Friday, September 21
Job 26: Bildad has not said anything worth answering, so Job doesn’t answer him. Instead, he discourses on the immense majesty of God in the phenomena of heaven and earth.
This is a further and significant development in Job’s spiritual maturation through the course of the book. Especially since his avowal of personal faith in his “Redeemer” in chapter 19, Job has become more preoccupied with the world around him than with the misery of his own existence. Now he contemplates what God has made. Job’s mind escapes, in this way, the confinement of his own suffering.
In the opening of the chapter, Job throws one final taunt at those who pretended to be his comforters. Just what have they accomplished (verses 2–4)?
Then he proceeds to consider the wonders of all creation, beginning with the world that has so often preoccupied him, the nether world—sheol and ’abaddon (verse 6), the realm of the dead. The juxtaposition of these two words is also found in Proverbs 15:11 and 27:20.
In the present passage, the word ’abaddon (often translated as “destruction,” as in Job 31:12) serves as a personification of death itself, which seems also to be the case in Job 28:22. This is likewise how the same word is used in Revelation 9:11, where it refers to “the angel of the bottomless pit.”
Though this region of the dead lies concealed from the sight of man, it is open to the eyes of God. For Job this truth is important, certainly, because his great fear, through much of this book, is that he will die and simply disappear from the gaze of God.
From his consideration of the world beneath, Job then rises to contemplate the heavens above. The “north” (saphon) of verse 7 refers to the lights of the northern sky, dominated by the pole star. The rendering of the canonical Greek text here, borea, may evoke in some readers a memory of the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis.
Once again, Job’s juxtaposition of the nether world and the celestial world, in both of which places God is present and knowing, puts the reader in mind of Psalm 139 (138), where the Psalmist exclaims, “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell (sheol), behold, You are there.”
These lights in the heavens, says Job, are suspended over “emptiness,” tohu (verse 7; cf. Genesis 1:2). The earth floats beneath this emptiness above and mere “air” beneath. (This last noun, belima, which is found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, I have translated as “air,” because in rabbinical literature it bears the meaning of “upper atmosphere.” The canonical Greek text here, followed by several modern translations, says “nothing,” ouden.) Since many ancient texts, including the Bible, speak of the earth as suspended “upon the waters,” the imagery here in Job is doubly striking.
From air, Job moves on to consider water, first in its atmospheric form—clouds and vapors (verses 8–9), and then in its earthly form—liquid (verse 10). The shaking of the “pillars of heaven” (verse 11) suggests a booming storm. God adorns these heavens by His Spirit, Ruach (verse 13), a theological truth proclaimed also in Psalm 33(32):6. This is still descriptive of a storm scene, as is the “thunder of His might” in verse 14.
Saturday, September 22
Job 27: During the past several chapters Job has been gaining a grip on his soul. His deep critique of the moral philosophies of his opponents has led him to neither skepticism nor despair. On the contrary, in this chapter we find him resolved to maintain the moral integrity that he displayed at the beginning of the book. Indeed, in his vow to do so, Job invokes the very God who has tried him so severely (verses 2–3).
As long as he lives, therefore, as long as “my breath [nishmati] is in me, And the breath of God in my nostrils [b’aphi],” Job will not use that breath, given by God, to “speak wickedness” (verse 4). Custody over his speech represents man’s most elementary stewardship, because breath itself is the first gift that man receives from God. Job’s reference to Adam’s reception of this initial gift seems pretty clear in the wording of the text: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils [b’aphyo] the breath [nishmat] of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). (Elihu the Buzite will also cite this text from Genesis in Job 33:4.)
Whatever the cost, then, Job is determined to maintain this elementary stewardship of his moral life, no matter how painful, humiliating, and short that life may be (verses 5–6). All Job has left is his integrity, and he will wager everything on it. Job does not pretend to understand the moral structure of the world, as he has so often confessed. He does perceive, however, the difference between right and wrong, and he intends to live on the basis of that elementary perception.
If Job is right, though, then his critics are wrong (verse 7), so the judgment of God is inevitable in their case as well (verses 8–10). Like Socrates at his trial, Job is persuaded that God too knows the difference between a just man and an unjust man, so his unjust critics must beware. Job prepares, then, to lecture his three friends (verse 11) on the theme of the divine wisdom. (This lecture will be chapter 28.)
