Seeing Job from both sides

The interesting thing about the biblical story of Job is that it permits diametrically opposed interpretations. From an atheist point of view, it’s a terrible story about how terrible God is. From a Jewish or Christian point of view, they may have multiple ways of reading it, but they certainly wouldn’t see it as a terrible story about a terrible God.

But what I really want to talk about is A Serious Man, a 2009 black comedy by the Coen brothers.  A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, and just like Job it permits diametrically opposed interpretations.  But unlike the book of Job, people on both sides can enjoy A Serious Man.

The book of Job

The book of Job is about a man named Job who has had a very fortunate life.  Satan tells God that the only reason Job praises him, is because of Job’s good fortune and wealth. God accepts the challenge, and allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health. But Job still remains faithful to God. Thus proceeds a TL;DR dialogue between Job and his friends, where they argue that Job must have sinned, and should repent. At the end, God speaks to Job, and he doesn’t need to explain himself, he laid the foundations of the earth! In the end, Job is blessed with twice as much wealth as he started with, and with new children.

The book of Job is a popular target among atheists, because it’s just so easy. God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet. God’s defense is like an abusive parent saying “Who was it that brought you into this world?” And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children. I have to strain to see this story from the other side, but we’re gonna try.

It sounds to me like a story of how terrible God is, because I don’t share the Jewish/Christian precept that God is great. From story’s perspective, the greatness of God is a given. Although the characters argue over whether God is great, the readers are supposed to already accept that God is great, and at the end God only needs to remind the readers of his greatness in order to win the argument.

The main purpose of Job appears to be to address theodicy (aka the problem of evil). One response to theodicy is to deny it–to pretend that those who suffer must have done something to deserve it. The book of Job rejects this denial. It acknowledges that theodicy is indeed a difficult problem, and a weighty one for those who personally experience suffering.

I’m totally on board with this.  Good people really do suffer sometimes, and theodicy really is a difficult problem for many varieties of theism.  But… whether or not theodicy is a difficult problem for theists simply isn’t a compelling question to me, as an atheist.  Pass.

A Serious Man

cn: Mild spoilers, but nothing about the ending

A Serious Man is about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor of physics, who suffers through a long series of misfortunes, big and small. His wife wants to marry his best friend, his neighbor is mowing past property lines, a student is threatening to sue if he doesn’t take a bribe, and a record club is asking him to pay for a subscription he didn’t know about. Larry tries to get answers from three rabbis, but none of them are particularly helpful.

One of the rabbis tells a hilarious story that encapsulates the movie:

Why do good people suffer? Why was there Hebrew on the goy’s teeth? No answer.

Another bit that encapsulates the movie, is an unrelated story shown at the beginning of the movie. A 19th century Jewish man tells his wife that he saw a friend on his way home. His wife says that the friend is dead, and that what he saw was a dybbuk (an evil spirit that possesses the dead). The friend shows up, and the man invites him inside. The wife accuses the friend of being a dybbuk, and then stabs him in the chest. The friend stumbles out into the cold, bleeding. The end.

Do you see the two diametrically opposed interpretations? The “atheist” interpretation is that dybbuks don’t exist, and this was superstition-driven murder. The “theist” interpretation is that the wife saved them from evil. Of course, most theists don’t believe in dybbuks, and atheists are perfectly capable of suspending their disbelief, so atheists can take the “theist” interpretation and vice versa. I like this story, because I can see both sides–in contrast to Job, which I find difficult to see from the opposing side.

The larger plot of the movie also affords multiple interpretations. From my perspective, of course the rabbis would be unhelpful, because God doesn’t exist. But from another perspective, the rabbis are right on the mark, and the goy’s teeth is a brilliant story about how God doesn’t give us any answers.  Should Larry have stopped looking for answers from the rabbis, or should he have listened to them even more closely?  No answer.

