Dennis Maust | Essays | Evil in Book of Job
On Two Responses to the Classic Problem of Evil
Horrific events, like the very recent Madrid commuter train bombing and the New York World Trade Center attack, like the less recent but larger scale Cambodian genocide of Pol Pot and the Holocaust of World War II, and like the further removed but even more deadly 1918 flu epidemic and the mid-fourteenth century Black Death that ravaged Europe, lead theists and non-theists alike to conclude that evil – moral and natural – exists in the world. Even if the term “evil” poses problems of linguistics, religion, or absoluteness for some observers, generally most rational beings agree that in this life suffering exists. Now the existence of suffering, pain, and anguish experienced by innocent children, especially babies or infants no older than two, three, or possibly four years, gives rise to one of the most challenging paradoxes confronting arguments for the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly-good God.
Hume puts forward a version of this problem of evil in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume’s character Demea suggests one solution to the problem of evil:
Have not all pious divines and preachers, who have indulged their rhetoric on so fertile a subject; have they not easily, I say, given a solution of any difficulties, which may attend it? This world is but a point in comparison of the universe: This life but a moment in comparison of eternity. The present evil phenomena, therefore, are rectified in other regions, and in some future period of existence. And the eyes of men, being then opened to larger views of things, see the whole connection of general laws, and trace, with adoration, the benevolence and rectitude of the deity, through all the mazes and intricacies of his providence. (110)
Demea’s methodology, or theodicy, posits the necessity of an afterlife, an eternal existence of sorts where the sufferings in this finite, worldly existence get erased or become as nothing. Cleanthes counters that we can never establish the reality of such a supposition. Philo admonishes Demea, taking Cleanthes’s counter a step further:
For this is not, by any means, what we expect from infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness. Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? (111)
Hume’s attribution of evil to the deity raises theological and philosophical issues explored much earlier by the Book of Job, canonized in both the Tenach or Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.
Saadia ben Joseph (882 – 942), also known as Saadia Gaon, and Thomas Aquinas (1224/5 – 74) provide some of the earliest and most thoroughly documented exegesis of the Book of Job. Karen Armstrong attributes the first “philosophical interpretation of Judaism” to Saadia, a Talmudist who “believed that reason could attain a knowledge of God by means of its own powers” (185). Aquinas, an Aristotelian and Catholic Church authority, addresses problems between “divine revelation and human reason” found in Job and elsewhere, hoping to show that “what may be gathered by faith does not destroy what can be known by reason, but the two are somehow complementary” (Exposition on Job 1-2).
The examination herein of Saadia and Aquinas hopes to highlight the main lesson each derives from Job’s story. It also attempts to raise thought-provoking questions about their interpretations and key points by following Saadia through his commentary on Job and then underscoring major similarities and differences with Aquinas. Finally, it juxtaposes the two writers, comparing and contrasting their positions on Job and bringing in relevant modern day analysis. At the end, this review of Saadia and Aquinas on Job hopes to offer well-reasoned commentary on whether Job provides a compelling and sufficient stand-alone theodicy. Does the Book of Job offer an adequate, working solution to the problem of evil?
Saadia both translates the Book of Job from Hebrew to Arabic and interprets its content. In more than a few instances, Saadia mentions glossing a passage. For example, “So I glossed it as ‘blamed his time’” (178) or “I glossed nitta‘u as ‘sinking into them,’ deriving it from maltĕ‘ot kĕfirim (Ps. 58:7), which is interpreted as ‘the fangs of lions.’ The basis of this gloss is the possibility of interchanging the letters nun and lamed” (186-87). The OED defines gloss as to interpret; it also means to veil, explain away, and read a different sense into something. According to Saadia’s notes, he derives, reasons, translates, renders, qualifies, or assigns because he seems “convinced” (180) about word roots or usages in passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Saadia’s glossing and personal rendering of passages in Job does not – and should not – detract from the seriousness and expertise of his translation and commentary. However, his notes should indicate to readers of material not original that the possibility of different translations and interpretations exist. Aquinas, to draw one distinction, basically only interpreted the Book of Job as he read it in the Latin Vulgate, the authorized version of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church at the time; other scholars previously translated the version Aquinas used.
Since in The Book of Theodicy Saadia comments both on the meaning of the Book of Job and on his translating of words and phrases from Hebrew to Arabic, the discussion ahead ignores those comments Saadia makes specifically regarding translation. That is, though some comments by Saadia explain why he translated certain words and phrases this way and not another way, unless they provide topical insight into particular passages of Job, unless they render an enlightening observation regarding the problem of evil, or unless they help address reasons for the existence of critical differences or common ground in the philosophical or religious outlooks of Saadia and Aquinas, this discussion does not consider them further.
Saadia titles his commentary The Book of Theodicy because he says it provides confirmation of God’s divine justice. He holds that God the All-wise made known His account of Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu, and Satan, to teach the art of “patient acceptance” (130). The Book of Job, Saadia maintains, reveals the following about suffering and divine justice:
. . . when sufferings and calamities befall us, that they must be of one of two classes: either they occur on account of prior sins of ours, in which case they are to be called punishments, and we must search out the relevant shortcomings and remove them and improve our actions. . . .Or they are a trial from the Allwise, which we must bear steadfastly, after which He will reward us. Thus, if we have searched ourselves and found nothing requiring such punishments, we know that they were unprovoked and we call them a test and bear them patiently. . . .In neither case do we ascribe any injustice to the Creator. Rather we confirm the description He gave of Himself in His Scripture, The Lord is just in the midst thereof, etc. (130)
Saadia claims Job falls into the latter class – that although Job at times thinks God tortures him for pleasure, and although Job’s friends inaccurately discern some past sin or sins, Job’s sufferings actually result from God’s choice of Job for testing. God subsequently rewards Job for enduring the test, in accordance with divine justice.
Saadia undertakes an explanation of five aspects of the Book of Job to support his main point above. First, who is the satan and what is his role? Second, despite his piety and righteousness, why does Job suffer? Third, what are the claims and objections of Job, his companions, and Elihu? Fourth, what are the main points of each speech? Fifth, what are the main points of God’s speech and what bearing do they have on Job’s reply?
