Job 4:7-5:7 II
Bill Long 5/21/05
Focusing Now on What IS Said
If one major part of the interpretive problem of 4:7-5:7 is the "hiddenness" of the text, as I described that notion in the previous essay, the other major part is what actually is said by Eliphaz. I have been going verse by verse to try to understand the complexity of his language, but now I will take an overview of this "middle section" of his first speech.
The Prominence of Death
Job has suffered a loss of humonguous proportions. Death now has to be on everyone's mind. But death is such a powerful and frightening subject. Many of us just can't sit down and discuss it dispassionately. Eliphaz keeps reverting to the theme of death in these verses and seems to discuss it clumsily. Death is not simply narrated as a fact of life. Often Eliphaz will use images of brutality: crushing or obliterating. Certainly these images have a powerfully negative effect on Job. Eliphaz speaks about death three times in these 22 verses.
1. After narrating his first "principle," (you reap what you sow--4:8), Eliphaz pounces on the theme of death. Those who sow trouble are destroyed. The perish by the breath of God (v.9); they are consumed by his anger (v.9); the teeth of the lion are broken (v.10), which is tantamount to a death sentence; and the strong lion perishes (v.10). Death is the result for those who sow trouble. It is almost comical when you think of it. Eliphaz has just talked about Job's hope (4:6) and now he is, through the aid of a proverb, clobbering his hearers, and Job, with images of death.
2. Then Eliphaz tells the story of his night vision, in which the "form" spoke to him. Mortals cannot be more righteous than God. Thus, we have a second proverbial principle which captures Eliphaz's approach to life. But he doesn't stop there. After an a fortiori argument in 4:18-4:19a, suggesting that humans cannot be more righteous than God, he again launches into his images of death. Someone crushes people like a moth (v.19); they are destroyed in a day (v.20); they perish forever (v.20); their tent-cord (life-line) is yanked out (v.21) and then, very simply, they die (v.21).
3. Eliphaz is not done. He utters another proverbial saying in 5:2--"anger kills the fool; jealousy slays the simple," and then launches into another death screed. The fool takes root, Eliphaz curses their dwelling, and voila, misery comes upon them and their children. This time it is the children who are crushed (v.4), and others come in and take all their possessions (v.5). Lest we think that misery just comes "from the earth" (i.e., is a happenstance), Eliphaz emphasizes that it is brought about by human actions (this seems to be the meaning of v.7).
The Role of Willfulness
Law has had a great word that it has used for hundreds of years to calibrate liability. It is the word "willfulness." If you do something in a "willful" manner, the extent of your liability is greater than if you simply did something in a "negligent" manner. Indeed, when you buy Directors and Officers insurance, for example, to indemnify corporate officers against liability for acts done within the scope of their work for the corporation, there always is an exclusion from coverage for "willful" behavior. Thus, if you "willfully" do something, you can expect a greater degree of punishment than if you can't avoid it or if you do it by reason of neglect.
With this legal primer in mind, let's return to Eliphaz's speech. The first proverbial saying (4:8) is one easily understood by my "willfulness" discussion. If you sow trouble (meaning if you "willfully" cultivate it), you get punished. Hence, when Eliphaz speaks of the punishment in 4:9-11, it is for "willful" conduct. But notice what happens in 4:18-21. Here destruction also results, but this time there appears to be no "willful" conduct at issue. People die and are crushed simply because they are human. Then, in 5:2ff., people are judged and their children destroyed because they are "fools." The "fool" is a category in Wisdom literature for a person who acts unfaithfully--so Eliphaz is returning to his "willfulness" theme. But is he? Job 5:7 is ambiguous, I believe. It seems to have elements of both theories--you are crushed because of willfulness and you are crushed simply because you are human. He isn't consistent, is he?
The Role of Children
But I think the killer, so to speak, is when Eliphaz speaks of children. Job must be hyper-sensitive to that theme, having lost all 10 of his in the collapse of the house in ch.1. In Eliphaz's first discussion of death (4:9-11), he only mentions that the whelps of the lioness are "scattered" (v.11). The lion may perish, but the children still seem to live, even though their existence might be a precarious one. The second discussion of death has no reference to children. However, Eliphaz's third mention of death includes the children. Interestingly the fool does not seem to suffer death himself, but his children do. Eliphaz curses their dwelling (5:3--why would he do THAT?), and then "their children are far from safety, they are crushed in the gate, and there is no one to deliver them" (5:4). A rather hopeless picture, isn't it? The fool's kids really take it in the shorts for the fool's being a fool. And, when we recall Eliphaz's potentially ambiguous use of the word "confidence" in 4:6 [see my essay on that issue], the feeling that must now be arising within Job is, 'Does Eliphaz think that I am just a fool? And, does he think that this was the reason that my children were killed?'
Even though Eliphaz will quickly try to retreat from this fixation on death in 4:7-5:7, by describing the wonderful blessings of God in 5:8ff., it seems that the psychological damage to Job has been done. Eliphaz might think that he is being helpfully direct or even guarded in his speech, and that a rousing chorus praising God will put things back in order, but I think that if I were Job hearing this speech of Eliphaz, I might just think that I was on my own, and that God was the only one whom I really wanted to address.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long