Often men do not seek wisdom, being distracted by the love of wealth (verses 16–17). The initial steps toward wisdom lie in the consideration of the divine judgment that hangs over human life (verses 18–23).
Psalm 49 (Greek 48) may profitably be read with the second half of the present chapter of Job (verses 13–23). Both texts deal with the same theme and the same metaphysical problem, and in both of them the wisdom tradition of the Bible appeals to a universal theme of philosophy, mankind’s perennial quest for understanding. Neither text refers to God’s special revelation to the chosen people. No appeal is made to the divine words spoken on Sinai or to the prophets.
What we find in these two texts, rather, is the God-inspired thought of biblical man addressing the human mind on its own terms. Both passages treat of the universal mortality of men, “all the inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.” Psalm 49, based on a strictly philosophical motif, mentions God only twice, and the second of these instances sounds the very note that Job has pursued: “God will deliver my soul from the power of the grave.”
Sunday, September 23
Job 28: Job goes on now to meditate on the sheer inaccessibility of God’s secret designs, which lie concealed from human view.
In the previous chapter Job had considered the moral effects of money—or silver—on the conscience of man (27:16–17), but now he alters the sense and direction of the metaphor. These concealed wonders of the divine mind, he reflects, are more secret than veins of silver and other metals that lie buried in the bowels of the earth.
Because wisdom, like the lode veins of metals and nuggets of precious stone, lies concealed beneath the empirical surface of reality, man must dig for it. It is not available to him on the earth’s surface, the place where he earns his daily bread (verse 5). When he endeavors to dig deeper, nonetheless, man discovers that the divine secrets lie further than his thought can hope to penetrate. God by His hidden wisdom made the world and continues to sustain it in existence. Wisdom rests at the very base of things, lying deeper than any precious metal or costly stone, and its worth is incomparably greater. Wisdom is buried, in fact, in the depths of God.
Job’s metaphor is strengthened by the remoteness from which these various metals must be brought. Gold comes from far-off Ophir (identified as Supara in India by Josephus, Antiquities 8.6.4, §164; cf. the Septuagint of 2 Chronicles 8:18) and Sheba in southern Arabia. The topaz comes from Ethiopia, equally far away (verse 19). Iron and copper are imported from Cyprus (the very name of which island gives us the root of “copper” itself). Pearls and coral are raised from the depths of the sea (verse 18).
We observe that Job is no longer answering his critics in this text. He has abandoned them to their shallow theories about how the world is constructed. Job pursues, rather, the mind of God, realizing even in his pursuit that the divine wisdom vastly transcends the mind and comprehension of man.
Only God knows the way to wisdom (verse 23). God gives to man only “the beginning of wisdom,” not its final meaning, and this beginning consists in “the fear of the Lord” (verse 28). By God’s gift man can make a start in his search for wisdom, and he does so by turning away from evil. This path of conversion, or “turning away,” is Job’s own chosen way, and it has been since the beginning of the book (1:8; 2:3).
Job cannot read the mind of God, then, not even in those matters that concern his own life and destiny; but he does know what God requires of him, and he has affirmed already his resolve to live in perfect integrity (cf. 27:4–7). That is to say, although Job is not given to share in the secret designs of history, even his own history, he does know what is expected of him, and this is sufficient. Like those Levites charged to bear the Ark without looking into it, Job must carry forward the divine wisdom in the plodding path of his life, even if he must do this in relative darkness.
For the rest, Job’s mind may quietly acquiesce in the evidence of divine wisdom revealed in the established structure of the world. Whatever else may be said about the formation of the elements, they display order and understanding, not chaos (verses 23–27).
Monday, September 24
Job 29: These next three chapters contain the longest of Job’s soliloquies, in the course of which he surveys, for the last time, the overwhelming tragedy that has befallen him and the great moral puzzle that it poses to his mind.
He first reviews in some detail the happiness of his former life (chapter 29), then his subsequent misery (chapter 30), and finally his own innocence throughout the trial (chapter 31).
The present chapter, then, is about “the way things used to be,” those former days when Job was content, wealthy, and universally honored. Job enjoyed prosperity in those days. His lot was like that of the patriarchs in Genesis, notably Jacob. God’s protecting presence was tangible in those bygone times.
