The Book of Job


By Maimonides, with footnoted commentary by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim



Guide for the Perplexed: Book III, chap. XII

The strange and wonderful Book of Job treats of the same subject as we are discussing: its basis is a fiction, conceived for the purpose of explaining the different opinions which people hold on Divine Providence. You know that some of our Sages clearly stated Job has never existed, and has never been created, and that he is a poetic fiction. Those who assume that he has existed, and that the book is historical, are unable to determine when and where Job lived. Some of our Sages say that he lived in the days of the Patriarchs: others hold that he was a contemporary of Moses: others place him in the days of David, and again others believe that he was one of those who returned from the Babylonian exile. This difference of opinion supports the assumption that he has never existed in reality. But whether he has existed or not, that which is related of him is an experience of frequent occurrence, is a source of perplexity to all thinkers, and has suggested the above-mentioned opinions on God’s Omniscience and Providence. This perplexity is caused by the account that a simple and perfect person, who is upright in his actions, and very anxious to abstain from sin, is afflicted by successive misfortunes, namely, by loss of property, by the death of his children, and by bodily disease, though he has not committed any sin. According to both theories, viz., the theory that Job did exist, and the theory that he did not exist, the introduction to the book is certainly a fiction; I mean the portion which relates to the words of the adversary, the words of God to the former, and the handing over of Job to him. This fiction, however, is in so far different from other fictions that it includes profound ideas and great mysteries, removes great doubts, and reveals the most important truths. I will discuss it as fully as possible: and I will also tell you the words of our Sages that suggested to me the explanation of this great poem.


First, consider the words: “There was a man in the land Uz.” The term Uz has different meanings; it is used as a proper noun. Compare, “Uz, his first-born” (Gen. xxii 21): it is also imperative of the verb Uz, “to take advice.” Compare, uzu, “take counsel” (Isaiah viii. 10). The name Uz therefore expresses the exhortation to consider well this lesson, study it, grasp its ideas, and comprehend them, in order to see which is the right view.


“The sons of God then came to present themselves before the Lord, and the adversary came also among them and in their number.” (chap. i 6, ii 1). It is not said: “And the sons of God and the adversary[1] came to present themselves before the Lord”: this sentence would have implied that the existence of all that came was of the same kind and rank. The words used are these: “And the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and the adversary came also among them.” Such a phrase is only used in reference to one that comes without being expected or invited; he only comes among others whose coming has been sought. The adversary is then described as going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down thereon. He is in no relation to the beings above, and has no place among them. For this reason it is said, “from going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it,” for his “going” and “walking” can only take place on the earth. [Job], the simple and righteous man, is given and handed over to the adversary; whatever evils and misfortunes befell Job as regards his property, children, and health, were all caused by this adversary. When this idea is sufficiently indicated, the author begins to reflect on it: one opinion Job is represented to hold, whilst his friends defend other opinions. I will further on expound these opinions, which formed the substance of the discussion on the misfortunes of Job, caused by the adversary alone.


Job, as well as his friends, was of opinion that God Himself was the direct agent of what happened, and that the adversary was not the intermediate cause. It is remarkable in this account that wisdom is not ascribed to Job. The text does not say he was an intelligent, wise, or clever man; but virtues and uprightness, especially in actions, are ascribed to him. If he were wise he would not have any doubt about the cause of his suffering[2], as will be shown later on. Besides, his misfortunes are enumerated in the same order as they rank in man’s estimation. There are some who are not perplexed or discouraged by loss of property, thinking little of it: but are terrified when they are threatened with the death of their children and are killed by their anxiety. There are others who bear without shock or fainting even the loss of their children, but no one endowed with sensation is able to bear bodily pain. We generally extol God in words, and praise Him as righteous and benevolent, when we prosper and are happy, or when the grief we have to bear is moderate. But [it is otherwise] when such troubles as are described in Job come over us. Some of us deny God, and believe that there is no rule in the Universe, even if only their property is lost. Others retain their faith in the existence of justice and order, even when suffering from loss of property, whereas loss of children is too much affliction for them. Others remain firm in their faith, even with the loss of their children; but there is no one who can patiently bear the pain that reaches his own person: he then murmurs and complains of injustice either in his heart or with his tongue.


