Iyov

In my quest to read the entire TaNaKh this year, I’ve progressed to Iyov (The reading schedule I’ve worked out will be available as an ebook once I’ve finished testing it!).  Iyov has always been a difficult book for me.  It offends many of my sensibilities about religion, practice, and the individual relationship between the Divine and man.  I’ve never been particularly uncomfortable with the fact that bad things happen to good people or that such a reality is part of G-d’s plan.  Growing up in a heavily Protestant culture and in a secular family, it’s also difficult for me to eshew the distinctly Christian notion that questioning G-d is forbidden.  While the TaNaKh is full of heroes who actively question, doubt, and even challenge G-d, Iyov rankles more than the others–the others are “special,” but Iyov is the common man.

Now that I’m doing a close reading of this book, I’m trying to resolve my difficulties with it.  What specifically makes me uncomfortable?  Are there messages in Iyov that challenge me to grow, rather than repulse me?  Frankly, it would be all too easy to avoid the book, discounting it as a popular myth added to the canon simply to preserve it for posterity or to reject it for its numerous Persian and Babylonian cultural references.  While historical analysis of the book and its context strongly suggest both ideas, rejecting the book is lazy, evasive of reality, and risks the offense of actively rejecting Divine inspiration.

Another difficulty with Iyov is that it carries with it centuries of Rabbinic and Christian connotations that are hard to ignore.  For example, I don’t believe in “Satan” as such.  Rather, I believe that the “accuser,” who plays such a central role in Iyov, is simply a literary character borrowed from Persian legal structure.

Here are my thoughts:

  • While Iyov is famous for his piety, his faith is superficial.  For example, he makes sin offerings on behalf of his children–just in case they sinned unwittingly.  While other men acclaim this behavior, Iyov is using offerings to try to “bribe” G-d.  Moreover, this practice actively tries to absolve Iyov’s children of responsibility for their actions.
  • I think one of the themes of Iyov is the concept of predestination.  The “accuser” is working on behalf of G-d.  G-d is responsible, very directly, for everything that happens to Iyov.  As it says at Iyov 9:24:

“…earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covers the faces of its judges—if it is not he, who then is it?”

Iyov is struggling with the fact that G-d chose to curse him despite Iyov’s attempts to be a righteous man.  What, then, is the point of behaving in a rational way and in accordance with the Law (to the best of one’s ability and understanding) if G-d has already decided or might decide to curse you anyway?  In this regard, the answer can be found in the final chapter of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):

“The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear G-d and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For G-d will bring every deed. into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

Fearing G-d and keeping the Law are duties, not bargaining chips.  They are the purpose of our existence.

  • Iyov never curses G-d.  But he does break the Law in the course of his trials.  As he sits in ashes, scratching his sores with a pot sherd, Iyov wishes for death.  He wishes he had never been conceived, that he had been miscarried, or that his mother had rejected him.  He has given up.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going, but Iyov complains about life being too hard.  Under such circumstances, Iyov’s sentiments are more than understandable, but there is no caveat attached to the commandment to “choose life.”
  • A big part of my study of Iyov is my personal effort to accept the validity of Iyov’s decision to question G-d’s motives.  If the Scripture teaches anything, it teaches the esteem in which G-d holds those who choose a dynamic relationship with Him.  In that regard, Iyov is not exceptional.  However, such a dynamic relationship should not be self-centered.  In Iyov’s challenges to G-d, he never really looks outside himself.  It never occurs to Iyov that he might be subject to these tragedies for the sake of a larger plan or that G-d may want to bring something important to Iyov about through his struggles.  While the narrative suggests that neither is the case, iyov is still at fault for not being able to look beyond his own, immediate suffering.  While G-d never suggests either possibility to Iyov, I would argue that it’s one of those things that just can’t be explained to those who don’t understand.  If Iyov isn’t ready to look outside himself, no amount of explanation will help.
  • There is a difference between questioning G-d’s motives and challenging G-d’s right to act.  The latter is what Elihu lays out as Iyov’s wrong.
  • Torah is largely about human relationships–how humans are supposed to get along with each other, with their surroundings, and with G-d.  This theme manifests itself both in legal and narrative form.  Iyov spends a lot of time rejecting his relationships.  He also shows, through his relationship with his children, his tendency to conflate notions of relationship and ownership.  As the patriarch of his household, Iyov is responsible for those in his care; but Iyov treats that responsibility very much in the same way one would treat responsibility for livestock or fields or buildings.  The issue with the offerings is an excellent example, but so is the fact that the children are primarily described as feasting–not assisting in the management of the family estate or otherwise working toward the future.  What we do not value, we tend to lose.
  • It is also worth noting that under any other circumstances, Iyov’s three “friends” and Elihu would all be identified as “messengers” from G-d (translated in most English editions) as angels.  But, because Iyov fails to recognize them in their role (or, depending on how you look at it, because they fail in their mission), the messengers are never identified as such.  As the Persian poet, Sanai, wrote in reference to the word of his god, the action it inspires is more important than the word itself: “Goats don’t grow fat on the Goatherd’s call.” I think the sentiment applies to the TaNaKh just as well.

Upon finishing Iyov, I had a thought:  What if Iyov is a metaphor for Israel or Jerusalem?

“And now I have become their song; 
I am a byword to them. 
They abhor me;
they keep aloof from me; 
they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.”
(Iyov 30:9-10)
How many times do the prophets speak of a similar fate for Israel or Jerusalem?  And how often do both fall into the same kind of arrogance as Iyov–taking their blessings for granted, forgetting G-d’s omnipotence?  And how often are they baffled and cast into despair when they experience the consequences of their actions?
Iyov is a difficult book, but one that has much to offer, once the complexities of parable and metaphor are peeled away.  It speaks of human nature and failings–both those of sufferers and comforters, righteous and unrighteous.  It provides wisdom for the individual, and it also provides commentaries for the group–the community.  Iyov is a book worth chewing on.

Quotations are taken from the ESV translation.


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