Beginning with When it was the day that God’s beloved came and presented themselves before Him, Job’s adversary was present along with them (1:6), Saadia notes he translates satan as adversary. Further, using several passages of Scripture (I Kings 11:14, I Kings 11:23, Zech. 3:1, Ezra 4:6, Ps. 38:21, Ps. 109:20, Gen. 26:21), Saadia supports his claim that the adversary (satan) “was in fact an ordinary human being” (154). Besides maintaining that angels would never disobey God, and therefore the adversary must be a human being, Saadia goes on to explain misunderstandings of three Job passages (1:12, 2:6, 2:7) that might lead to a view of the adversary as an angel.
First, citing parallels with the hand of Joab, of Sheba, and of God from other books, Saadia concludes “the words Lo, all that he hath is in thy hand would mean ‘is subject to your design, purpose, or intent’” (156). Thus the adversary need not possess angelic powers as some might misconstrue Job 1:12. Besides, the adversary challenges God to do the dirty work in Job 1:11, But put forth Thy hand and infringe somewhat upon his goods.
Second, Saadia explains that “preserve” or “be heedful,” as in Only preserve his soul or Only be heedful of his soul (Job 2:6), has the same sense as “be mindful” found in Exodus and Joshua. It essentially means “do not encroach upon it” (174), he says.
Third, Saadia addresses Job 2:7: And he smote Job with pestilent boils. Here, the question entails who smote, God or the satan? Saadia sees the remedy as plain and clear: the verb smote “cannot pertain to the satan; the only possible subject is God, since God’s name is mentioned just prior” (174). Therefore, Saadia translates Job 2:7 to make it perfectly clear: So when the adversary went out from before God, God smote Job with sore abcesses from heel to crown.
None of the three passages present a possible misconception of the satan as an angel, then, according to Saadia. One must ask, though, does a significant philosophical difference exist between God inflicting suffering on the innocent or God allowing others, e.g., the satan, to inflict the suffering?
Saadia makes an interesting additional note regarding the suffering of Job:
For there are three kinds of trials: by way of property, by way of body, and by way of soul. Two of these, which God may perform, are called tests. But the third, by way of the soul, is not called a test, because when suffered to the full it results in death. Rather it is called immolation. This too God may inflict upon the righteous without prior offense but with subsequent recompense – as He did with the infants at the flood, the infants of the seven (Canaanite) nations, Job’s children, and others. But there must be recompense, since reason testifies that God is just. (161-62)
Essentially, Saadia states above that God, to remain just, must compensate the infliction of suffering on innocents – and children seem to comprise all his examples of innocents. Saadia most likely hints at a solution involving an afterworldly model.
In completing his description of the role of the satan, Saadia also addresses the second aspect that he wished to illuminate regarding the Book of Job, namely, why does the pious Job suffer? Since, for Saadia, the satan equates to an adversarial human being, he puts forward the adversary as most likely one or more of the folk in Job’s land who envied Job his prosperity and possessions. Having accepted a wager from Job’s adversary questioning Job’s righteousness, God wished to test Job to prove “the falsity and groundlessness of these charges against Job” (159). Moreover, God wished to reveal to His prophet Moses the account of Job’s sufferings to further enlighten the faithful. Saadia summarizes:
I would say that for any prophet or upright servant of God defamed by slanderers as Job was, it would be fitting for God to try him so as to clear him of their outrageous charges. But I also say that God may or may not please to do so. He might simply hold the detractors in contempt and disregard their libels. In Job’s case, however, He was pleased to vindicate his servant and so to test him by way of sufferings. (159)
Saadia also surmises that the fact that the wager, Job’s sufferings, and his steadfastness took place before a public assembly added to the import of the message – a message made more clear and manifest “than if this circumstance had been imparted solely to Job’s persecuter [sic] and no one else had known of it” (160).
The speeches of Job and his three friends begin after seven days and seven nights of silent reflection. They consist of an opening speech by Job, two complete rounds of speeches by each of Job’s three friends with a reply to each by Job, a third round of speeches by Eliphaz and Bildad with responses to each by Job, and a reflective monologue by Job. Elihu, serving perhaps as a prophet or introductory voice for God, makes a lengthy speech just before God finally grants Job’s wish for a trial. Saadia makes note of the claims, objections, and main points of each speech in his translation. The following summary covers aspects three and four that Saadia wished to examine as he looked at the Book of Job.
After seven days and nights of suffering, Job laments the day he was born and appeals to God to let him die. As Saadia notes, “Job’s point in this speech is twofold: first that he is guilty of no offense; second, he asks his Lord to take his soul, so that he may have surcease from his torments” (181).
Eliphaz answers Job first, thus beginning the initial round of discourses. He starts by reminding Job how he used to comfort the unfortunate and asking why Job cannot now console himself. The theme of this speech, according to Saadia, centers on piety as protection. Eliphaz cannot conceive of God destroying an innocent and upright man, as Job laid claim earlier. Questioning rhetorically, Shall a human be more clear than God, a man be purer than his Maker? (4:17), Eliphaz hints that God brought injury to Job because of his “faults and failings” (194). Eliphaz obviously missed the prologue.
In the next two chapters Job replies to Eliphaz. Saadia paraphrases and emphasizes the following from Job’s response:
I say that it is possible for Him to slay me without injustice, because He is the Creator and may do as He pleases. You say that such an action is not ascribable to Him, and that He imparts only good to the righteous. So now I ask Him to do one or the other: either give my afflictions free reign and make an end of me (6:9), as I say, or else heal me, help me, give me some consolation (6:10), in accordance with what you say. If He does either, my request is granted, and I shall be content. But if He abandons me in agony and torment, that I abhor, and I cry out against it. (211)
According to Saadia, the substance of Job’s retort to Eliphaz focuses on Job’s contentment with death or earthly consolation; either option would solve his dilemma. Saadia asserts, also, that Job – even replying with such strong language – continues to preserve his humble righteousness.
Bildad addresses Job next, offering that even Job’s request of the Lord to kill or heal him constitutes a sin. If Job is without sin, why would the Lord kill him? If, as Bildad judges, Job is sinful, why would the Lord heal him? The entire speech of Bildad focuses on “terms for the just and unjust” (221).