Those were the days in which Job was conscious of God’s protection: “God watched over me” (verse 2). The reader here recalls that Satan had made that very point with respect to Job when he told the Lord, “Have you not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side?” (1:10). Job enjoyed, in those days, what the Psalmist promised: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, / So the Lord surrounds His people / From this time forth and forever” (Psalm 125:10).
Bildad earlier taunted Job, “The light is dark in his tent, / And his lamp beside him is put out” (18:10), but Job can recall the days when “His lamp shone upon my head, / And when by His light I walked through darkness” (verse 3).
Job previously enjoyed the blessings that the wisdom tradition, notably the Book of Proverbs, promises to God’s loyal servants. Proverbs affirms of the Lord, “His secret counsel [sod] is with the upright” (3:32), and Job remembers those times, “When the friendly counsel [sod] of God was over my tent” (verse 4).
Respecting his relationships with his fellow men, Job was held in high esteem by everyone back then (verses 7–11, 21–23), not only because of his wealth, but also because of his righteousness and charity (verses 12–17). Contrary to the accusation of Eliphaz (22:6–9), Job was well known for his sense of justice (verse 11).
Job expected, moreover, to die in that state of universal approbation (verse 18), beloved of God and men. In those bygone days all these things seemed normal to Job, who related such blessings to his friendship with God and his doing of God’s will. But then, with no discernible explanation, everything changed all at once, and this change in Job’s fortunes is the subject of the next chapter.
What Job has established in the present chapter is that God formerly treated him as a just man, bestowing on him all the blessings that ancient wisdom had promised to just men.
Tuesday, September 25
Job 30: The motif of the present chapter, which is an extended and detailed contrast with Job’s earlier state as described in the previous chapter, is indicated by the repeated expression, “but now” (verses 1, 9, 16). This “but now” stands in contrast to Job’s “months of old” (29:2).
The thematic development of this chapter is the opposite of that in the chapter preceding. Whereas in chapter 29 Job began with his relationship to God (29:1–6) and then went on to speak of his relationship to his fellow men (29:7–25), in the present chapter he reverses the order, commencing with his alienation from his fellow men (verses 1–10) and then going to his sense of alienation from God (verses 11–31).
Formerly revered by elders, princes, and nobles (29:8–10), Job now finds himself contemned and reviled by utter nobodies. These have mocked him (verse 1) and treated him with obloquy (verses 9–10).
Never before in this book has Job been so harsh against his critics, even throwing back in their faces their low social standing. As we have seen, these three critics were men of the desert. Eliphaz came from Teman in the Negev, Zophar from Arabia, and Bildad from the far side of the Fertile Crescent. Now Job, in no little bitterness of soul, ridicules them as outlanders from the stark wilderness, “desolate and waste. . . . They had to live in the clefts of the valleys, / In caves of the earth and the rocks. / Among the bushes they brayed, / Under the nettles they nested” (verses 3, 6, 7).
These are rough comments but hardly unique in the history of religious and critical thought. For example, Thomas Aquinas later described the people in that part of the world as “bestial men dwelling in deserts,” “homines bestiales in desertis morantes” (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.6).
If Job permits himself to be carried away somewhat at this point, we recall that he has, after all, been sorely tried by his critics.
All such treatment might be bearable from others, claims Job, but not from God (verses 16–19). In his supposed rejection by God, Job feels that his soul has been “poured out” (verse 16; cf. 10:1), an expression reminiscent of the Psalmist when he speaks of the Lord’s Passion (Psalms 22:15–16).
Then, abruptly, Job stops speaking about God and turns to address the Lord directly (verse 20), for the first time since 17:3. In sentiments that form a counterpart to the previous chapter (29:2–4), Job accuses God of cruelty and persecution (verse 21), but most especially of remaining silent (verse 20).
We must note here that Job does not ask to be restored to his former state. He simply wants to know why he is being so treated, since he has never treated anyone as badly as both God and man are currently treating him (verses 24–25). He does not deserve this treatment, Job avows, so he wonders why he is receiving it.