From my perspective, it seemed like Larry mostly didn’t do anything to deserve his misfortune. In fact, “I didn’t do anything” is something of a catch-phrase for Larry. But I found other critics who believe that Larry did in fact deserve his misfortune (e.g.). I think this goes against the spirit of Job (where the whole point is that not everyone who suffers did something to deserve it), but I can see it for Larry. Although Larry says he “didn’t do anything”, there are many times where inaction is precisely the problem. For example, When his wife says that their marriage has issues, he protests that he didn’t do anything. When his tenure committee asks for his publication record, he says he didn’t do anything.

On the other hand, what did he do to deserve the threat of a lawsuit from a student? That could happen to anyone, as could many other of his misfortunes. I also thought that Larry’s problems might stem from something like executive dysfunction; it’s not always people’s fault when they find themselves unable to take action.

What do you think? Can you see both sides?


  1. says

    God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet… And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children.

    It’s that part that pushes the story from God being a jerk to God being a monster. The entire story is about Job being punished and completely disregards that the children would have been individual people who got slaughtered to try and prove a point about one person.

    I understand how easy it is for people to brush this aside because, especially in a patriarchal society and especially in one heavily influenced by religion, there is a view of children being the property of their parents and particularly their father. They’re not seen as actual individual people but as extensions of the parents. We see this concept of ownership whenever there is talk of human rights for children and how many people fight back with “they’re my children and I can raise them any way I want.”

    This story also reflects a self-centeredness we see in religious people to this day – or at least with the Christians I am most familiar with living in North America. A child is born differently abled or gets sick or dies, and a parent says “God is testing me.” How much of that abhorrent mindset comes from this story where children are sacrificed to test their father? As far as I’m concerned then it doesn’t really solve any problems with theodicy because a parent who takes their child’s suffering and centers it on themselves isn’t a good person.

    I haven’t seen the movie so I’m unable to comment on that.

  2. anat says

    Tabby, IOW the parent is following Yahweh’s example. (Or as Siggy shows, Yahweh’s character was written based on the behavior of this type of people.) BTW the children in this story were adults who were living in their own homes – they are killed during a celebration held at the house of one of them. Yet even as adults with their own households they are seen as extensions of their father, as long as he lives. Also, good behavior is interpreted narrowly as honoring Yahweh and following commandments – Job’s caring for his children is in the form of making sacrifices for them, just in case any of them sinned.

    The way my teacher (in an Israeli high school following the curriculum for state schools, Jewish sector) explained that Job’s reward is that Yahweh chose to address him at all. That for a believer the worst possible fate isn’t all the disasters Job suffered, but the sense that Yahweh is ‘hiding his face’ and not communicating with him, and that the book could have ended the moment Yahweh started speaking.

  3. says

    BTW the children in this story were adults who were living in their own homes – they are killed during a celebration held at the house of one of them.

    Holy crap, it’s even worse than I thought.

  4. says

    Tabby Lavalamp @1,
    The funny thing is, God specifically forbids Satan from taking Job’s life. Satan can take his wealth and his health, but can’t take his life, that’s against the rules. It’s like the story realizes that taking a person’s life is crossing some sort of line, but then just ignores the line when it comes to Job’s children.

  5. ridana says

    Not to mention all the innocent servants. Several sets were slain by raiders or lightning strikes (I assume that’s the Fire of God) or the windstorm that killed all the kids.

    Then there’s Job’s poor wife, who ended up giving birth to 20 children all told. I don’t recall mention of more than one wife, or concubines, so her story must have been almost as miraculous as Sarah giving birth, since the first ten were adults on their own, and then she had to have ten more to replace them. Unless she had a few twins and triplets, she had to have had a baby every year from when she was 14 (assuming adulthood at 13), and that’s also assuming no miscarriages. No wonder she was telling Job to “curse God and die.”

  6. anat says

    Siggy, the satan (it is not used as a personal noun in Hebrew) is not supposed to take Job’s life because then they won’t be able to see the outcome of the bet. Job will be in the underworld, which according to Levant beliefs was inaccessible to the god(s) that rule this world.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is the Absence of God” is another modern attempt to address the matter of Job. Somewhere out there is a statement that one of the things that bothered him about Job is that Job gets everything back at the end and is happy.