Job responds to Bildad in the following two chapters. Still maintaining his innocence, Job refuses to curse God and understands his relationship to the All-wise and All-mighty. Saadia claims Job asserts to Bildad that God destroys both wicked and innocent; Job’s suffering provides “experience of Him bringing tribulations upon the righteous and the wicked alike” (233).
Zophar makes the last speech of the friends in the first round of discourses, and he resorts again to the traditional concept of justice. “Those whom you imagine to be upright are not so in fact. If they were, God would not destroy them. He does so only because He knows that they are evil” (239-40). Comparing the unjust man to a wild beast, Zophar declares “there are many among humankind of the sort who seem upright but are vicious. . . .you cannot conclude that every person who seems just is just. You do not know his inner character” (240-41).
Job ends the first round of discourses with a three-chapter speech. In it he understands now that all three friends agree on their point of view: “God does not cause suffering to His servant unless it is deserved for some prior sin of his” (244), even though the sinner nor his friends know of the sin. After acknowledging God’s sovereignty, Job counters Zophar’s argument with its converse. That is, though some among mankind appear to be upright but are not, the prosperity of the wicked is evident. “For then they cannot say that a villain, who appears to humanity as unjust, is not really unjust. For such a case is not at all in accord with common experience” (258). Vicious persons of three types – plunderers, provokers of God, and infidels – Job sees blessed with prosperity.
The story returns to Eliphaz now as the second round of discourses begins. Eliphaz declares false and absurd Job’s contention that “all mankind have experience of miscreants on whom blessings are showered” (267). Saadia primarily supports this position based on three of Eliphaz’s statements: What knowest thou that we know not, what comprehendest thou that we lack? (15:9) Harken, and I shall tell thee, and what I have seen, I shall narrate, what the learned report, who conceal naught of what their fathers passed down to them. (15:17-18) For all the faithless are fruitless, and the fire consumeth the venal folk. (15:34)
Job again takes up his defense and immediately accuses his friends of being false comforters. He also alludes to his adversary who opposes him. Here, Saadia and Aquinas differ. According to Saadia, Job envisions a human adversary coming from amongst “those in the land who hated him” (273). Aquinas maintains that Job knows, with help from the Holy Spirit, that the devil causes his suffering and also instigates his friends to contradict him. Saadia sees the main point in Job’s two-chapter rejoinder as Job proclaiming his innocence once more: no wrong is upon my hands, and my prayer is pure (16:17). Essentially, Job counters Eliphaz’s questions by saying, If I cannot argue from cases other than my own, then look at pious and innocent me, “see what has become of me” (279).
Bildad now takes another turn. Saadia notes that Bildad, in his short speech, reprimands Job again for continuing to claim innocence. Sufferings, according to divine decree, only befall evildoers. Therefore, Job must have committed some offense. Bildad also takes pain here to list several fates awaiting the wicked.
Job begins his rebuttal by noting that his so-called friends have reviled and maligned (19:3) him ten times. Saadia explains that because Job has listened to hateful words from his friends in five of their speeches and now, for the fifth time, must recall their words as he rebuts them, this constitutes the tenth time Job experiences their torment. (Aquinas, interpreting Job another way, adds together the friends’ five speeches, Job’s lament before the discourses begin, and Job’s four responses thus far to get the total of ten.) Saadia notes this time that Job seems conciliatory, basically giving up trying to dissuade his friends from their point of view that people suffer on account of their sins. Instead, Job seeks their compassion “asking them not to confront him with such hard words, which only aggravate his suffering” (290).
Zophar next takes up where Bildad left off, recounting more fates of evildoers and the wicked. Saadia notes, however, that Zophar aims his entire speech at Job. Zophar’s words, therefore will the folk of the heavens reveal his guilt, and the folk of the earth rise up against him (20:27), vengefully rain down on Job, as if to say, “So do not ask us to be soft with you, Job, for that is not permitted to us” (296).
Job concludes the second round of discourses by addressing Zophar’s painful words. He sees that his three friends will not withdraw from their joint position – that God punishes the wicked and impious, and that Job suffers because divine providence discerns something wicked or impious in him. The twist in this speech and the crux of Job’s defense becomes, according to Saadia, Job’s new protestation that the wicked, even briefly, enjoy peace and prosperity. How can Job’s companions “deny that the wicked do enjoy respites” and “that during such respites you can see that they are well off” (300-01)? Job protests further that both the wicked and the upright die. “If there be reward and punishment in this world as you claim, where does either receive his punishment or reward?” (302-03)
Eliphaz begins the third round of discourses with his response. However, the discourses in the third round begin to break down. Only Eliphaz and Bildad speak; Job responds to each, but Zophar makes no third speech. The debaters adhere to similar lines of argument made in their previous speeches. That is, Job maintains his innocence and his friends deny it in favor of God’s divine providence and worldly retribution.
Eliphaz answers Job, then, first accusing him of various conjectured sins. He next counters Job’s most recent appeal – a defense grounded on the even momentary peace and prosperity of the wicked – by imagining a God that in a sense teases the wicked, a God that grants them blessings “as a reprieve, so that when the torments befall them to pay for their well-being, these will be all the harder and harsher” (308). Saadia maintains that Eliphaz puts off God’s justice until the future, until the final outcome.
Job takes the next two chapters to address Eliphaz. In this speech, Job first appeals for a hearing by God. He wants God to listen to his rejoinders and answer him. He wants to understand God and God’s intent. The new point in Job’s speech that Saadia highlights addresses Eliphaz’s appeal to God’s justice via a final, future outcome. Job thinks this type of justice unfair.
But I did not ask you about the future – I asked you about the here and now. Explain to me how it is acceptable that God showers blessings upon them and that they are reprieved and treated with forbearance, while even as they survive through that reprieve they work destruction in the land. (317)
In Saadia’s view, Job tells Eliphaz to set aside the type of argument that depends on an ultimate, future outcome; instead, talk in terms of this life, Job implores.
Bildad responds with a very short, final speech, the last by one of Job’s three friends. With it, Saadia says Bildad reduces all the speeches of Job’s friends to one undemanding thought: “this is a matter within God’s knowledge, beyond our ken and understanding” (322).