Wednesday, September 26
Job 31: Since the opening chapters of the book we readers have known that Job is on trial. Indeed, this is the indispensable key to understanding the story. (For this reason, those modern critics who regard the first two chapters of Job as a later addition to the text find themselves interpreting a book completely different from the Book of Job.) The trial of Job is the premise and presupposition of this biblical book.
This trial of Job has a clear parallel in Zechariah 3:2–6, where Satan brings accusation against the High Priest Joshua. We observe there—as here—that God is on the side of the one accused. In that prophetic passage the Lord rebukes Satan and, as a sign of Joshua’s acquittal, commands that the High Priest be clothed with clean garments. Moreover, in Zechariah 6:11–14 “crowns” (yes, plural, ‘ataroth) are prepared for Joshua, to indicate his innocence. Curiously, in the present chapter Job also speaks of “crowns” (again plural, ‘atarothI) with which he will be adorned (verse 36).
Job does not seem to know, at first, that he is being tried in accordance with God’s own will. We even sense that Job’s mind would be greatly relieved if he knew that he was being tested. Indeed, how reassured Job would be if he were aware of God’s own assessment of him to Satan!
The notion of a trial has been imposed on Job’s mind, not by the misfortunes that he has suffered, but by the steady flow of accusations brought against him by these three friends of his. They had originally arrived to be his “comforters,” but they very quickly became his accusers. Over and over, without a shred of empirical evidence against Job, they have accused him of dreadful crimes.
If Job feels himself to be on trial, therefore, it is hard to blame him for it. Now that his three witnesses have already borne their testimony against him (more as “character witnesses” than as “eyewitnesses,” to be sure), it appears now that “the prosecution rests its case” in Job’s regard.
But this is all absurd, thinks Job. Even before the trial started, he had already been sentenced. In fact, the sentence is even now being executed! Everything is proceeding backwards. This is chaos! (For a strikingly similar sensation of a legal trial as an outright nightmare, an outlandish exercise in anarchy and nihilism, one may profitably read Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess or The Trial.)
No matter, says Job, his defense will be made, no matter what. So he “swears himself in” and proceeds with a detailed testimony to his own innocence. Job runs through a fairly high code of ethics (not unlike that of Ezekiel 18:5–9) and rings the changes on his “not guilty” plea, giving specific rebuttal to the slanderous testimony of his accusers (notably Eliphaz in chapter 22).
In this defense Job repeatedly employs the normal Hebrew formula for a legal oath or imprecation: “If I have done such-and-such, may the Lord do this-and-that to me.” Often, in this formula, only the antecedent, not the consequent, is actually spoken, implying that the person swears that the accusation against him is untrue. Job employs both the complete and the truncated form of this oath rather frequently in this chapter (verses 5, 7, 9, 13, 16, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 29, 31, 33, 38, 39). Thus, this entire chapter is just a series of imprecations, at the end of which “the words of Job are ended” (verse 40).
Is Job correct and proper in all these affirmations and denials? Does his defense actually prove Job to be innocent? In the sight of men arguably so, but not in the eyes of God. Man cannot litigate against God. In this chapter, then, Job has clearly gone too far in his claims, and the book’s next speaker, Elihu the Buzite, is going to call him on it. In the book’s final chapter, moreover, Job will very explicitly retract this defense.
Thursday, September 27
Job 32: By the end of Chapter 31, Job has answered all of the objections and arguments made by his three friends, thereby reducing them to silence. The final verse of chapter 31 suggests that “the defense rests”: “The words of Job are ended.” In the trial of Job, it would now seem time for a verdict.
But then, out of nowhere, an entirely new speaker suddenly bursts on the scene, an amicus curiae as it were, “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram,” who rushes forth with all the impetuosity of youth. Elihu has been so silent hitherto that not even the narrator seems to have known he was present! Now, however, the young man insists on adding his own comments. Maintaining silence hitherto, he says, and thereby showing proper deference to the four older men (verse 4), this Elihu has been listening to the give-and-take of their lengthy discussion, a seemingly interminable debate that has lasted through twenty-nine chapters.
Outwardly patient during that prolonged discussion, Elihu has been inwardly seething with rancor at both Job and the other three gentlemen (verses 2–3). Hardly able to contain himself any longer, he disagrees with nearly everything said so far. Now, therefore, with a great display of indignation Elihu begins his discourse, which will run on for the next seven chapters, easily the longest single speech in the book.
