Wounding only to Heal
In my summary of Eliphaz's first speech in the basic essays, I stressed that Eliphaz was a sensitive friend, unsure of how to approach Job in his great tragedy. I mentioned that his approach was gentle and hopeful in tone, as he expected that Job's condition was only temporary and would be ameliorated if he committed his cause to God (5:8).
But there is also a strongly unrealistic tone to Eliphaz's speech. Some of his advice, though probably well-intentioned, is moralistic in the extreme. His words are not well-chosen; some of them, relating to the fate of the wicked, might even recall the loss of Job's children (4:9,20). And, his hope for Job's future has a dreamy "some day" type of feeling to it that can be read as a subtle dismissal of Job's current pain (5:19-26).
Eliphaz and the Wisdom Tradition
Eliphaz marshals two arguments from the wisdom theology to try to bolster Job's confidence. The first is that sickness/distress is the result of sin but that all creatures, earthly as well as heavenly, sin (4:17-19). But then he gives a more nuanced argument, that actually had been the cornerstone of the wisdom tradition for centuries: that Job's distress is the "discipline" of God (5:17). He says,
"How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. for he wounds, but he binds up; he strkes, but his hands heal (5:17-18)."
The language and sentiment of these verses is derived from the world that produced the Book of Proverbs. The word translated "discipline" ('musar') in Job 5:17 appears four times in Proverbs 1 and is usually translated "instruction." There the author says that the purpose of the proverbs to provide "learning about instruction.." or "gaining instruction" (1:2,3). The great "summary" verse of Proverbs uses the word 'musar': "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and 'musar (1:7).'" Thus, Eliphaz is pleading with Job to receive this blow as an example of God's "instruction." The wisdom tradition is supple enough to handle even Job's condition, Eliphaz claims.
Then, Eliphaz gives the triumphant verse 18, that God wounds only to bind up and strikes only to heal. God is behiind both the tragedy and glory of human life, Eliphaz says. The tradition teaches it (5:27). It is a sure thing. But ultimately it will be the inability of the wisdom tradition to explain Job's distress right now that will be so distressing to Job.
For even though Job 5:18 is eloquent in its simplicity and appealing in its sense (that God is a sort of divine physician, who wounds us only to make us better; to futher break the bone, so to speak, so as to set it properly), it can only hold out hope for a better future. It is powerless to give a convincing interpretation for one who is currently mired in the distress. Job seems to recognize in Eliphaz's speech that the wisdom tradition, if it wants to give help, can only give interpretive guidance after the event of healing. That is, the critique that the author of Job will give is that the tradition is useful only as a retrospective guide, and not as something prospective.
Eliphaz is the strongest and most sympathetic presenter of traditional wisdom. When we see his obvious discomfort and even inelegance when Job is in his deepest need, we suspect even at the beginning of the book that the author is launching a significant criticism of the wisdom tradition in its entirety.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long