Job, frustrated, answers by saying that none of them has helped his situation. He goes on to describe attributes that emphasize God’s boundless powers. Saadia claims that at the end of chapter 26, Job gives Zophar a chance to answer but Zophar does not. Whether Job expects an answer or just continues on, chapter 27 concludes the third round of discourses when Job finishes his speech. In it, Job asserts again his innocence and makes an oath never to speak wrongly.
Chapter 28 marks an intermission of sorts, a time to relax briefly from the heated discourses just concluded – arguments that led basically nowhere – and reflect on the limits of human wisdom and paths to ultimate Wisdom. Appropriately calling it Wisdom Literature, scholarly commentators differ on the purpose, placement, and authorship of chapter 28; they even differ on whether it belongs to Zophar, Bildad, Job, or God (Alden 269; Janzen 187; Wharton 114; Wolfers 491; Zuck 299).
Saadia, however, holds none of these positions and raises none of these points. To him the speech belongs to Job, who alone pleads for a taste of God’s wisdom but realizes it cannot be found, bought, or delivered. Job acknowledges that only God comprehends completely, only God knows the way to wisdom, and the way to wisdom, says Job, compares to the original act of creation and “to the bestowal of natures” (331). Saadia concludes that Job, in chapter 28,
compares God’s governance, which brings suffering or good fortune to all creatures, with that which determines the natures of the elements. . . .that this too humanity do[es] not understand but must resign to the Creator. . . .that humankind have [sic] only to obey God, and that this is wisdom for us. (332)
Although affirming all of the above as true regarding humanity’s struggle to comprehend and obtain ultimate Wisdom, Saadia notes emphatically that in one case, however, Job errs. Only when Job
compares human misery and good fortune to the natures and laws of the elements, and claims that it is not for us to seek to interpret or comprehend this, is what he says not the case. On the contrary, it is our duty to explore this question and fathom it, as the faithful did in fact delve into it after Job’s time, and did come to understand it, following both Scripture and reason. (332)
By Saadia’s lifetime, at least, the faithful now understand “the wisdom in the allocation of human fortunes” (332). Saadia says Job only conjectured that such wisdom belonged exclusively to God, but his reasoning suffered, and Job, as a very early believer, erred primarily because he lacked the benefit of his own experience (335, fn. 18). Perhaps Job’s error explains in part the differing scholarly opinions regarding authorship and narration of chapter 28.
The next three chapters comprise Job’s summation, his final words for his defense. He recalls his good fortune in life before his afflictions, he laments once again his current state of pain and suffering, and he gives an account of his chief virtues and shunned sins. Noting this marks Job’s third speech with no response from his friends, Saadia considers Job’s friends silenced. Translator Goodman adds in a footnote that, “By the standards of debate which Saadiah assumes were current among Job’s contemporaries, a silenced adversary is presumed to be defeated” (347, fn. 17).
However, the speeches do not end. Elihu, a newcomer to the debate, a younger man who has apparently listened to everything argued thus far by the older foursome, can contain himself no longer and offers his self-esteemed perspective. Elihu’s speeches comprise a lengthy six-chapter monologue, lengthier even than “twelve other OT books and seventeen of the twenty-seven NT books” (Alden 314, fn. 1). No one ever answers Elihu, and he gets mentioned nowhere else in the Book of Job, according to Saadia. As noted by Alden (314), Janzen (217), and others (Wharton 140, Wolfers 65, Glatzer 3-4), many scholars consider Elihu’s speeches a later addition to Job, perhaps even written by a different author.
Saadia, though, marches ever-onward with his translation and commentary. In Saadia’s view and for his theodicy,
God caused the record of Job’s trials and afflictions to be set forth – his words, the words of his companions, the arguments of each, as well as Elihu’s rebuttal – with the purpose of revealing by this means what is in the hearts of people when they reach the limits of endurance in a trial. (128)
Hence, Saadia never addresses the unusual elements posed by the sudden appearance of Elihu, his equally sudden disappearance, or his differently styled speech. For Saadia, the entirety of the Book of Job presents a God-given record for His followers to absorb and gain knowledge of the All-mighty.
After the narrator introduces the young Elihu, he outlines the arguments Elihu will make: one count against Job for holding himself more blameless than his Lord (32:2), and two counts against the three companions. Two counts, says Saadia, “first, for giving up, and second, for framing absurd slanders against him” (348). Before beginning his speech against Job, Elihu finishes chapter 32 by making a somewhat overbearing personal introduction.
By addressing each of Job’s claims, Elihu in essence also argues his first count against the three companions for giving up their rebuttals, though he in fact adds not much new to their previous arguments against Job. The result at the end of his speeches seems quite contrary to his statement and with your words I may not answer him (32:14), claiming he would provide further illumination. Elihu does not specifically argue the second count against the three companions, though he somewhat amplifies on it with his words blaming the three for crushing folk until they can respond no more and speech departeth from them (32:15).
Saadia discerns three speeches by Elihu, one each in chapters 33, 34, and 35, answering each of Job’s speeches. For Saadia, Elihu connects these three speeches with his idea of recompense. Elihu continues his doctrine in a fourth speech in chapters 36 and 37 that begins afresh and “expands greatly on the theme of recompense” (369).
Claiming he is fashioned in the spirit of God’s wisdom (33:4) and appealing to Job to refute him, Elihu first addresses Job’s claim of complete innocence, countering that God’s power is more than man (33:12) – not exactly a direct or meaningful answer. Of recompense in this chapter, Saadia gathers from Elihu’s doctrine that God bestows favor on three sorts of individuals in the hereafter: the penitent, the upright person, and “the upright servant whom God afflicts with illnesses and torments” (354). God rewards the soul with light and life. Pointedly, Elihu also says of the upright person that he shows humility and admits his sinfulness, alluding to his view that even an upright person like Job commits sins.
In answering Job’s second speech, where Elihu understands Job to say God has shortchanged him or “God does not give recompense for sufferings undergone by His servant on account of no offense” (360), Elihu tells Job, “God governs His creatures in their own interests” and “[i]f He wishes to bless them with recompense for sufferings, it is not for them to say” (361). Essentially, Elihu echoes the Wisdom Chapter in saying we cannot know the ways of God, but he also says we cannot forget that God offers His servants recompense in the hereafter.
