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Iyov and the Reciprocity Between Human and God

Exploring Our Responsibilities Within Our Faith

By Jemima Schoen

I still remember when my counselor told me something that changed my view on the relationship between humans and God. I was on an NCSY program, and we were standing on the precipice of Machtesh Ramon on a windy Friday night as we prepared to engage in, for our first time, the ancient practice of hitbod’dut, or solitary meditation. In hitbod’dut, my counselor explained, a person sits far away from others and speaks directly to God. They can express their wishes, regrets, and even struggles with belief. This, my counselor said, was her favorite way to connect to God, especially supplementally when her traditional daily Tefillah did not make her feel connected on a given day. This got me thinking: if my counselor felt most connected to God through hitbod’dut, why did she daven at all? When I asked her about it, she responded with a quote from her seminary rabbi on our relationship with God that transformed my perspective: “You’re not the only one in the relationship.” 

In other words, just because one person in a relationship might prefer a certain form of communication, there is another half of the relationship with their own wants and needs — God. The relationship between human and God is not one-sided; it is reciprocal. We have wants and so does God. If we want to maintain a relationship, there needs to be a give and take.

The earliest clear manifestation of this reciprocal relationship is the Mosaic Covenant, wherein God promises at Har Sinai to protect the Jewish people so long as they follow Hashem’s laws, including the ten commandments and the service of the kohanim. This establishes a give-and-take relationship, similar to a social contract between a government and its citizens.   

Bearing this relationship in mind, the Book of Iyov seems to flip the covenant on its head. The Book of Iyov begins by stating that Iyov is the most righteous man of his time. Unlike his contemporaries, Iyov believes in God wholeheartedly, never sins, and brings korbanot (offerings) every day — or even a few times a day on the off chance that he sinned by mistake. God smiles down upon Iyov. Then, one day, Satan comes to pay God a visit. Satan says to God (paraphrased), “Yes, Iyov is righteous and believes in God, but that is only because he has never suffered in his life. Let me send him something bad, and then we’ll see if he still believes in God, if he is a true believer.” Initially, God says no. After all, Iyov is righteous, and Iyov does not need to be punished for being a good person. Furthermore, Iyov was not just passively good, as Satan paints him to be. He does not only stay away from sinning; he also actively performs mitzvot without being compelled to do so, such as the korbanot (sacrifices) he brings each day.

But, God agrees by the next pasuk and tells Satan that he can harm Iyov, but not Iyov’s body. Consequently, Satan goes and kills Iyov’s family. Iyov grieves his loved ones, including his sons with whom he brought korbanot each morning. Amidst all of this grief and turmoil, Iyov still maintains his faith in God, saying that this was meant to be, that God loves him and will protect him. The dramatic irony of Iyov’s faith in God throughout this turmoil feels even somewhat uncomfortable, as it is God who permits these injuries to Iyov, and yet he still cries out to God. 

Since killing Iyov’s family fails to hinder the man’s faith, God is triumphant and tells Satan he was wrong about Iyov, that Iyov really is a righteous, faithful man. Satan responds that it is impossible to really know that Iyov is steadfast in his faith without a test involving bodily harm. God eventually approves this plan, and, essentially, Satan keeps harming Iyov until he reaches his breaking point. Iyov cries out, saying that the God he believed in must be false because he, who believed in God when no one else did, is punished so severely. His friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zofer come to see him and hear Iyov’s woes. He repeats this hopeless message to them, to which Eliphaz responds, “You have told so many people who were suffering not to waver in their faith in God, and now when you suffer, you can choose not to believe? Were you lying the whole time?”

This seems like a slap in the face — both Eliphaz’s lack of comforting words and the fact that Iyov, who had helped to reaffirm the faith of so many, was now having his faith ripped from him. It is enough to make someone feel downright foolish. So, the questions are, how much can someone’s belief systems be shattered before they are no longer obligated to believe? As one half of this reciprocal relationship, is it God’s job to make sure we remain strong in our belief?

There are many opinions on this, many compiled in the Herzog Tanach. The first — and most depressing — opinion says that there is no clear reason or rationale for any occurrences in the world because there is no righteousness in the world, nor is there God, which is quite depressing and seems in direct opposition to the overall message of the Book of Iyov. If the Book of Iyov ends with the eponymous, long-suffering protagonist receiving gold for his troubles, one would think that there is a reason for Iyov’s struggle, that this reward should mean something; yet, if the world is a random place and fate does not exist, then the Book of Iyov is nothing more than a biography: a collection of one man’s experiences in a meaningless world.

How much can someone’s belief systems be shattered before they are no longer obligated to believe?”

Another idea says that people must simply trust in God, in whatever happens, and trust that it is all for the best. Iyov does get a reward at the end of the book, so maybe it was necessary for God to push Iyov to his limits in order for the mortal to deserve his eventual reward. If one functions off complete trust in God, then God surely knows everyone’s limits and potentials. Hashem would not be taking Iyov’s suffering too far because Hashem knows exactly how far is too far. Through this lens, the Mosaic Covenant and our relationship with God is an exchange of human compliance and belief for divine protection and betterment of human character. However, this again begs a question: How much can someone’s belief systems be shattered before they are no longer obligated to believe? The answer, according to this last opinion, is that God would never push someone further than that of which they are capable, so failure to continue believing in God would be betraying one’s own potential.

A similar theory, favoring the ideology of Victor Frankl, is that suffering itself shows that God is here, on Earth, watching over everything. The fact that Iyov suffered so much, all within such a short time span, when he seemingly did nothing to deserve it, just shows how much we should believe in God. God must truly be real if the fabric of our world can be disrupted in such a way, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. Within our suffering, we find meaning, and meaning, according to Frankl, is God’s gift to humans. By this logic, humans, especially members of B’nei Yisrael, can never stop believing in God. There is never an excuse; there is meaning in everything. The reciprocity between humans and God through the ages has always been, according to Frankl, that humans give God their faith (classically expressed through mitzvot, but also mentally and ideologically), and God, in turn, gives their lives meaning.

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