#49 When Being Righteous is not Enough: A Study of the Book of Job

A Podcast on the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible

The Book of Job (Iyov) is a philosophical discussion on the nature of divine justice in relation to human suffering. In this podcast episode, David provides a fascinating overview of the story of Job whose tragic circumstances cause him to demand an explanation from G-d on the question: Why has this happened to me? As David explores each chapter of this biblical text, he unravels the various philosophical positions as expressed by G-d, Satan, and a range of other biblical characters to this age-old question. David also draws on views expressed by the sages, rabbis, and mystics on the Book of Job and its questions.

Read the transcript.

William Blake: Job’s Evil Dreams. Public Domain.


This episode was recorded in 2009 at the OU Israel Center. Notes for the lecture will be available to Patreon subscribers when all four lectures have been released.


I’m going to talk tonight about the Book of Iyov otherwise known as the Book of Job, but we’re going to call him Iyov. I don’t want anyone to get confused.

This talk is no substitute for reading the text. And I always repeat that. I have to repeat it to myself and I say it to anyone who’s listening.

Nothing you can hear about any of the books of Tanach can be a substitute for engaging with the text and engaging with the text at different times in your life. The Book of Iyov is not like other books in Tanach. Other books in Tanach present a more or less clear, prophetic direction, or they are communicating a narrative that takes you on a journey – historically as well as spiritually. But the Book of Iyov is like none of that. The Book of Iyov is a book that is primarily a philosophical discussion.

Now some of us sat in this very room and we did a whole series on philosophy last year. And I’m going to draw on elements of that because I’m assuming that these talks can be progressive and I can slightly build on what we’ve discussed before. But if I do talk about anything and people are confused or don’t understand, I really need you to let me know. I don’t want you to sit here not knowing what I’m talking about. It’s bad enough that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

The Book of Iyov is primarily a discussion. We don’t know who wrote it and we don’t know who Iyov was. And we don’t know when he lived. And we know gornisht (nothing) about all of those factors. Even the biblical critics, the big bacon-munching apikorsim (heretics) sitting in different places in the world will tell you: we have no idea when it was written. And chazal has no idea when it was written.

Well, some of them have some ideas. There’s a famous Gemara brought in Bava Batra in daf-tet-vav and thereabouts, which is a big discussion of Iyov, when he lived. And there are no less than about eight or so opinions brought about Iyov – including the famous opinion that he never lived at all. That the whole of the Book of Iyov is a parable.

Now, those of you who go: how could he say that about one of the spiritual figures of the Bible? That he never existed? I would like to remind you that that opinion is also shared by no less a figure than the Rambam. For those of you for whom the Rambam is not frum (religious) enough, I’m sorry.

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed) is very clear on explaining – not just of the opinion – but explaining why he thinks that this is an extremely deep and mysterious book, but that Iyov didn’t exist.

And remember, please, I’m just going to say this as a qualifying footnote, I know that there are a lot of learned people in this room and I know that there are two types of people that come to my talks. There are people who want to hear about the topic I’m going to talk about. Then there are those who come to see how I get it all wrong. And I, therefore, want to tell the second group that I totally respect your project, but please bear in mind that Iyov is a book that for every opinion you can find the opposite opinion – in all sources. Some say he was a sinner, as some say he was righteous; some say he was a Jew, some say he was a goy (not Jewish); some and say he lived there, some say he lived there. There are different opinions; it’s a very, very difficult book to understand. It’s a very difficult book to understand – if we can understand it at all.

You have to read it hundreds of times just to get the basic underlying message. The message is embedded in poetry – it’s a massive poem. There’s a bit of narrative at the beginning of the end, but the whole thing is really a huge poem.

It also possibly – and I also don’t want people to run out of the room, screaming apikorsus (heresy) at this – but it is possible that the Book of Iyov has been slightly reconfigured over the generations.

This is an opinion held by several scholars and with good reason. There are some chapters that appear a little bit out of sequence, but overall it’s fairly coherent. But you really have to read it closely and carefully. And also, as I always say, strive to read it in the Hebrew, because it is stunning Hebrew, even if it is the most difficult Hebrew in Tanach.

All right? Everyone by now should know what a hapax legomenon is. It’s a word that appears only once in Tanach and therefore our understanding of what it means relies completely on masorah – relies completely on tradition. The great sages and scholars of the people of Israel have handed down the meanings of words as they are in context. But Iyov has more of those than any other book in Tanach. It’s got about a hundred words that are unique to Iyov. So, between all this, the commentators, the scholars, the individual readers like ourselves, we are climbing through this jungle of meaning to try and work out what is going on.

In the course of this talk, I will go over the whole Book of Iyov, chapter by chapter. And we will try and make sense and distil from it exactly what is going on.

Now Iyov lived in a land, according to the Book of Iyov, and this is one reason why some of the rabbis say he must have lived because otherwise why would his address have been given? He lived in a land called Uts. Nice place. We’re not sure, of course, where Uts is. There are various opinions on Uts. Uts is mentioned in the Torah. Who was Uts? Abraham’s nephew. He was the son of Nahor. אֶת־ע֥וּץ בְּכֹר֖וֹ וְאֶת־בּ֣וּז – Uts was the son of Nahor, which means he was a nephew of Abraham.

That, of course, works well with people that want to place Iyov in the time of Abraham, which is one of the strong opinions in Midrash and in Talmud about when Iyov lived. But we really don’t know where Uta is. There are indications that Uts may be part of the general territory of Edom, which would place it sort of southeast of the Land of Israel – and there are other factors indicating that as well. Or was Uts may be somewhere near today’s Armenia if you want to put him up near Aram, around where the family of Nahor was supposedly living. We don’t know where exactly Uts is, but Iyov – who we don’t know if he existed – was definitely living there.