To Job’s third argument claiming complete uprightness and righteousness, Elihu responds that the sinful or upright neither harm nor benefit God. To Job’s appeal to God for an answer, Elihu says that God does not listen to everyone wishing to be heard. Saadia interprets Elihu as saying that God does not listen to those who wrong others or to those God wants to test. Regarding recompense in Elihu’s third speech, Saadia agrees with Elihu that Job piteously cried for help too soon. Job did not know he would receive immense relief from his sufferings. Contrary to popular allusion, Job’s patience too quickly faltered. In fact, Saadia says “Job would have preserved his equanimity had he known that his recompense for all that he had suffered would be unmitigated” (367). Would that we could all know the future!
In the next two chapters, Elihu delivers his fourth speech to Job. In it, according to Saadia, he greatly expands on the notion of recompense. Elihu tells Job that God caused him to suffer solely to take him away and transpose him “from this realm of constraint to one of breadth and scope in which there is no straightness, there to bless you bountifully” (369). Elihu blames Job for following the faithless and wicked “in their doctrine impugning God’s justice, even if you do not hold it explicitly” (370). Saadia interestingly interprets Elihu as telling Job his sufferings do not constitute misfortune or the wrath of God; rather, Job should look at them as blessings, for God will recompense with everlasting, dreamful reward.
Elihu next uses the metaphor of rain to describe reward and punishment from God, noting how God both withholds rain and causes rain to fall – over both dry land and sea, where the need exists and exists not. This singling out of rain as one of God’s many marvels and miracles, notes Saadia, entails the elaboration of Elihu’s extended theme of recompense. Elihu grants that “by reason from the knowledge of the senses” (378) the faithful can extract a certain awareness of God’s splendor. Yet Elihu says The Almighty we shall not find (37:23), and Saadia interprets this to mean that knowledge of all God’s attributes simply remains impossible for human beings.
Saadia maintains Job’s silence at the end of Elihu’s speech signifies “either acquiescence or reservations” (379). For this reason, says Saadia, God next addressed Job
to exhort him to acknowledge Elihu’s arguments and leave behind his fancies and suppositions, which in effect constitute his failing – although God does not say so directly, lest the people think little of Job’s forbearance. (379)
Saadia’s harsh treatment here of Job, calling him a failure, deserves note. Saadia’s comment above may also help explain why God ignores Elihu and focuses His wrath on Job’s three friends for not speaking the truth about Job.
Finally, after all this debate by God’s servant Job, by three supposedly faithful followers, and by Elihu, a self-declared prophet of God, the answer arrives from the Almighty Himself. Speaking from a storm wind (38:1), God answers Job. However, to many readers, God’s answer proves insufficient, incomplete, and confusing. Saadia anchors his commentary on the supposition that God refrains from “clearly communicating to Job what the outcome would be for him” (382) in order to preclude arguments that Job patiently and righteously bore his sufferings because he knew recompense awaited him. Saadia supports his position by citing other Biblical accounts where God explains His punishment to victims he punishes for wrongdoing but withholds explanation to sufferers that he merely tests, sufferers who “had committed no offense to begin with” (383). Notably, Saadia cites only two cases concerning Moses to illustrate the latter concept. Confusingly, Saadia now speaks of “how righteous [Job] was and how splendid was his forbearance” (382), this from a Saadia who earlier spoke of Job as a failure.
Saadia pronounces as a mark of God’s wisdom the approach God takes in His speech – “diverting Job with an answer which does not actually address the purport of his question” (393). God approaches His answer to Job by proclaiming His wondrous acts regarding creation, nature, and providence, thus evoking images of His power, greatness, and wisdom. When God asks Job to answer how one could contend with or confront such a Deity, Job submits that he is too slight to offer Thee rebuttal, and therefore have I placed my hand over my mouth (40:4). Saadia claims Job’s inappropriate answer requires further divine attention because he ambiguously impugns God’s justice. The reader – and God, interestingly – cannot tell whether Job admits the truth of God’s position but remains unprepared to refute it, or thinks God wrong and actually says, as Saadia rephrases, “How can I refute you when you have the upper hand?” (402)
Responding to Job, God now makes use of two magnificent creatures to drive home His point: “The first is terrestrial; the second, aquatic” (402). Although most English translations use the terms behemoth and leviathan, Saadia avoids naming these mythological creatures, grounding his commentary and their descriptions in nature instead. Saadia’s descriptions easily conjure up images of the hippopotamus and the crocodile. In all his commentary, Saadia notes that God speaks not only to Job here but to all of humanity. Job answers God again, mindful of the images of these powerful creatures that only God can triumphantly oppose. (Would God be God if He created a creature He could not triumphantly oppose?). In this his second answer, Job provides an acceptable submission to God, noting his impotence and “his paltry ability to comprehend the grace in the governance and decree of the Allwise” (410), and also repenting of his past arguments.
God brings the whole scene to a quick and tidy close. He rebukes Job’s three friends for sinning against Job and prescribes the sacrifices they must make for atonement. They do as God tells them, and with Job’s intercession, God forgives them. God blesses Job with twice his former wealth (42:10); with seven new sons and three new daughters, none more handsome in all the land; and with a long life, seeing his children’s children to the fourth generation (42:16).
Saadia, too, brings his commentary to a close:
He gave them blessings in this world prior to the great reward of the hereafter, and he caused their history to be written as a lesson to all creation, so that we may bear sufferings with fortitude when they befall us and not hasten to impugn God’s judgment but submit to God and accept His wisdom and direction.
Praised, then, be the Allwise. There is no God but He. (411)
In his concluding remarks, Saadia proclaims the Book of Job a lesson given to us all by God. He also directs that we submit to God, bear our sufferings without question, and understand that we cannot know God’s wisdom. Saadia seems to imply here that reason cannot lead to God; moreover, do not even try to reason. (Not exactly germane to this discussion, but worth noting, especially given current world affairs, Saadia’s closing Jewish blessing sounds much like the Islamic blessing, “Praise be to Allah; there is no God but Allah.”)
