Why Does Job Suffer?

Many medieval commentators—both Christian and Jewish—often attribute Job’s suffering to all sorts of divine, satanic, karmic, and physical causes.[1] Most modern commentaries seldom attribute Job’s suffering to a human origin. However, an examination of his complaints reveal that much of Job’s pain was directed at a public’s failure to express compassion toward him when he needed it the most.[2] Simply put, Job did not have a community; he lived in a city where its citizens practiced a rugged ethic of individualism—every person lived for himself. Job’s community people  measured God’s blessings solely in terms of wealth and property. For them, to be without financial resources rendered a person as marginal–even disposable, for in prosperous societies the wealthy frequently directed their rage towards those who could protect themselves.

While this may sound like a new deconstructive reading of the text, it actually has antecedents in Rashi’s commentary (12th century). Strangely, the entire book seems to be empty of metaphors depicting human or Divine compassion.[3]  This would seem to substantiate Rashi’s view that the entire book is a parable about pastoral care as an antidote to the mind-numbing and senseless suffering people often experience. From a pastoral perspective, Job stresses how empathy and tenderness are essential ingredients in healing the heart of the sufferer. The general attitude espoused by Job’s friends was “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbors!” Or, “Stay away from an evil person; otherwise, you may end up like him.” Job experiences this kind of rejection  firsthand. One might wonder: “Why does Job put up with such friends?” The Talmud notes that human beings need friendship in order to live. Death itself is preferable to not having any friends at all—even if they are happen to be schlemiels, much like the friends  of Job.[4]

More to follow…

[1] According to some rabbinic legends, Job lived during the time the Jews were originally enslaved by the Egyptians. At that time, he served as an advisor to Pharaoh.

[2] Rashi explains that the book of Job teaches us two important things: (1) that we may learn from it a response to those who condemn God’s attribute of justice (2)  Job also serves to instruct us that no person ought to be blamed for words that he utters because of personal pain (Rashi’s commentary to TB Bava Batra 15a).

Elsewhere Rashi adds on the verse in Job 42:7, “For you did not comfort me with your ‘verbal defense’ as did my servant, Job.” His only sin consisted of saying ‘He destroys both the innocent with the wicked…’ (Job 9:23). And whatever else Job said came from his suffering which weighed heavily upon him and forced him to speak thusly. But you [the friends], on the other hand, were wrongful to accuse him of being wicked. In the end, it is you who are now silent and defeated before him. Instead of attacking him, you should have comforted him as Elihu did. As if Job didn’t have enough suffering, you added guilt to your sins by angering him.

[3] The absence of human compassion is most conspicuously present in the Jobian tale. For example, the word hesed (loving-kindness) appears only three times in the entire Jobian narrative and only when Job implores his friends for help. Likewise, the Hebrew word for nechama, (“comfort”), appears only seven times in the entire book. Only twice does Job ever receive nechama from his friends–the first occurs at the very beginning of Job 2:11. At this stage, Job’s friends express no verbal criticism of him. The second instance appears at the very end of the Jobian narrative (42:11)—after Job is finally vindicated.

[4] TB Taanit 23a;  TB Bava Batra, 16a.

2 thoughts on “Why Does Job Suffer?

  1. Judy Schechtman says:

    Dear Rabbi,
    The parallels of Job’s story, unfortunately, are so common in our society–especially as we rise to the pillar of success. We need to reach out to others not just by giving money, but by offering emotional support as well.

  2. max detwiler says:

    dear rabbi

    Job’s sufferings, were the “curses” of the Sinai Covenant, which were listed in Deuteronomy chapter 28. These curses, were reserved for covenant breakers. Job was not a covenant breaker. While he may not have been under G-d’s treaty with Israel, the origional audience would have recognized that G-d was treating him as such. The divine person, referred to him as “My servant Job”, and only 10 other persons in the Tanach were regarded in such a manner.

    If under the curses, then something is dreadfully wrong, and it was particularly cruel, having killed the children in the house of the “first born”. That is like twisting the knife over and over and over.

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