The Book of Job—named after its chief protagonist, Job, or Iyov in Hebrew—explores the morality of Divine justice through the experience of human suffering, primarily the suffering of Job himself.
Who Was Job?
The Talmud and other early rabbinic works present multiple opinions as to the identity of Job (with a minority opinion characterizing his narrative as a metaphor1). Although there is no clear consensus as to who he was or when he lived, the dominant view places Job’s birth at the time of the Jewish descent into Egypt and his passing at the time of the Exodus, making for an extraordinarily long lifespan—210 years.2 This opinion seems to be in harmony with the Talmudic teaching that Job was, in fact, one of three royal advisors to the Egyptian Pharaoh who deliberated over the plot to murder all the male Jewish newborns. Upon learning of the proposal, Job was indifferent and did not protest the decree, and it was because of his inaction that G‑d later brought immense suffering upon him.3
Others place him during the era of the Spies (“meraglim”), the Judges, the returnees from the Babylonian exile,4 the era of the Persian king Achashverosh, the kingdom of Sheba, the kingdom of the Chaldeans, in the days of Abraham,5 or Jacob, each citing Biblical support for their position.6
A most intriguing opinion cited in the Midrash is that Job did not actually suffer the tragedies attributed to him but did live at some point. The Torah intends to communicate the sheer fortitude of Job’s faith in that even if he were to suffer the overwhelming misfortune described throughout the book, his faith would have sustained him throughout.7
Maimonides writes that regardless of which view we embrace, the episode describing Job’s submission to Satan at the opening of his book is a metaphor containing fundamental aspects of the Jewish system of faith.8
The righteous Job, blessed with enormous wealth, is suddenly subjected to staggering misfortune. In a single day, he loses all his children,9many of his servants and livestock, and the remaining animals are captured and stolen.10 All this, at the behest of Satan, the adversarial angel, who persuades G‑d to test the robustness of Job’s faith.11 Indeed, Job reacts with faithful clarity and sobriety. “I came out of my mother’s womb naked,” said Job, and “I will return there12 naked. G‑d has given, and G‑d has taken away. May the Name of G‑d be blessed.”13
At this point, “Job did not sin or speak senselessly against G‑d.”14 But as Satan is permitted to intensify Job’s suffering, striking him with severe boils over his entire body, a shift in Job’s emotional posture is observed. Job would not “sin with his lips,”15 says the Talmud, “but in his heart, he did.”16 Yet Job still assails his wife’s arguments to “Curse G‑d and die,” saying, “Will we accept the good from G‑d and not accept the bad?”17
When Job’s friends arrive to console him, a spirited debate ensues as they explore the issues of theodicy and the morality of Divine justice. “Happy is the man,” they told Job, “whom G‑d rebukes.”18 But Job prefers to die instead. “My soul prefers strangulation; death rather than these limbs!”19
Then, Job begins to question why Divine Providence would concern itself altogether with insignificant mortals.20 “If I have sinned, what effect can I have on You?” Job asks.21 “G‑d must be unaware of my righteousness,” he complains bitterly; “He destroys both the faultless and the wicked.”22
G‑d’s inquiry into man’s moral choices—His interaction with worldly events and the justice of those interactions—remains the central point of contention between Job and his companions.
Finally, G‑d admonishes Job directly,23 driving home the inadequacy of man and his inherent inability to grasp the wisdom of the Creator. “Where were you when I founded the earth?” says G‑d, “Speak up if you have understanding!”24
Job recognizes his error and begs for G‑d’s forgiveness.25 He prays for his companions,26 and G‑d restores his fortune and increases it two-fold. 27 Job’s later years are characterized by phenomenal material success, until his passing at a ripe old age.28
Job’s Righteousness and Charity
Was Job righteous? He is described as a “sincere, upright and G‑d fearing man who shunned evil”29– qualities that rival those of Abraham.30 Clearly, in relation to the righteousness of ordinary non-Jews of that era, Job is viewed quite favorably, as the Midrash teaches, “There was no one more righteous than Job amongst the nations of the world.”31
We learn much of his benevolence and compassion for people. He was generous with his wealth32 which had the providential blessing of bestowing prosperity upon all who benefitted from it. “No person,” says the Midrash, “who received charity from Job even once, had to ever receive charity from him again.”33 Job emulated Abraham by designing his dwelling with four entryways, facing all directions, so that guests could enter into his home with ease.34 He would extend financial assistance to those in need, clothe the naked, visit the sick, provide financial support for the widowed and the orphaned,35 and engage in similar philanthropic activities.36
Job is also said to have been a staunch advocate of justice, serving as a judge who bravely preserved the rule of law.37
Matters of Jewish Law Deduced from Job’s Saga
1. The imperative to treat those we employ with respect and dignity is a value gleaned from Job. He declared, “Did I ever spurn the just claim of my manservant or maidservant when they made a complaint against me?” The law is thus encoded by Maimonides:
We should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims.38
2. The obligation of a judge to thoroughly investigate any relevant evidence and testimony is deduced from Job’s conduct as well. “If I did not know the truth behind a claim,” says Job, “I investigated it.”39 This is enshrined in Maimonides’ code for the high court, based, in part, on Job’s example:
A person who is haughty when rendering judgment, and hurries to deliver a judgment before he examines the matter in his own mind until it is as clear as the sun, is considered a fool, wicked, and conceited. Our Sages commanded: “Be patient in judgment.”40
3. The narrative of Job also serves as one of the sources for the laws of mourning and bereavement. The verse, “And Job stood up and rent his robe,”41 informs us of the practice of keriah where a mourner rends his garment while in an upright position at the most acute moment of mourning.42
While in the presence of a mourner, it is also appropriate to remain silent until the mourner opens the conversation. This practice is demonstrated by Job, as the verse states,43 “Job then opened his mouth,” implying that he was the first to speak.44
Let us conclude with a prayer that no one be tested in the way that Job was, and that we all experience only goodness and kindness all the days of our lives.