Now, Aquinas’s exposition on Job presents a clearly Christian outlook, some aspects of which he obviously interprets differently than Saadia. Aquinas looks at Job historically while also looking at Christ – historically and expectantly. He strives throughout his commentary to relate Job not only to God but to Christ and the Holy Spirit (noted above with Job’s response to Eliphaz in chapter 16) in a Trinitarian theology that involves the fallen angel Satan – a powerful but not all-powerful supernatural being. Reading Aquinas’s commentary, one gets the sense he not only pays homage to previous Church leaders and scholars like Gregory and Augustine, but he must interpret Job in a manner that will not counter their interpretations of scripture. At the same time, Aquinas quite successfully adds his expertise and his viewpoint to the corpus of Church tradition, theology, and teaching.
For Aquinas, the Book of Job or Blessed Job, “written wisely through the Spirit of God,” serves “for the instruction of men, the whole intention of which turns on showing through plausible arguments that human affairs are ruled by divine providence” (68). An Aristotelian, Aquinas grounds the existence of God in the design argument:
for one would not find such a reliable course in the movement of heaven and of the stars and in the other effects of nature unless all these things were ordained and governed by some supereminent intelligence. (67)
Citing “the opinion of the majority of men” (67) that order appears manifest in natural things but that chance appears manifest in human affairs – that is, that “both good and bad things happen to good and bad men indifferently” (68) – and noting that “the affliction of just men is what most seems to exclude divine providence from human affairs” (71), Aquinas maintains the sufferings of Job and the debate encountered in the Book of Job serve to quell the opinion that God’s wisdom, power, will, and plan do not rule human affairs. Aquinas holds up Job’s virtue as a lesson to all (83).
Remarkably, the Roman Catholic Aquinas draws out details from the Book of Job quite similar to those the Hebrew Saadia pointed out three centuries prior. Commonality exists in their notions regarding Job’s factual basis in history and geography – the land of Uz equating to Edom, and Job’s three friends visiting from their homes south and east of the Dead Sea (Alden 29). Aquinas also shares with Saadia similar notions regarding Job’s and his three friends’ debating points and Job’s narration of the Wisdom Chapter. Later scholars give narration credit for chapter 28 variously to Zophar, Bildad, and even God (Zuck 299).
Saadia and Aquinas further agree on the structure of Elihu’s arguments against Job’s speeches and the speeches of Job’s three friends. They also agree that Elihu gets closer to God’s Truth than Job’s three friends, and that Elihu speaks not just to Job but to all men. Finally, they both acknowledge that God’s speech proclaims His wisdom and power, and that Job answers God twice, his first answer giving God cause to expand on His initial speech. Some translations do not include Job’s first answer to God, resulting in one long, continuous speech by God before Job finally answers.
However, five interesting differences arise that deserve mention. First, Aquinas’s view on Satan differs markedly from that of Saadia’s view. Where Saadia maintains an adversary in human form, probably arising from people living amongst or around Job, Aquinas espouses the traditional Roman Catholic concept of Satan as a fallen angel in superhuman form. Where Saadia maintains that angels would never disobey God, Aquinas argues that “certain spirits are evil – not by nature or creation . . . but they are evil through their own fault” (76). Indeed, Aquinas cites Church authority: “the Catholic faith holds that all the angels were created good, of whom certain ones, through their own guilt, fell from the state of straightforwardness” (121). Saadia, speaking to all monotheists at the time, vehemently disagrees: “So one who claims that this adversary to Job was an angel has made angels rebels and contravened the principle upon which we agree” (154).
Aquinas places Satan (the devil or adversary) as foremost among these fallen angels, leader of the spirits that move men to evil actions – still, however, subject to God’s divine will.
Now one should be careful not to believe that the Lord was induced by Satan’s words to permit Job to be afflicted. On the contrary, he ordained it in His eternal disposition to manifest Job’s virtue against all the calumnies of impious men; therefore, the calumny is premised and the divine permission follows. (83)
So, though possessing superhuman power like God’s, Satan ultimately falls subject to God’s will and can only harm men only as much as God permits.
Of notable interest, Aquinas argues at least subtly against the anthropomorphic God so often encountered in the Bible. Where commenting on God’s remark to Satan, But you stirred Me against him to afflict him in vain (2:3), Aquinas cautions not to misinterpret that Satan provoked God to do something He never wanted to do, as some men may be provoked. God does not lie nor even change. According to Aquinas, Joban scripture “speaks figuratively of God’s acting in a human manner” (92). Continuing, Aquinas states the following
Now God indeed does just as He wants, one thing for the sake of another, but without any stirring of His mind, because from eternity He has had in mind what He was going to do for what purpose. The Lord had disposed from eternity, then, to afflict Job temporally to demonstrate the truth of his virtue, so that every calumny of malicious men would be excluded. (92)
In the end, whether satan is Job’s or God’s human adversary, according to Saadia, or a superhuman fallen angel, according to Aquinas, God ultimately takes responsibility for inflicting, or at least allowing, the suffering of innocent and righteous Job.
Second, unlike Saadia’s view, Aquinas’s view on Job never wavers. For Saadia, completely-human Job falters, so mistaken in some of his arguments that Saadia calls Job a failure when he does not respond to Elihu’s charges For Aquinas, Job – or more often, Blessed Job – maintains his righteousness, his innocence, and his powers of reason throughout the story. Job makes “cogent arguments” (150), always providing “sufficient proof” (149). For Aquinas, Job’s three friends and Elihu often misinterpret Job’s words. Elihu catches most of Aquinas’s comeuppance, exemplified by the following comments:
[Job’s] words, of course, and any similar words which were said above, were said not by way of contention but since he desired to know the reasoning of divine wisdom. (374)
Now Job had not said this, but Elihu, abusing his words, imposes it upon him as a charge. (383)
But Elihu twisted [Job’s] words to this meaning. (392)
[Elihu] also took Job’s words wrongly, just as the others had done. (413)
Aquinas unwaveringly defends Job throughout his exposition, commenting on how the others twist Job’s words and noting that Job only desires innocently to understand the wisdom of God.
Continuing, where Saadia infers that silence marks submission and failure when Job does not rise to the occasion to answer Elihu’s charges, Aquinas extols Job’s virtue. Aquinas claims Job does not answer for two reasons. First, Job agrees with Elihu’s charges about his friends’ errors in their arguments; these charges require no response. Second, Job discerns that Elihu’s arguments impute meaning to his words that Job did not intend. Elihu’s arguments also cite words Job never even spoke. According to Aquinas, Job knows that only divine testimony can counter Elihu’s arguments and rebukes on Job’s purity of conscience: “Therefore, to separate himself from contentions [Job] decided that he ought rather to keep silent and commit the question to divine judgment” (414) – a completely different take on Saadia’s silent, failed Job.
