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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.2 (2006) 318-319
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Robert Eisen has written a very good book on medieval philosophical interpretations of the Book of Job. In it he discusses the varying interpretations of Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Zerahiah Hen, Gersonides, and Simon ben Zemah Duran. For readers of this journal, the aforementioned, with the exception of Maimonides and possibly Gersonides, may be just names, but in the context of medieval Jewish philosophy they together present a wonderful discussion across the centuries, from tenth-century Baghdad to fifteenth-century Spain, and in both Arabic and Hebrew.
The trajectory of the discussion arcs from Saadia's understanding of Job's sufferings as a divine trial to test the (truly) righteous, a view that for Saadia distances Job himself from being implicated in his own suffering, to Maimonides' and Ibn Tibbon's views, which both understand Job as a good and virtuous person, who, on account of an intellectual deficiency, suffers. Of Job's "comforters," it is agreed by all the Jewish medieval commentators that Elihu, with his message that Job is being tested, not punished, by God, presents the true message of the tale. But of course this raises the question of why Job is being tested. Is he being tested to ascertain the limits of his faith, and is he rewarded at the end because of his abiding faith throughout? Or does Job suffer on account of a lack that he himself has, remediation of which is signaled at the end of the tale? My hunch is that the former view, that of Saadia, is the more "modern" view, with its emphasis on the power of an abiding faith in the divine. It is a view that certainly reminds one of Kierkegaard. However, as Eisen well illustrates, the latter view, a more "naturalistic" one held by Maimonides and those influenced by him, grounded in an Aristotelian and Averroist distinction between moral and intellectual virtue, provides a brilliant alternative gloss. For the Greek-inspired medieval Jewish thinkers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Job's test and suffering are very much his own doing. Far from testing his faith, Maimonides and Ibn Tibbon wish to indicate that Job, though morally exemplary, suffers because of an incorrect belief that his moral virtue is a sufficient condition for human flourishing. Job suffers because he hasn't a clue that true human well-being depends upon a level of intellectual insight that is beyond his horizon. The test Job undergoes, culminating in the divine voice from the whirlwind, clarifies to the extent possible for a finite intellect that Job has no idea whatsoever about the requisite conditions for human well-being.
It is most interesting from an historical vantage point to see how this naturalistic view played out after Maimonides and Ibn Tibbon. As the fortunes of the Jews waned in the later Middle Ages, the arc of Jobian interpretation swung back to its earliest formulation in Saadia. As we noted, his tenth-century view tended to exculpate Job (and by extension Jews) from being a cause in his (their) own suffering. His "innocence" is on display. So Duran, the final thinker whom Eisen discusses, forced to flee Majorca in the late-fourteenth century at the height of anti-Jewish rioting, returns to a reading of Job that tends to emphasize his moral rectitude, and his innocence. For Duran, Job (and by extension Jews) are victims, and their very faith is being tested by God. [End Page 318]
Eisen does more in this book than just present a variety of philosophical glosses on Job. He is very concerned to reveal the exegetical strategies of the philosophers at hand. Saadia, Maimonides, Gersonides, et al. were systematic philosophers, and wrote straightforwardly about the very issues that Job is about. They all had interesting things to say about divine providence and God's role in human affairs...