Now consider that the phrase, “to present themselves before the Lord”, is used in reference to the sons of God, both the first and the second times, but in reference to the adversary, who appeared on either occasion among them and in their number, this phrase is not used the first time, whilst in his second appearance, “the adversary also came among them to present himself before the Lord”. Consider this, and see how very extraordinary it is! These ideas presented themselves like an inspiration to me.[3] The phrase, “to present themselves before the Lord,” implies that they are beings who are forced by God’s command to do what He desires. This may be inferred from the words of the prophet Zechariah concerning the four chariots that came forth. He says: “And the angel answered and said to me, These four winds of the heavens come forth from presenting themselves before the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech. vi 5). It is clear that the relation of the sons of God to the Universe is not the same as that of the adversary. The relation of the sons of God is more constant and more permanent. The adversary has also some relation to the Universe, but it is inferior to that of the sons of God. It is also remarkable in this account that in the description of the adversary’s wandering about on the earth, and his performing certain actions, it is distinctly stated that he has no power over the soul: whilst power has been given to him over all earthly affairs, there is a partition between him and the soul; he has not received power over the soul. This is expressed in the words, “But keep away from his soul”(Job. ii. 6). I have already shown you the homonymous use of the term “soul” (nefesh) in Hebrew (Part L, chap. xli). It designates that element in man that survives him; it is this portion over which the adversary has no power[4].


After these remarks of mine listen to the following useful instruction given by our Sages, who in truth deserve the title of “wise men”: it makes clear that which appears doubtful, and reveals that which has been hidden, and discloses most of the mysteries of the Law. They said in the Talmud as follows: R. Simeon, son of Lakish, says: “The adversary (Satan) evil inclination (yezer ha-ra), and the angel of death, are one and the same being.” Here we find all that has been mentioned by us in such a dear manner that no intelligent person will be in doubt about it. It has thus been shown to you these three different terms designate one and the same thing, and that actions ascribed to these three are in reality the actions of one and the same agent. Again, the ancient doctors of the Talmud said: “The adversary goes about and misleads, then he goes up and accuses, obtains permission, and takes the soul.” You have already been told that when David at the time of the plague was shown the angel “with the sword drawn in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem” (2 Sam. xxiv. 17), it was done for the purpose of conveying a certain idea to him. The same idea was also expressed in the vision concerning the sins of the sons of Joshua, the high priest, by the words, “And the adversary stood on his right hand to accuse him” (Zech. iii 1). The vision then reveals that [the adversary] is far from God, and continues thus: “The Lord will rebuke thee, O adversary, the Lord who hath chosen Jerusalem will rebuke thee” (ibid. ver. 2). Balaam saw prophetically the same vision in his journey, addressing him with the words, “Behold I have come forth to be a hindrance to thee” (Num. xxii. 32). The Hebrew, Satan, is derived from the same root as seteh, “turn away” (Prov. iv. 15): it implies the notion of turning and moving away from a thing; he undoubtedly turns us away from the way of truth, and leads us astray in the way of error. The same idea is contained in the passage,” And the imagination of the heart of man is evil from his youth” (Gen. Viii. 21). The theory of the good and the evil inclinations (yezer ha-tob, ve-yezrer ha-ra’) is frequently referred to in our religion. Our Sages also say,” Serve God with your good and your evil inclinations.” (B. T. Ber. 57a.) They also say that the evil inclination we receive at our birth: “for at the door sin croucheth” (Gen. iv. 7), as is distinctly said in the Law, “And the imagination of the heart of man is evil from his youth”(ibid. viii 21). The good inclination, however, comes when the mind is developed. In explaining the allegory representing the body of man and his different faculties, our Sages (B. T. Ned. 32b) said: “The evil inclination is called a great king, whilst the good inclination is a child, poor, though wise” (Eccles. ix. 14). All these sayings of our Sages are contained in their writings, and are well known. According to our Sages the evil inclination, the adversary (Satan), and the angel [of death], are undoubtedly identical; and the adversary being called “angel”, because he is among the sons of God, and the good inclination being in reality an angel, it is to the good and the evil inclinations that they refer in their well-known words, “Every person is accompanied by two angels, one being on his right side, one on his left.” In the Babylonian Gemara (Sabbath 119b), they say distinctly of the two angels that one is good and one bad. See what extraordinary ideas this passage discloses, and how many false ideas it removes.


