Job's Cynicism (Job 26)
Bill Long 2/15/05
I need to make two points right up front on this study. First, scholars differ about who speaks Job 26:4-14. The controversy arises from the fact that the text clearly says that Job speaks these words but that the words seem inappropriate in Job's mouth. They are a reverential hymnic tribute to God, more appropriate in the mouth of one of the friends than Job. In addition, the words "Job again took up his discourse" in 27:1 are repeated in 29:1 after the "interruption" of Job 28. Thus, many scholars (and some translations) of the Bible attribute these words to Zophar. Prof. Carol Newsom's commentary on Job in the popular New Interpreter's Bible is representative of this approach.
However, I will side with others (like Prof. Good) who try to adhere to the text of Job as received and written. Unless it absolutely makes no sense to me as it is received, I will stick with it. The implication of this is that Job speaks all of ch.26, that Zophar has no 3rd speech and that Job just keeps going on a slightly different theme in ch.27. Good imagines that at the end of ch.26 Job pauses, as it were, for Zophar to speak but that Zophar has nothing to say--leading Job to take up his discourse again. However it is to be imagined, I think that Job 26 is spoken by Job.
Second,that leaves the problem of how to understand the tone of the whole, especially those words (vv.5-14) that don't appear appropriate in Job's mouth. I see Job here mimicking his friends--almost as if he is putting on their voice and gesture in saying, "this is what you guys would say." And, what is Job's tone? It must be one of extreme bitterness and cynicism. When he "takes up" his discourse again in 27:1, he talks about the Almighty, "who has made my soul bitter (27:2)." Thus, I see the tone of 26 as one of sneering bitter attack on the friends. They are probably right to conclude after these words that they have nothing more to say! After all, how can you really speak to a person who has become as embroiled in his venomous words as has Job? You just have to keep silence and let him speak himself out; you must let the lava of his volcanic flow erupt and subside. Job, as it were, has screamed his friends into submission. After reading Job 26, do you agree with this assessment?
1 "Then Job answered: 2 'How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength! 3 How you have counseled one who has no wisdom, and given much good advice! 4 With whose help have you uttered words, and whose spirit has come forth from you?'
A. In what tone are these words delivered?
B. Very few readers note that Job's second person singular address here could be spoken either to (one of) the friends (the usual interpretation) or to God (the only other one to whom Job speaks using second person singular verb forms). Look at it from both angles. What would these words mean if spoken to Bildad? to God?
C. V.4 is especially vitriolic. If spoken to Bildad it would seem to suggest that he is not to be taken seriously--that someone else has been his "ghostwriter." Would the insult be less or greater if he is speaking to God?
D. Job refers to "breath" several times in 26--vv.4,13,14 (whisper). Any significance in this usage? Note especially if these verses are addressed to God the criticism of God's creative activity in Gen. 2 where God breathed into humans and they became living souls (2:7).
5 "The shades below tremble, the waters and their inhabitants. 6 Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering. 7 He stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing. 8 He binds up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not torn open by them. 9 He covers the face of the full moon, and spreads over it his cloud. 10 He has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness. 11 The pillars of heaven tremble, and are astounded at his rebuke. 12 By his power he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab. 13 By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. 14 These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?"
A. As mentioned above, I see these words as Job's cynical or bitter imitation of his friends' theology and words. Two ways the friends speak are through "mythspeak" and "Proverbsspeak." That is, Job will at times refer to the powerful mythological creatures whom God subdued (7:12; 9:13) but normally he is tethered to the screaming pain of his own body or the world of ethical or moral action. Yet the friends speak in the language of myth and use words familiar from Proverbs. A few verses in this passage use terminology familiar from Proverbs. The "shades" also appear in Prov. 2:18; 9:18; Sheol and Abaddon in Prov. 15:11, etc. Thus, it is almost as if Job is ridiculing an alternative (and powerful) world view. Have you ever criticized or ridiculed a dominant world view? When, and what did it feel like to do so?
B. Note how Job "moves" in his speech. He goes from the underworld (vv.5-6) to the heavenly realms (vv.7-9) to the space in the middle, the horizon (v.10). If this is meant as ridicule, what would be the purpose of this verbal travel?
C. Job has earlier said that God subdued Rahab in his anger (cf.9:5,13). Now it is through God's "understanding" (v.12). How far apart are the worlds of understanding and rage?
This final thought will mirror the uncertain nature of the chapter itself. I think Job drops verbal hints in this chapter that he is ridiculing each one of the friends and, in anticipation, Elihu (who doesn't speak until chs. 32-37). (1) Bildad--When speaking of the help given to him, the powerless one, Job could easily have been ridiculing Bildad's ascription of power to God in 25:2. (2) Zophar--In the last verse, Job talks about the just-recounted wonders as the "outskirts" of God's ways--a phrase reminiscent of Zophar's words in 11:7 about whether Job is familiar with the secret things of God. (3) Eliphaz--when Job speaks of whispers of God (v.14), might he be referring to the "whispers" of God that Eliphaz claims to hear (4:12)? Finally, when he speaks of the "thunder of his (God's) power in v. 14, can't we hear an anticipatory echo of Elihu's words in 37:14-24 as he announces the coming of God? Now for Job to anticipate Elihu's words would mean Job is pretty smart. Hmm.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long