The Silences of Job
Evolution of Satan
First Lesson --Intro
Fifth--To the End
Putting it Together
Putting it Together II
SONG of SOLOMON
The Lovers--ch. 5
Lovers VI--ch. 8
The Silences of the Book of Job
Bill Long 3/27/06
In Honor of the Adult Education Class, St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church, Wilsonville, Oregon
In the final class of a four-week session on the Book of Job, we probed our understanding of the overall "meaning" or structure of the book. One student, John Reed, made some fascinating observations. I am drawing on some of his comments here to reflect on one of the large ironies of Job--the apparent "silence" of so many of its major characters in the Book.
The "Problem"--So Many "Silences"
It seems at first as if everyone in the Book of Job is, to use Elihu's phrase, "full of words" (Job 32:18). Job never stops speaking, and his friends each have several speeches. But, in fact, many of the major characters of the book are apparently silent, and inexplicably so, for most of the book. That is, it seems as if Job's wife only gets her lines in 2:9 ("Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.) and the Satan is confined to the prose section of chs. 1 and 2. In addition, God, who only speaks a few words in Job 1 and 2, is silent until the last few chapters of the book (38-41). What is it with all of these silences? Or, to put it in different words, are all these characters as silent as they first appear in the book? The thesis of this essay is that all three characters "speak" in the poetic narrative of the Book, sometimes in character and sometimes out of character. Let's take them one at a time.
Job's Wife "Speaks"
I have argued in other essays that Job's wife is actually a key character in the Book of Job despite the few words that are ascribed to her. I have rendered her words, which most major translations give as "Curse God and die," as "Bless God and die." Those are the actual words in the Hebrew, and I argue that they pick up on Job's words in 1:20-21 (culminating in "Blessed be the name of the Lord"), and can be faithfully rendered, "If you (continue) to bless God (as you have been doing), you will die (i.e., either physically die or simply be unable to function)." In response to these words, Job then "let's it go," to use Emily Dickinson's phrase, and is finally able to express the jolting emotions of ch. 3. In other words, my thesis is that Job "listens" to his wife and that the subsequent flow of the book is a result of his listening to her. Seen in this light, Job's wife continues to "speak" in the apparent silence of 3-31. Indeed, I argued also that Job's naming of the three daughters (and not the sons) as well as the giving of an equal inheritance to the daughters in 42:10-17 reflects Job's gratitude to his wife for "saving" him through her words. In Job's wife apparent silence, then, is her loud "speech."
The Satan "Speaks"
One of the most curious silences in the Book of Job is the Satan's apparent silence after he has wreaked so much havoc on Job in the first two chapters. The traditional interpretation of the book is that the Satan simply plays a limited role, a sort of scriptural cameo, by appearing, devastating Job and then withdrawing. But John Reed made the interesting suggestion, which I support, that the speech attributed to God in ch. 38 makes more sense as a speech of the Satan.
Let's put it this way. There is no doubt that the final literary form of the Book of Job ascribes the speech to God. Job 38:1 makes that clear. But the words of those chapters seem to ring truer if they are spoken by the adversary. Indeed, as I have pointed out in some of my conversations with Job, some of the words in 38-41 (especially where I discussed 41:5) would simply be incompatible with any positive view we could have of God. Now, I would agree that the Satan in the Book of Job is not the Satan of the early Christian world. The Satan in Job is no implacable opponent of God. He is some kind of heavenly creature who has ready access to God; perhaps he is a sort of spy for God or an angelic force that surveys the lives of humans and then reports back to God. There is no way to see the Satan in Job as anything other than a being who, with the permission of God, can "test" God's creatures.
But once he has played this role in chs. 1 and 2, my thesis would be that he is not really silent but that, in fact, he has "hidden" conversations with God while the "real" conversation is going on in 3-31. The scope of this hidden conversation with God is that the Satan be allowed to answer Job's complaint, and maybe even do so as if the Satan is speaking for God. This insight, which I develop in the next essay, leads to the notion that the idea of the Satan develops, not only in Hebrew literature but in the Book of Job itself. Just as the Satan was able to convince God to let him afflict Job, he convinces God to let him speak as if in God's name. In this way, we can see 38-41 as the Satan's words to Job under the person of (or wearing the mask of) God. But, where does this leave God? God, then, becomes Elihu.
God as Elihu
The appearance of Elihu is an embarrassment to most scholars, even though I have argued in other essays on my Job pages that Elihu is a central figure in the book. The two keys, however, to seeing Elihu as the speaker for God (or as God speaking) are in his name and in one verse he speaks. Elihu means "He is God." And, that is exactly my point. God is speaking in Elihu. His words are "moved up," so to speak, from ch. 38 to ch. 32. Note also Elihu's bold assertion in 36:2, "Bear with me a little, and I will show you, for I have yet something to say on God's behalf." Scholars usually dismiss this as an example of Elihu's youthfully-inflated view of himself, but under the thesis I argue here it means that God actually is speaking. And, the advice Elihu gives in 36:15-17 is incredible in its depth. These words reorient Job's perspective on loss by suggesting not only that God speaks to people in adversity, but that adversity brings people into new levels of understanding of and intimacy with God.
The Book of Job is never clear on which speech it was that made Job "repent in dust and ashes" (42:6). Most assume it was God's speech in 38-41 because an attitude of repentance is the way that mortals are supposed to have after God speaks. But why not see Elihu's words as the words triggering Job's "conversion?" Granted, Job quotes God's/the Satan's words from ch. 38 and 39 in 42:3,4 but that doesn't preclude him from experiencing Elihu's words as powerful, too. Indeed, it would nicely add to the ironies of the Book of Job, which are piling up quite high at this point, that words of the Satan drive Job back to service to God.
Let's explore now the "evolution" of the Satan in the Book of Job.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long