Speaking Truth to Power, Job Accuses God of Being Unjust
The Greek philosopher Diogenes, who lived around the year 400 B.C.E., is famed for searching the streets of Athens for a single honest man. But if he had looked instead in the Jerusalem of his day, he might have found a maverick Hebrew thinker who is thought by many to have given the world its greatest poem, the book of Job. That poet, in that poem, imagined a champion of values, a character who, even on pain of torture and annihilation, would not only speak only truth, but would boldly assert it.
The topic of debate in the Book of Job is divine justice: if God is good, how can an innocent person suffer? How can God allow the wicked to thrive? In the narrative prologue of the book, Job is presented as an exceedingly pious and very wealthy man. He has ten children, who would have large birthday feasts, and Job, worried that one of might blaspheme while under the influence, offers sacrifices on behalf of each of them as proactive atonement (Job 1:5).
God brings Job's piety to the attention of the prosecutor (ha-satan), and authorizes him to test Job's righteousness, first first by taking away all of his wealth and killing his children, and next by striking him with a painful and debilitating illness. The object of this harsh treatment is to learn whether Job will curse God once all the good in his life turns to bad (1:9–11).
We the readers are told that Job has done nothing wrong—he is only being tested by a curious deity. But Job and his companions, who come to console him, do not know what is going on in heaven, behind the scenes. The dialogue and debate between Job’s friends and Job comprise the core of the book. One of the major themes that that permeates the discourse throughout, and even the plot, is the importance of speaking what is right and true.
Truth and Faithfulness in the Bible
In most places in the Bible, the term אמת tends to denote “faithfulness, reliability” more than some notion of objective or subjective “truth.” The term אמת and various cognate forms, such as אמונה “faithfulness, trust” and נאמן “faithful, reliable, trustworthy,” is derived from the stem א.מ.נ, which has the basic sense of “stability.”
Accordingly, when Jeremiah (10:10) says וַי־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת, he does not declare that “YHWH is a God of Truth” (so for example Robert Alter) but rather that He is “truly God” (so for example the NJPS) or, I would argue, “a reliable God” (compare Martin Buber’s “in Treuen”), a God in whom you can put your trust.
The term that more routinely designates the true in the Bible is נכון “established, set in place” and its cognates כן “truthful” (used by Joseph in testing his brothers’ truthfulness in Gen. 42:11) and the form נכונה “honesty, truthfulness” (as in Psalm 5:10: “For there is no sincerity on their lips”—the NJPS) or “truthfully” (as in Job 42:7-8; see below).
Lying and Cheating
The Torah emphasizes in a number of places the serious problem of lying, but again, this is not framed primarily as a violation of the abstract ideal of “truth,” but in the context of using falsehood to rob or cheat. Thus, the famous injunction in Exodus to stay away from falsehood appears in a court context:
שמות כג:ו לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט אֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּרִיבוֹ. כג:ז מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל תַּהֲרֹג כִּי לֹא אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע.
Exod 23:6 You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. 23:7 Keep far from a falsity; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.
Similarly, the Decalogue commands us not to testify falsely:
שמות כ:יב לֹא תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר.
Exod 20:12 You shall not testify false testimony against your neighbor.
The Torah also emphasizes the severity of speaking falsehood in the name of God, in an oath. Thus, in the Decalogue, we are told:
שמות כ:ז לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה יְ־הוָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא אֶת שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא.
Exod 20:7 You shall not swear falsely by the name of YHWH your God; for YHWH will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.
Similarly, in the Holiness Collection of Leviticus—named thus because it commands us to be holy (קדשים) in all areas of life—we read:
ויקרא יט:יא לֹא תִּגְנֹבוּ וְלֹא תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְשַׁקְּרוּ אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ. יט:יב וְלֹא תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי לַשָּׁקֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 19:11 You must not steal, and you must not deny it, and you must not lie, one person against his fellow. 19:12 And do not swear falsely in my name, profaning the name of your God; I am YHWH.
Verse 12 reiterates the Decalogue’s injunction against swearing falsely, and adds that lying under oath is a chillul shem Hashem, a desecration of the name of God. The Deity expects that even though people may lie and cheat each other, contrary to the injunction in the preceding verse, it is an especially egregious violation to do so in the name of the Deity—to whom untruthfulness is anathema.
