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Evan Hazard: The Hebrew Bible’s most difficult book: The Book of Job

My folks got “The New Yorker” and we/I have subscribed for most of our years in Bemidji.

Those familiar with it know it’s not just about New York City. Its lists of events and restaurant reviews are, and some articles are, but many are about other places or general topics. Politically, the magazine is sort of liberal, but its ads often appeal mostly to the wealthy. It also has some great cartoons, and some splendid cover art. It features both in-depth and short book reviews. The longer ones often go into detail about the reviewed book’s topic.

The Dec. 16 issue included such a review of “The Book of Job: A Biography” by Mark Larrimore, director of The New School’s religious studies department. The review itself, by staff writer Joan Acocella, is aptly titled “Misery: Is there justice in the Book of Job?”

I long ago read all of the Book of Job, probably in the Revised Standard Version, and have often reread, in various versions, chapters 38-42, in which Yahweh rebukes Job for questioning Him, describes the physical and zoological universe as then understood, and asks where Job was when Yahweh fixed Earth upon its pillars (chap. 38: verse 6), created Behemoth and Leviathan, and other cool stuff.

I have not seen Larrimore’s book, and will not analyze Acocella’s review here. But I browsed many websites, and also consulted “The Abington Bible Commentary,” given to me (their faculty advisor) in ’64-’65 by BSU students in Wesley Foundation. It is a 1929 anthology, with dozens of scholarly contributors, mostly Anglican, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian sorts, from the U.S., England, Canada and Scotland.

Many authorities suggest Job is the oldest book in the Bible, while others insist that Moses wrote the Torah (the first five books), despite linguistic and historical problems. Some hold that every account in Scripture not specifically identified as a parable (e.g., “The Good Samaritan”) is accurate in all its details; all is history except any passages declared to be fiction. Many commentators don’t consider that issue at all, some insist everything in Job actually happened, others call it a legend for a variety of reasons. At least one source insisted Job was “good science,” even though the sea monster Leviathan is said to breath fire.

Chapters 1, 2, and the last 11 verses of chapter 42 are prose. Chapters 3 through chapter 42: 1-6 are all rhythmic poetry, said by some experts in Hebrew to be the best poetry in Scripture. This seems an odd structure for an accurate biographical narrative. Also, Joan Acocella asks, “Is there justice in the Book of Job?”

Some ancient Hebrews and maybe some of you might say, “Yes. Job lost all his wealth and everything else he had, and suffered bodily, but at the end Yahweh made him twice as rich as he was before, including seven (14 according to some translations) new sons and three new daughters.”

(“There were no women in all the world so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance with their brothers” Job 42:15). That last is actually more progressive than some of today’s vocal “Christians.”

Most of you will remember that Job starts with Yahweh, Satan, and other “members of the court of heaven” arguing about whether the virtuous rich man Job will remain loyal to Yahweh if he loses everything. So, in chapters 1 and 2, Yahweh allows Satan to deprive him of all his wealth, kill his seven sons and three daughters and various servants, and eventually deprive Job of his health. Job gets new kids at the end, but those servants and 10 kids are killed, having done nothing to deserve it.

Is this “justice?” Not in my book. And, incidentally, Yahweh does not claim he has done justice in chapters 38-42, his rebuke to Job.

There is another flaw in Job, one not the writers’ fault. They wrote, after all, early in the development of Hebrew monotheism, surrounded by polytheistic cultures. (Actually, some experts find parts of Job rather similar to legends of the Hebrews’ neighbors.)

The writers also lived on a flat earth, supported by pillars, under a solid vault or dome (Genesis 1:6), where rain came through holes in the dome, and where any significant good or bad fortune was Yahweh’s doing.

I, and perhaps you, don’t live there, but rather in an ancient and expanding physical universe (which astrophysicists understand much better than I), in which events in nature occur over time because of the natural properties of matter, energy, and space, a universe so well created (by God, I believe) that it works without God having either to push or “sustain” it.

How different is the book’s “court of heaven,” from Odin in Asgard deciding to punish Loki for mischief, or from Zeus and his fellow Olympians deciding to punish Prometheus for giving fire to mortals?

The writers of Job deserve no blame for this but today, I think, to insist on the accuracy of the behavior of Yahweh and his “court” in Job reduces God to the status of the gods of antiquity.

EVAN HAZARD, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes “Northland Stargazing” the fourth Friday of each month.