Job's companions came to comfort him in his suffering, they argued that suffering is sent to man because of his sins and that Job could therefore not have been completely righteous. Yet Job himself was unwavering in his protestations of his own innocence, and most of the rabbis agreed that Job did not sin. It is his very innocence that makes him the exemplar of the suffering Tzaddik, whereas had he sinned, it would have detracted from his quest to unravel the mystery of why the righteous suffer.

Many of the rabbis were of the opinion that the book of Job was written prophetically by Moses.

V 1: "There was a man in the land of OOTZ ." The commentators associate this land with Aram Naharayim, where Nahor the brother of Abraham lived (Gen. 24:10) - Ootz was Nahor's firstborn (ibid. v 22). Targum on Lamentations 4:21 identifies "the land of OOTZ " with Armenia , stating that this was inhabited by Edomites. Ibn Ezra and Ramban (on Job 1:1) concur in identifying Ootz as a land inhabited by Edomites. Ramban suggests that Job was a descendant of Abraham through Esau and that he knew his Creator and served him through fulfilling all the MITZVOS dictated by human reason and commonsense, in particular the MITZVOS of the heart, the root of all of which is the fear of God. Ramban argues that Job's companions were also Edomites, and in his introduction to the book of Job he suggests that it is appropriate that the lengthy dialogs it contains about human suffering are attributed to the descendants of Esau, the archetype of the sword-wielding warrior, symbolizing the Accuser who brings punishment into the world.

"And this man was pure and righteous and he feared God and turned aside from evil." This description is to be taken at face value since these are not the words of Job himself but those of the author of the book.

Vv 2ff: Job attained the very summit of material success, possessing abundant livestock - the main wealth in antiquity - as well as being blessed with seven sons and three daughters, who lived in the lap of luxury, feasting every single day.

For fear that his children may have become arrogant and denied God, Job regularly offered OLAH (whole burnt) offerings on their behalf. Verse 5 is adduced by the Talmud as proof that out of all the different kinds of Temple sacrifices, the OLAH offering specifically came to atone for untoward thoughts (Yerushalmi Yoma 42a).

V 6: "And the day came when all the sons of God came to stand before HaShem." - "This whole matter could have been known only by way of prophecy" (Ramban ad loc.). The prophet who wrote the book of Job depicts the heavenly scene on "THE DAY" - "this was Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgment" (Rashi) - when all the angels gathered in the BEIS DIN SHEL MA'ALAH, the "heavenly court". Although God is perfect unity and encompasses and includes all His angels, they are depicted as being "separate" from Him and "standing before Him" because each of the different angels depicts a different aspect or quality.

".and the Satan too came in their midst." Again, God is perfect unity, but there is an aspect that comes to test and try men, and this aspect is embodied in the figure of the "Satan". The Hebrew word Satan relates to the word SITNAH (Gen. 26:21 and Ezra 4:6) meaning strife and accusation. Commenting on our verse, the sages of the Talmud stated that the Satan has three roles. (1) He is the Tempter or YETZER RA, man's evil inclination. (2) Having tempted man and caused him to stumble, he then stands up as the Accuser, pointing to man's sins and demanding retribution. (3) Having indicted man, he comes to punish him in his third role, as the Angel of Death (Bava Basra 16a).

Vv 8-9: God Himself attests that in spite of Job's outstanding material success, he had not sinned in the way that so many of the wealthy and powerful sin, with arrogance and the denial of God. Yet the Satan argues that Job's righteousness had not yet been genuinely tested since he had been insulated from poverty and other harsh aspects of life.

Vv 11ff: The Satan demands that Job be tested to see if he will not blaspheme when he has a taste of suffering. God gives Satan authority to destroy Job's wealth and kill all his children - yet even in the face of these terrible calamities, Job does not complain that God has been unjust. Instead he stoically states in his immortal words: "Naked I came forth from my mother's belly and naked shall I return there. HaShem gave and HaShem took away - let the name of HaShem be blessed (v 21).


"Health, children and livelihood are not dependent on merit but upon MAZAL" (='fortune'?)" (Mo'ed Katan 28a). So far the Satan had struck at two of the three fundamental pillars of Job's life - his livelihood (wealth) and children. But even this was not enough of a test.

V 4: "Skin covers skin." If a person sees a blow coming to the skin of his face, he instinctively raises his hand to protect himself, preferring to suffer the blow on the skin of his hand in order to protect his head (see Rashi and Metzudas David on this verse). The Satan argues that Job had been content to suffer the loss of his wealth and children in order to protect himself from the loss of his life, but claims that as soon as the blow will come to Job's very skin and bones, he will break down and curse God because of his suffering. God now authorizes the Satan to submit Job to the worst of all tests, physical illness and pain, as long as he does not actually kill him.

Job's wife sees his terrible suffering and asks him what point there is in continuing to serve God now that he has lost everything: he might as well curse his bad fortune and die since he has nothing to live for. Job answers her with another immortal line (v 11): "Shall we accept the good from God but not accept the bad?"

In verse 11 our text testifies that even in the face of this terrible physical suffering, Job did not sin with his lips. The Talmud infers that "with his lips he did not sin, but he sinned in his heart! What did he say? 'The earth is given into the hand of the wicked, He covers the face of its judges' (Job 9:24)" (Bava Basra 16a). This implies that in his heart Job wondered if there is really a God. Since most of us have such thoughts at one time or another, it is somewhat comforting that even the righteous Job could not avoid them. Had he never had any doubts at all, he would have been a plastic Tzaddik. The fact that he did have them makes him all the more real.

V 11: "And three friends of Job heard." Given that they all lived at great distances from one another in the days before emails, phones and faxes, how did they know that their friend was in trouble? "Some say that they each had a crown on which were modeled the faces of each one of them, and when suffering befell one of them, his face changed. Others say that they each had a tree and because it withered, they knew" (Bava Basra 16b).

When Job's friends arrived they could not even recognize him because of his abject suffering. Nobody could bring himself to speak for seven days until at last Job opened his mouth and "cursed his day", as we will see in the following chapter. From the description of how Job's friends sat down on the ground to empathize with him and did not speak until he spoke first, the rabbis learned several important laws of conduct for those coming to comfort mourners (Moed Katan 18a).



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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