When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person

By Harold S. Kushner

Shocken. 202 pp. $24

’The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person’ by Harold S. Kushner (Schocken)

In 1977, Harold S. Kushner’s son died of progeria — rapid aging syndrome — at age 14. A few years later, Kushner published “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a bestseller that helped parents who had lost children to wrestle with life’s unfairness. In “The Book of Job,” the rabbi and biblical scholar re-examines one of the Old Testament’s more horrible stories, that of a man of faith whom, in a plot straight out of horror flicks such as “The Exorcist” or “The Strangers,” God tortures to settle a bet with the devil.

“The book of Job is a full-length argument about whether the misfortunes that befall ostensibly good people come to them from the hand of God,” Kushner writes. “If we want to believe that ours is a moral world, the scene of justice and fairness, we need to confront the arguments presented in what is probably the most challenging book in the entire Bible.”

Job’s story would make a great telenovela: The devil wagers that Job will lose his faith if he loses his possessions; God takes the bet; Job’s wealth is stolen and his family is killed; the devil afflicts him with disease; Job recognizes God’s power; God saves the day, giving Job “twice what he had before,” including 14,000 sheep and 6,000 camels. But Kushner’s analysis challenges popular understanding of a text written and rewritten by unknown authors perhaps separated by centuries. Job, he says, is more than a fable that says, “Believe.” It poses a question at the center of any faith: Why does God inflict such misery on some people?

“I find God in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty,” he writes. “What enabled our fourteen-year-old son, so stricken with congestive heart failure that he had to sleep standing up, to look forward to every day he had to share with his friends, his family, and his dog?” No one can explain why evil exists, let alone in 200 pages. Still, Kushner’s tragic loss lets him assail an insolvable problem with authority.

Justin Moyer