Roslyn Weiss

Roslyn Weiss is the Clara H. Stewardson Professor of Philosophy at LehighUniversityin Bethlehem, PA.She earned her doctorate in philosophy from ColumbiaUniversityin 1982 and a Master's degree in Jewish Studies from BaltimoreHebrewUniversityin 1992. Her fields of expertise are Ancient Greek Philosophy and Medieval Jewish Philosophy. She has published four books on Plato, most recently, Philosophers in the ‘Republic’: Plato’s Two Paradigms (Cornell University Press, 2012), and more than 40 scholarly articles on Greek and Jewish philosophy. She has lectured widely in the United States, as well as in Canada, England, Israel, Belgium, Germany, Greece, and Japan.

Hinnam: The Trials of Job and Abraham and the Limits of Divine Omniscience

In the book of Job, after the first trial in Chapter 1, God rebukes the satan for having caused Him to afflict Job hinnam. The source of the divine displeasure, the reason God regards the test as having been “for naught,” seems to be that God has learned nothing new; indeed, His description of Job after the first trial (Job 2:3) is identical to the one that precedes it (Job 1:8). One clear implication of divine testing is that God does not know in advance, so that R. Hanina’s declaration, “All is in the hands of Heaven except yirat shamayim” (BT Berakhot 33b) is actually too weak: God does not even always know whether, or the extent to which, someone is yerei shamayim. When God tests, He doesn’t know, as in Deut. 8:2: “that He might afflict you to test you (lenasotkha), in order to know what is in your heart.”

In this paper I will explore the trials of Job and Abraham. I will argue that both are tests of yirat shamayim, of submission to the ineluctable inequity in man’s relationship with God. Just as Job undergoes more than one test—I shall argue that he undergoes three—because after the first two God still doesn’t know, so too Abraham undergoes three tests (here I buck convention, departing from Avot 5:4 that numbers the trials at ten: by numbering the trials at ten, hazal dilute the sense of trial as test and assimilate it to tribulation), because not until the a¸qeidah, the third, does God know: ̒Atah yada¸ti (Gen. 22:12). As in the case of Abraham, each of Job’s trials is progressively more demanding than the first. Until the testing is complete, God suspects but is not yet certain that Job is genuinely a yerei elohim. When God boasts to the satan that Job is yerei elohim, the satan finds his opening: “Hahinnam,” the satan says, “is it for naught” that Job is yerei elohim? After the first test, God echoes the satan’s term hinnam, saying vatesiteini vo levalleo¸ hinnam (Job 2:3): in effect, “you’ve wasted My time.” God permits the second test so that the first not be in vain—in vain because nothing is new: veo¸denu mahaziq betumato (Job 2:3). Yet even after the second, Job, as his wife notes, o¸dekha mahaziq betumatekha (Job 2:9). Hence the need for a third. The third test comes in the form of Job’s friends’ “consolations.” Job, who has gone from, after the first test, ascribing to God no tiflah and not sinning in any way (Job 1:22), to, after the second, ascribing to God some “bad” but still not sinning with his lips (Job 2:10), is now put in a position where he might sin even with his lips. The simultaneous appearance of the three friends can only be the continued work of the satan; after all, the satan’s ultimate end is to get Job to sin with his lips. Eliphaz, Zofar, and Bildad compel Job to confront his own unreflective and perhaps unconscious embrace of their too simplistic view of divine justice: if God is just He must reward the righteous and punish the wicked. From their shared conception of divine justice the friends and Job draw distinct conclusions: the friends suppose that Job must have sinned; Job comes to suspect that God is unjust. Only when Job prays for his friends does God restore Job’s prosperity. By relinquishing, at God’s behest, his right to frame his friends’ sin as a sin against himself, by placing God at the center as the one who has been wronged by both himself and his friends, Job at last proves to God his genuine yirat shamayim.

Abraham’s trials are: (1) the original “lekh lekha” (Gen. 12); (2) the sending away of Ishmael (Gen. 21); and (3) the a¸qeidah (Gen. 22). There are phrases connecting these trials. For example, both in (1) and (3) we find the command lekh lekha; and the expression a¸l ahad heharim asher omar eilekha in (3) clearly echoes el haaretz asher ar’eka in (1). And in both (2) and (3) we find vayashkeim avraham baboqer. The hardship Abraham experiences grows with each successive stage, as does Job’s. Abraham’s first test, though difficult, requires of him only that he leave his home, birthplace, and land; the second, that he send his son away (the pain this caused him is palpable and explicit: vayeira¸ hadavar meod bee¸inei avraham a¸l odot beno); the third, that he sacrifice his son. Note, too, that God offers no incentive in the third trial. In the first, God promises Abraham in advance of Abraham’s obedience that He “will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing…” (Gen. 12:2). In the second, God assures Abraham, again in advance, that He will “make of the son of the bondwoman a nation, because he is your seed” (Gen. 21:13). In the third, God’s promise awaits Abraham’s passing of the test—necessarily; it could hardly precede it, in view of the fact that Abraham is being asked to kill Isaac. It is only after the third trial has ended that God says He will—“because you have done this thing”—“exceedingly bless you, and … multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven…” (Gen.22:16-17). Abraham, however, loses his son; it is now with his lads—and no longer with his son—that he walks on “together” (Gen. 22:19).

The Abraham and Job trials are interestingly connected. Compare: al tishlah yadkha el hanaa¸r (Gen. 22:12) with shelah na yadkha (Job 1:11) and raq eilav al tishlah yadekha (Job 1:12.) Perhaps it is not coincidental that Uz, the first son born to Nahor and Milkah, is mentioned in Gen. 22:21 immediately after the a¸qeidah account, and that the land in which Job lived is “the land of Uz” (Job 1:1). Also, Elihu is identified as the son of Berakheil the Buzi; Buz is another of the children Milkah bears to Nahor.

The trial is not a moral test but a test of devotion. (It is not so much that God demands a Kierkegaardian suspension of the ethical; it is rather that the tests are not tests of ethics.) Job is unquestionably a model of morality; that is never in dispute. Abraham, by contrast, is morally flawed; there is no suggestion anywhere in the Abraham account that he is morally exemplary (as there is, say, in the account of Noah); indeed, as I shall briefly show, he is found especially wanting in his relations with Hagar and Sarah. In the case of Job the satan therefore does not question Job’s character; in Abraham’s case, it would seem, God does not expect perfection in character. What God seeks to learn with respect to both Job and Abraham is whether they are truly God-fearing. In Abraham’s case, as will be argued, God’s doubts are not without warrant: Abraham does not trust in God as he should (Gen. 15:2; 17:17). In Job’s case, the satan plants the doubt as to whether Job would maintain his God-fearingness under egregiously altered circumstances.

The philosophic significance of trial lies in its implications for divine omniscience. The biblical view, I shall argue, radically alters the peshat of Avot 3:19 (hakol tzafui vehareshut netunah), restricting God’s prescience—and hence the range of hakol—to realms outside that of yirat shamayim. Because of reshut, the Torah appears to say, God cannot know in advance; moreover, as is likely, neither can the person tested. What God loses in knowledge, however, He surely gains in justice: a God who subjects human beings to painful tests when He does not already know the outcome is far less morally objectionable than one who does so when He does.