Now Iyov wasn’t just an ordinary fellow. Sometimes we read the Tanach and sometimes we don’t stop and think what the Tanach is telling us about the person it’s talking about. Let’s spend a moment on Iyov and who he was.

The first verses of Iyov tell us that he was living in the land of Uts and that he was an extremely righteous person – an extremely righteous person. There is so much the material on Iyov that sometimes if you try to bring it down coherently into a talk of an hour or so, you’re literally got to censor and weld material to make sense, but there is one stunning Midrash that we have on the Book of Iyov – that is a famous Midrash that I’m sure many of you are aware of. This is a Midrash that places Iyov in the time of Moshe (Moses). There is a strong opinion that he was a contemporary of Moshe.

Now, this Midrash is huge. It’s a Midrash that tells us that Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, when he was making his decrees against the Jewish people – specifically the decree to wipe them out and throw every firstborn male into the river, an effective genocide of the Jewish people – that he took consultation with three big advisors. And I can see by the people nodding that this is a familiar Midrash, but it’s worth mentioning. It’s a very deep Midrash and we’re going to come back to it later.

He takes consultation with three advisors. These three invited are Billam, the famous Billam, the prophet of the Gentiles, the wicked prophet of the Gentiles, who goes on to attempt to curse the Jewish people later on. He takes counsel with Yitro, Jethro, who goes on to become the father in law of Moshe. And he takes counsel with a guy called Iyov, who is a big dude at the time.

Billam decrees against the Jewish people: very worth your while Pharaoh because as you know, the Jewish people are going to rise up and they’re going to cause you all sorts of hassle – better off to wipe them out now. Yitro was so repulsed by these decrees that he ran away. He avoided Pharaoh and he ran away and he went to live in Midian and eventually became the father-in-law of Moshe and even joined the Jewish people. yov abstained. He was neutral. As a consequence of that neutrality, G-d sent the Satan to afflict Iyov, so that the Satan would be distracted while the Jewish people were coming out of Egypt and they would be able to come out in merit of deeds that they otherwise might not have merited to do had the Satan not being totally preoccupied with Iyov. It’s a very big Midrash and it has many deep layers.

But we’ll get back to the book. Iyov is a righteous person. And the Book of Iyov tells us just how righteous he was. It uses four expressions: tam – innocent, sincere, genuine – a difficult word, as you know, to translate. We all know that word from the Haggadah. Tmimut, the idea of sincerity. He was yashar – he was upright. He was וִירֵ֥א אֱלוֹקִים – he feared G-d and he was וְסָ֥ר מֵרָֽע – he would turn away from evil. He avoided evil. You can think that abstaining is avoiding evil.

Iyov is all these things. He’s a very, very righteous person. And he’s not only righteous, he’s seriously cashed up. He is extremely wealthy. Think of the most righteous person you can think of in the world, the holiest, most saintly person you can think of and then maybe make them the wealthiest person in the world. That’s Iyov. So much so, that we understand from the book is that he was a living testimony to divine justice. If you can be a saintly and as righteous as Iyov, then this is what’s going to happen to you. Things will be good. He was like a living walking, Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of the name of G-d by through holiness). Look at me, I’m really righteous and I’m really wealthy. He had sheep and he had oxen and he had donkeys and he had camels. And he had servants and he had tents and he had land and he had trees and he had crops. And he had everything. And he was righteous. But he was also a little nervous.

Iyov was not a chilled out person. He was quite anxious about all this, because he knew about himself that he was righteous and that he was wealthy and that these two ideas were connected. And, therefore, he was constantly on tenterhooks. He was constantly on edge to make sure that nothing went wrong that would upset this incredible balance.

Iyov had a lot of children. These children were wonderful children and they loved each other and they used to go to each other’s houses for Shabbos dinners and it was wonderful. And every time they did that Iyov would go into stress mode and say: Oh, I heard they didn’t do anything wrong. And he would offer sacrifices to G-d in order to recompense for any wrong – not only that they did, but even wrong that they might have thought. He tried to compensate for the possibility of his children thinking the wrong thoughts. He was constantly on edge.

He had – and it’s very interesting when you look carefully at Iyov – he had a mechanical relationship with G-d. You remember when we gave the big talks during the last year, we talked about the new neviim (the prophets),  we talked about the Trei Asar (the minor prophets), we talked about the huge revolution that had happened in Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) during the whole of the prophetic period, the realisation that G-d is not some neutral force that you can interact with according to sacrifices. If I do the rituals the right way, G-d will act in a certain way.

Well, Iyov is a bit beyond that. Iyov doesn’t necessarily believe that it’s the right sacrifice or the right ritual that’s going to bring about the desired result from G-d. He understands that the relationship with G-d has to be a relationship of righteousness, but he’s then caught up in what is still a mechanical relationship. He still believes that I can be righteous and if I’m righteous, G-d must respond a certain way. I’m the greatest example of righteousness, I am the greatest example of what can happen to you. Look at me. I’m Iyov. I’m great.

All right. So far so good. We understand Iyov. We understand what’s happening there. And then we have one of – this is all in chapter one – we have one of the strangest episodes in the whole of Tanach. There’s no question that this episode is el bizarro and very few places in Tanach can match this for sheer weirdness. G-d calls a heavenly council of all the angels and amongst them is the Satan.

Now, how many places in the Bible, how many places in Tanach do we hear about Satan? Anyone want to hazard a guess? A few is cheating. Sorry. No, it’s not just one. It is, in fact, no, it’s not two, but even closer. It’s three.

And they’re each very, very different. They’re all interesting. It’s not the range of tonight’s talk to go into depth. If I was giving like a four-part course on Iyov, I’d spend a whole lecture on Satan – it’s a very interesting topic. But Satan is mentioned here and we need to be very careful and I just do want to spend 30 seconds on this. I know that one in this room has a fully proper conception of Satan. I mean that in a good way. But I just need to spend a few seconds on this because I need to clear or dispel any misunderstandings.

