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?