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The Book of Job and Satan’s Power

I recently began studying the Book of Job and several things strike me as strange right from the start. God praises Job before Satan, and Satan is unimpressed, claiming that he is only righteous because his life is so comfortable. God then gives permission to Satan to put Job to the test. Satan then afflicts Job with unbearable suffering to see if it would destroy his piety. Is Satan really able to challenge God like that – and ruin a righteous person’s life just to test him? It sounds like God and Satan are destroying an innocent man just to settle a wager!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your insightful question. You are right that the entire backdrop to the story is very atypical. Only under very exceptional circumstances does God allow a fully righteous person to be challenged with suffering (see Talmud Brachot 5a).

Nachmanides explains that Job was not afflicted solely because of Satan’s challenge. It was actually God Himself who wanted him tested (for reasons we cannot fully understand) – and this is why God raised the subject of Job to Satan (I:8). God intended to draw Satan’s attention to Job – implicitly telling him to devise an appropriate challenge for him to test his resolve. But on his own, neither Satan nor any other angel can challenge God and initiate his own actions.

(Although in 2:4 after Job passes his first test, God accuses Satan of inciting Him against Job needlessly, Nachmanides describes that as the Torah speaking in the language of man. In truth, Satan only has the power to “incite” God against man – by recounting his flaws – because God delegated such power to Satan.)

In addition, the Sages say that this conversation between God and Satan occurred on Rosh Hashanah – the time when the angels come forth to testify about mankind.

It should also be mentioned that there is an opinion in the Talmud (Baba Batra 15a) that Job was not a real person. The entire story is a parable – and a metaphor for life. Rather than viewing the details of the story as an accurate depiction of the workings of Heaven, the story is meant to illuminate man’s struggles with suffering – how we are to relate to what seems the undeserved suffering of this world and how we can ultimately reconcile with God.

Although the opinion that the Book of Job is a metaphor is rejected by the Talmud, the Talmud struggles to relate Job to an actual person and period of time. As my teacher R. Moshe Eisemann observed, God wanted the story presented with as little backdrop as possible. We know virtually nothing about who Job was, when he lived, where he resided, and whom he interacted with. And the reason is because the story is an eternal one. The perennial question of why the innocent suffer is not one which should be pegged down to a particular person or event. As the Talmud suggests, Job may have lived at one of any number of times in the past – and he no doubt lives today. The book should not to be taken as a work of history, as a literal description of the workings of heaven or of earth. In essence it is a metaphor, a story beyond time and place. It has no historical context because its message is eternal. (See ArtScroll Iyov Overview I.)

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