Review by Israel Drazin
The Book of Job
By Mark Larrimore
Princeton University Press, 2013, 286 pages
Mark Larrimore offers readers a clear presentation of the views of many well-respected interpreters of the difficult to understand biblical book Job. Job, as he shows, raises many problems. Most interpreters understand that it addresses “why God causes good people to suffer?” It quotes the replies of several of Job’s friends; it depicts God saying that the friends are wrong, but most commentators say God does not explain why people suffer. Larrimore clarifies the insights of thinkers who addressed this book, such as Thomas Aquinas, Leo Baeck, William Blake, Boethius, John Calvin, Chaucer, Hermann Cohen, Robert Frost, Pope Gregory, Thomas Hobbes, C. J. Jung, Franz Kafka, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Milton, Rudolf Otto, Saadiah Gaon, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, Elie Wiesel, Julius Wellhausen, the Targums, the Talmuds, Midrashim, and Maimonides. He discusses ancient perceptions of evil contained in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and others. He explains the book and analyses many seeming inconsistencies in it, such as its prologue, which pictures a deity who allows a divine adversary to inflict innocent Job with enormous pain simply to prove to the adversary that he knows Job’s nature better than him, while the rest of the book portrays God differently.
Larrimore shows how people read Job in different ways. Some, for example, felt the book was true history; others, like Maimonides (1138-1204), Judaism’s greatest thinker, called it a parable. Some thought Job was a Jew, others denied this. Some felt the book states explicitly what it wants people to understand and it should be interpreted literally; others, like Maimonides, insisted that Job contains deeper meaning. On its surface, both the Bible and Maimonides’ writings “contain wisdom that is useful in many respects, among which is the welfare of human societies… (But both have a deeper meaning for those who can read below its literal wording.) Their internal meaning, on the other hand, contains wisdom that is useful for beliefs concerned with the truth as it is” (Guide of the Perplexed, Introduction). I think Larrimore explained everything well, except Maimonides, for he accepted the popular explicit interpretation of Maimonides. What is the deeper meaning that other scholars see in Maimonides’ interpretation of Job?
Maimonides’ philosophy is in his Guide of the Perplexed. In 3:10-15, he explains that God does not cause evil. God created the laws of nature which is good for the world as a whole, even though individuals and groups may be hurt. Three events cause harm. People may hurt themselves, as when they unwisely cross streets against incoming traffic. Second, people who focus selfishly on their own interests may harm others, as many nations did when they stole land from indigenous populations. Third, a natural event, such as a hurricane or storm, which is good for the earth, for they cleanse the climate, may kill people.
In 3:16-21, he states that once the laws of nature went into effect, God was no longer involved in human affairs. God does not protect people. For the laws of nature are good and require no change. People talk about Divine Providence, but they should understand that this doesn’t mean that God is changing the laws of nature for the sake of individuals. God placed the Divine Providence in humans. This is their intelligence. If they use their intelligence, they have a good chance of being safe and succeeding in life.
Maimonides follows this explanation of how the world functions with his explanation of Job in 3:22 and 23. God tells Job at the end of the biblical book that it is true that the world is filled with whirlwinds, wild beast, and the like, but this is good for the universe. One day, humans will understand science sufficiently to know that the laws of nature that God created are good for the world, even though there are times when they harm humans. Humans need to recognize, Maimonides writes, that they are not the center of the universe; God is not only interested in people, but in all God created, including animals and inanimate objects. So, if we accept Maimonides’ explanation, the book of Job does answer the problem that bothered people since the beginning of time.