Job Pt 5 (Job 26–31)

by Glenn on November 17, 2014

In great works of literature, almost always more is going on than one initially realizes, and this is especially true of the Bible, to which readers are likely to come with a baggage of preconceptions and habits of automated or inappropriate response.
—Robert Alter1

This seems like a good starting place for trying to understand the book of Job. My goal has been to read through Job as though it’s the first time, knowing there are those “unknown unknowns” that are flying past me but working to be more conscious of what’s going on in the text and getting clear on questions for which I would like to find answers.

I’m at the end of a third round of dialogue among Job and his friends. I created an outline (see Job Outline) that I will revise as I continue working my way through Job. Including his first lament, this is Job’s ninth major speech, which I’m calling “Job’s Last Stand.” Previously, Job has spoken for a chapter or two without interruption. Now he goes on for five chapters, though this, what I’ll call extended, discourse is broken up along the way. After the initial “Then Job replied …” (Job 26:1), two times the unnamed narrator interrupts and reminds us who is speaking:
Job 27:1 “And Job continued his discourse:”
Job 29:1 “Job continued his discourse:”

I believe this last stand of Job can be divided into three parts, based on these interjections by the narrator.

Part One (Job 26): Parting shots for his friends and more thoughts on death

Job begins his last stand with more harsh words for his friends:

“How you have helped the powerless!
How you have saved the arm that is feeble!
What advice you have offered to one without wisdom!
And what great insight you have displayed!” (Job 26:2–3)

One of the basic lessons of this reading of Job is: You can’t always take words in the Bible literally. (Always seriously, just not always literally.) Sometimes the Bible means the opposite of what it says. Here, for example, when it is clear that Job does not intend to suggest he is “powerless” or “feeble” or that his friend(s) has/have helped him. Further, not only does Job not think he is “without wisdom” but there is no way he thinks any of his friends have had anything like “great insight.”

And then Job launches into more talk of death. Here is a new and somewhat baffling statement:

“The dead are in deep anguish,
those beneath the waters and all that live in them.
The realm of the dead is naked before God;
Destruction lies uncovered.” (Job 26:5–6)

Some weeks ago, I had one of those days where connections you weren’t looking for suddenly appeared. Those times are inspiring. Psalm 88 was in the daily reading.

I was intrigued because I was thinking about Job’s views of death and here was another passage of biblical wisdom literature, an entire psalm, dealing with death. In one of those weird coincidences of learning, I started reading Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry later that night. Early on he spends a little time actually discussing Psalm 88 to illustrate the basic idea of parallelism, the foundation of Hebrew poetry. Here are some notes I made:

Poetry Alter Note

In his introduction, Alter states he is a little critical of Biblical scholars who don’t love poetry. He has attempted in his book to keep “a constant eye to the relation between poetic form and vision or value.” He then declares that his approach “has not spoken to a good many biblical scholars because the overriding importance of poetic form and poetic achievement does not figure significantly in their perception of the Bible.”

My working hypothesis as I study Job: I will only understand Job to the level I understand Hebrew poetry, which is why I picked up the Alter book—an exceptional read, though so far neither quick nor easy.

By the way, Alter points to Genesis 2:23 as the first poem in the Bible.

The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23)

The parallelism here is pretty easy to spot. Repetition of “bone” and “flesh,” the first two lines complementing each other and developing the idea, followed by the pair of opposites, “woman” and “man.” But before I get too cocky and think I can analyze the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, Alter cautions that while the basic operating principle of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, this general concept is highly nuanced in practice. Parallelism in the Bible can be semantic, syntactic, prosodic, morphological, phonetic, etc. I couldn’t tell you at this point what those words mean, but I take his point and realize I need to spend some time wrestling with Job’s statements.

We are, I think, a little quick to jump to “What is the Bible telling me?” We come to the Bible to be transformed so we ask how this or that passage relates to our lives. With Job, at least, there has to be an intermediate step. Before I can ask what Job is saying to me, I need to figure out what Job is saying. It’s not always easy, especially with the subject of death.

Actually, I sometimes find myself a little critical of Job. I wonder how he can make any sort of statement about what death means. Death is, in the words of Hamlet,

“The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns …” (Hamlet • Act 3 Scene 1)

How can Job describe a place he hasn’t been?

On the other hand, this is Scripture, so it needs to be handled carefully and considered thoughtfully. Bottom line, it will be interesting to walk through Job with a commentary. There are those unknown unknowns and then there are places where I know that I don’t know. Here for example:

“By his power he churned up the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.” (Job 26:12)

To what or whom does Rahab refer? Rahab is the prostitute whose services of one form or another Joshua and the other Israelite spies used when they were checking out Jericho. This does some interesting things to the dating of the book of Job beside the fact that nowhere in the Bible does it refer to Rahab being killed by God. She is summarily praised in the New Testament for her faith.

Rahab could also refer to Egypt, Ra being the name of an Egyptian God. I just don’t know.