I believe that I have fully explained the idea contained in the account of Job; but I will now show the character of the opinion attributed to Job, and of the opinions attributed to his friends, and support my statement by proofs gathered from the words of each of them. We need not take notice of the remaining passages which are only required for the context, as has been explained to you in the beginning of this treatise.


[1] Maimonides says, had the verse read “And the sons of God and the adversary came…” it would imply that the adversary was of the same nature and existence as other existences, which “come before God”. But as the verse only says later on in a separate referral, and only after mentioning “sons of God”, “and the adversary came also among them”, we learn that the adversary is of a different nature, not being subsumed under the “sons of God”, or joined together with them in one referral. The adversary’s “coming” was mentioned separately from the coming of other existences. Who or what were these other existences, and what is Maimonides’ main point?


Maimonides offers us additional clues, as he says: “The adversary is then described as going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down thereon. He is in no relation to the beings above, and has no place among them. For this reason it is said, ‘from going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it,’ for his ‘going’ and ‘walking’ can only take place on the earth.” The adversary, meaning Satan, or the instincts, is limited to Earth. Man’s soul on the other hand, may achieve eternal life; not limited to a brief, Earthly existence. Thus, those who appear “before God”, refers to man’s intelligence, his soul, the faculty which is related to intelligence and thus, relates to God as Maimonides explains, “appears before God.” We now learn that God’s address of the adversary is in fact, God’s address of the instincts. There is no real-life, intelligent being traversing the Earth called “Satan”: Satan is a metaphor for the instinctual nature of man. There was no conversation between God and Satan.


Now, as the “sons of God” means man’s intelligence, what is meant by “they came to present themselves before God”? This means that the “sons of God”, or rather, man’s intelligence  “answers to God”. The act of responding to a summon means “compliance”. “They came to present themselves before God” means that part of man that complies with God’s commands, man’s intellect.  The fact that Satan also came means that there is some role that Satan plays when man follows God’s commands. This role is one of compelled deviation. As Maimonides further explains, “Satan” means to “turn one aside”, as derived from the instance of Bilaam and his donkey. So we interpret this story of Job at this point as, “man complying with God, but being deterred in some manner by his instincts.” Job is the man to which we refer. He is complying with God, as the book states that he never committed any sin. So if Job is complying in action, wherein must his deviation lie? It can only refer to his thoughts. This too is supported by “Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). Rashi states that with his lips he did not sin, but he did sin in his heart. What is a sin of the heart? It is an incorrect thought. We now come to the crux of the matter, i.e., Job’s error and the true meaning of God’s discussion with Satan, and His handing of Job over to Satan.


[2] Here, Maimonides directs our attention to Job’s fault; he lacked knowledge. What was the knowledge Job possessed, and why was it flawed?


[3] Maimonides now contrasts the first and second appearance of Satan before God. The second time, Satan is now referred to as coming “together” with the others. According to our interpretation, this means that Satan, or rather, the instincts, are confronting God in some way. But the nature of Satan’s first arrival was less related to the “sons of God”, meaning, the instincts were less related to intelligence this first time. What is so amazing to Maimonides regarding this second arrival, that he says, “Consider this, and see how very extraordinary it is! These ideas presented themselves like an inspiration to me”? Maimonides feels this second referral that Satan came along with the “sons of God” is crucial. I will now explain.


Having clarified that this account is a metaphor; that Satan refers to man’s instincts, and that the “sons of God” refer to man’s soul or intelligence, we must now clarify God’s “handing of Job over to Satan” and His discussion with Satan.


God is in fact not talking to Satan, since Satan is man’s instincts. But we must ask, “whose instincts?” There can be only on answer: those belonging to Job. For it would be unjust that God punishes Job, had Job not been at fault. God only punishes he who sins, and he who will heed the punishment and repent: “For whomever God loves He rebukes, like a father, the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs, 3:12) God does not do futile acts, and hence, He rebukes only those whom He loves, meaning, those who listen to rebuke as they wish self-improvement. We must now understand the conversation between God and Satan. (It is advisable that the reader knows these first two chapters in Job before continuing.)


