Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Job 2: Miserable comforters?

Do you know the story of Job?

As the Hebrew Bible tells us, Job is a "blameless and upright" (Job 1:8) man whom God and Satan decide to test. Or perhaps "test" isn't the right word. They make a wager about Job's piety. It's relatively simple: Satan--who is not for the moment "the Devil" of fiery tongue and leathery wing--argues that Job is so pious because God is so good to him--and because God gives him lots of nice stuff. Nice stuff, it should be noted, is sheep and camels and oxen and servants and kids ... and Job has them all.

Take away his nice stuff, Satan continues, and Job won't be so nice himself. In fact, he'll "curse [God] to [his] face" (1:11). Or so Satan bets. And God accepts. And Job is brought very low. His livestock are slaughtered, his servants are slain, and his children are killed. And then, in a second round of betting, once the antes are raised, Satan inflicts Job with a painful skin disease and leaves him sitting in an ash-pile scraping his wounds with a piece of pot.

That God allows such a sadistic bet is perhaps the text's greatest challenge--and "challenge" here is a remarkable understatement. Nonetheless, God appears to win: even after wholesale harassment, Job holds strong in his devotion. He cries out, "Shall we receive the good at the hands of God, and not receive the bad?" It's all very impressive.

But that's just the introduction to the book. The rest is made up of a poetic discourse between Job and three "friends" (2:11) on the nature of Job's affliction and on the vagaries of human suffering. Now, in this long movement, Job's friends come of looking like real shmucks. In chapter 16, Job calls them "miserable comforters," and we have reason to believe him. But I come here today not to deride the friends, but to praise them. And not for their speech, but for their silence.

In arguing with Job, the comforters--or "interlocutors" as they are sometimes called--take as their task the defense of divine justice. Though they try (with decreasing enthusiasm) to "comfort" Job, they also repeatedly claim that Job's intense suffering is deserved--that it is punishment for some sin, even if that sin remains unknown. Why? Because to imagine undeserved suffering is to impugn God's management of the world; to imagine a punishment unfairly levied on a good man is to raise the possibility that God has fallen asleep on the job. (Of course, the grand irony of the text is that Job's righteousness--not his sin--provokes divine calamity.)

And in their increasing vehemence, these "friends" go too far. Even if Job's afflictions were deserved--and they are not--the energy with which Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar claim the justice of his degradation amounts to little more than kicking a man when he's very, very down. Indeed, in the closing movements of the piece, God says as much, scolding the friends--"you have not spoken of me what is right" (42: 7)--and punishing them.

But an intense focus on the friends' speech ignores their important--and crucially sympathetic--silence at the outset. Immediately after Job's "punishments" are complete, the friends arrive: "Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great" (Job 2: 11-13).

Before the torrents of windy words, the friends sit with Job in complete silence for seven days. It is very hard to understate the delicacy of this gesture. When one suffers so greatly as Job's--with loss of children, estrangement from wife, destruction of property--words are of little aid. Indeed, words can be like salt in the wound. The trite aphorisms of well-meaning well-wishers are twists of the knife to those who despair.

And the silent witness of the friends--again, for a full week--pays homage to the ineffability of mind-raking loss; it speaks the only message that might be of help to the destitute Job: We are here. You are not alone. Even now.

1 comment:

  1. A nice reading of that calm before the storm...textually it happens in the blink of an eye, but in the lived experience of the characters (if we imagine the poetic cycle to unfold in "real time," as something like a performative dialogue), this is the dominant experience: sitting shiva with the one bereft.

    If I were to continue to defend the "comforters," I would first remove God's final judgment about them from the picture: after all that's happened, who knows what this guy is thinking when he judges anybody...Job or comforters alike. Then I would point to one of their accusations that is not a cliche about God's mystery/power, etc.: Job is a little _self_-righteous about his righteousness. He used to walk around town, everyone respected him, he gave charity for everyone to see, the young people sought him out for advice, etc.

    Sure, the lesson that Job might need to learn is taught in a highly disproportionate manner, and ultimately the comforters run cover for the more disturbing elements of God's actions, but maybe they indeed had a compelling point...(even) after they opened their mouths.

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