We are being asked to think about a conventional – and not only ancient – understanding of cosmic justice this week. We are studying Job 8:1-10 and 20-22 – so, really, Job 8 – for Sunday, February 20. This is Bildad’s first speech challenging Job’s lament over his innocent suffering. Spending time with it will remind us why the phrase “Job’s comforters” became a figure of speech. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The Book of Job is famous. It probably divides the world of readers into two groups: those who have read it, either in whole or in part, either on their own or because they had it assigned in a world literature or other class; and those who haven’t actually read it but think they probably should have by now. Then, among those who have read it, there are probably at least a couple of sub-groups: those who find it profound and powerful; and those who find it hard to read, hard to understand, and too much boring poetry. [My conclusion, based on my experience with college freshmen, is that contemporary culture doesn’t make it easy to appreciate the epic form.]
We all know who we are.
The plot line of the book is contained in the prose sections that frame the long poetic middle (Job 1-2, Job 42:7-17). Most of us probably know that in this story Job is a paragon of moral perfection, and is also healthy, wealthy, and wise. He has everything. Then God makes a bet with The Satan, the accuser, that Job’s pious regard for God is not nothing but a quid pro quo. The Satan goes to work, and Job loses everything. Then Job’s three friends show up: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. The substance of the current book of Job is the set of poetic exchanges between Job and these three men, who try to answer his penetrating realism – I AM SUFFERING, and for what, precisely? – with their bags of proverbial tricks. The unequal and unsatisfactory character of these exchanges is as painfully obvious today as it must have been when it was written, 2500 years ago or so.
Then, out of nowhere, a young whippersnapper, Elihu, shows up and has his say: “I can’t believe you oldsters didn’t think of a few more arguments.” Hot on the heels of Elihu, God speaks out of the whirlwind, in effect announcing to the whole debate team that they are way out of their depth. Job bows out of the debate, and we’re back to prose. Job’s fortunes are restored, his wife evidently goes through childbirth 10 more times, offstage, and Job lives long enough to see his replacement children grow up and have children and grandchildren of their own. We might ask ourselves whether or not this qualifies as “a happy ending,” and if so, whether it satisfies us, either literarily or morally.
One of our contemporary difficulties reading the Book of Job is that we may not have a developed ear for the biting parody it contains. Robert Alter makes a beautiful comment in his notes on the speech we are considering, the one by Bildad:
Throughout the speeches of Job’s three critics, the poet performs a delicate balancing act in assigning them boilerplate poetry that reflects their conventional mindset (see the comment on verse 8) and giving them some striking lines in which his own extraordinary poetic powers are manifest. As instances of this second category, one might consider ‘we are but yesterday’ in verse 9 or the elaboration of the image of the spiderweb in verses 14 and 15.Robert Alter, comment on Job, chapter 8
If we realize that Bildad articulates some “received wisdom” on the subject of suffering, we can then ask ourselves how satisfactory that received wisdom is, and why. We might want to see how much our own understanding of suffering fits that received wisdom, and how much it is responsive to the complaints about that received wisdom that Job raises.
These days bookstores sell The Chronological Bible, in more than one version, and there are chronological Bible reading plans. Those things slot the entire Book of Job in after Genesis 11, emphasizing that we think the story of Job is ancient, and that Job would probably have been a pre-Jewish, international wisdom figure. On the other hand, while the tale is ancient, the poetry, with its often pessimistic wisdom perspective, rings more post-exilic. If I had to make my own chronological order, I’d leave the Book of Job right where it is in the Tanakh, with the other Second Temple wisdom writings, waving at the Deuteronomist from the other side of the Later Prophets. Reminding us that there’s a lot in the Bible. And not all the authors see things from the same exact perspective. [And if God were Mom, She would definitely have sat the Deuteronomist and the Poet of the Book of Job on opposite sides of the back seat, with one of the other kids between them.]
Bildad the Shuhite, on the other hand, would probably not mind sitting next to the Deuteronomist on a long trip. Those two share the idea that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked.
We see that already in Bildad’s first speech. Job has bemoaned his suffering in chapter 3, Eliphaz has chided him at length in chapter 4-5, and Job has responded with further lament in chapters 6-7. Bildad’s speech is an immediate response to Job’s lament, which included the observation, probably mild to us, that the intensity of his suffering is out of all proportion to any evil he has done. Job’s refusal to accept the conventional wisdom seems to rile Bildad up. Indeed, the friends’ exchanges escalate and their opposition to Job’s positions harden and polarize as they go on discoursing.
The story is set in “the land of Uz.” There are different ideas about where that might have been geographically; maybe Edom (per Carol Newsom, who has a clear, helpful summary article on Job at Bible Odyssey); maybe Aram (per Rashi); maybe “a land far away.”
There is a bit more here on the Book of Job as larger context.
Several texts from the Book of Job appear in the lectionary, including Job 14:1-14 every year on Holy Saturday. But this speech of Bildad the Shuhite does not, making it another one of those things you wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.
CLOSER READING: In v2, Bildad calls Job’s words a strong wind; that might remind us of Genesis 1:2, where a wind from God swept over the waters – of chaos. If so, it’s a particularly pregnant, as well as ironic, reminder – what with the chaos of Job’s suffering, on one hand, and the chaos of the comforters’ thoughtless “wisdom” on the other.
In v3, Bildad refers to God as El (a generic name for God), and as Shaddai, usually translated in English Bibles as “the Almighty.” Both are old, even generic, names for the deity. [The significance of the names for God that appear in the Book of Job makes an interesting study in its own right. See this, for instance.]
Verse 3 poses a rhetorical question, and then verses 4-6 read to me like an exercise in denial of what we, as readers, know to be true – namely, that Job is a righteous man. Bildad’s diagnosis is based on the premise advanced in v3: God doesn’t twist justice. So: Job, your children must have sinned, and you yourself must not be pure and upright.
V7 has in the past seemed like more denial of the obvious to me, because Job’s beginning is precisely NOT small; he is extravagantly wealthy. However, Alter translates more sympathetically to Bildad: your beginning will seem small in comparison with how great your end will grow to be.
Verses 8-10 are an exhortation to look to the wisdom of the ancients – which presumably will support Bildad’s diagnosis. Verses 11-19 go on to develop a set of observations from nature: The wicked are like papyrus growing in a dry spot; they can’t flourish. Their homes are as insecurely founded as cobwebs. [This is probably meant as a straightforward statement, but it might seem ironic to us, if we happen to have read somewhere that spider silk is one of the toughest materials known to modern science.] The NRSV translates “the wicked” for “he” in v16. But verses 16-19 seem, really, to be talking about a righteous “he,” who can thrive anywhere – drawing on the trope of the “two ways” that is a staple of the wisdom literature. And acting as a kind of “in your face, Job” retort to Job’s assumption that he himself is one of those righteous ones.
V20 is another example of proverbial wisdom that denies Job’s experience.
V21-22, then, predicts Job’s happy future based on that denial. Doubtless, somewhat less than comforting for Job. Especially since v22 refers to Job’s foes or enemies being clothed with shame. Unfortunately for Job, and as Job will make explicit further on, God seems to be the one acting like Job’s enemy here. The chances of God’s being clothed with shame seem small. Job will make this point explicitly in chapter 9.
[Noticing this might excite some Christian imaginations, though, and set folks looking up Hebrews 12:2 for instance, and thinking about the Trinity. Recognizing that the Poet of the Book of Job would not have been intentionally thinking along those same lines, of course.]
Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible. Volume 3: Writings. A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.