1. Some authors (Sefer Ha-Mefoar, Parshat Behaalotecha) interpret this not as an embrace of the metaphoric caricature of Job, but to mean that G‑d’s sole intention in creating Job was to impart his book’s ethical and moral messages, and in this respect his identity is merely a metaphor. Others (Rabbi Shimshon of Astropol, Dan Yadin12) see the Talmud’s statement as conveying mystical truths about the origin of Job’s soul (“He was a metaphor” is understood as a reference to the spiritual stature of his soul which originated at a most inferior level). 2.
2. Seder Olam Raba (ch. 3). See Chaim Milikowsky, Seder Olam, Critical Edition, vol. II p. 60. The book of Job concludes (42:16): “Now Job lived thereafter one hundred and forty years, and he saw his sons and his sons’ sons for four generations.” This implies that Job was blessed with an additional 140 years after the period of his trials and tribulations. His initial 70 years (during which he experienced immense suffering) were repaid twofold (Rashi, Bava Batra 15b, s.v. Eima). In sum, Job (in this view) lived for 210 years. Cf. Ibn Ezra (Job 2:11).
3. Sotah 11a. According to the Zohar (vol. II, p. 33a) Job advised Pharaoh to confiscate the Jewish wealth and then enslave them. In response, G‑d visited the very same predicament upon Job himself.
4. See also Bereishit Rabbah 57:4.
5. Bereishit Rabbah ibid.
6. Bava Batra 15a-b. Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (vol. III, ch. XXII) points to the vast number of opinions about when Job lived as bolstering the view that Job was merely a metaphorical figure. See, however, Chida, Ein Zocher sec. 40:18, where he demonstrates that only when a story is told in the Talmud of an anonymous protagonist with no identifying features (such as the name of his father, the name of his city, etc.) ought one conclude that the story is merely metaphoric. In the case of Job, the Talmud explicitly points to his father’s name as well as the name of his city of origin.
R. Meir Arama’a (Meir Iyov 1:1) argues that Job was not merely a mythical figure and disputes the position of Maimonides. See, however, Yefe Toar (Bereishit Rabbah 57:3), s.v. lo haya velo nihyeh, that because many of the ideas expressed in Job appear to contravene classic Jewish thought, it would appear that the narratives themselves are of a prophetic nature and are merely attributed to Job and his colleagues.
7. Bereishit Rabbah 57:4.
8. Guide to the Perplexed ibid.
9. Job 1:19.
10 Job 1:13-18.
11. Job 1:6-12.
12. See Rashi ibid 21, “To the place of his return,” i.e. the earth.
13. Job 1:20-21.
14. Job 1:22.
15. Job 2:10.
16. Bava Batra 16a
17. Job 2:10.
18. Job 5:17.
19. Job 7:15.
20. R. Yosef Albo (Sefer Ha-Ikarim 3:18) explains that from Job’s perspective, the transcendence of the Divine and G‑d’s disregard for the events within human reality, speaks to the greatness of G‑d, whereas G‑d’s involvement would minimize His awesomeness.
21. Job 7:20.
22. Job 9:21-22.
23. Job 38:1.
24. Job 38:4.
25. Job 42:3.
26. The notion of praying for the good fortune of one’s fellow emerges in the narrative of Job’s confrontation and subsequent reconciliation with his colleagues. The Midrash teaches that so long as Job was at loggerheads with his friends, the Divine attribute of judgment cast its long shadow upon his fortune and suffering. But when Job appeased them and sought Divine mercy on their behalf, G‑d returned to him and awarded him wealth in greater measure than ever before (Pesikta Rabbati 38, Midrash Harninu).
27. Job 42:10.
28. Job 41:12-17.
30. Bava Batra 15b.
31. Devarim Rabbah 2:4.
32. Megillah 28a.
33. Bereishit Rabbah 39:11.
34. Avot d’Rebi Natan 7:1. Still, the Midrash points out the advantage Abraham had over Job in that he would leave his home to seek out guests, whereas Job would wait for and accommodate those who arrived on their own.
35. Midrash Iyov 10, 40.
36. See Bava Batra 16a.
37. Pesikta Rabati 33:11.
38. Hilchot Avadim9:8.
39. Job 29:16. Metzudot ibid.
40. Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 20:7.
41. Job 1:20.
42. Moed Katan 24a; Rashi ibid. Although it is incumbent upon those present at the moment of death to tear keriah (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 339:3), it is customary to wait until immediately before the funeral procession, in order to ensure that all members of the family have arrived and can perform the keriah properly (Gesher Hachayim vol. 1, ch. 12, p. 109). In the event that keriah was not performed then, it is ideal to tear keriah before the interment (Divrei Sofrim, Yoreh Deah 340:8)
43. Job 3:1.
44. Moed Katan, 28b. Rambam, Hilchot Avel 13:3.