Job 17 – Sarcasm, or Righteous Anger?

“God has made me a byword to everyone,
    a man in whose face people spit.
My eyes have grown dim with grief;
    my whole frame is but a shadow.
The upright are appalled at this;
    the innocent are aroused against the ungodly.
Nevertheless, the righteous will hold to their ways,
    and those with clean hands will grow stronger.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Guess what – someone has made a play out of Job, accurately titled….The Book of Job.  This is probably only exciting to Bible and literature nerds like me.  But over and over again I have thought how much this play reminds me of early English morality plays. (Remember reading Everyman in high school?  That’s a morality play.  Like I said, total nerd over here.)  Perhaps it’s truly the other way around, with morality plays being modeled after stories like Job…which may have been influenced by (or have influenced) Greek choral plays…but I won’t go down that rabbit-hole.

The reason I bring it up is because I think that so much more could be gained from Job if it was spoken.  It’s whole meaning might change based on how the actor chose to portray a certain section – such as this section here.  The general consensus is that Job is getting more and more sarcastic: he asks God for a pledge, knowing that it will not be forthcoming.  Then Job blatantly mocks his friends, telling them their minds are closed to understanding” and quoting a retorting parable back at them, in answer to all of theirs from earlier.  This section, vv. 6-9, is supposedly uttered with dripping sarcasm, and then Job goes on to get all morbid and talk about how the grave is his only hope.

I think this is a very accurate understanding of it, but part of me can’t help but wonder – again because Job is such a self-conscious piece of writing – if Job is actually getting more emboldened. From a dramatic standpoint, this could make sense.  We, the reader/audience, know Job is righteous, thus he is reacting in a way we would want him to.  Perhaps his friends false comfort and piety has had an unintended “reverse psychology” effect on Job, rousing in him a sense of purpose he didn’t have before.  Maybe, if his friends hadn’t come along, he would have cursed God and died, as his wife suggested he do way back in chapter two.  Instead of wallowing in agony and self-pity, Job feels driven to proclaim his innocence.  In that light, perhaps he isn’t asking God for a pledge with a tone of sarcasm, but truly asking (maybe even demanding) that pledge.  Demanding something of God seems impudent, to say the least, but it has been made clear the Job is, in God’s own words (twice!), “blameless and upright.”  So if anyone could demand something of God, it would be Job.  And then perhaps vv. 6-9 are not spoken in sarcasm, but yelled out in defiance at his friends, because they are actually true.  He gets worked up even further, challenging them in v. 10, “But come on, all of you, try again! I will not find a wise man among you!”  Perhaps the only sarcastic part of this speech is the last part, where Job talks about his only hope being the grave.  His is a righteous anger now, and he knows that God will bring him justice.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not.  It would be interesting to see the two versions – a sarcastic vs. a righteously angry Job – and see how the play, or indeed the whole story, of Job would change.  Just a thought.

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Job 15 – The Highly Literary Job

“Are you the first man ever born?
    Were you brought forth before the hills?
Do you listen in on God’s council?
    Do you have a monopoly on wisdom?
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.

Job 05 – Virtue Signalling with Eliphaz

“Call if you will, but who will answer you?
    To which of the holy ones will you turn?
Resentment kills a fool,
    and envy slays the simple.
I myself have seen a fool taking root,
    but suddenly his house was cursed.
His children are far from safety,
    crushed in court without a defender.
The hungry consume his harvest,
    taking it even from among thorns,
    and the thirsty pant after his wealth.
For hardship does not spring from the soil,
    nor does trouble sprout from the ground.
Yet man is born to trouble
    as surely as sparks fly upward.

“But if I were you, I would appeal to God;
    I would lay my cause before him.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
10 He provides rain for the earth;
    he sends water on the countryside.
11 The lowly he sets on high,
    and those who mourn are lifted to safety.
12 He thwarts the plans of the crafty,
    so that their hands achieve no success.
13 He catches the wise in their craftiness,
    and the schemes of the wily are swept away.
14 Darkness comes upon them in the daytime;
    at noon they grope as in the night.
15 He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth;
    he saves them from the clutches of the powerful.
16 So the poor have hope,
    and injustice shuts its mouth.

17 “Blessed is the one whom God corrects;
    so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.[a]
18 For he wounds, but he also binds up;
    he injures, but his hands also heal.
19 From six calamities he will rescue you;
    in seven no harm will touch you.
20 In famine he will deliver you from death,
    and in battle from the stroke of the sword.
21 You will be protected from the lash of the tongue,
    and need not fear when destruction comes.
22 You will laugh at destruction and famine,
    and need not fear the wild animals.
23 For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field,
    and the wild animals will be at peace with you.
24 You will know that your tent is secure;
    you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.
25 You will know that your children will be many,
    and your descendants like the grass of the earth.
26 You will come to the grave in full vigor,
    like sheaves gathered in season.

27 “We have examined this, and it is true.
    So hear it and apply it to yourself.”

It looks like there’s a lot of wisdom here, right? As my NIV text notes so wonderfully put it, “The problem is not so much with what the friends knew but with what they did not know.”   Poor Eliphaz is being made to look quite the pompous fool, a little reminiscent of Hamlet’s Polonius.  Polonius is the character with the famous one-liner “to thine own self be true,” which is, indeed, great advice.  He’s also a scheming, overbearing windbag and generally crap father.  Basically, Polonius was virtue signalling, and Eliphaz is kind of doing the same thing.

What I love about this passage though is that Eliphaz doesn’t even know how right he is.  God will indeed save Job from seven calamities (a figurative number just meaning “a lot” not necessarily seven exactly), his property and health will be restored, and his children will, indeed, be many.  Even his parables are spot on without realizing it.  Eliphaz talks about his a fool’s children being “crushed in court without a defender.”  (v. 4)  Well, with Satan as “the Accuser” in the heavenly court, that is basically what happened to Job’s children.  The only difference is that Job isn’t a fool, and has God as his defender.  And through all his long laments in this chapter, Job is “laying his cause before Him,” as Eliphaz counsels him to in v. 8.  If Eliphaz weren’t so busy pontificating then maybe he could see that Job is already doing exactly what he said to do.

One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve received from my MIL is, “go through life like a dog: if you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.”  It’s silly on the surface, but good advice at it’s core – kind of the opposite of Eliphaz self-righteous “if it were I” talk of this first speech.  And that, I think, it what we can learn from this little Biblical episode:  We are going to come across trying people.  But, as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata says, “even the dull and ignorant, they too have their stories.”  Let us glean what truths and good we can from people, even if we aren’t in full agreement with them.  I know it’s not always easy, but we don’t have to take their foolishness to heart.  In fact, in the next chapter Job is about to call Eliphaz out on his bullshit.  So yes, listen to what people have to say, but then weigh it against your own life, your own conscious; talk it over with God.  If it doesn’t hold water, then leave it.  You’ll be better off.