Posted in Book Reviews

A Small Book on the Big Questions

Rabbi Harold Kushner has been grappling with the Old Testament book of Job for nearly his entire life.  He had planned on making it the subject of his doctoral dissertation only to be dissuaded by his dissertation director.  Now, late in life, he has channeled his decades of study and reflection into The Book of Job:  When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.

The question posed by the book of Job is what is known as theodicy:  How can a good and omnipotent God permit seemingly undeserved suffering?  Kushner says that “the book of Job is a full-length argument about whether the misfortunes that befall ostensibly good people come to them from the hand of God.  If we want to believe that ours is a moral world, the scene of justice and fairness, we need to confront the arguments presented [by Job].”

Kushner begins by breaking Job into two major parts, which he labels “the Fable of Job” and “the Poem of Job.”  The Fable is contained in chapters 1, 2, and 42, those chapters that sound like parts of an ancient folktale, which Kushner believes they are.  The God depicted in the Fable is a God persuaded by Satan to play games with the lives of Job and Job’s family in order to prove Job’s faithfulness.  Most of us are generally uncomfortable with this capricious God, and Kushner suggests that centuries ago “a writer blessed with a mind of great subtlety and a vocabulary unmatched by any other biblical author had the same reaction.  He took the venerable, pious Fable of Job, turned it inside out, and gave us the theological masterpiece we know as the book of Job in the Bible.”  What Kushner calls the Poem of Job is the heart of that masterpiece.

Although Kushner’s tone is warm and his prose accessible, this is not a light book; with his close reading of Job and a review of scholarly arguments, his little book could serve as the basis for a college course on Job.  He combs through the scripture, section by section, offering possible translations of words in the original text, opening up passages for fresh consideration.  He places events and dialogue in historical and cultural context, allowing modern readers to see the story with new eyes.  And in the closing chapter, he summarizes arguments about Job from such notables as Maimonides, Spinoza, Isaac Luria, Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a variety of translators and commentators, and even Archibald MacLeish (who wrote J.B., a play Kushner describes as “the Job story in modern dress”).  Kushner mounts his own argument, reflecting on what we can know about God and examining the roles of God and humans in the natural world.  Finally, focusing on a few crucial lines in the Poem of Job, he suggests that for both the character of Job and for himself, the answers lie not in theological arguments about God but in relationship with God.

—Diane

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