Part Two (Job 27–28): God, justice, wisdom

In the second part of Job’s last stand, he makes comments on God, justice, and wisdom.

As I read this passage, I thought about that F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Here is the tension Job lives with:

1. He knows God is responsible for his condition. Job says God “has denied me justice” and “made my life bitter.” (Job 27: 2)

2. He knows God punishes the wicked. Job asks, “For what hope have the godless when they are cut off, when God takes away their life?” (Job 27:8)

3. In spite of his current circumstance, Job “will not say anything wicked” (Job 27:4a) to put himself in a position where, as a wicked person, he can be punished by God.

4. Finally, Job will not “deny [his] integrity.” (Job 27:5a)

This is some heavy cognitive dissonance Job is living with.

Job’s situation doesn’t make sense with what the wisdom literature says. The final verse of Psalm 1 captures the essence of it, I think:

“For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” (Psalm 1:6)

Job takes considerable time (Job 27:13–23) hammering on this second part of the equation without trying to explain why his own circumstance so closely mirrors what God does to the wicked.

In chapter 28, Job talks about wisdom. I find this passage fascinating. Job takes eleven verses to talk about the wonders of the natural world, especially below ground, the source of precious metals:

“There is a mine for silver
and a place where gold is refined …” (Job 28:1)

But then, Job transitions with this question:

“But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?” (Job 28:12)

I am fascinated by the way Job’s words on wisdom correlate with what the book of Proverbs says. Where can wisdom be found? Proverbs 1:20 gives an answer,

“Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square …” (Proverbs 1:20)

Job says that wisdom,

“cannot be bought with the finest gold,
nor can its price be weighed out in silver.” (Job 28:15)

But Proverbs says,

“if you look for [wisdom] as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.” (Proverbs 2:4–6; 3:13–14)

Job wonders,

“Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed even from the birds in the sky.” (Job 28:20–21)

And Proverbs tells us that wisdom was part of God’s creative act:

“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;” (Proverbs 3:19)

While there are these inconsistencies or paradoxes (whatever we call them) to think through, the last verse of Job 28 is entirely consistent with the rest of the wisdom literature:

“And he said to the human race,
‘The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.'” (Job 28:8)

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10)

“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Part Three (Job 29–31): “O for the days”/”How I can call myself ‘righteous’”

Now Job gets personal with God.

“How I long for the months gone by,
for the days when God watched over me …
Oh, for the days when I was in my prime,
when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house …” (Job 29:2, 4)

Things used to be good for Job. And now Job tells us why God blessed him.

“Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
and those who saw me commended me,
because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
The one who was dying blessed me;
I made the widow’s heart sing.
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.” (Job 29:11–16)

This affirms the way of wisdom.

In Chapter 30, Job tells how once he was honored with positions of leadership, but now he was mocked as someone out of favor with God. But worse than the judgments of people is Job’s complaint about God:

“And now my life ebbs away;
days of suffering grip me.
Night pierces my bones;
my gnawing pains never rest.
In his great power God becomes like clothing to me;
he binds me like the neck of my garment.
He throws me into the mud,
and I am reduced to dust and ashes.” (Job 30:16–19)

Here’s Job’s problem with God:

“I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.” (Job 30:20)

In chapter 31 Job lays out his case for being righteous:

1. He was meticulously unlustful.

“I made a covenant with my eyes
not to look lustfully at a young woman.” (Job 31:1)

2. He was consistently honest.

“If I have walked with falsehood
or my foot has hurried after deceit—
let God weigh me in honest scales
and he will know that I am blameless—” (Job 31:5–6)

3. He treated his “employees” well.

“If I have denied justice to any of my servants,
whether male or female,
when they had a grievance against me,
what will I do when God confronts me?” (Job 3:13–14a)

4. He looked out for the poor (see Job 31:16–23)

5. His source of confidence was not in money. (see Job 31:24–28)

6. He treated his enemies with respect (see Job 31:29–34)

And he, perhaps quite naturally, wants some acknowledgment from God. Why is the way of wisdom not working in his life? Why has God not kept his promise to reward the righteous? Why is he being treated like the wicked?

 (“Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.
I would give him an account of my every step;
I would present it to him as to a ruler.”)— (Job 31:35–37)

After this, the narrator provides this closure:

“The words of Job are ended.” (Job 31:40b)

I am still thinking about this issue of Job’s righteousness. What does it mean? Some time ago I read Psalm 19 and wondered if there was a clue for an answer. Psalm 19:13 says,

“Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.”

I wonder if the fact of Job’s blamelessness is not that he never sinned, but that he was free of willful sins. Another day, I read Psalm 101. Verses 2–3 read,

“I will be carefeul to lead a blameless life …
I will walk in my house
with blameless heart.
I will set before my eyes
no vile thing.”

This passage corresponds to what Job says about his personal commitment to living a blameless life. In Job 31:1 he says, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.” Whatever the truth of Job’s righteousness, whether he was actually a perfect person or a person who was free of “willful sins,” it seems clear that at least part of following God involves an act of will.


1 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 2011.