God opens; admiring how good Job is; fearing evil and not sinning. Satan replies that Job is good, as long as his life is without pain and trouble. However, if troubles arise, Job would not continue his good path. This is Satan’s position. God then allows Satan to afflict Job. Let us interpret this. Satan – Job’s instincts – will allow Job to follow God, meaning, Job agrees to worship God, provided Job has the good in life. Job harbored an unexamined allegiance to God, as long as he experienced wealth, health and children. These words of Satan are really Job’s own feelings, but personified in the character of Satan. But if the good life were to be taken away, Job felt he would not be so steadfast in worshipping God. That is what Satan said, in other words, “take these away, and Job won’t be upright”. This is what is meant by God allowing Satan to afflict Job. This means that God’s system is one, wherein a person’s false philosophy, as Job expressed, will remove him from God’s providence, allowing all evils to befall him. (We are not concerning ourselves with the justice of Job’s children, as this story is a metaphor) So once we are made aware of Job’s corruption embodied in the metaphor of Satan, we are told that God allowed Satan to afflict Job. This means that God allowed “Job’s instincts” to hurt him. Any man or woman, whose ideas are false and corrupt, will not be under God’s providence. But in fact, this is God’s overall system of justice for mankind in general, and not an independent system applying solely to Job. Perhaps, this story is written with the apparent injustice of God freely letting Satan loose on Job’s life, to open our ears, and compel our investigation into such an important matter as God’s justice.


Returning to Maimonides’ “amazement” at the second time Satan appeared before God, this time together with the “sons of God”, we wonder what Maimonides saw. Once Job experienced these initial tragedies, he did what all righteous people do: he investigated his philosophy, and examined his instincts. This “examination of his instincts” might be what s referred to in the idea that “Satan came along with the sons of God”. Meaning, this time, after his initial tragedies, Job’s instincts were confronted by reality, or were subjected to scrutiny. “Satan coming before God” together with his intellect, means his instincts were no longer unexamined. Until Job received punishments, his instincts were distant form his intellect, they were not “before God”. However, this changed once Job experienced tragedy upon tragedy. Now, “Satan also came before God”. Now, Job’s instinctual philosophy that he would obey God as long as life is good, would now be subject to his intellectual probe.


We learn that the instincts are limited to our Earthly existence, and are even molded by our Earth-bound, physical desires. We become attached to what we emotionally feel is the ultimate good, i.e., health, wealth and children, and that our obedience to God is conditional on these. Left unexamined, we are subject to losing God’s divine intervention, we are “like animals” who have no individual providence. (Psalms, 49:13,21) The book of Job teaches us to examine our philosophy, detecting what false views we create from our subjective desires, and what evil may befall us if we live based on fantasy, and not God’s reality. We learn how kind God is in offering man opportunities to perfect himself, as we read here, and in the myriad of Biblical instances where God perfected man and men. We learn that God wishes to relay information to us in a manner that does not stun and bewilder our minds with its stark contrast to our cherished beliefs. Rather, God writes subtle metaphors and books, allowing man to ability to come to ideas when his mind may consider them as possible, and as truths. Maimonides states this a well in his letter to his student R. Joseph b. Judah: “I considered you fit to receive from me an exposition of the esoteric ideas contained in the prophetic books, that you might understand them as they are understood by men of culture. When I commenced by way of hints, I noticed that you desired additional explanation, urging me to expound some metaphysical problems; to teach you the system of the Mutakallemim; to tell you whether their arguments were based on logical proof; and if not, what their method was. I perceived that you had acquired some knowledge in those matters from others, and that you were perplexed and bewildered; yet you sought to find out a solution to your difficulty. I urged you to desist from this pursuit, and enjoined you to continue your studies systematically; for my object was that the truth should present itself in connected order, and that you should not hit upon it by mere chance.”

[4] It appears that the instincts can cause man to be removed from God’s providence, availing him to bodily harm, but not that the flawed, instinctual views harbored in this life might warrant death.