Truth in Wisdom Literature
While the Torah’s focus is on truth and falsehood in the context of how one treats one’s fellow, some biblical texts do relate to truth as an abstract value. This is clearest in wisdom literature, such as Proverbs, which writes:
משלי כג:כג אֱמֶת קְנֵה וְאַל תִּמְכֹּר, חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר וּבִינָה.
Prov 23:23 Buy truth and never sell it, wisdom, discipline, and understanding.
Here, the term אמת does denote something like our general notion of “truth,” which is at least partly defined by the terms set in juxtaposition with it—“wisdom, discipline, and understanding.” As scholars have long noted, the book of Job was written in the wisdom tradition and it is thus not surprising that its protagonist is a strong advocate of truth. Nevertheless, Job is unique in his emphasis on truth’s paramount value.
Job Challenges the Truthfulness of His Companions
Throughout Job’s speeches, he emphasizes how, unlike his friends with their traditional pieties, he will speak only the truth as he sees it:
איוב כז:ג כִּי כָל עוֹד נִשְׁמָתִי בִי
וְרוּחַ אֱלוֹהַּ בְּאַפִּי.
כז:ד אִם תְּדַבֵּרְנָה שְׂפָתַי עַוְלָה
וּלְשׁוֹנִי אִם יֶהְגֶּה רְמִיָּה.
Job 27:3 So long as there is life-breath within me,
And in my nostrils Eloah’s spirit,
27:4 I swear that my lips will speak nothing corrupt,
And my tongue will utter no deceit.
Job’s friends, who are meant to comfort him in his suffering, take what they think is God’s side and accuse Job of sin. Job condemns them:
איוב יג:ד אוּלָם אַתֶּם טֹפְלֵי שָׁקֶר
רֹפְאֵי אֱלִל כֻּלְּכֶם
Job 13:4 Yet you are smearers of lies,
False physicians, all of you!.
Job will not tolerate falsehood and favoritism in the name of God. He assumes that the deity puts a premium on truth.
איוב יג:ז הַלְאֵל תְּדַבְּרוּ עַוְלָה
וְלוֹ תְּדַבְּרוּ רְמִיָּה.
Job 13:7 Will you speak corruptly to El?
To him will you speak with guile?
Job’s commitment to truth and refusal to prevaricate is so stark, the he even challenges God.
Job Believes God Is Punishing Him Falsely
It is assumed, even by Job, that his pain is divine punishment—although, quite literally, for the life of him, he cannot imagine what he’s done. He charges the deity with injustice and risks everything in speaking the truth:
איוב יג:יג הַחֲרִישׁוּ מִמֶּנִּי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אָנִי
וְיַעֲבֹר עָלַי מָה.
יג:יד עַל מָה אֶשָּׂא בְשָׂרִי בְשִׁנָּי
וְנַפְשִׁי אָשִׂים בְּכַפִּי.
יג:טו הֵן יִקְטְלֵנִי (לוֹ) [לא] אֲיַחֵל
אַךְ (דְּרָכַי) [דרכיו] אֶל פָּנָיו אוֹכִיחַ.
Job 13:13 Keep silent before me, so that I may speak—
Whatever may come upon me!
13:14 I will take my flesh in my teeth,
And I will place my life-breath in my hand.
13:15 Though he slay me, I will no longer wait—
I will accuse him of his ways to his face!
Job had gone so far as to claim that even if he were known to be innocent, the Deity would cover him with mud—giving him the appearance of guilt—and thus falsely incriminate him (9:29-31). You don’t find a clearer image of a frame-up, and you don’t find much God-talk that is bolder than that.
Job’s accusations of the Deity were admittedly harsh. In 9:22, for example, he complains that God does not distinguish between right and wrong, executing the innocent the same as the wicked (תָּם וְרָשָׁע הוּא מְכַלֶּה). Two verses later, he asserts:
איוב ט:כד אֶרֶץ נִתְּנָה בְיַד רָשָׁע
פְּנֵי שֹׁפְטֶיהָ יְכַסֶּה
אִם לֹא אֵפוֹא מִי הוּא.
Job 9:24 The earth is handed over to the wicked;
He (God) covers the eyes of the judges.
If it is not He, then who?
Some of the Talmudic sages condemned such statements. Said Rava: “Job wanted to overturn the bowl” (בקש איוב להפוך קערה על פיה), meaning he was a revolutionary; said Rav: “Job’s mouth should be stuffed with dirt” (עפרא לפומיה דאיוב) (both Talmud b. Bava Batra 16a). But such a negative response, in defense of the divine honor, is not shared by the poet of Job.