We have a very, very different conception of Satan from the Christian conception. There is a conception of Satan that has crept into the world in the last two millennial, last 2000 years, that is purely and only the consequence of a separation in the unified conception of G-d. Only if you believe that G-d can become manifest or somehow divided or corporealized into a son and of this and that, could you have a conception that Satan is somehow its own agency.

But that’s not the Jewish conception of Satan at all.  And it is certainly not the conception in the Book of Iyov. Satan in the Book of Iyov is completely subservient to G-d. It is a messenger of G-d. It is the adversary that brings before G-d, the faults of human beings, and exacts whatever appropriate response is required.

Satan comes before G-d and G-d says to Satan – the Satan, there’s a difference between Satan and the Satan. Of those three mentions of Satan in Tanach, by the way, the description of Satan in the Book of Iyov is very similar to the adversarial description of Satan which you’ll find in the book of Zachariah, in chapter three, in relation to the Cohen Gadol (High Priest of Israel) Yehoshua (Joshua) and how the Satan is standing there to accuse him of various things and once again, there, the Satan is purely an agency of G-d.

It is the third mention of Satan that gets people all ‘ah’ and that, of course, is in Divrei Hayamin (דברי הימים, Chronicles), chapter 21, where the Satan comes and somehow seduces David into the idea of counting the people. If you refer that story back to the Book of Shmuel (Book of Samuel), you’ll realize it’s Hashem that does that.

So, we have a solution for that. It is not the case in Jewish thinking. It is not the case in Jewish thinking. And I can’t even believe I’m going to say this, but I just want to dispel it, that Satan is some angel who decided to rebel against G-d and then went down into hell and all the rest of it. That is a Miltonian Christian conception of Satan. It does not feature in Jewish thinking.

The Satan is completely subservient to G-d, but G-d wants to prove a point. G-d says to Satan: where have you been? Satan goes: Oh, wandering around here and there, up, down. He goes: Look, you know, have you seen my great example of justice in the world, my Iyov? He’s fantastically righteous and is upright and he keeps away from evil and Satan goes: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, but that’s all very well, but you know, it’s all a bit easy for Iyov. You call him righteous but look what you’ve given him. You’ve bestowed everything upon him. I mean, what would happen if Iyov wasn’t so wealthy? What would happen if life was not so good for Iyov? Would he still be as righteous? You don’t know that? Well, he doesn’t say to G-d: you don’t know that. One assumes that G-d knows the answer. And G-d says: well, all right, let’s test the theory. I’ll let you do things to him. Maybe make life not so good for him.

Satan doesn’t need another invitation and then – this is all in chapter one. Off he goes. Iyov is there one day. And it’s a day when all his families are gathering together in the house of the elder brother and Iyov’s going about his business. He’s a little anxious – and he even says later in the book that he’s was anxious that day. A messenger arrives to Iyov. Your oxen were plowing and your donkeys were hanging out nearby and suddenly the Sabeans came. Now this, of course in Hebrew is Sva (שְׁוָא). Some people think that’s the Kingdom of Sheba, but more than likely – as you know, there’s the Mediterranean, there’s the Land of Israel – more than likely it’s the Sabeans.  The Sabeans are here in Yemen, but they’ve got a territory extending there. Uts is here. The Sabeans came and they, they fell upon the oxen that were ploughing the fields, they took them all away. They took away the donkeys that were grazing nearby. They killed all your servants that were doing the work and looking after the animals and they made off. Oh, bang, that’s the first one.

Within minutes, another messenger comes and says: I’ve just come from where we were grazing the flocks and I don’t know how to explain it, but a huge fire came out from heaven – probably a meteorite of some sort – and burnt and wiped everybody out and I’m the only one that was left. Just as the first guy also said, I’m the only one that was left and I ran to tell you. I’m the only one that was left from the wipe-out of the flocks and I ran to tell you.

Within minutes, someone else comes to him and says: the Chuldin, the Chaldeans – who of course are more Babylonian types, so they’re coming from here – they organised three bands and they came upon the camels and they took away all the camels and they wiped out everybody that was looking after the camels and I’m the only one that was left.

In one bang, bang, bang. Iyov loses all his wealth. And then someone comes and says – I mean, talk about a bad day – someone then comes and says: all your children were gathered in the house of the firstborn and a massive wind came and knocked down the house on top of them. They are all dead. And I am the only one who survived and I ran from that experience and I’ve run to tell you.

So, all of a sudden: bang, bang, bang, bang. Within minutes, what does Iyov do? What does Iyov do? He stands up. He cuts kriah (he rends his garments), he sits down and he says: יְיָ נָתַ֔ן וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה לָקָ֑ח, G-d gave and G-d takes away.

Phenomenal. Phenomenal. Can you begin to imagine having a day like that? So, there you go. Has he passed the test? I would say so. All right, Satan goes back – chapter two – Satan goes back to G-d and G-d says: well, you know, what do you think? You wiped out everything he had, including his children, he’s now sitting avelut (mourning), he’s a massive avel (mourner), have I not proven the point?

Satan says: ah, you know, someone will do anything so long as you don’t touch them personally. Personally, his body, his soul hasn’t been touched. Sure, he’s lost everything. He’s going through tremendous grieving. His kids did. He’s lost all his wealth, but you haven’t touched him. If you touched him, he’d curse you to your face, G-d. And G-d goes: Hmm, okay, I’ll let you touch him, but don’t kill him. Preserve his soul, but you know, you can do things to him – personally, his body.

Imagine Iyov, having lost all his children and all his property and all his wealth, he’s now sitting in avelut (mourning) and bang – suddenly he is covered from toe to head in the most excruciating boils. Satan afflicts him with boils. Everybody know what boils are? Do I need to go into a full description of boils? Yep. No. Cool. They are, however, different types of boils. I’ve done research on boils. There are different boils – and all of us at some point might have boil, every once in a while. But these boils were excruciatingly painful. They covered his entire body. They were disgusting. They oozed and they stank and they were foul.