A third interesting difference between Saadia and Aquinas arises with regard to Elihu. Aquinas, in a manner that adds to his unbroken defense of Job, suggests that God finds fault with Elihu. Saadia only notes that God rebukes Job’s three friends with His address to Eliphaz: My wrath hath waxed against thee and against thy fellows, for you did not speak the truth in My presence about my servant Job (42:7). In fact, Saadia, as mentioned previously, says God addresses Job immediately after his silent submission to Elihu to get Job to acknowledge the truth of Elihu’s arguments. Further, God admonishes Job: Who is there like thee that obscureth wisdom with words devoid of knowledge? (38:2) Aquinas differs dramatically, interpreting God as rebuking Elihu when He first begins speaking: Who is that man wrapping his opinions in ignorant speeches? (38:2) Aquinas claims God asks this of Elihu, not Job, “since Job had the right opinion about divine providence” (415).
Fourth, Aquinas notes that Job repents in his first answer to God. Saadia claims God continues his speech because Job does not repent in his first answer. Significantly, the difference lies in the text of the Hebrew Bible Saadia uses and the Latin Vulgate of Aquinas. Saadia’s version of Job’s first response to God occurs at the beginning of chapter 40; Aquinas’s version of Job’s first response to God occurs at the end of chapter 39. Saadia’s Job ends by saying, Now that I have spoken once, I would not speak a second time (40:5). Aquinas’s Job ends by saying, I have spoken one thing which I wish I had not said and a second to which I will not add further (39:35). Aquinas sees a repentant Job; Saadia does not.
For Aquinas, Job repents because God demonstrated from the whirlwind that “no man can contend with God either in wisdom or in power” (443). God continues His speech because he wants to criticize Job for seemingly disparaging His divine judgment in his earlier speeches. Of course, Aquinas once again comes to Job’s rescue, noting that Job “did not intend to impute iniquity to divine judgment, as his three friends and Elihu wrongly understood” (443), but to convince them his sufferings occurred not because of a sinful past but as a test. Saadia, conversely, claims God continues His speech because Job’s first ambiguous answer impugns divine justice.
Fifth, Aquinas helps make the Book of Job symmetrical by returning to the concept of the devil at the end. He claims God talks metaphorically about the devil using the figures of the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Saadia does not rekindle the figure of the devil (or adversary ) in God’s answer. Saadia’s translation avoids the terms Behemoth and Leviathan and, instead, speaks of the hippopotamus and crocodile literally, as great and powerful creatures of nature, to invoke the power of God. Aquinas takes his Behemoth for an elephant and his Leviathan for a whale. More importantly, though, he claims God speaks metaphorically, all the while describing Satan and showing His incomparable power over him.
Despite the major difference in interpretation and theology regarding Satan and minor differences in opinion regarding Job, Elihu, and the Behemoth and Leviathan, Saadia and Aquinas merge on the significance and main teachings of the Book of Job. Namely, Job embodies ideas of perfect righteousness, piousness, and patience; the speeches offer a reasoned debate about the problem of evil and, specifically, the problem posed by the suffering of innocents. However, from God alone comes the answer to the problem of evil, and that answer forms the Judeo-Christian concept of divine justice governed by divine providence.
Does the answer to the problem of evil offered by the Book of Job provide a satisfactory solution? According to Aquinas, Blessed Job serves to answer the question of whether, in a God-created world (because, after all, Job is a religious text), suffering exists randomly or it results from one of three situations: so that a man’s “malice may be restrained lest he be able to harm others” (156); to test a man “so that his virtue may be manifested” (156); and “to punish sinners” (156). According to both Saadia and Aquinas, Blessed Job answers that suffering results from an ordered world under the purview of divine providence, justice, wisdom, and power.
The answer includes a caveat, however: man cannot comprehend divine wisdom and will never, in this life at least, gain full knowledge of God’s ways. Job’s experience, resulting in final submission, knowledge, and reward resulted from not just a talk with God as one would talk with another human being, but an ultimate religious experience. Of course, Job’s questions received an answer (or became irrelevant), as anyone’s questions would – or should – given an experience of God.
Still, does the answer satisfy? Aquinas remarks that,
Since it is so easy for God, then, if He should wish, to reduce the whole human race to ashes, it is clear from the very preservation of men that He does not use unjust violence against them. (385)
Certainly the human race still exists, or at least it perseveres. However, Aquinas’s remark must at once raise doubts for those thinkers who reflect on the untold millions who have died in horrific events like the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and the Black Death. Into which category of punishment do they fall: sinners, evil-doers, or examples of virtue manifested?
Eleanore Stump looked at both Aquinas’s and Saadia’s commentary on Job. Taking into account Aquinas’s attitude toward happiness and his explanation of suffering, says Stump, leads to a satisfying acceptance regarding Aquinas theodicy from Job (“Sufferings of Job” 52). Happiness, concludes Aquinas, does not consist of wealth, health, or honors, but instead evokes a notion of something completely shareable. “On Aquinas’s view, human happiness consists in the contemplation of God” (54). Notes Aquinas, God provides pain and suffering as medicine for the spiritual cancer of human beings. He provides the medicine “because it is ordered toward good” (55).
Aquinas’s views on happiness and suffering, concludes Stump, lead to a concept of God as sweet, spiritual consolation rooted in the joy of the Holy Spirit. In relation to Old Testament Job, though, the concept of a Christian Holy Spirit raises religious issues, and in relation to suffering, the ability of children and certain impaired adults to conceive of its “good” remains problematic. Stump addresses this in another article, but admits that the suffering of children, especially of infants, constitutes “the hardest case of all,” and any solution “must not lessen our pain over that suffering” (“Problem of Evil” 410-11). Her Christian doctrine, that “the ultimate good for persons is union with God” (411) addresses the suffering of children, even infants, by claiming suffering “will be justified if it brings that person nearer to the ultimate good” (411). Michael Smith counters Stump’s argument in several areas, noting at one point that “There is difficulty in reconciling an account of evil in which God is respecting our free choices with one in which he is using these evils as goads or cures” (424). Stump replies in another article, but the ongoing debate, as most debates regarding the problem of evil, remains unresolved – and must, due to space and time considerations, end here in this discussion of Job.
