Job and Spiritual Formation IV
Bill Long 6/4/05
The Enigma of Job's Wife; Relating to Friends
I continue here with points 7 and 8.
7. Many scholars are sharply dismissive of Job's wife, but I think she plays a crucial role in the book. Consult my essays on her for more detailed information than I give here. Her only words are in 2:9, where she responds to Job in his pain. We should not ignore the fact that her loss is almost as signficant as Job's; she has lost everything that Job has, apart (apparently) from her health. In his distress she says, according to the NRSV:
"Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" (2:9).
I think that the NRSV and most major translations have misrendered the verse, and thus they ignore a crucial point for understanding Job's wife and the Book of Job. Literally the translation is: "Do you persist in your integrity? Bless God and die." Translators render the word "bless" as "curse" here because in three other instances in chs.1-2 (1:5, 11; 2:5) the word "bless" is used euphemistically for "curse." But, scholars ignore that in 1:10 and 1:21 the word for bless (barak) should unquestionably be translated "bless." Thus, the word barak has an ambiguity to it in the narrative section. Why not translate it here as "bless"? If we do so, we would have Job's wife saying, "Bless God and die," or, taking the second imperative as consequential on the first, which is permitted by the rules of Hebrew grammar, "Bless God and you will die."
Under this interpretation, she is saying to Job that if he continues to bless God, in the way he had done in 1:21, he was going to die. To bless God when every fiber of your being says to curse God is not to be true to yourself. If you bless God, you will die. You will not be able to maintain the charade of acceptance, and it will lead to your death. As a matter of fact, I think this reading makes much more sense not only with respect to what follows in Job 3 but in the way the Book of Job develops. By cursing his day in 3:1ff., Job has not only given us a "second" reaction to loss, but, more than this, he has listened to his wife's advice. He has decided that he is not going to "bless" God anymore. He will let the cavernous depths of his heart come to the surface, and he will speak in his anguish and his pain.
In addition, this intepretation helps explain why Job's daughters are named in the final narrative section and why they receive an inheritance equal to that of the sons. I think that Job was expressing his gratitude to his wife for the insight she uttered in 2:9. The girls, who under the Mosaic law would only receive an inheritance if there were no brothers or the brothers died, now receive, while the brothers are living, an equal share. What better way to honor his wife than to honor the daughters in this way?
In addition, this approach also explains one other feature of the Book of Job that scholars have a hard time explaining: the silence of Job's wife after 2:9. She says not another word. But, under my interepretation she need not say a word because she has already said the most crucial word. Her words opened up Job's heart and permitted him to explore the depths of his emotions and loss. Why need she say more? She has said the magic words, the words that move the entire narrative of the book. She can now just sit aside (no one really knows what she did for the rest of the book!) and watch as her husband tries to deal with the advice she has given. Thus, Job's wife is my new heroine of faith.
8. This point stresses the fact that great pain alters the nature of friendship. When you go through distress, your relationships are often transformed. You are a different person, and the way you relate to other people, especially people whom you knew previously, is different. This can be seen by noting three things from the relationship of Job and the friends. First, they come to him and visit him sympathetically (2:11-13). They don't say a word. They treat him as if he was dead, mourning and weeking for seven days. To use modern terms, they "sit shivah" with him for a week. Then, second, when the first friend opens his mouth (Eliphaz), he speaks ambiguously to Job. Many commentators deny the ambiguities or double-entendres of Job 4-5, but I point several of them out in my essays on those chapters. I hypothesize that one of the reasons for Eliphaz's double speak is that he may not know how to react to Job in his distress. The friends have never seen Job in this condition. To expect them to know how to relate to him in these circumstances is expecting a lot. They simply are confused and possibly afraid. Here is the greatest man in the East, felled by a debilitating series of losses and, apparently, at loose ends (after his speech in ch.3). What might happen to me, a man of lesser accomplishment, if the same situation came on me?
Third, when Job then responds to Eliphaz's ambiguous words in 4-5, he attacks the friends unmercifully (6:14-30). He begins with no-holds-barred words: "My companions are treacherous like a torrrent-bed, like freshets that pass away" (6:15). They are as unreliable as the freshets that pass away in the time of heat. One day they are there for you; the next day they are not. Note that Job has "heard" Eliphaz's double entendres as subtle, or not so subtle, judgments on him. Though Eliphaz has not come right out and said that Job is experiencing his distress because of some kind of sin, he leaves that impression throughout his speech.
Thus, the chords of friendship become frayed, almost to the breaking point, because friends don't know what to say and then interpret or overinterpret each other's words to the detriment of the relationship. They are in new psychological territory together, and they don't tread it well or easily. Their breakdown in communication helps those of us who want to understand the interpersonal dynamics attendant upon loss. Friendships, almost always, are changed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long