7 “Are you the first man ever born?
Were you brought forth before the hills?
8 Do you listen in on God’s council?
Do you have a monopoly on wisdom?
9 What do you know that we do not know?
What insights do you have that we do not have? (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)
Welcome to Lent 2020. If you’re new to the blog, I started reading Job last Lent, and will continue for this year and the next. It’s one of the few readings that has been pre-planned on this blog (but, in a lack of time and foresight, not written more than 24-48 hours ahead of time). I picked Job because it is a book about suffering and patience, a book where Job spends much of his time away from God, being tested by Satan, which seems a good topic for the time of year remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the desert.
I strongly encourage you to go back and read through the first 14 chapters of Job and the corresponding blog posts. I just did, to refresh myself on what is happening in Job and some of the things I discussed. I forgot that some of my favorite revelations from last year actually came through Job, such as finding another way to think about Satan, and discovering the term pluralistic ignorance while finding ways to speak out against injustice without having to actually speak. I was also reminded that Job was a highly stylized book, and just wanted to point some of these literary elements out to you.
First, the overall structure of the book is very symmetrical. This is easy to lose track of when you’re doing a deep reading of a book, chapter by chapter, but a brief read-through reminded me of that fact. It starts with a prologue in the divine court, in which Job loses all he has, then there are three speech cycles between Job and his friends, all of which go Eliphaz-Job-Bildad-Job-Zophar-Job, with Zophar’s last speech being replaced by Elihu’s, and then the closing scene brings God back in, restoring Job’s fortune and mirroring the divine court from the beginning. It also seems very much like a legal trial: God delivers the charge, then stands back and listens impartially to the arguments from both sides (Job and his friends’), allowing for Job and Elihu to make closing statements. God then delivers his verdict.
Second, we can view Job’s friends as literary agents that remind us of what exactly is going on here (Job’s faith is being tested by Satan while God observes) and to goad Job to more and more impassioned speeches. In their false comfort they allude to several things that we know as readers, but that Job does not. This chapter is a perfect example. “Do you listen in on God’s council?” Eliphaz asks, reminding us that yes, actually, the readers did get to listen in on God’s council. “What do you know that we do not know?” He asks a line later. He is, of course, talking to Job, but if we could answer that question, the answer would be a lot. Earlier, Zophar says “Oh, how I wish that God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom.” Well, we know that God is going to do that. The friends also make several overt court references, reminding the reader that we are essentially witnessing a court case in action. The word “court” is used by Zophar in 11:10 and Eliphaz in 5:4, and other court-like words (“charge,” “guilt,” “prison”) appear throughout the text. Every time Job’s friends break that fourth wall, to borrow a term from theater, they draw our attention to the broader drama of the story.
Finally, it is important to remember that the story of Job may date back to as long ago as 2000 BC. As it was told and re-told, and traveled between different groups, different traditions may have sprung up in its telling. When it was codified into writing, it is possible that the compilers may have tried to stitch some of those traditions together. I wonder about this when Elihu suddenly pops up, almost without introduction, to start speaking in chapter 32. Was he always a fourth companion, and if so, why wasn’t he introduced at the beginning? Was he sometimes the third companion, replacing Zophar in some of the tellings? We’ll talk more about Elihu when we get to him, but I just point him out here to remind you of the long and complex history Job has had in its construct.
Which, I suppose inevitably, leads us to the question we all seem driven to ask about the Bible – is it true? Did Job really exist, and did God really test him? I don’t see why he couldn’t have existed, but I think we miss the larger point. Job, if he was a real person long, long ago, has grown into a myth larger than himself, like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan. Job has become an allegory for our own trials in life, a way to explain the endurance of faith, the justice of God, and the evils that befall innocent people. I’m looking forward to starting it back up again, much more so than I was when beginning it last year. I hope you’ll join me in reading it this Lent, and discover the literary prowess, beauty, and greater truths that Job has to reveal to us.