Sorry for the long silence. I was on a Bible-free beach vacation. Now I'm back to my job, and my Job.
The bitter exchange between Job and his three obnoxious "friends" continues. The Three Stooges' relentless criticism of him seems particularly unfair when you remember that he's in mourning, having just lost all 10 of his kids in a terrible accident (and lost his fortune, too). Miss Manners would take a hammer to the head of any funeral guest who behaved as rudely as Job's friends.
The basic pattern of the next 20 chapters is this: Jerk friend tells Job that he deserves his suffering because God always punishes the wicked. Infuriated Job growls at jerk friend then asserts his innocence. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In this chapter, friend Zophar tells Job that he's actually getting off easy. God is probably punishing him "less than your guilt deserves."
Chapter 12 through Chapter 14
Job rages, "A just and blameless man, I am a laughingstock." Yet Job remains loyal to the Lord: Most of Chapter 12 consists of Job paying tribute to God's power and wisdom, and admiring his ability to punish even the mightiest among us. God makes even the greatest leader "stagger like a drunkard."
But God's strength doesn't deter Job, who has the courage of Mighty Mouse. In Chapter 13, Job issues his challenge: I don't care how strong He is, I want to speak to Him. Job then makes one of most audacious plays in the entire Bible: He vows to speak the truth to God—to tell God that He has wronged him. He will speak out "come on me what may. I will … put my life in my hand. See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation." No one else in the entire Bible—save Moses in a few brave moments and Abraham in the memorable Sodom face-off—has ever dared what Job does here. He refuses to flatter God, refuses to confess to sins he didn't commit, refuses to compromise to win God's approval. He is placing truth above life, honesty above obedience. In doing this, Job is laying out what has become the modern idea of justice. There is a truth that's independent of power. The truth will set you free, even if it's painful for the king to hear it.
Turning nasty, friend Eliphaz accuses Job of heresy. By questioning and badgering the Lord so much, Job is undermining the fear of God that is the foundation of faith. (To my modern ears, of course, it's Job's inquisitive, argumentative stance that represents true faith and Eliphaz's insistence on fear that seems awful.)
Chapter 16 and Chapter 17
I'm not doing justice to Job's humor. It's black comedy of a very high order. For example, here's how Job responds to the friends' latest insults: "Miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit?" Later in Chapter 16, Job describes how God has screwed him: "He set me up as His target; His archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; He pours out my gall on the ground." Is this meant to be funny? I don't know. But given the sardonic, ironic tone of the book, I wouldn't be surprised if we're supposed to giggle nervously at it—the way you might chuckle at a particularly gory slasher film.
Bildad hits the usual theme: Wicked and ungodly are punished. The friends' notion of justified punishment rings particularly hollow to me this week, when two good friends—and two of the best people I know in the whole world—got diagnosed with cancer. I don't know how anyone who has lived any amount of time on planet Earth could swallow the friends' argument: It's shockingly obvious that suffering and happiness are randomly distributed. Often the good suffer terribly and the wicked prosper mightily. No one but a fool would say otherwise. Any religion that hopes to succeed has to devise an explanation for that. Usually, the explanation is: You'll get yours—and the wicked will get theirs—in the next world. What's so curious about the friends is that they're claiming that reward and punishment occur in our own lifetimes, which is manifestly false.
Job tells the Stooges to shut up and leave him alone. What kind of friends are they, anyway? "Why do you, like God, pursue me?" Our hero offers the grimmest account yet of his agony: "My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. Even young children despise me. … " But his courage does not wilt.
Zophar on Theme A. Some wonderful lines about how the wicked will suffer, including: "They swallow down riches and vomit them up again."
Look, here's Job raising the point I made about Chapter 18! "Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their children are established in their presence. … Their houses are safe from fear. … Their bull breeds without fail. … They spend their days in prosperity. … How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?" Great question, Job!
Job concludes that it's all random. Some die rich and happy, others poor and bitter, and there's no order or justice in it.
Until now the friends have talked in vague generalities about the wicked without explicitly lumping Job in that category. Now they get personal. Eliphaz accuses Job—without a shred of evidence—of withholding food from the hungry and of crushing orphans and widows.
Chapter 23 and Chapter 24
Job denies the charges, insisting that he has never swerved from God's way. Then, like a feisty young boxer who wants a bout with the champ, Job tries to goad God into seeing him. Job says he'll go anywhere to get a chance to go into the ring with the Big Guy, but the Lord keeps ducking him. "If I go forward, He is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive Him; on the left He hides, and I cannot behold him. … " You have to admire the moxie of that Job!
For 22 chapters, Job has been railing about how the good suffer and the wicked don't. But suddenly at the end of Chapter 24, he inexplicably contradicts himself and takes the friends' position—sinners do suffer for their sins. The passage has a wonderful phrase. Job describes a dying villain: "May he be sweet to the worms."
Bildad, rebuking Job, asks: "How then can a mortal be righteous before God?" I would refer Bildad again to Genesis, Chapter 18, when Abraham talks God out of killing innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Chapter 26 and Chapter 27
As in Chapter 24, Job parrots the friends' position that the wicked pay the full price for their sins. I can't figure this out: Job surely has not adopted their views. Is he supposed to be quoting them? Is there some kind of textual error? I don't get it.
Chapter 28 and Chapter 29
After a beautiful, but incongruous, poem about wisdom—it seems to have been imported from another text—Job rebuts Eliphaz's accusations from Chapter 22. He sets out to prove that he was a good man. When God was still with him—"when His lamp shone over my head"—Job led a wonderful life. He enjoyed his riches, to be sure—his "feet were bathed in cream," and everyone heeded his orders—but he also did good, all the time. "I put on righteousness." He had a handout for every beggar, a job for every widow, a shiny new wardrobe for every orphan. He was a regular Albert Schweitzer, guiding the blind across the street with his right hand while feeding the poor with his left.
Chapter 30 and Chapter 31
Job contrasts those glory days with his fallen state. Now he is mocked by worthless young men. (A hilarious, dark comment on how he is treated: "They do not withhold spittle from my face." English teachers: If you ever want to show the power of the double negative, quote that line.)
Job continues to rebut Eliphaz's charges and says he'll accept any punishment if he is guilty. For example, he denies committing adultery: "If my heart has been enticed by a woman … then let my wife grind for another." "Grind for another"—now that's sexual innuendo!
At the end of Job's laundry list of good deeds, he rests his case. It's a brilliant summing up: He has persuasively, conclusively, undeniably proved that he was a good man. He's so persuasive, in fact, that he finally shuts up the friends. They fall silent, letting Job have the last word.
But Job's story, of course, isn't over yet. Tune in next time for the final confrontation between Job and the Lord!
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Slate deputy editor David Plotz will be online Thursday, April 12, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his Blogging the Bible series. Do you have a question for him? Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.