What Can We Learn from Job’s Friends?

Our family is experiencing trials and uncertainty at the moment. Partly in response, I recently picked up the Book of Job and began from the beginning. Job had popped up in some class discussions this past semester, and that reminded me that I haven’t given the book a good, careful read in a while–perhaps since undergrad days.

There are many intriguing questions surrounding the authorship, background, and fundamental argument of the Book of Job. I have opinions about those points–or, more precisely, I have opinions left over from back when I last studied the subject in depth. Those are certainly due for reëvaluation. My present approach to the book is that both YHWH and Job are on trial–YHWH’s justice, and Job’s faith–and that the trial is resolved/reconciled when Job experiences a direct word from YHWH in chapters 38-41. Contra Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, Job has not sinned in his conduct; contra Elihu, Job has not sinned by questioning YHWH’s justice–up to Job 37. But once Job has personal knowledge/experience of YHWH, it would have been wrong for him to continue to question YHWH’s justice. Throughout the book, Job never sins–otherwise, YHWH would have lost the bet with the adversary.

Whatever perspective you take on the overall message of the book, Job’s three friends–Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar–usually get consigned to the ash heap (har har–see 2:8, 12) for their philosophical and theological naïveté, and insensitivity. When they are mentioned in sermons or teachings, they are held up as examples of how not to counsel someone going through suffering.

But is this completely fair to these characters? If the only purpose of the three friends in the story is to provide a foil for Job to correct their “bad” theology,” then they would seem to have a disproportionately loud voice in the text. The dialogue between Job and these three is found in Job 3-31, and of these twenty-nine chapters, the friends account for eight speeches in nine chapters–roughly a third of the discourse.

When you start to read what the friends actually say, in many places their perspectives seem to mirror those that we find in the Psalter or the Proverbs. Here are some examples:

Job 4:7-8 (Eliphaz) Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity And those who sow trouble harvest it. Psalm 37:25 I have been young and now I am old, Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken Or his descendants begging bread.

Proverbs 22:8 He who sows iniquity will reap vanity, And the rod of his fury will perish.

Job 5:8 (Eliphaz) But as for me, I would seek God, And I would place my cause before God. Psalm 9:4 For You have maintained my just cause; You have sat on the throne judging righteously.
Job 5:17-18 (Eliphaz) Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves, So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For He inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds, and His hands also heal. Proverbs 3:11-13 My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD Or loathe His reproof,   For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights. How blessed is the man who finds wisdom And the man who gains understanding.
Job 8:20-22 (Bildad) Lo, God will not reject a man of integrity, Nor will He support the evildoers. He will yet fill your mouth with laughter And your lips with shouting.   Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, And the tent of the wicked will be no longer. Psalm 126:1-3 When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter And our tongue with joyful shouting; Then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; We are glad.
Job 11:4-6 (Zophar) For you have said, “My teaching is pure, And I am innocent in your eyes.” But would that God might speak, And open His lips against you, And show you the secrets of wisdom! For sound wisdom has two sides. Know then that God forgets a part of your iniquity. Proverbs 20:9 Who can say, “I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin”?

Psalm 14:3 They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.

If we reduce the friends’ eight speeches to insensitive counseling or bad theology, then not only do we miss the “good” theology that we find there, we also impugn the “good” theology of parallel ideas in the Proverbs and certain psalms.

So, how do we understand the speeches of Job’s friends? In isolation, they seem to contain good wisdom theology, but they are juxtaposed with Job’s valid objections for which we also must account.

I would suggest that two categories proposed by Brueggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament can help us: “core testimony,” and “countertestimony.” The core testimony consists of the Bible’s descriptions, metaphors and record of actions that reveal YHWH’s character. This core testimony reveals YHWH’s purposes for the world, and his sovereign power to accomplish his purposes through Israel, for Israel’s own good and for the good of the world.[1] Brueggemann defines Israel’s “countertestimony” as a necessary cross-examination of Israel’s testimony to YHWH’s mighty acts.[2] Cross-examination is not intended to undermine the core testimony but to strengthen it and to mobilize YHWH to act in accordance with the core testimony to his character.[3]

The Proverbs and certain psalms of praise are examples of core testimony; they reveal God’s greatness, his purposes for the world, and the truths by which he governs it. “Wisdom” as a genre in the Hebrew Bible consists of statements that are generally true: they explain the consequences that will usually result from certain actions.

Conversely, the psalms of lament, the Book of Lamentations, and the Book of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) belong to the countertestimony. The laments say to YHWH, “This is what you said should happen to the righteous and the wicked, respectively–but those things aren’t happening as you said they would. Why not?! Do something!” Qohelet reflects on the fleeting character of the temporal blessings for obedience and punishments for disobedience (or the complete inversion of those consequences), thereby undermining the value of “wisdom.”

In Proverbs, we have mostly core testimony. In Lamentations and Qohelet, we have countertestimony. In the Psalter, we have core- and countertestimony alongside one another in each of the five books. I suggest that Job follows the Psalter in this respect, but in an explicitly dialogic fashion: it sets the two testimonies in tension through nine rounds of testimony and cross-examination (if we include Elihu).

When we read what Job’s friends are saying, we don’t have to discredit them or denigrate them for insensitivity. (After all, they do wait seven days in silence, mourning with Job in torn clothes and ashes, before speaking to him.) Rather, we should think of their perspectives in the same way that we consider the psalms of praise or the Proverbs: as representing wisdom about the way that YHWH generally works in the world. Just as we should consider Proverbs first on its own and then second in dialogue with Qohelet, we should be careful not to silence Job’s friends. Otherwise, we’ve effectively excised nine chapters of scripture from the canon.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 306.

[2] Ibid., 317.

[3] Ibid., 321.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to What Can We Learn from Job’s Friends?

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 | think hard, think well

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