Elihu begins by informing these four older men how patient he has remained during their pointless and frustrating arguments. Nonetheless, even as he boasts about his heroic longsuffering, we note the irony that Elihu mentions his own anger four times in five consecutive verses! Maybe he is not as patient as he thinks.
Job’s three comforters, having exhausted their case against him, seem content now to leave the suffering Job to God, having nothing more to say. Not so Elihu. In a torrent he will vent the pressure that has been building up within him (verses 18–20).
However, even as he answers his elders, Elihu not surprisingly demonstrates the self-consciousness of youth and inexperience. He must justify himself by explaining that he is a plainspoken man, a fellow both candid and proud of it (verses 21–22).
The amusement that young, impetuous Elihu’s appearance provokes in us readers should not cause us to overlook the importance of his specific contribution to the Book of Job. After all, Job has now reduced his three critics to silence. Especially in the previous three chapters, he has abundantly answered their accusations with an able defense. In some sense it would appear that Job has won his case. “Here is my mark,” he proclaimed (31:35). Repeatedly in the previous chapter he has sworn to his innocence.
But has Job really demonstrated his right to hurl down a gauntlet to the Almighty? Can anyone, in fact, rightly establish such a claim? From a theological perspective it is imperative that Job now be challenged on this point, and it will be the responsibility of Elihu to do it. Elihu’s contribution to the discussion, therefore, is of the essence. Without the words of Elihu, the Book of Job would be a different book. Elihu’s “summing up” prepares for the divine verdict on which the book will end.
Friday, September 28
Job 33: Like the other components in the complex discussions of the Book of Job, Elihu’s contribution is a critique, not a final answer. For him the overriding discussion is not reducible to an either/or. Elihu disagrees with and criticizes both Job and the three comforters.
The material in the present chapter is directed to Job. The latter, says Elihu, has gone too far in his demands for a trial between himself and God. Elihu confronts him on the point (verse 5).
Job’s three friends remained aloof from him, assuming a morally superior attitude. Elihu will do no such thing. He confesses himself at one with Job in their human solidarity, their descent from Adam (verses 4, 6). He will not talk down to Job as the comforters have.
That matter established, Elihu begins by summarizing Job’s protestations of innocence (verses 9–11), a claim advanced repeatedly throughout the book (cf. 9:21; 10:7; 13:18, 24, 27; 23:10; 27:5–6; 31 passim). This claim is pretentious, says Elihu, because “God is greater than man” (verse 12). That is to say, God owes man no explanations at all (verses 13–14), nor will Elihu attempt to act as God’s defender.
Then, like Eliphaz near the beginning (4:12–15), Elihu refers to dreams (verse 15), presumably the nightmares of Job himself (7:14). Such dreams, Elihu asserts, are providential. God employs them to draw men back from rash, dangerous, and unwarranted decisions (verses 16–17).
Elihu, displaying a compassion absent in the comments of Job’s three comforters, suggests that Job may have failed to recognize the true significance of his nightmares. Perhaps God intended them to pull him back from a reckless path.
The parallel between the dream of Eliphaz, Job’s first interlocutor, and the dreams mentioned by Elihu is not accidental. There is a deliberate correspondence between them and a contrast. Both men, in answering Job, start with dreams, but we are struck by a great difference of tone between the two. Eliphaz appealed to his own dream as the point of departure for establishing a moral judgment on Job. Elihu does not. He suggests to Job, rather, that his dream may have been the voice of God speaking to him in concern and warning. That is to say, Job’s nightmare, far from indicating God’s absence from his life, may have indicated the very opposite.
This approach will be operative in all of Elihu’s discourse. The three friends have understood Job’s sufferings to be simply punishments. Is there no other rational explanation? asks Elihu. Why presume that all suffering is by way of punishment?
Before putting that question to the three friends, Elihu first puts it to Job. Why not consider that these terrible sufferings, of which Job has so bitterly complained, represent God’s effort to preserve Job from the powers of death and darkness (verses 22–30)? Why not regard them, in fact, as a “chastening” (verse 19)? That is to say, is it really so obvious that suffering is always a punishment?
We readers, of course, instructed by the first two chapters of the book, are aware that Elihu is much closer to the correct answer than anyone who has spoken hitherto.