The Complete Book of Job
Chapter 32 through Chapter 35
As soon as the three friends finally stop badgering Job, a whippersnapper named Elihu arrives to replace them. A know-it-all twerp of the D. Kyle Sampson variety, Elihu is even more obnoxious than the other three—even more aggressive, even more smug, and even ruder to poor old Job. After mocking the elderly friends for their lame arguments, he lights into Job. Elihu more or less repeats the arguments that the friends made about God only punishing the wicked, but he has a tarter tongue.
First, he takes issue with Job's claim that God doesn't answer us. Elihu says that the problem is that Job isn't listening. God answers us in our dreams (where He "terrifies them with his warnings"). God also answers in the form of physical illness, sending pain and discomfort to those who are crossing Him. (I don't know about you, but I find the argument that illness is divine punishment infuriating.) A little later, Elihu offers another explanation for God's apparent indifference to the pleas of Job and others who are suffering. It's not that He's not listening, it's that they're not sincere. Their prayers aren't heartfelt. "God does not hear an empty cry."
Chapter 36 and Chapter 37
After rehashing the usual Eliphaz/Bildad/Zophar line that God smacks down the wicked and exalts the good, Elihu segues into a lovely, emphatic praise poem about the wonders of God, wowing at how the Lord makes the seasons. It's very Weather Channel: "He loads the thick cloud with moisture … " At this point Elihu—who has the stamina of Fidel Castro—has been speaking for six straight chapters without interruption. As soon as he finally shuts his mouth …
Chapter 38 and Chapter 39
… The Lord Himself appears—in a whirlwind! (I've missed the Big Guy. Haven't you?) Guess what—God is not happy. Imagine how Dick Cheney would react if Cindy Sheehan poured cold water on him while he was napping. Now multiply by 1,000, and you have some sense of how irritated the Lord Most High is by Job's petty human complaints. His opening line to Job: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man." Job wanted to question God, but that's not how it's going to be, the Almighty says. The Lord is going to be the one asking the questions. His first query to Job is a toughie: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." Ouch!
God continues in this swaggering vein for two chapters. It would sound like terrible bragging if He weren't, you know, God. He lists His creations and asks Job what he's done that can compare: "Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?" "Have the gates of death been revealed to you? ... Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this." Can Job move the stars? Is Job the father of the snow? Does Job send rain to make the desert bloom? Does Job "know when the mountain goats give birth"? Will the wild ass serve Job? Is it by Job's wisdom that the hawk soars and the eagle commands the mountains? I don't think so.
God doesn't merely humble Job. He savors the humiliation, demolishing poor Job with sarcastic jabs. Listen to this incredible dis: "Where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know." That "surely you know" is so mean, so petty. God takes too much pleasure in making Job feel like a tiny, ignorant speck.
Vicious, petty, cruel—definitely. But incredibly beautiful, too! God's self-congratulatory speech is one of the most spectacular passages in the Bible, a masterpiece of imagery and forceful language, one killer phrase after another. Indulge me as I quote a favorite bit about the making of the ocean:
Who shut the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—
When I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
And prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
And said, "Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
And here shall your proud waves be stopped?"
"Thus far shall you come, and no farther"!
Chapter 40 and Chapter 41
Now God bullies Job to answer His questions. "Anyone who argues with God must respond." What do you have to say for yourself now, smart aleck? You started the fight, Job, so let's hear it! Not so chatty, now, are you little fella? (I'm very familiar with how Job must feel at this moment, since God sounds exactly like my wife does when she knows she has defeated me in an argument.) Much like me, Job stammers and stutters and caves. All the courage of the first 37 chapters vanishes in the teeth of this divine hurricane. He is totally cowed. His grand Chapter 13 oath to confront God goes out the window. He whispers that he has nothing to say. "I lay my hand on my mouth … I will not answer."
That's not good enough for God, who wants to run up the score on Job. He redoubles His bragging. Can Job tame the Behemoth, the mighty creature with "limbs like bars of iron"? Can Job fish and catch the Leviathan, the giant sea monster with "flaming torches" in its mouth, which "laughs at" javelins and arrows? The description of Leviathan—also fabulous! also a must-read!—is extremely curious, for a couple of reasons. First, God spends an entire chapter detailing, with loving precision, the Leviathan's anatomy and power. Why does Leviathan, an imaginary beast, merit a 34-verse hymn from God—almost as much as He gives to all the rest of creation?
Second, and more baffling, God twice says that Leviathan is so intimidating that "even the gods are afraid" of it. The obvious question, of course, is: what gods?! Who are these other gods? I suspect that this is more evidence that Job is one of the Bible's earliest stories. As I've written, the Bible makes a gentle arc from polytheism to monotheism. Genesis and Exodus imply that there are many gods, and the Lord is the mightiest of them. As the Bible continues, these other gods shrink from genuine, but weak, rivals into pure figments. By Prophets, it's assumed the Lord is one, and the idols are just dumb statues. I'm guessing that Job, which certainly reads more like Genesis than the later books, reflects this early worldview. Its "gods" are the Lord's feckless competitors.
OK, now let's return to our main subject: the showdown between God and Job. God seems to think He has won this round because He has reduced Job into a blubbering mess. In the keeping-score department, God sure has triumphed, because Job has given up. But God has only won in the way that the president "wins" when he argues with his assistants, or a principal "wins" when she suspends a student. The powerful can crush the impotent whenever they want. But an independent referee would give the victory to Job, because God's actual answer is unpersuasive. Job says that he is innocent, that he doesn't deserve God's punishment, and that God screwed up. God doesn't address any of these points. Instead He thunders: "I'm the mighty God of creation—how dare you question Me?" God's answer, as a lawyer might say, is "nonresponsive."
But wait, even God apparently recognizes that He's in the wrong! In the final chapter, God rebukes the three friends and acknowledges that Job is "right." All the bragging of Chapters 38 through 41 was just posturing, God flexing His big muscles before quietly admitting He's wrong. God restores Job's fortunes. Job gets twice as many sheep and camels as before, and 10 new children—seven sons, and three daughters, who are the most beautiful girls in Uz. This is the rare, perhaps the only, time in the Bible where the book tells us the names of daughters but not sons. The three hot daughters are Keziah, Keren-happuch, and Jemimah (yup—that's where Jemima comes from), but the sons are anonymous. Job lives to the ripe old age of 140.
I confess that I'm flummoxed by Job. Should we believe Chapters 38 through 41, when God tells us we're nothing, and that we have no right to question Him? Or should we believe Chapter 42, when God acknowledges that Job was right and settles the lawsuit? The God of Chapters 38 through 41 is petulant, arrogant, and wrong. The God of Chapter 42 is willing to correct His mistake. Also the God of Chapter 42 admits that the three friends are wrong. By punishing them, He seems to be conceding that, in fact, the wicked aren't always punished and the good aren't always rewarded. But isn't such a concession impossible for God? If He disavows their arguments, isn't He saying He's impotent? That he doesn't actually reward the righteous and upbraid the wicked?
I'm troubled, I'm puzzled, I have more questions than answers—and that, I suppose, is why the Book of Job has been required reading for almost 3,000 years.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.