God Sides with Job
In the end, in spite of Job’s brutal challenges to divine justice, the poet stuns the reader by having the deity side with Job! In this subversive move, the poet has the Lord reproach Job’s conventional companions for failing to “speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job”— לֹא דִבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכוֹנָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב (42:7-8, twice).
The term נכונה, rendered here “in honesty,” does not necessarily mean that the substance of what Job has said about God is true in any objective sense. But it means that Job has spoken according to his own subjective understanding of what is true. God may or may not accept Job’s characterization of Him. But He will defend Job’s right to say what he believes to be true. Job is unafraid to speak truth to power, and the biblical Deity, the Power greater than all other powers, is actually pleased to hear it. This is a novel theological notion, and so far as I know, the book of Job is the first great work to express it.
Bluntness Towards God before and after Job
There are antecedents to Job’s bluntness in the Tanakh. Abraham challenges God’s justice in condemning the entire populations of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:23–32). Moses stands in the breach in order to protect the Israelites from a fatal reaction to their outrages by an incensed Deity (Exod 32:31–32; Num 14:11–20). Prophets such as Jeremiah pray for compassion even after a punitive judgment has been made (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11–12).
In rabbinic, medieval, and modern Jewish literature, we find many examples of sages and poets making harsh and even brazen critiques of an inscrutable or unresponsive God. Hutzpah kelappei Shemaya, “Hutzpah directed at Heaven” (b. Shabbat 105a), became a Jewish tradition. But the book of Job presents a paragon of integrity whose honest discourse becomes the most prominent theme of the entire work. You can say what you will about God, so long as you have reason to believe it and in fact do believe it.
Truth in Modern Times
Job’s attitude contrasts starkly with how truth has been sharply devalued in our day. The philosophically minded can blame competing notions of the true and the fact that in our postmodern times, what is true depends on one’s assumptions and beliefs.
A recent Rand Corporation report dealing with the widespread erosion of trust in facts bearing the catchy title of “Truth Decay,” places the onus on “a blurring of the line between opinion and fact,” an “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data.”
But everyone knows that the problem is far more basic. Even simple truths that can be easily determined are routinely trampled by those in positions of trust, who would once have been ashamed to be caught in an outright lie. The liar senses that many people expect and tolerate naked prevarication. Just as there is no shame in bald-faced lying, there is no commitment to telling the truth.
The place of “truth” in Jewish thought is a tricky subject. Can religious truth in the form of revelation or hoary tradition be in conflict with philosophically determined truth? Leading Jewish thinkers have differed on the relative status that is assigned to each. Certainly Job’s view finds representation in rabbinic literature.
For instance, according to the Talmud (b. Shabbat 55b), חותמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אמת “the emblem (“seal”) of the Holy One is Truth.” Applying the divine signature “truth” (אמת) to the forehead of a golem, mystics of the Middle Ages are said to have animated it, creating a living being.
Other texts emphasize, as we saw in the Holiness Collection, that lying is anathema to God. For example, in the rabbinic work, Seder Eliyahu Zuta (parasha 3):
מצינו שהכל ברא הקב"ה בעולמו חוץ ממידת השקר, שלא ברא, ומידת שוא, שלא פעל, אלא הבריות בדו אותן מליבן.
We have found that the Holy One Blessed Is He has created everything in His world except for the lie, which He did not create, and falsity, which He does not do; rather [His] creatures invented them on their own.
This relationship to truth and falsehood is not only that of the character Job, but it is part of the message of the book. In the end, the Deity sides with Job. In fact, God will forgive Job’s companions, who follow the conventional party line and defend God, only if Job offers words of prayer on their behalf.
The Deity cherishes the honest person over the traditionally pious. The Joban poet is a radical theologian as well as a daring artist.
Before concluding, I wish to express my deep appreciation of the founders and editors of the magnificent resource, TheTorah.com, and of all those who have contributed over the past seven years. In traditional Jewish circles it cannot be taken for granted that the fruits of critical scholarship will be presented for most serious consideration not only for intellectual satisfaction but for spiritual insight and growth. This project is making a well-deserved impact in the service of truth, or rather, in the service of a God whose emblem is Truth.
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May 19, 2020
November 16, 2020
Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the author, most recently, of Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019).
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