Job’s Guilt

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Students of the Bible are familiar with Job’s (Iyov’s) travails in his eponymous book. Readers generally understand the book as stating that Job was perfectly righteous but was nevertheless afflicted by God. The important, yet never explicitly stated, message of the book is how such a seemingly perverse course of events could take place.

However, there is a strand of thought within Judaism that Job was not free of guilt (this certainly exists within Christianity, where belief in the inherent sinfulness of all people prevails).

The first verse in Job reads:

איש היה בארץ עוץ איוב שמו והיה האיש ההוא תם וישר וירא אלקים וסר מרע

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.

The verse describes Job’s perfection with many adjectives, which leads to the question of what each word means. Is it merely meaningless repetition? Or does each word signify something different?

There are four descriptors:

  • תם perfect
  • וישר upright
  • וירא אלקים one that feared God
  • וסר מרע eschewed evil

Rashi explains that the first two תם וישר refer to Job’s relations with his fellow people, and the last two וירא אלקים וסר מרע refer to Job’s relation with God. In regard to other people, Job was perfect and upright. However, with God he was fearing and avoided sinning. He was not, though, complete in his worship. There is a far cry from avoiding doing bad and being scrupulous in doing good. In other words, Job was extremely punctilious in his interpersonal relations and was also nearly righteous in his obligations to God. Nearly righteous, but not quite. This can explain Job’s punishment. On his high level, even the smallest blemish is considered a serious flaw (this is a consistent theme in rabbinic interpretation of the Bible).

There is another source, with which most schoolchildren are familiar, that states explicitly that Job sinned. The Gemara in Sotah 11a tells us the following midrash:

R. Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Simai: There were three in that plan [to drown the newborn Jewish boys in Egypt] — Balaam, Job and Jethro. Balaam who devised it was slain; Job who silently acquiesced was afflicted with sufferings; Jethro, who fled, merited that his descendants should sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone…

This passage clearly attributes Job’s sin, in refraining from stopping Pharoah from killing Jewish babies, as the source of Job’s sufferings. According to Rashi and the Gemara, Job was not an innocent man suffering from inexplicable punishments.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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