William Blake, Job's Evil Dreams

The Book of Job: Punishment and Reward

Instructor: Heather Ohaneson
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

In its stark portrayal of the quest for meaning amidst great suffering, the book of Job stands alone not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also among the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East. A work of magnificent poetic beauty, it raises the perennial question of why bad things happen to good people—but with surprising responses. The character of Job contemplates the fate of the righteous but goes further to question the nature of God: “It is all the same, and so I thought: the blameless and the wicked He destroys … The earth is given in the wicked man’s hand, the face of its judges He veils. If not He—then who else?” Whether or how the book of Job resolves the problem of theodicy is itself a matter of debate, one that we will take up in the course as we critically consider: the frame narrative of God’s wager with the Adversary (ha-satan in the Hebrew); the inability of Job’s friends to comprehend unjust suffering; the rhetoric and terror of divine speech and appearance; and the notion of recompense in its strange conclusion. How can we understand the book of Job: in its historical context, in its literary formulation, and in its philosophical implications?

Engaging Job as a work of literature, we will ask: Does suffering make one wise? How does innocent suffering differ from punishment? Does suffering carry meaning? If so, who can discern that meaning? What is the role of friends in times of severe pain and profound need? What are the implications of an all-powerful God for models of political sovereignty? What bonds are formed through communal intervention in personal tragedy? We will examine Job both on its own terms and refracted through the lenses of moral and political philosophy, psychology, literature, and film. Grounding ourselves in Robert Alter’s recent translation and commentary, we will make comparisons with the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, and other renditions, all the while keeping adjacent works like the book of Ecclesiastes and Talmudic commentaries in hand. We will also read excerpts of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Joseph Roth’s novel Job: The Story of a Simple Man, alongside other texts, and watch the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 23 — February 13, 2023
4 weeks


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