Bill Long 5/5/05
Giving Job an Idea
I mentioned in my previous essay that Job later used many of Eliphaz's terms in 4:2-5 to express the opposite of what Eliphaz meant by the word. In this essay I want to explore the world opened up by the word "restrain" or "hold back" (etsor) in 4:2. Job's later use of it not only illustrates the reversal phenomenon I mentioned, but it also becomes the gateway for introducing other terms or concepts in 4:3-4 that Job develops in 29. Both of these topics, then, the reversal of etsor and the "gateway" provided by etsor will be my focus. I may need a second essay to get to explore fully the influence of 4:3-4 on 29.
Holding Back Words
Eliphaz says in 4:2 that the extent of Job's suffering makes it impossible for him to restrain his words. "Who is able?" are the last Hebrew words of v.2. No one is able to keep back words in the light of Job's condition. The verb atsar/etsar ("hold back") is used about 45 times in the Hebrew Bible, but the instance that most illumines Eliphaz's usage is Jer 20:9. The prophet Jeremiah had vowed no longer to speak in God's name. The obliquy and rejection he received from speaking God's word is just too much to bear. However, he finds that if he tries to hold back the words (etsar), he is unable to do so (the same word for "weariness", laah, used by Eliphaz twice to describe Job's possible condition (4:2,5) is used by Jeremiah to describe his own (20:9)). The use of etsar in Jeremiah thus makes more vivid our picture of Elihpaz in 4:2. He, like Jeremiah, can hold back no longer. They are both compelled to speak.
And so Eliphaz spoke. Job never directly attacks Elihpaz for speaking. He will criticize him for treachery and other things in 6:14ff. but he never says, "Why did you even open your mouth?" Yet, in 29:9, when Job recounts the glories of his pre-distress life, he comes back to the same phrase Elihpaz used in 4:2. When he talks about how he went out to the gate of the city to take his customary judging position, "the nobles refrained from talking (etsru bemilim)." In order to remove any doubt of what this might mean, he goes on to say, "and laid their hands on their mouths." This latter phrase stresses their respect and fear of Job. He was the big guy. When Job spoke, people listened. All Job had to do was show up, and people shut up. The young men even fled (v.8), not considering themselves worthy to be in the same place with Job. Job's peers were cowed by Job's mere presence with them.
The Meaning of Job's Words in 29:9
What might Job be saying to Eliphaz by using the same words in 29:9 as Eliphaz did in 4:2? He might be saying two things. First, it is a rather snide aside at Eliphaz. 'Well, the princes, who knew their places, shut up when I was around. Indeed, you guys managed to keep quiet for seven days, didn't you? But you just couldn't keep the mouth shut. You just couldn't restrain yourselves anymore could you? That is truly a sign of my lowly condition, that people like you, who formerly would have known to keep their mouths shut, now have no hesitation in yapping away.' So, instead of criticizing Eliphaz immediately for speaking to him, Job very subtly drops words of criticism 25 chapters later. 'The princes and nobles knew enough to shut up. Apparently you don't.' That would be the first meaning of Job's words.
But, second, Job's words in 29:9 open up a world of memory. That is, he uses Eliphaz's words not only to criticize Eliphaz but also to open up an important slice of his past for review. It is almost as if Job is saying, "restrain words. Right, Eliphaz. Why didn't you keep your mouth shut a little longer? Oh, by the way, yes, the princes and nobles restrained their words when they were in my presence. Ah, yes, I remember those days. Those were very good days indeed. I did so many good and wonderful things in those days. I had respect at that time. I delivered justice. I both gave the words of instruction to people and also the words of liberation. I made the widow's heart sing for joy (29:14).'
Eliphaz and the Gateway to Memory
Not only did Eliphaz's words in 4:2 stimulate Job's later use of the term and his reflection on his past, but Eliphaz's description of Job's past in 4:3-4 exactly matches Job's memory. In the next essay I will show how Eliphaz's description of Job as giving instruction and encouragement is perfectly mirrored in Job's self-description during his oath of innocence in ch.29. Seen in this way, then, Eliphaz's words both serve to provoke Job's reference to others shutting up when he was around as well as stimulate Job's creativity in recounting his past. Eliphaz's words, then, are a mixed plaid--rejected by Job but needed by him, nevertheless. Maybe that is one of Job's legacies to us. A person in great pain will reject and even twist good and well-intentioned words of a comforter; yet that person in great pain may also end up using he vocabulary and thoughts of that comforter in defining the glories of his former life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long