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Originally published Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Harold Kushner's 'The Book of Job': when things go from bad to worse

Harold Kushner's new book "The Book of Job" uses the biblical story as a departure point for examining how we respond to random tragedy.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person'

by Harold S. Kushner

Nextbook/Schocken, 202 pp., $24

Harold S. Kushner is a rare bird: a popular religious writer set apart by his humility and lack of proselytizing. This rabbi's long list of best-selling books, including his 1981 hit "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," share the gifts of scholarly foundations, challenges to conventional theology, and a style that enlightens and inspires the decidedly un-Biblical among his readers.

Kushner's latest book is "The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person," and it too is supported by thoughtful scholarship and his skill at using modern concepts without leaking treacle. Yet, I suspect that this book will have less appeal to much of the lay public than his earlier ones. The latter two-thirds of the book is sometimes donnish, with more gleaning and less anecdotage than is usual for this author.

The early pages demonstrate Kushner's engaging teaching style as he explains that there are actually two very distinct parts to the Book of Job. In Chapters 1, 2 and 42 is the "Fable of Job, a very old, simple folk tale of faith maintained and rewarded."

Then comes the Poem of Job, "a much later, more complicated work comprising the large middle section," writes Kushner. The poem is a rich yet confusing outpouring, "forty chapters of sublime and profound protest" in which Job is no longer a character, but a speaker.

It is the fable, not the poem, that appears in various guises in literature and film. In a Hollywood pitch meeting, it would go like this: A rich, happy man (his name is pronounced "Jobe," with a long "o" sound) stands fast when his benefactor (God) dispatches the repo man to take all his stuff away.

Job stays loyal until he hits a bad patch when things get much, much worse (imagine the worst-ever case of shingles) and he erupts into some righteous anger. He calms down, and eventually gets his riches back ... fade to black.

The rage, the "why me?" and similarly anguished searching — Is God vengeful? Indifferent? Nonexistent? — have been Kushner's starting points in much of his prolific work. It was the death of his young son that drove him to write about such questions in the first place; this is a man who knows what it is to shake his fist at the heavens.

In the last chapter of the book, Kushner does a wonderful job summing up what he takes away from the Job story (it is actually something of a spoiler to paraphrase it, so buy the book) and handily condenses thinking from some of the great Jewish thinkers, beginning with Moses Maimonides in the 12th century.

In closing, Kushner quotes from a speech he made to a New Orleans congregation on the first anniversary of Katrina. "You want to know why something like this could happen to you. I can give you the answer in six words, God is moral, Nature is not." Later in his speech, he asked, "Where was God when your city was struck? His was the still, small voice moving some residents to go out in their rowboats and rescue you from your rooftops ... "

Perhaps some will read this book as the Biblical Job's story has been approached — the reader is arrested by the beginning, skims the middle and is comforted by the ending. There are worse things.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.

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