Regarding Saadia’s Jobian theodicy, Stump incorporates some of his other theological writings. She maintains that Saadia envisions an afterlife “of gradations of reward and punishment” (“Saadia” 535). His position on who goes where gets complicated, though, as he further explains. Repentant sinners who have forgotten some sins get punished in this life in order to receive reward in the after life; unrepentant sinners though they do some good, receive reward in this life but consignment to an afterlife of punishment (536). Stump finds obvious problems with Saadia’s theodicy.
Another objection to both Saadia’s and Aquinas’s theodicy, and even Stump’s proposed Christian theodicy, involves an afterlife of eternal punishment. How does such punishment cohere with a perfectly good God? Of what “good” does it obtain? John Hick and other modern scholars attempt to resolve this issue, again in writings that space limitations preclude discussing here.
As this discussion of the Book of Job winds down, two modern-day interpretations help to put the writings of Saadia and Aquinas in context. The first, by Roy Zuck, seems quite harsh. The second, by Matitiahu Tsevat, seems a little less so.
Zuck relates that the central ideas in the Book of Job consist of God, Job (an upright man, an innocent sufferer), and the philosophy of retribution (or justice) in the world.
The Book of Job, then, tells of an attempt to maintain these ideas simultaneously – an attempt which ends in failure. It is the purpose of the book to demonstrate the impossibility of the coexistence of these three ideas and the consequent logical necessity to give up one of them. (Zuck 217)
Zuck implies that Job struggled between the knowledge of his own just being and that of a God supposedly maintaining moral and natural order in the world – the same idea supporting Aquinas’s intelligent designer theory. At times, Job argued against (and may have lost faith in) an orderly, just world. Zuck shows that Job failed in his arguments to consider something other than the societal just/unjust dichotomy – an extrasocietal nonjust possibility. God shows Job that He is neither just nor unjust, but nonjust. Job, after his religious experience, sees God as naught but God.
Tsevat, in his essay, “The Meaning of the Book of Job,” makes two important points. First, regarding the kind of piety mentioned in the adversary’s question, Is it for nought that Job is pious? (1:9; alternately translated feareth his Lord or Doth Job fear God in vain?), Tsevat proffers that “[f]rom now on, he who performs an action in expectation of material reward is not to be credited with religious or moral behavior” (Zuck 190). Tsevat’s observation relegates the speeches of Job’s friends, at least the three minus Elihu, to the old school. That is, traditional thinking about reward for goodness and punishment for sin in this life falls away after Job. Righteousness, uprightness, and pure piety in their strictest sense seek no blessings or rewards. Second, Tsevat notes that Job’s overt and clear challenge to God raises him to Promethean stature, yet not at the expense of piety. “This is the most striking case in the Bible of a man so strongly asserting himself against God while yet remaining so loyal to Him” (Zuck 194-95). Job never blasphemes God, though he questions with directness and challenges with strength. After Job’s encounter with God, he seems satisfied with God’s answer, but are we?
Again, the answer in Job seems not only too easy but, somehow, incomplete. It corrects the ramblings of Job’s friends, but it suffers from the all-too-typical, fallback parental rebuttal, akin to “Do what I tell you; don’t ask why.” Job’s satisfaction with God’s answer arises partly from a perspective that the average reader does not and may never experience: the actual presence of God. Even if the presence of God serves to completely satisfy the innocent adult sufferer, the suffering of innocent children and infants remains a perfectly acceptable and rational objection, as Stump noted above.
Job gains knowledge of God, recognizes his place in the world, and becomes wiser with the encounter. Once again, religious experience – possibly the only absolute proof of the existence of God – resolves a question of faith, but it falls short of convincing less faithful or once-removed readers. Returning to the suffering of innocent children, how can such suffering exist in a world created and watched over by an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God? The Book of Job answers that God only knows. This answer suffers from its circularity: only God knows and only God can possibly know, from a book that only God wrote.
Perhaps Kant imparts a more enlightening worldview about God’s providence.
The ultimate destiny of the human race is the greatest moral perfection, provided that it is achieved through human freedom, whereby alone man is capable of the greatest happiness. God might have made men perfect and given to each his portion of happiness. But happiness would not then have been derived from the inner principle of the world, for the inner principle of the world is freedom. The end, therefore, for which man is destined is to achieve his fullest perfection through his own freedom. God’s will is not merely that we should be happy, but that we should make ourselves happy, this is the true morality. The universal end of mankind is the highest moral perfection. If we all so ordered our conduct that it should be in harmony with the universal end of mankind, the highest perfection would be attained. (252)
However, Kant still provides an incomplete theodicy, maintains reasons for suffering remain largely unknowable, raises questions once again about notions of God, free will, and the problem of evil, makes only a modest attempt to translate his worldview into specific individual and societal rules of conduct, and affirms doubt as forever a part of the human condition. Kant, like the Book of Job, also confirms faith, not knowledge or experience, as the path to God’s Wisdom.
The Book of Job, one of the earliest musings on the suffering of the innocent, attempts an answer to the same questions about the problem of evil that continue to pose a significant challenge to the traditional concept of God, especially considering the types and degrees of evil encountered since Job’s time. The answer provided in Job seems incomplete, but reading Job closely at least compels contemplation of the existence and nature of God, the problem of evil, and ultimately the meaning of life. No longer can an unexamined life remain fully satisfactory.
This discussion must end by illuminating one more point of interest. Saadia and Aquinas both comment on how and why ultimately (if insufficiently) God silences Job. Noting the flow of dialogue between God and His followers through the sequence of thirty-nine books currently codified in the Hebrew Bible, the answer God gives Job (book twenty-nine) marks God’s final spoken words. Says Jack Miles in his biography of God, “from the end of the Book of Job onward . . . God never speaks again, and he is decreasingly spoken of” (11). Via discourse and trial on unwarranted suffering and the problem of evil, does Job also, ultimately silence God?
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