    While Chiang doesn’t say so explicitly, my thinking is that that restoration sidesteps the question of whether it was just for Job to have lost everything in the first place.

    Chiang does identify as an atheist, but I think his story does try to take religious sentiment seriously.

  8. Owlmirror says

    I have tried bringing Chiang’s story to the attention of theists, when they were more prone to stop by Pharyngula and argue (if there have been any recently, I missed them). Most didn’t respond. One of the few who read the story and responded was David Heddle, who found it depressing but fascinating, and wondered what the message was.

    My response, at the time, was:

    Actually, in thinking about it, I think I have figured out what the message might be. Of course, I’m an atheist, so this reflects that perspective:

    The message is what Ethan evangelizes; a plea for terminological consistency and honesty.

    Words have meanings. We may argue over their definitions, but we do at least try to give reasons for why those words may have a different definitions in different cases.

    And that goes for words used by theologians as well; words like “good” and “evil”; “just” and “unjust”; “kind” and “cruel”; “merciful” and “merciless”. These terms are descriptions of human actions and intents. Using them as presuppositional theological labels is inconsistent, and unfair.

    The universe may be configured as you believe, with a God that made it, and a heaven and hell the destination for all who die. God may condemn most to hell and raise a few to heaven, for reasons having nothing to do with how those condemned or raised act.

    We humans may have been “created” [in whatever sense that may mean] such that we cannot easily (or at all) by our own ability meet the terms of being permitted to enter heaven after death. But that lack of ability is no more “evil” or “depravity” or “sin” than our inability to see radio waves or x-rays, or hear infrasound or ultrasound, or taste or smell certain chemicals. If “evil” has any meaning that we can understand, it means something like causing intentional unnecessary harm to others [and I suppose each of those definitions can be argued over as well]. Not being able to have true faith in Jesus Christ, or not being able to love God, is not intentional, and does not harm other humans, and certainly cannot harm God.

    And by the same reasoning, God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful. God may be the power that runs the universe, but whether the powerful are described as “good” or “evil” depends on how they behave towards those who are weaker — and everyone is by definition weaker than God, in the story, as in most theology.

    God, and his will, may well be incomprehensible, but cannot consistently or with fairness be described as good.

    Which I think applies to God as depicted in the book of Job and elsewhere, as well.

    Seeing what I wrote then, I think I would also add that humans are supposedly created in the image of God. At that very least, that would imply that we are supposed to have some sort of similarity to God, in having minds. So what does it mean, that our minds have these abstract concepts of justice and fairness that are so dissimilar from God’s that God is incomprehensible?

    Or something like that. It’s not so easy to express.

  9. Owlmirror says

    Oh, and one last comment about “Hell Is the Absence of God” — this review mentions at least some reactions by believers:

    I find it rather interesting that those readers who react to the story as thin anti-Christian propaganda tend to also describe themselves as non-believers. I haven’t yet found a Christian writer who had the same reaction, though it will be interesting to see what Mirtika Schulz’s group makes of it when they get there. (Kathy Wang actually thought it a pro-Christian, proselytising story at first, though realised her mistake on further reading.) My suspicion is that for most believers, and for some non-believers (and perhaps for anyone who is interested in exploring the spectrum of opinion between Richard Dawkins and Billy Graham, rather than pledging their allegiance to one side or the other), Chiang’s thought-experiment is in fact an interesting one.

    And also has a few paragraphs on Job.

  10. says

    I finally found the time to read the story you linked to.

    I did not perceive it as “thin anti-Christian propaganda”; rather, it seems to fairly represent a common line of Christian thought: Loving God is an intrinsic good, independent of any rewards or misfortunes that God visits upon the devout. I think Christians wouldn’t say that explicitly, but many would agree that it’s true.

    It has a certain appeal to the former Christian inside of me too. My Christian upbringing had relatively little emphasis on heaven and hell, so reward and punishment tended to be play very little role in my understanding of religion. I’m often surprised to hear other people talk about it as if heaven and hell are the primary reasons to do good or to have faith. It seems to me that the primary reason to do good is because it’s good, and if God existed then the primary reason to have faith would be because God existed.

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