Job and the Question of Evil

Human acts of evil are subject to punishment. In Genesis 6 the biblical deity concludes that the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth. As result, human lifespan is reduced, and the initial crop of human beings is wiped out by the flood. Post-diluvial humanity is assured that such destruction will not occur again. Instead, humans are obliged to act in accordance with a set of basic laws on which all societies are to be founded. These include the seeking of blood revenge on murderers by the collective. In other words, the collective must overcome the force of those who continue to act in accordance with the law of the jungle, where might makes right. This suggests that civilization, including, as the rabbis interpret it, the establishment of courts of law, is an antidote to human depravity. Human evil is thus not a subject of consideration other than in a legal sense. It is taken for granted and dealt with by law and order. A second consideration of human evil is in play when the fate of nations is considered. War, defeat in battle, conquest, and expulsion are divine punishment for collective transgressions, esp. for the failure of a society to act in a lawful way. Both the lives of individuals as members of society and the faring of entire nations are a matter of justice.

Some laws and much wisdom literature deal with a category of transgression that are also subject to divine justice, namely, sins that happen in secret that cannot therefore rise to the attention of courts of law. Individual suffering can thus be seen as the result of transgressions committed in secret that are a matter of divine justice. The agency of divine punishment may be natural or human. The suffering of a transgressor always comes from God, no matter the intermediate causes.

But what if the suffering individual is righteous and innocent? What then of divine justice? Job’s friends suggest that there is no such thing as an innocent individual. And since God is just and there is no thing that is not caused by God, suffering is always an indication of evil and hence deserved. The whirlwind speeches of YHWH suggest that, God is indeed the cause of everything, but in ways we cannot comprehend. The simple reduction of suffering to divine punishment is therefore rejected. Not all suffering is the result of a divine intention to punish. To avoid the conclusion that the divine is completely uninvolved in human suffering, the Book of Job suggests the possibility that the suffering of the righteous may be the result of a test. (Cf. Eccl. 3) It also suggests that this test is prompted and administered by an agency that does not share the same favorable impression God has of the righteous, a probing into true character that is based on the suspicion that a person who acts righteously may do so out of self-interest. The suffering of the righteous thus becomes a test of their true loyalty to their god or their faith. It is, in any case, a test of human character. But is it not also a test of the divine character? What God is it who subjects a human being to suffering to win a bet against one of his subordinates? Is Satan also being tested? But Satan, in this case, only does his job. The God of the prologue in heaven and YHWH of the whirlwind speeches appear different. Are they the same character? Perhaps it is us, the readers, who are being tested. By presenting different possibilities but no clear answer the Book of Job raises, but does not definitively answer, the question, si deus unde malum. (If God exists, whence evil?)

The origin of natural evil is relegated beyond rational comprehension. It is too high for us. What about human evil? Its origin is also mysterious, as we are not told how human evil comes to be lodged in the depth of our inclination. It is not absurd to build on this mystery the doctrine of hereditary evil and attribute it to the “fall of man,” the primordial sin of disobedience (the Islamic tradition would say, pride or arrogance) depicted in the story of Adam and Eve. Anything going back to Adam and Eve is human nature. Apocalyptic passivity (see the next blog entry) may be justified from this fact: primordial evil is beyond fixing by law, we are fated to sin, and hence we require extraneous intervention to be “redeemed from sin.” This, of course, being the Christian adaptation of Jewish apocalyptic passivity, which – on its own account – is more collective and an expression of the powerlessness of the oppressed in an age that did not yet fathom the possibility of revolution, calling instead for a revolution from above.

But what of evil in the Jewish tradition? There is no doctrine of original sin in Judaism. Why not? Because the law, which is “not in heaven” but “near you” and “in your mouth,” is seen as sufficient to address human evil. But is it the law alone and of itself? That’s precisely what Paul doubted. What then is the Jewish answer to Paul?

Modern Jewish philosophy raises precisely this question. In my estimation, the most profound Jewish answer to the problem of evil can be found in the philosophy of Hermann Cohen.

[Continue reading HERE.]





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