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129. Job 13:4-12, Attacking the Friends


4 As for you, you whitewash with lies;

    all of you are worthless physicians.

5 If you would only keep silent,

    that would be your wisdom!

6 Hear now my reasoning,

    and listen to the pleadings of my lips.

7 Will you speak falsely for God,

    and speak deceitfully for him?

8 Will you show partiality toward him,

    will you plead the case for God?

9 Will it be well with you when he searches you out?

    Or can you deceive him, as one person deceives another?

10 He will surely rebuke you

    if in secret you show partiality.

11 Will not his majesty terrify you,

    and the dread of him fall upon you?

12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes,

    your defenses are defenses of clay.


This passage functions as a long digression on the worthlessness of his friends, beginning once again with one of Job’s seemingly favorite words (ulam, “but” or “however”). When we realize he has just said that he will speak with God but then turns to attacking his friends, we get a glimpse into what was no doubt a harried mind. ‘I will do this. . .hmm. . .no, first this. . .’ Though he may share a similar theology with his friends, he sees them as saying nothing of value. He will call them “worthless physicians” (v 4). The point ought not to be overlooked. They share the same background, the same concepts about God and the world, but their intellectual worlds at this point couldn’t be more different.  


What, then, is the difference between Job and the friends? It is too facile (and incorrect) to say that that friends simply are the unthinking mouthpieces of a stale tradition. All of them have shown their interest in concepts that would stretch the tradition, whether it is Eliphaz’s vision or Bildad’s view of the tradition as a living thing (it utters “words from the heart,” 8:10) or Zophar’s interest in searching out the deep things of God. But they can’t “stretch” far enough to accommodate Job. Perhaps his brusque and accusatory manner as well as his seeming focus on the self to the exclusion of everything else also rubs them the wrong way.  


But I think their difference relates to what I might gently suggest is Job’s possible self-deception at this point. Job thinks that he and the friends share the same intellectual and faith world because he can seemingly affirm the same things that they do. God is wise and great and has understanding and massive strength; everyone will say “Amen.” But Job has already begun to turn that understanding on its head. God is mostly a destructive, rather than a benignly creative, force. God purposely wants to hide the Divine Self from the creatures. If one wanted to seek God out, like Zophar suggested, one wouldn’t be able to find God because God may purposely hide Himself. God may also have an angry and malevolent streak in Him. Job’s understanding of God is changing in his mind even as he denies that his understanding of God is changing. Job is like a teenager on a growth spurt. The fact of growth is probably evident to everyone except the teenager him/herself—though the teenager feels the pains of limbs stretched and joints growing. Job’s faith is expanding (some might say it is contracting), and he has no sense of where this will lead him. The friends, though willing to “stretch” the basic inherited concepts a bit, cannot understand what Job is doing. 


So, Job feels that approaching God is his best bet. But he can’t resist lambasting the friends in this section. He wastes no time in doing so. Verse 4 says, literally:


     “But (ulam) you are plasterers of lies; all of you are worthless physicians”  


The language isn’t easy. The word translated “plasterer” is the rare verb taphal, occurring elsewhere only in Ps 119:69 and Job 14:17. It seems to relate to something that sticks or adheres to another surface. In twenty-first century English speech, we might better say, “You smear me with lies” and we would have the sense of taphal. They are also some kind of physicians, though the word elil to describe the physicians is translated in 18/20 appearances as “idols.” Only here and in Zechariah 11:17 might it be translated as “worthless.” The connection between idolatry and worthlessness is obvious; it is just that elil isn’t usually used to express “worthlessness.” The BDB dictionary suggests that it may derive from al, a negation, so that elil simply negates the word it modifies. The sense then would be, “You are no/not physicians. . .”   


But again, in slight defense of the friends, we might ask, ‘How is Job really to expect that the friends can easily comprehend the scope of what he is facing? Isn’t that expecting a bit too much of friends?' Or, 'Isn't this a species of self-deception?' Job’s world has been turned topsy-turvy; to expect friends to rush in and provide a convincing and helpful explanation of what he has suffered is a tad unrealistic. Yet still Job attacks the friends—vehemently.  

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