The rabbis love getting into this boils concept and they explain – I mean I’ll bring a bit of Midrash here and there – but the boils is interesting because it says that Iyov sat in dust and ashes and the text tells us that he took a piece of clay so that he could scrape the boils. The Gra (Vilna Gaon) explained that that Iyov was sitting in a pile of scabs that he’d scraped off his body. Midrash explains that on the upper half of his body were really, really dry, painful scabs – that’s why you had the piece of clay. But the bottom half of his body were these wet, oozy pussing boils. And that’s why he sat in the earth and the ashes so they could absorb it. It was disgusting. And he was a mess – and not only was he a mess, he was unbelievable agony the whole time.

Before we even start the discussion of Iyov, I want you to understand that this is a guy that within minutes, within the course of a day, went from being the wealthiest guy in the world to being someone who had all his children die in one day. He lost all his wealth – every single thing he had – in one in the same day. And now he’s covered with this incredible affliction of excruciatingly painful boils.

One of the reasons why some of the opinions say that Iyov is a mashal (example), that he is a parable because no human being could withstand the suffering that he went through.

If it wasn’t bad enough, he had an annoying yenta (annoying woman) of a wife. She comes out and she says something along the lines of: well, you see, look where it’s got you. You and your G-d. I don’t know why you’ve kept faith with this G-d. Just curse him and die.

His wife is brilliant because she has worked out the whole thing. That takes us to go through the whole Book of Iyov to work all this out. But she snaps at it once. She realizes it’s a test. And as soon as Iyov curses G-d, it’s basically suicide. So, she says: I don’t understand. You’ve kept faith in his G-d. You bring the sacrifices. You’re righteous. Look what he’s done to you. Curse him and die.

And Iyov utters this phenomenal response to her, which is interesting because the Midrash tells us that – one of the Midrashic lines because there are many different Midrashic lines in Iyov. But one of the Midrashic lines tells us that his wife was who? Anyone know? That his wife was Dina bat Yaakov (Jacob) that his wife was Dina. Now, if his wife is Dina, that’s interesting because she’s basically saying to him: look, don’t talk to me about tests. I come from a family that knows all about tests. You either pass the test or you don’t. Don’t groan in your… Iyov says to her: what I should curse G-d? We should thank G-d for the good we have, but not thanking him or not, but not accept the evil that befalls upon us? Everything comes from G-d. And he sits down in absolute agony and he is an avel, he is a mourner in tremendous affliction.

In the meantime, as we get towards the end of chapter two, three friends come and visit Iyov. Interesting friends. Interesting friends. You wouldn’t want friends like these, necessarily. One is Elifaz HaTemani, who the Midrash also tells us is very possibly Elifaz, the son of Esav (Esau). The other is Bildad HaShuhi. Bildad comes and so does Zophar HaNaamati – that’s Elifaz, Bildad, and Zophar, they’re three friends Iyov and they come and as they’re getting close to Iyov, because they heard all the terrible news, the terrible things that had happened to him as they see him, they haven’t even got close to him yet, they just see the picture of this misery and they break down crying.

This was their friend Iyov that was the paragon of the world. And there he is – a disgusting mess in a heap of ashes with nothing, mourning for his family and his misfortune. And they get to him. The rabbis tell us that we learn many, many halachot (Jewish laws) if you look at Moed Katan, which is the masekhet of Talmud dealing with the laws of avelut (mourning), we learn many of the laws about avelut from their behavior. There are many things we learned not to do from their behavior as well.

They come, they sit down next to him in his avelut – and what is the big halakha that we learn? They keep shtum (quiet). They keep shtum. That’s why, if you go, G-d forbid to the house of a mourner, you greet them with the nichum avelim  (traditional words for greeting a Jewish mourner: may ‘the Place’ comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem) but you don’t open conversation, you wait for the mourner to open conversation with you.

This we learned from the three friends of Iyov that sat down next to him and they don’t say anything and they sit there with Iyov saying nothing and the friends saying nothing for a week. Seven days, the whole shiva, nothing is said.

I want you to imagine what it would be like, G-d forbid, to go visit someone who lost their entire family in one hit. It would be massive. They sit there and they say nothing for a week.

When the week is ended – and here we start the real dialogue, here we start, really, the Book of Iyov. Everything to now has been prologue, that means it’s just grounding the story. Now we stopped the guts of the book. I want to go through fairly quickly.

Chapter three opens with Iyov of opening his mouth at the end of a week of silence. And these three have been sitting there and nothing happening except Iyov sobbing and scraping the scabs from his body.

Now, the world is divided into two types of people: those who like birthdays and those who don’t. Who likes birthdays? I like birthdays. I like my birthday. Everybody’s nice to me on my birthday or tries to be. It’s not always easy to be nice to me. Iyov is definitely in the category of people that does not like birthdays. He especially doesn’t like his birthday. There are a few sentences uttered by Yeremiyahu (Jeremiah) the profit about his birthday, but they don’t come anywhere near the curses that Iyov places on his day of birth. Not only his date of birth but the very night he was conceived he curses. He curses the womb of his mother that opened up for him. He curses the light he ever saw. He curses the day. He can’t curse G-d. Some tell us that he wants to curse G-d but he can’t, so he transfers all that anger on his own life.

There is, of course, another sublimated idea in here as well, that many commentators pick up on any of it. And it’s an ongoing thing we’re looking at potentially. And that is that in the ancient world, there was a very strong belief in astrology. And astrology was particularly powerful in its impact upon the day that you were born – that determined what was going to happen through your life. So, it wasn’t just the case that he’s wishing I wish I was never born. I hate the fact that I’m alive, which was of course the big thing, but there’s an underlying theme potentially as well that he’s cursing the day he was born because it was astrologically a bad day.

We’re going to come back to that a little later because if we ascribe things to astrological forces, then we’re taking it out of the realm of divine providence. But certainly, chapter three is highly devoted to Iyov cursing his birthday.

Interestingly enough, he doesn’t yet talk about himself and what he may have done to bring this about, he just doesn’t want to live. He knows he can commit suicide, but he won’t do it. Therefore, he’s condemned to suffer. And he doesn’t like it any more than anyone would. He’s feeling awful. And he curses the day he was born.

Chapter four, the first of the friends, Elifaz, opens his mouth. Now, unfortunately, many of us have been to visit people sitting shiva. Some of us have sat shiva ourselves. We’ve all at some point or rather, probably – except maybe some of the younger people in this room been to the house of avel. And some of us have seen different forms of behavior happen at the house of mourners. Yep. Everybody know what I’m talking about?

No one can come close to the level of insensitivity displayed by Elifaz and what he says. First of all, he turns around to Iyov and he says: Don’t be so pathetic. You know, you’re the one who when other people were suffering, you used to go round and lend a helping hand, a comforting word here and there – you’re the righteous Iyov, you’re helping everyone. But now that it happens to you – oh, it’s so terrible.

And then he utters the unbelievably insensitive words: אַשְׁרֵ֣י אֱ֖נוֹשׁ יֽוֹכִיחֶ֣נּוּ אֱל֑וֹהַּ Can you imagine this happens to Iyov as he says to him: Happy is the man whom G-d chastises. Can you imagine saying that to someone in avelut? It’s no wonder that G-d gets angry with Elifaz later on. But he says this – this is all in chapters four and five: Look, here’s how it works, Iyov, and here’s why, you know, your protestations – oh, I don’t want to live, it’s all terrible – it’s pathetic. You’re not Hamlet. Here’s how it works. We agree on several things: everything comes from G-d. We know that G-d is just. G-d is the perfect justice. And we also know that G-d’s divine providence is absolute – that G-d controls everything, that everything that happens comes from G-d. Let’s put these two together. G-d is perfect justice, everything comes from G-d. Look at you. Whoa, you must have sinned. This must be punishment. There’s no other explanation for that. This is punishment. Accept it here, cheerfully.

I mean, it’s interesting because Elifaz says to him the famous words: הַֽאֱנוֹשׁ מֵֽאֱל֣וֹהַּ יִצְדָּ֑ק. Can a man be more righteous than G-d? Whereas Iyov hasn’t quite got to talk about his own righteousness situation yet, but nevertheless, Elifaz gets right into to him saying this is a punishment.

What does Iyov answer to that? Chapters six and seven of Iyov, what does he answer? Punishment? You call this a punishment? This is not a punishment. This is a war. G-d is at war against me. I mean, punishment I can understand, but look at what’s happened to me. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. How can I even begin to why this is happening to me? But I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t deserve it. Therefore, I am left with a dilemma. I understand your reasoning, Elifaz, I do. We have divine justice and we have absolute providence, but one of them has to go. I’m the living example of that. One of them has to go and I’ll tell you what it is. I am not going to argue against the proposition that G-d is just, therefore I’m left with only one conclusion; G-d does not control everything. G-d’s big, G-d’s concerned with a great many things, but on the little level where we are, I’m in the hands of the mazalot (constellations), I’m in the hands of the forces of nature. G-d’s providence is not absolute.

Just jumping slightly philosophically, the Rambam is very excited by this. The Rambam and similarly the Ralbag and other famous philosophers in the Jewish tradition ascribe to each of the characters in the Book of Iyov a different philosophical position in relation to providence. For the Rambam, Iyov is wrong and he’s enunciating a classic Aristotelian position – or what the Rambam describes as an Aristotelian position. The Rambam’s biggest critic on that position of course is Spinoza, but we might come back to that later in the talk. But Iyov is definitely saying G-d’s providence is limited, there is no other explanation to this.

In chapter eight, Bildad the next friend opens his mouth. He says: Look, Iyov, you know, Elifaz has got a point here. Imagine not shutting up there? But imagine continuing this discussion… I mean, for me – and I know that some people are going to look at me weirdly when I say this – there are definitely aspects of the book of that are funny, if not hilarious. It is almost impossible to conceive that people could be so insensitive. Bildad then says: Look, sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper for their detriment and the right to suffer for their benefit.

Chapters nine and ten are Iyov’s response to this. That’s bizarre in the extreme, says Iyov, that’s not got to be nonsense. How can two happenings have the exact opposite effect? And if so, what’s the point? If you were going to tell me: Okay, if the wicked always prosper and the righteous always suffer then fine. But if it’s just like, sometimes this, sometimes that, and look at me. It just doesn’t make sense to me. There would be no point to any of that.

Chapter 11, Zophar opens his mouth with tremendous sensitivity and says: Look Iyov, just because you talk a lot, doesn’t mean you’re right. He says it. You know, it could be that the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, because, well, it could be that the righteous suffer because what G-d is doing is punishing them for sins that they will commit and therefore he’s, as we might say, lending them of their iniquities. But it’s all for the purpose of divine justice. He utters the famous words: הַחֵ֣קֶר אֱל֣וֹהַּ תִּמְצָ֑א

Could you work out divine justice for yourself? I don’t think so.

And then in a massive speech in chapters 12 to 14 Iyov comes back and he says: This is unbelievable. You know what you’re doing? You know what he is like? Oh, you’re so smart: וְ֜עִמָּכֶ֗ם תָּמ֥וּת חָכְמָֽה Wisdom is going to die with you guys. You are smart. I mean, it’s very sarcastic. It’s very bitter. It’s very angry. Whoever wrote the Book of Iyov was a complete genius because he’s able to enunciate the anger and bitterness that Iyov is feeling at having to have this discussion – let alone what’s happened to him.

He says: you know what? This is like, this is like a room full of people and they’re all laughing at someone. This one person in the room is a laughing-stock. They’re the only person that’s not laughing. Everybody in the room is laughing at them. And when this person says: why is everybody laughing at me? He gets told: because laughter is given to the righteous. Whereas the very fact that they’re laughing at him means that they’re wicked, but no laughter is given to the righteous. Why? Because laughing is pleasurable. Therefore, they must be righteous because pleasure is given to the righteous. He goes: that’s exactly what it feels like for me now stuck here with you guys.

Chapter 15, Elifaz: bang. There are three cycles of conversations between Elifaz, Bildad, and Zophar – and Iyov answering each one. It’s all back and forth. Every cycle is slightly different. The first cycle we might want to call the punishment cycle. They’re talking about this very difficult philosophical issue of divine providence, versus justice, versus what’s happened to Iyov.

In the second cycle, which we might call the providence cycle, Elifaz says: you know what Iyov? That’s your sin, right there. You see, we have a famous expression in Jewish thought. It’s in Aramaic. It’s a famous expression brought in the Gemara and brought in Midrash, it’s classically ascribed to people who deny the existence of the divine force in the world, it’s called Leit Din V’leit Dayan – there is no judgment, there is no judge. Well, there’s no discussion of Leit Dayan in the Book of Iyov. Everybody is aware that G-d exists. No one’s getting up and saying I don’t think G-d exists – it simply wasn’t a thought that people had in the ancient world. But there’s a discussion of Leit Din – that there’s no judgment… ‘leit‘ is an Aramaic word meaning ‘there isn’t’:  Leit Din V’leit Dayan – ein din v’ein dayan. In other words, that’s your sin. That’s your sin Iyov that you’ve had in your heart or that you’re expressing now. You don’t believe there’s divine justice in the world. It’s about time you did to teshuva. Now you see why this thing has come to you.

And Iyov, of course, in chapters 16 and 17 comes back and says: is it not enough that I have to put up with all this suffering? That I have to put up with your nonsense and your accusations is very harsh. Iyov is making the friends realize that they, if anything, are part of the suffering, with these tremendous accusations. I’m having this thought as a result of what’s happening to me, I’m desperate to understand. This is not the sin.

Bildad comes back in chapter 18 and he says, so tell me Iyov: you’re saying that because of what happened to you, therefore, G-d’s justice doesn’t exist in the world. Is that really what you’re saying? Maybe it is something that Zophar said before: it’s about wisdom. It’s about the fact that, let’s transcribe this to another level. Why can’t you just say that you don’t understand G-d’s justice?

Iyov comes back and says: Look at me. Look what’s happened. You guys are going to be punished for your inability to reason this through with me. I need to understand.

Once again, Zophar comes back in chapter 20, says: it’s very simple, the wicked are punished, the righteous are rewarded.

Iyov in chapter 21: No, look at me. Look at the world. Look around. Everywhere I see wickedness and I see wicked people prospering. It’s back and forth, chapter versus chapter verses chapter, they’re trying to prove it.

In chapter 22, there’s a shift and Elifaz starts talking about this concept of wisdom. Now we’re going to have a big discussion of wisdom. Because Elifaz says: you know what? Maybe wisdom is not the whole point. What, G-d’s righteousness is dependent on his ability to explain himself to you Iyov? Do teshuva, that’s your only answer.

And in the famous chapter 23, Iyov comes and he says: no, if G-d is just, if there is justice in the world, I need it to be a justice I can understand. The whole concept of justice belongs here in the world. I, as a human being, need to be able to understand it. It’s not enough for me to be told that there’s a level of divine wisdom way beyond what I can access.

Everywhere I look, it’s not the case that most of the wicked people in the world suffer and most of the righteous people do well. Everywhere I look it’s random. And, moreover, even when then the wicked people are made to pay for their sins, ie. they die, they tend to die quickly. Look at me. My agony is being prolonged. I am being made to suffer unbelievably. There is something acute happening here. I am desperate. He yearns for G-d’s wisdom. I yearn for G-d’s wisdom. G-d is terrifying. I need to understand what is happening. And his description, this is all in chapters 23 and 24, in his descriptions of the wicked, it all focuses – famously, of course – on social justice. The people who robbed the widows and oppressed the orphans and who ripped people off and manipulate economies and who take away, expropriate possessions from other people unjustly – all those people are doing just fine thank you very much.

And then in chapter 25, back comes Bildad and he says: you know what? And the famous expression that we all know: osei shalom bimrovav, he who makes peace in his high places. Look, you know what: maybe Iyov, there’s a point to what you’re saying about the fact that it’s all given over to the forces of nature, because by this time Iyov has more or less worked out the point. He’s more or less worked out that the world has been given over to Satan. He even says it: the world will be given over to the adversary. It’s not G-d directly and, therefore, I’m at the hand of forces that I don’t understand. And Bildad comes back and says: well, somewhere up there, G-d, in his essential divine justice, is making it all work out.

And then in this massive speech, 26 to 31, Iyov winds it all up, but he winds it all up in a very big way. Because Iyov says, look, let’s say I accept your point. First of all: עַד־אֶגְוָ֑ע לֹֽא־אָסִ֖יר תֻּמָּתִ֣י מִמֶּֽנִּי Until I die, I will not deny my righteousness. I have done nothing wrong. That’s the first thing you need to know and the last thing you need to know. Right throughout the book, Iyov has been going on and on and on and on: I haven’t done anything wrong, I haven’t deserved this. I haven’t deserved this. I haven’t deserved it. And until I die, I will not repudiate that claim. But let’s imagine that you’re right. Let’s imagine I am being punished, let that punishment fit the crime. Is this what I deserve? I’m being made to suffer more than any other person alive. It’s not the case that, you know, I was walking down King George Street and I didn’t look when I crossed the lights and a car came and banged me in the bum and now I’m like this. All right? But look at me. I’m being made to suffer more than any other person in the world. How does that fit with my conception of myself? And then he calls G-d to dialogue. He says: I need G-d to come here and explain this to me.

And then it says, Iyov says: Iyov has now finished. I’m sick of this discussion. I’m sick of you – no, not you, the three visitors coming to see him. I don’t want to talk about this anymore until G-d appears. You know, I’m wasting my time talking to you archi parchim (you amateurs). I need G-d to come and explain this. I haven’t sinned and I’m suffering more than anyone else. Why?

Now at that point, we’re up to chapter 32 of the Book of Iyov – don’t worry, there’s only 42 chapters, we’ve covered 31 of them. In chapter 32, what should probably happen here is that G-d should come along and explain it all. But before G-d gets a chance to do that, we have another character. Suddenly, there’s another figure in the book called Elihu. Now, when you read Elihu, there are many commentators on the figure of Elihu. One big Midrashic line and then the Gemara and so on is that Elihu was Yitchak (Isaac). When you read Elihu you realize that you’re looking at someone who is – I always get the impression that Elihu is a very, well-meaning, very Orthodox rabbi, who’s trying to come along and placate everything on this. But he gets very angry.

Elihu, who is not mentioned at the beginning, so there’s other scholars who think that Elihu may have been put into the Book of Eyo, but I don’t think so – it works very seamlessly in terms of the book. Elihu has a very big speech. Elihu is younger than all the others. He’s younger than me. He’s younger than all the friends. And he says, that’s why I didn’t say it until now – because I’m waiting.  And Elihu gives a speech lasting about six chapters, interspersed right there. Some people think it’s an interpolation because what happens right after is that G-d does come along. So, they say that G-d was meant to come along when Iyov said: I need to have a dialogue with G-d, G_d comes along. But we’ve now got these six chapters of Elihu.

Elihu was angry at Iyov. And he’s angry at the friends because they didn’t give Iyov the right answers. And you have to read Elihu many times to understand what he’s saying. Some commentators, not traditional Jewish commentators, but some commentators have been scornful of the speech of Elihu because they can’t see it adding anything. But he’s saying something very different from what the other three were saying.

First of all, he says: I’ve got to say this because this whole thing is sending the wrong message to the world, especially to the wicked. They’re going to get a very, very wrong message out of this. They’re going to do what they want because as a result of Iyov’s thinking, they’re going to think there’s no divine justice in the world.

But I’m also angry with you guys, he says to the friends. Why? Because you have the wrong conception of G-d fruit. We do have schar v’onesh ba’olam – we do have reward and punishment in the world. It does exist. But that’s not all that’s going on and that’s not all that defines the relationship between G-d and human beings.

כָמֹ֣הוּ מוֹרֶֽה – there is no one that loves the righteous like G-d and there is no teacher like G-d. Sometimes the righteous suffer, Iyov, not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because G-d wants to bring them to enlightenment.

I don’t recall you complaining about the lack of justice in the world when you had it good. When things were going well for you. I don’t remember you standing there screaming about injustice. You did what you could, but you weren’t lying on the ground moaning like this – about how there is no G-d in the world. You needed to be brought to a form of enlightenment and for all you know – and the rabbis pick up on this massively because they say that as a result of his self-satisfaction, Iyov was at the point before all these tragedies befell him – of being about to rebel against G-d and saying: you know what? I’m looking around and I’m seeing that there are other people who are not bringing all the sacrifices I’m bringing and are not as righteous as I am and they’re doing just as well. So maybe I don’t need to do all that.

G-d is saving you from that path. He is bringing this upon you so you will gain enlightenment, so that you will not sin – not as punishment for sins you’re about to commit or sins you have not committed, but to prevent you from doing that. But to bring you into a much deeper and clarified relationship with G-d that is not mechanically based on an equation of I’m righteous, G-d is good. I’m righteous, G-d is just. I’m righteous, G-d will be good to me. You have to get out of that framework. You have to break it open. That’s the whole point of this suffering. G-d is teaching you to be enlightened in your relationship with G-d.

And then in chapter 38, G-d appears and G-d is not exactly explaining himself to Iyov in a way that we would understand entering the discussion. G-d comes along and says, famously: אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֖יִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? I created nature. I control nature. Nature is a massive force. You think that I don’t look into every detail of what’s happening? There’s no divine providence or divine justice in the natural happenings. Do you? I control every aspect of nature. I created it. Human beings cannot control nature. I can. Does that help us? G-d then talks about two massive beings that he controls, could let unleash at any moment, but he controls them. And he shows them this to demonstrate the enormous infinite power of G-d in the world.

I’m talking about these two famous beasts. One called behomot (behemoth) and one called livyatan (leviathan). The two of them are mentioned in Iyov – lots of explanations and commentaries and possibly what they might represent. Basically, the whole point of chapters 38 to 41 in Iyov is to show us that G-d’s power is immense. It’s infinite. It applies to every single thing in nature. G-d feeds every little living thing. He has to worry about the rain. He has to think about rain that falls where no human beings live. He needs to deal with the hungry of the young of every type of animal – every single facet of nature, every single molecule comes under G-d’s discretion.

G-d is angry with the friends. So, he must agree to some extent, at least from the text, we can see with the assertions of Elihu. That, in fact, the friends got it wrong because their conception of G-d was still mechanical. It still relied on this equation of reward and punishment. And G-d is coming to show that G-d does not control the world like that. There is reward and punishment in the world, but in relationships with human beings who have free choice about the behavior, G-d opens up entire avenues of perception and enlightenment.

And then in chapter 42, the last chapter of the book, G-d restores Iyov. He restores him. He makes the friends offer sacrifices. Iyov has to pray for the friends. It’s only when he prays for the friends that he then gets his wealth restored and it gets restored double.

For those of you who question the apparent justice of what happened to the first lot of children, there are opinions, I think brought down from the Ranban that the children were not killed, they were just taken away and now they’re brought back. Either way, everything’s now happy. He gets restored. He’s got his wealth back. He’s got kids and more than enough wealth – twice as much wealth – lots of kids. His daughters are stunning, everybody’s very excited by them. Iyov lives for another 140 years and then he dies a very sated and happy person.

We are winding up, but I just wanted to highlight some of the major themes that I want to take out of Iyov. Because as you can see – even just going through the book – it’s a massively deep book. Every chapter that I just gave over in summary is an entire poem’s-worth of discussion of all the aspects of each point that I’ve expressed. The real essence of the book is about providence. It’s about to what extent does G-d control the reality in which we live. And to what extent is that control tied up with G-d’s plan of justice for the world.

On the one hand – and here’s the amazing thing about Iyov – is that the whole time this is going on, the whole massive chapter after chapter after chapter where he was going: I don’t understand. I don’t understand. We, the reader understand perfectly well by this has happened, because we read the beginning of the book. This is a bet between G-d and Satan. This whole thing is a test. It is a test and it is simply the result of G-d wanting to illustrate something beyond divine justice.

You see, once we have the revolution of the prophets of Israel, we need to guard against this mechanical interpretation of our relationship with G-d.  Our relationship with G-d in Jewish sources, must be a balance between ahava and yirah, it must be a balance between love of G-d and fear of G-d. But it cannot be a mechanical process.

By the way, there are some very interesting aspects of Satan I just wanted to mention. According to Sadya Gaon, do you know who the Satan is? We know famously that the Satan is the yetzer harah (the evil inclination), the malach hamavet (the angel of death) and all the rest of it, but the Satan is, in fact, one of Iyov’s neighbors.

It’s a person, meaning it’s a person that was so consumed with anger and jealousy at Iyov’s good fortune and the relationship between Iyov’s righteousness and his wealth that just came to G-d with this plea. I mean, when I first read that, I thought, well no, but then I started to think about that – that so much ill-feeling and evil energy is created in the world by people relating to each other.

Sadya Gaon also has a very interesting insight into the Book of Iyov – that Hashem’s justice in the world is already fulfilled from the moment you have life. That’s the chesed, that’s the kindness, the benevolence, that G-d gives you, that fulfills G-d’s justice in the world. Everything beyond that is superfluous. This is a point that Iyov needed to arrive at.

In (the Jewish aggadic work) Avot de-Rabbi Natan, we find out that Iyov sinned in his heart; that they tend to agree with Elifaz that the fact that Iyov was casting so much aspersion on divine justice in the world; that this is the very thing that brought at lack of divine justice – an apparent lack of divine justice – upon him. Therefore, the punishment in a sense did fit the crime.

Kabbalistically, what I’m about to tell you he was a bit wild, but it’s recorded in several places in kabbalistic books, that Iyov was a reincarnation of – anyone know? – and I know when I say this, you’re going to go: that’s so obscure – but just spend two seconds and see if we can work it out. Iyov, according to Chaim Vital in Shar HaGilgulim and also according to Menahem Azariah da Fano in his book on gilgulim, Iyov is a reincarnation of Terach, the father of Abraham.

Terach was an idol worshiper. However, Terach arrives at a rectification of his soul through the merit of his son of Abraham. So, he gets a gilgul as a righteous guy, who everything has gone well for, but then he still has to have effected a punishment for all the avodah zarah (idol worship) he committed when he was alive the first time, so he has to undergo all these processes. There may be more mystical connections between those two figures. But I leave that with you to contemplate.

I want to finish. And believe me, I know the time has really sped and you’ve sat here for enough and it’s a warm evening. I can also tell by some of your faces that he hasn’t come to terms with the book. I know. Iyov is a very difficult book. But I want to finish with a very powerful thought that might tie it up for us.

Because there’s a message screaming from Iyov. People say that Iyov is a navi (prophet). People said that the book of Iyov is a prophetic text. Some of you may be familiar with this idea. An idea that’s reached independently in several sources, but was probably best enunciated by Elie Wiesel. Iyov is the Jewish people.

Which people have gone through a greater level of suffering? Which people suffered more than the Jewish people in the Shoah, in the Holocaust? What can we say about the Holocaust? Is there any justification that we can come up with? It’s at the level of וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַֽהֲרֹֽן (and Aaron was silent). It’s at the level of: there is nothing that we can say. And yet, I’m sure many people in this room know people personally that came out of the camps and said: there’s no, G-d. And can we blame them?

Elie Wiesel says that the Book of Iyov is the book of our generation. That we sit and we mourn in the shadow of this gigantic event that we haven’t even been able to begin to integrate into Jewish theology yet and to understand: how did this happen in a world of divine justice? I’m talking about the Holocaust specifically, but you can go over the whole of Jewish History and you could look at this.

And if you look at the descriptions of Iyov and you look at what happens to Iyov. So, what if we take that understanding and we bring it back into the Book of Iyov and we look at the message of Elihu, we look at the message of Hashem at the end – that we can’t always try and equate the concept of reward and punishment with all of our behavior. Sometimes, both individually and collectively, we go through experiences which are meant to bring us to a greater understanding of our relationship with G-d – and a greater understanding of our relationship with the world around us.

Divine justice is intimately linked with our own concept of justice. This is what Iyov is screaming about in chapter 23: I need a concept of justice that I can understand. And if Hashem restored Iyov after he passed that test to a much greater destiny and a much greater future, so may Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) also be renewed and be restored to a far, far greater and impressive destiny – even than the history that has gone through so far.