Bill Long 4/19/05
Interpreting the Friends' Silence
The third reaction to Job's great loss, after the Job's and his wife's reactions, was the friends' response in 2:11-13. They were silent for seven days and sat on the ground with Job, "for they saw that his pain was very great." However, how to "read" the friends' "sounds of silence" is disputed among scholars as well as less well-versed readers of the book. This essay considers two theories about how to understand the silence: (1) that it is to be understood primarily within the ritual context of mourning for the dead, and (2) that we are to give it a psychological "reading." A "true" reading might incorporate elements of both. First, an introductory observation.
The "Extremeness" of the Language
Even though the prose of chs.1-2 has a stately and rhythmic character to it, almost a sense of controlled dignity in the narration, the underlying reality seethes and pullulates with energy. The narrator drops in loaded words, or words fraught with significance, that we shouldn't miss. For example, he emphasizes that Job is the "greatest" man in the East. He stresses the extremity and suddenness of Job's loss. And, in 2:11-13, he mentions two items: the fact that the silence lasted seven days and seven nights (mourning is only said to last seven days) and the fact that Job's pain is not only described as "great" but also, as almost an afterthought, the author adds the little word "meod"--"very"--as the last word of the chapter, as if to suggest that what we have read in chs.1-2 is a strange and wrenching story of most extreme loss.
Construing the Silence I: Ritual Action
So the friends do a number of actions that can be construed as a ritual response to one who has not just suffered extremely but is already dead. Seven days was the standard period of mourning for the dead. When Jacob died, Joseph buried him, "and he observed a time of mourning for his father seven days" (Gen.50:10). The later book of Sirach (2nd cent. B.C) has it, in a catchy couplet: "Mourning for the dead lasts seven days, but for the foolish or the ungodly it lasts all the days of their lives" (Sir.22:12). Combined with the other ritual acts mentioned in these verses (weeping, sprinkling dust on their heads "toward the heavens"), we might just see the seven days of silence as nothing more than a ritual interpretation of what directly confronts the friends: they believe that Job, in fact, is dead. Even though he still draws breath, he is really beyond any hope for redemption.
There is, no doubt, a ritual element to the friends' reaction to Job's loss, just as Job himself responded to his loss ritually (1:20), but this explanation isn't fully convincing. When we study the friends' "second reactions" to Job in 4-5 (Eliphaz), 8 (Bildad) and 11 (Zophar), we see words of optimism and even hope. They see good things for Job in the future. Despite the fact that these expectations may contain elements of denial, they are nevertheless spoken by the friends. Thus, to interpret their actions in 2:11-13 as suggesting that Job has already died goes a little too far. They manifest extreme sorrow, just as everything else in these first two chapters is extreme.
Construing the Friends' Silence II--A Psychological Reading
Much more amenable to our 21st century sensitibilities is a psychological reading of the friends' silence. And, this reading actually may be further subdivided into silence as sympathy or silence as confusion. In any case, this construal of their action focuses on the inner meaning of the silence to the friends. On the one hand, we can argue that their silence meant that they were overwhelmed with Job's distress and were simply unable to know how to express their full sympathy. Words failed them, as they often do us when horrendous events befall us.
A contrary example might help make the point. During the last two weeks the world has witnessed the death of a popular Pope. Pilgrims to the Vatican, and even news commentators, have said that the feeling in the Vatican has been impossible to express--I suppose a mingled sense of gratitude, hope, sadness and longing. But the point is that when confronted with such a numinous experience (as Otto would call it), we sometimes lack for words. We want to give our arms and legs and healthy body parts to the other person; we want to do anything we can to releive the pain, but we simply know that we can do nothing. So, we say nothing. Our silence bespeaks great sympathy.
But, on the other hand, the friends' silence might also be interpreted as an expression of their own confusion. A few chapters later Job will try to put his finger on their reaction--you see my pain and are afraid (6:21). Possibly they were afraid. Could this be the great Job, the one who was the "king" of all of our worlds? Look what has happened to him. When a great warrior is defeated in battle, it can take the heart out of the remaining troops. This may have happened here. The friends become afraid about their own security.
What should be stressed at this point is that both Job's and the friends' reactions are "first" reactions. The immediacy of the pain and proximity of the sufferer evoked a similarly immediate response. Though there is integrity in these reactions, they are only the "first take" on a great distress. As the irreversibility of Job's pain becomes startlingly clear and both sides settle into their long day's journey into night, perspectives will change. But, for now, I see the friends' reaction in a similar way as Job's--a true expression of emotion, but one that is expressed through socially-approved channels. Ritualized grief, or expression of faith (1:20-22) is true, to be sure, but it only gets you to the first step. The second step is what you do after the ritual is over. Maybe both sides hoped that an ritual expression of their faith and feelings was all that would be needed; possibly God would deliver Job in a trice and life would be restored. But such was not to be the case. The ritual solemnity quickly gave way to cries of deep anguish, responses of patience and then intolerance, and the most tsunamic expressions of the emotions in Western literature. Now we are ready to study those cries.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long