An explanation of major themes within the Book of Job based mainly on the
writings of the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim) with important additions
from the Ramban (Nachmanides) and the Biur HaGra (commentary of the Vilna
Presented by Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz,
Rosh Hayeshiva (Dean) of Orchos Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem
The Malbim, in the introduction to his commentary on this holy book,
explains that the main purpose of the Book of Job is to expound upon one of
the most perplexing phenomena in the human experience; the apparent lack of
justice throughout history. All too often the righteous suffer and the
wicked prosper. The underlying pain in this question has bothered the great
thinkers in every generation including the greatest of all prophets, Moses.
It is the confusion which results from considering this paradox that led
many people to reject the path of belief and faith in a righteous and living
Job was a devout and righteous man, yet his suffering was terrible and came
for no apparent reason. As a man of unwavering faith, Job could not
reconcile his belief in a merciful G-d with the tragedy of his own lot.
Therefore, he felt it was reasonable to surmise that in fact, G-d does not
concern Himself with the welfare of human beings. He neither rewards nor
punishes according to our deeds. G-d is too exalted and man is too lowly for
Him to be bothered with our behavior and needs.
He concluded that the fate of mankind is out of our hands, that we are
subject to mechanical forces beyond our control set irrevocably in motion
at the time of creation. The results of our decisions and actions
deceptively appear to be the outcome of our own free will. In reality they
are a product of celestial prescripts. If our deeds are the consequence of
predetermined design we cannot be rewarded or held accountable for them.
Job's answer to his own suffering is that he is the victim of fate, until
his friend Elihu finally convinces him otherwise.
Before we begin a conceptual analysis of this holy book it will be helpful
to clarify four things:
- Who wrote it?
- What is its content?
- In what form is the material presented?
- What is the purpose of this book?
Let us consider each these questions:
1. Who wrote it?
From chazal (our Sages) z"l, it is clear that the authorship of this book is
attributed to Moshe (Moses) Rabbeinu (our teacher). This point is discussed
in the tractate Bava Bathra page14b. The Malbim explained that Moshe wrote
it to console the Hebrew nation when they were enslaved and suffering under
2. What is its content?
The book of Job (in Hebrew Iyov) is the story of an exceedingly righteous
man who is afflicted with horrific suffering for no apparent reason. While
the main character is obviously Iyov, it is not at all clear who this person
was. In fact the Talmud ( Bava Bathra page 14b ) contains a long dispute if
Iyov was a Jew, a gentile, or indeed if he at all existed.
According to the
latter opinion the book of Job is a parable. It seems that most of our sages
did not accept this opinion. But even according to this minority opinion we
cannot relegate this work to the realm of empty fiction or myth. We can
confidently claim that it is the greatest commentary on human suffering ever
It is interesting to note that the Vilna Gaon offers a fascinating
interpretation of this Talmudic passage. According to his approach the
latter opinion does not dispute the reality of Iyov. Rather it explains the
purpose of his existence. He ( Iyov ) was created to be a role model ( a
"mashal" in Hebrew ) from whom everyone can learn the appropriate way to
accept suffering. Accordingly, we are to take a lesson from Iyov that man
has no license to sit in judgment of G-d. He ( G-d ) does not need our moral
approval. Although at times some of His ways may seem to be harsh they are
allways based on absolute justice. Alas, the world of the absolute is often
beyond our comprehension.
The tragic suffering of Iyov evokes the strong protest of all fair minded
human beings: Should the righteous suffer? This question has to be one of
mankind's most elusive mysteries since time immemorial. Several answers are
presented and fiercely debated throughout the chapters of the book. They are
forwarded by the friends of Iyov: Eliphaz, Beldad, Tzofer, and Elihu.
There is also a curiously veiled character who appears in the story; the
Satan. He is the antagonist, the prosecutor, the villain (additional
pejorative epithets are optional). His motivations are not clear, but his
influence is clearly demonstrated. We will devote special attention to the
subject of the Satan in one of our future installments.
There can be no discussion on human suffering without mention of G-d.
Indeed, comprehending G-d's role in the world is essential in order to
understand this book. His acquiescence to the Satan is simultaneously
perplexing and disturbing. The absence of Divine intervention throughout
this drama lends strong support to Iyov's contention that G-d neither
scrutinizes human behavior nor concerns Himself with the human plight.
3. In what form is the material presented?
The discussions and arguments are presented in the form of a dialogue
between Iyov and his friends. Each of these characters presents a unique
approach to Iyov's plight. On the one hand Iyov is a believer, a man of
intense faith and devout service. However, he cannot accept that a merciful,
righteous G-d would consent to the dreadful suffering meted out to him at
the hands of the Satan. The foundations of theology are tested in a battle
field of what appears to be senseless human suffering. The issues are hotly
debated between Iyov and his three friends. Finally Iyov finds balm for his
wounds in the wisdom of Elihu ben Barachel.
4. What is the purpose of this book?
Moshe wrote this book as a source of consolement for his brethren who were
suffering at the hands of their brutal Egyptian slave masters. They wanted
to know why the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. This was an issue
with which Moshe had to struggle with his entire life time. As a young man
he saw both the tranquillity of Pharaoh's palace and his brothers subjected
to arduous labor and cruel torture. He felt compelled to find out if there
was order and justice in the world or if man was just to suffer silently?
Indeed, Moshe was so absorbed with this issue that on one momentous occasion
when his intimate relationship with G-d could have secured for him whatever
his heart desired, Moshe requested only two things:
1. That G-d cause His Divine Presence to dwell only amongst the
Jewish nation for eternity.
2. That G-d grant him the wisdom to understand the suffering of
the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked.
Our Sages tell us that although Moshe was granted his first request. The
second remained concealed from him.
Our Sages reveal to us that ultimately there is an approach which can help
us constructively accept our own misfortunes and suffering, however they
make it clear that no absolute solution is available. Let us be patient in
our investigations and all the more so in our conclusions. Let us have the
humility and integrity to recognize and accept our own human limitations.
After all, we have not the prophetic powers of Moshe nor the wisdom of
Solomon and even they could not uncover the answer. It is crucial to realize
that our limitations in understanding does not mean that suffering is
without reason or plan. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains in his book Daas
Tevunos that part of our reward in the world to come will be that G-d will
reveal to us the meaning of every bit of pain and suffering that we
experienced in our life times.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Y. Schwartz and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Rosh Hayeshiva (Dean) of
Orchos Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem.