The Book of Job

  • Review
By – April 23, 2012

The book of Job rais­es ques­tions at the heart of human exis­tence. Job is an excep­tion­al­ly good and faith­ful man to whom ter­ri­ble things hap­pen for no earth­ly rea­son. How can we rec­on­cile the fact that God is good and all-pow­er­ful with the fact of Job’s suf­fer­ing? What does Job’s unjust suf­fer­ing tell us about the world we live in?

Harold S. Kush­n­er, rab­bi emer­i­tus of Tem­ple Israel in Nat­ick, Mass­a­chu­setts, has grap­pled with the ques­tion of inex­plic­a­ble suf­fer­ing in more than a dozen books. In The Book of Job he turns to the sub­ject he had pro­posed for his dis­ser­ta­tion in 1964, only to be told by his advis­er, Pro­fes­sor H. L. Gins­berg, that he wasn’t ready. Now, these many years lat­er, Kush­n­er brings his per­son­al expe­ri­ence, his broad schol­ar­ship, and Jew­ish tra­di­tion to the sub­ject with a deep under­stand­ing of how we can live in a world where the sun shines indis­crim­i­nate­ly on the good and the bad.

Kush­n­er expli­cates the book of Job by first sep­a­rat­ing the sim­ple fable in which the book is framed from the com­plex poem at its core. Con­cise­ly and clear­ly, Kush­n­er then presents Job’s sit­u­a­tion and the pre­dictable efforts of his friends to help him. But instead of being com­fort­ed and accept­ing his friends’ pious expla­na­tions, Job protests. He has led an exem­plary life. He demands an expla­na­tion from God: Why have all these hor­ri­ble things hap­pened to me? What are the charges against me?

Then God appears out of the whirl­wind. In sweep­ing and mag­nif­i­cent poet­ry God lays out for Job God’s cre­ation of the uni­verse, includ­ing the some­times uncon­trol­lable forces of nature — Leviathan — and of the pri­mal urge — Behe­moth — forces for both good and bad, at times simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. On hear­ing about God’s epic cre­ation, Job, at first over­whelmed, puts his hand over his mouth, but lat­er con­cludes his cat­a­clysmic encounter in sev­en sim­ple words open to a mul­ti­tude of lin­guis­tic and the­o­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions.

Cit­ing Rab­bi Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, Kush­n­er points out that there is almost no the­ol­o­gy in the Tanakh except in the book of Job, which probes uni­ver­sal ques­tions about the nature of God and the moral­i­ty of the world. Through­out The Book of Job Kush­n­er push­es and prods his read­ers to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties with which this dif­fi­cult text, with its often obscure vocab­u­lary, chal­lenges us to seek our own respons­es. Serv­ing as a guide, he reviews the answers of clas­sic com­men­ta­tors, then ends with his own under­stand­ing, an under­stand­ing per­sua­sive for both the­o­log­i­cal and per­son­al rea­sons, an under­stand­ing that is mov­ing, com­fort­ing, and active.

Kushner’s life­long expe­ri­ence with and study of the cen­tral ques­tions of Job make almost every page of his mas­ter­ful read­ing stim­u­lat­ing and often provoca­tive and will turn many read­ers to the text. Note that Kush­n­er uses the 1980 Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety trans­la­tion of the Tanakh, not the new­er trans­la­tion, which makes for small dif­fer­ences in inter­pre­ta­tion. For Hebrew read­ers the text is some­times essen­tial because of Kushner’s own trans­la­tions, which shed dif­fer­ent light on some pas­sages. A full bib­li­og­ra­phy would have been a worth­while addi­tion to the book. This is a vol­ume in Schock­en and Nextbook’s Jew­ish Encoun­ters series.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions