Aristotle, Asharite, Bible, Bildad, Book of Job, Elihu, Eliphaz, Epicurus, evil, free will, God, Guide to the Perplexed, intervention, Job, Judaism, Maimonides, Moshe ben Maimon, Mutazilite, philosophy, Rambam, religion, suffering, Tzofar
The Book of Job is one of the older books in the Hebrew Bible that is categorised along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as “wisdom literature.” These books do not focus on elements of the greater Jewish narrative such as the Exodus, the Temple, the covenant, or the people and land of Israel. However, the three books differ starkly from one another: Proverbs suggests that righteous people are rewarded and do not suffer, Ecclesiastes is sceptical of the utility of wisdom, while Job is the story of a just but unwise man who seems to suffer at the hands of a capricious God. Named after its protagonist, the Book of Job draws on a variety of traditions and genres that were known throughout the ancient Middle East. Similar archetypal tales exist in Sumerian and Mesopotamian literature as well as Hindu literature (for the traditions of Mesopotamia, see The Babylonian Theodicy and for Hindu parallels, see the Markandeya Purana). The story raises many thorny issues, such as the role of God in the daily functioning of our world, the purpose of life, and the nature of Man’s relationship to God. Job himself, however, a non-Israelite, hails from the land of Uz, and is established in the religious canon when the prophet Ezekiel mentions him along with Noah and Dan’el who saved others by their righteousness.
My aim, in what follows, is to reflect upon the great Jewish scholar Maimonides’ interpretation of Job in Book Three of his Guide to the Perplexed against the traditional reading which, reductively, addresses the inevitability of rewards for living an upright life and the refutation of the idea that human suffering is always deserved. A vulgar way of phrasing the central question in Job is, “Why does God allow the righteous to suffer while the wicked prosper?” Maimonides does not like the presuppositions this question makes and explains the book with his typical Aristotelian rationality. For Maimonides, it is not important even if Job existed — he prefers to see Job as symbolic of wonderful things, things which are the mystery of the universe. Maimonides tries to balance evil and God’s divinity and perfection in his exposition of Job, for this is what the book ultimately challenges.
The prologue to the Book of Job alternates the venue of the plot between heaven and earth five times. It begins with the description of Job as a man from Utz, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1.1) Job was a rich man, in fact the “greatest of all the people of the east.” (Job 1.3) Meanwhile, in heaven, Satan comes before the Lord and declares that Job is the epitome of piety because of all the comforts God has lavished upon him (clearly, Satan has not yet gained his reputation as Old Nick). Were Job to lose God’s bounty, he would curse Him to His face. (Job 1.11) In response, God put all that Job had in Satan’s power, with the exception of Job himself.
Immediately, Job loses his offspring and his wealth. Job grieves, but does not curse God. Satan then declares to God that it is his personal comfort that keeps Job from straying. So God inflicts terrible boils on Job’s skin. As Job bemoans his fate, his wife asks him to “curse God and die.” (Job 2.9) But Job does not curse God with his lips (this phrasing of Job’s response creates an ambiguity about what Job was feeling in his heart. In light of his subsequent complaints against God, one wonders what Job was feeling). By now, hearing of what had happened, three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Tzofar the Naamathite come to see him. After sitting with them in silence for a few days, Job begins his lamentations. Job curses the day he was born and his friends remonstrate with him to recant his words and ask God for forgiveness. Eliphaz believes that only the wicked suffer, Bildad argues that God is just and Job’s sons died for their own transgressions, and Tzofar indicates that Job is receiving less suffering than he deserves, for God is just and Job must have done something to merit God’s punishment. Job’s friends are aghast at Job’s presumption to demand a trial, implying that God had somehow done something wrong and his own (Job’s) sense of morality was superior to God’s. Job’s responds to their arguments by demanding an explanation of his supposed wickedness — of which his friends are at a loss as much as he.
Finally, Elihu speaks. He takes issue with Job’s claim of innocence and offers that God often uses various means to keep man from death, including chastening with pain. Therefore Job should be looking at suffering as a disciplinary measure from a loving God, not as a punitive measure from one’s enemy. Elihu is concerned with God’s majesty and justice, which he feels Job has maligned. Elihu charges Job with multiplying his sins by uttering words against God without knowledge. (Job 34.37)
Suddenly, God appears before Job in the form of a whirlwind and accepts his challenge for a trial. God humbles Job with his power and majesty, and asks if he could truly contend with God or rebuke him. Job accepts that he cannot possibly understand the complexity of the universe and recants his words, apologising for speaking without full understanding. Now that Job has seen God, he abhors himself.
God then turns on Job’s three friends and admonishes them for speaking of things about God which were false. The book ends with God ordering them make an offering for their transgressions and God returning to Job his offspring and granting him a long life. God also returns to Job his riches twice over. A point of much debate, there is some ambivalence whether God restores Job’s health.
What does Maimonides make of this tale? On the surface of it, this is undoubtedly a chronicle of unjustified suffering. It can be assumed that Job was indeed a pure man because God returns everything Job had lost to him twofold. But if Job was just, why did he suffer upon the whims of God? The primary issue here is God’s justice, and Maimonides believes that Job’s fate had nothing to do with God: evil, Maimonides argues, is a corollary of matter which exists as the condition of finitude. It has no dominion over the soul, a direct emanation of God. Maimonides identifies different schools of thought in the speeches of Job and his friends, which all agree in the notion of a just God. Again, the problem arises as to the justification of Job’s plight at the hands of a just God. Maimonides argues that this question presupposes that the purpose of life is the reduction of pain and consequently the pursuit of pleasure. He rejects this Epicurean notion because it according to him, human beings have a purpose to their existence: to become closer to God. Pain and pleasure are but subsidiary issues to this greater telos. As a physician himself, Maimonides was sensitive to the problem of pain and suffering. Therefore, Maimonides accepts Galen’s view that the body will decay and fail because that is the nature of the human body, and therefore pain and pleasure, like evil, are part of the material realm. It does not have anything to do with God. The idea that heaven and hell exist to recompense for sufferings and rewards on earth comes from Razi through Saadya, but Maimonides wonders what gain is it to view this as the ultimate standard on which life should be valued. On the contrary, Maimonides proposes that the goal of life foe human beings is to become more perfect by coming closer to God through the use of intellect, the once characteristic that sets Man apart from the rest of God’s creation. Although Maimonides eventually upholds the duality of Man and God, he believes that human beings can come closer to God in an asymptotic relationship, i.e., become closer to God through better understanding but never quite becoming God. Maimonides sees this in the Book of Job because God says to Job’s friends, “For you did not speak rightly of Me as did my servant Job.” (Job 42.7) The implication is that Job’s Aristotelian approach to life and to God is the correct one.
Furthermore, the Epicurean understanding of evil seems to imply that the universe was created for Man. Maimonides finds this idea ridiculous and a misrepresentation — although the Bible says Man is to rule over the fish does not mean that fish were created to serve Man’s needs; it just happens to be a consequence of creation. Similarly, the stars in the heavens surely do not exist for Man. If creation were meant to serve Man, why would it rain on the sea as well as the land? If Man is not the centre of the universe, then pain and pleasure are mere events that occur to Man and it is not a sign of divine judgement. Thus, Job’s fate is not a divine commentary upon his life.
Bildad, the second of Job’s friends to speak, speaks like a Mutazilite, upholding the belief that all suffering in this world will be compensated for in the hereafter. Maimonides finds this troubling, that one must suffer in this realm to receive rewards in the next. By this logic, if a just man does not suffer in this life, he cannot gain rewards in the next. This idea has some sympathy within Jewish thought as Maimonides knows. The Mutazilite reasoning runs that a person might be born with an infirmity without having sinned or that an excellent man might perish as part of God’s plan. This happens not as punishment but as a benefit though we may not be able to understand what the benefit consists in. In the case of the excellent man who perishes, it is presumably that he may have a greater reward in the life to come. In the case of the man born with the infirmity, it is probably to strengthen other qualities in him that would make him more qualified to understand God, but in either case, we may not understand God’s reason. Thus, according to the Mutazilite way of thinking, Job’s undeserved suffering is actually deserved because God’s wisdom requires it so that Job may be rewarded in some other way. Maimonides’ problem with this reasoning is that it contradicts itself in that holds that God knows everything and Man has the ability to act. How can this doctrine reconcile the two antithetical positions of predestination and free will?
Tzofar, the third speaker represents the Asharites. He holds that God’s actions are beyond human comprehension, and it is not possible — wrong — to hold God accountable to human moral standards. Moreover, Asharite theory reacts strongly against the idea that anything might happen by chance. Everything that happens, happens through the will of God. Therefore, God must have willed for Job to suffer, and Tsofar implores Job to think of what sins he may have committed. Maimonides rejects Asharite cosmology out of hand because it obviates the existence of law and morality. If God controls everything, then how can Man be held accountable for anything, in which case, what is the purpose of law?
When God finally does show up as a whirlwind and challenges Job to stand up to his legalistic accusations against God, it is to be noted that God rebukes Job for his insolence in speaking of God without knowledge. But God then proceeds to rebuke Eliphaz, Bildad, and Tzofar as well for they spoke wrongly of God despite their good intention to defend His justice. It seems, as Maimonides points out, God prefers a questioning follower than one who does not understand. It is not possible for humans to comprehend the general purpose of existence, Maimonides contends, and this is not something that should concern us. However, like Aristotle, Maimonides does think that each species can have a purpose. However, that should not be interpreted to put Man as the pinnacle of creation for whom everything was created.
An Interventionist God?
Maimonides’ position on Job raises the thornier issue of whether God would (or could) intervene in the daily functioning of human beings. If God does not involve Himself with the world, creating it and then abandoning it, what is the purpose of human piety? Maimonides responds that this is an incorrect way of analysing the situation. God is great beyond comprehension — God is absolute, infinite, and perfect. So why would God need or even care whether we worship him or not? Worship does not serve God’s needs but ours, because it helps us to reach a better understanding of God.
Maimonides still has to grapple with the argument put forward by some that an atemporal God cannot delve into temporal matters, for how can a timeless being know about temporal events? Maimonides thinks that this problem arises because the philosophers have lost their nerve, for it was the same school that had earlier differentiated between divine perfection and the world’s imperfection. Maimonides reminds them that God’s knowledge of the world is a priori, not a posteriori: not experiential as it is for humans. Thus, God’s governance over the world is also different: God acts through intermediaries to oversee the world but commits to no direct involvement; hence the need for prophets and the existence of emanation. God uses nature as his vehicle. For example, if God needs to burn, he burns through fire. It is through the nature of things that God governs, thus maintaining his atemporal infinity and yet governing the world.
Maimonides walks a fine line between a conventional theistic understanding of God’s governance and an Aristotelian rationality where God is the universe where rational exploration of nature will take us closer to God. It is interesting to see that Maimonides, despite his devotion to rationality, seems to fear the consequences upon the masses of a rational and detached God — hence his warning to the reader to continue only if he is qualified to approach the issues Maimonides discusses. However, a clockwork universe, an existence that God programs and lets run on its own, seems an acceptable balance between an interventional and non-interventional God.
What does this mean for poor Job? God’s providence seems to have left him only to be restored, but without answering Job’s accusations. Maimonides seems to argue that balance has been restored, and the pain that Job felt was contingent upon his existence. Just as the consequence of life is death, it is but natural for Job to have some suffering. Besides, Job’s attitude, contrary to the expression “the patience of Job,” is not very patient. Job challenges God and demands a trial — a demand for equality, for trials happen only between equals. God’s infinity does not allow for this, and therefore the author must write that God does not answer Job. In this, the nature of God is explained — to “see” God humbles Job because Job has acquired a deeper understanding of God and His ways. As Maimonides explains in the Guide, earthly language is insufficient to describe the divine and we therefore resort to approximations. “Seeing” meant comprehending for Job. Thus is the story explained that comprehension of divinity is Man’s purpose. After his comprehension, Job is more content in life. He is richer and he lives longer. Maimonides does not fall victim to the Epicurean notion that life is about pleasure, but the material gain Job experiences is symbolic, Maimonides would argue, of his greater contentedness once he has come closer to God.
What Maimonides is interested in is what Einstein pondered on many centuries later: Did God have a choice in how He made the universe? For Maimonides, faith has to be rational: justice must be codified in law, and law implies a system. Consequently, God’s law implies a divine system. Systems have an inherent logic, and therefore God’s law must have a logic. Religion is therefore not anything one chooses to believe, but an understanding of divine logic. Maimonides’ concept of prayer, therefore, is of silent contemplation upon the nature of God.
The Book of Job raises questions of providence, suffering, divine intervention, and the purpose of existence. Maimonides clubs the first and the third by advocating a universe that is independent and stable without constant divine creative intervention. This allows science, philosophy, and theology to coexist in harmony. God’s creative breath is imparted upon the universe only at its time of creation: thereafter, the essence of things provides for stability in the universe. This view reconciles the two often opposed concepts of free will and God’s intervention in the universe.
Similarly, Maimonides discusses the second and fourth questions in relation to each other. If suffering is a consequence of existence, it has nothing to do with divine punishment. The purpose of existence is, for Maimonides, a clearer apprehension of God’s divine plan. Mortality by definition implies suffering and death and is therefore not an indication of God’s opinion on someone. Satan serves as a symbol of Job’s vulnerability — or perhaps corporeality — and the vulnerability of human beings at large. Thus the dialogue in heaven is only indicative of the nature of things, of how God has created existence. Pain and pleasure afflict all men by virtue of their being born. Again, Elihu’s escape from God’s censure is demonstrates the veracity of his belief in the Universe. It is essential for Maimonides that religion be a means of questioning metaphysics than blind superstition, for Maimonides is a man of religion as well as one of science. He sees no need to divorce one from the other. The greatest wonder in this universe is the universe itself and its Creator. Why should we seek to occlude this understanding with irrational beliefs?