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15. Job Speaks
Job then speaks. This is the second time Job speaks so far in the book (the first time is 1:5) and in both instances we don’t know to whom he is speaking. Job 1:5 seems to be more of an internal musing, while 1:21 is addressed to no one and to everyone. His words in 1:21 have the air of a proverbial expression, though we don’t know the proverb and, in fact, it doesn’t fully make sense. Its nearest counterpart is in Genesis 3:19, where God says to the Adam, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Note the same word (“dust”) in each part of the sentence in Genesis 3:19. Job pursues that method here, with the word “naked” (arom) replacing “dust.”He came from the womb naked, and he will return there naked. Huh? It works for the dust of the ground but not really for the womb. Nicodemus might have said it much later (“How can a person re-enter the mother’s womb to be born?”, John 3:4), but the question is relevant here: ‘What do you mean, Job, when you say you will re-enter your mother’s womb?’ Chances are it is just the euphony of “naked” twice that is the focus of the proverb, rather than the origin and destination of the human. Later Job ruefully wished that he could have been rushed right from the womb to the tomb (10:19), but never again does he repeat the idea of returning to the womb. Scholars have tried to link Job’s words here with the beautiful Psalmic expressions in 139:14-15 about a possible connection between earth and birthing, but that is a stretch.
Though Job’s first words of 1:21 have a proverbial ring to them, the focus really is on the second part of the sentence: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes (using the same verb as was used to describe the depredations of the Sabeans and Chaldeans—laqach). Blessed (barak) is the name of the Lord.” For all the confusion around the meaning of the verb barak in Job 1, we assume that it means “bless” here, and not “curse.” It would kind of defeat the purpose of the book if it meant the latter. Thus, by the time we get to 1:21, the verb barak has appeared four times: in 1:5 it probably means “curse”; in 1:10 it means “bless”; in 1:11 it is slightly ambiguous but probably means “curse”; in 1:21 it has to mean “bless.” But it is the same word. Job’s world has been turned upside down, and we should recognize that the author is also tweaking the stability of our linguistic world.
Two other brief points should be noted from 1:21. First, Job’s faith in this instance seems to leap over mediate causes and go directly to the source of the issue: God. Rather than saying, for example, ‘Well, it was a bad wind (or lightning strike), and sometimes those things just happen,’ Job interprets his disaster in terms of God’s providential care. God must have “taken away.” It only makes sense to Job if he explains his disaster in those terms. If one has received all the blessings of life as coming from the hand of God, why not see the disasters as originating in that same God? Though the narrative wants to point to a mediate cause (the Satan’s authorization to wreak havoc), Job will steadfastly cling to direct divine causation throughout the book. That, in fact, is one of the things adding to his torment. He simply can’t tell himself, ‘Well, the Sabean attack just happened, perhaps without provocation.’ For Job, all of these things come from the hand of God. We might ask ourselves if this is the way we frame our understanding of faith.
Second, Job’s reaction here is one of admirable fidelity. If he were a Buddhist, he would have perfectly been practicing the value of detachment—of not clinging to any earthly security or comfort. Of course there is not a hint of that in the Biblical narrative, for lots of reasons, but Job’s seeming ability to incorporate this most devastating series of blows into his supple and huge concept of faith is extraordinary.
So that we don’t miss the significance of what happens in 1:21, the author concludes the chapter with the brief words, “In all of this, Job neither sinned (chata) nor gave tiphlah to God” (1:22). I kept the last word in Hebrew because no one really knows what it means. Again, our linguistic world is being destabilized. There are relatively simple ways to say “Job didn’t blame God” in Biblical Hebrew (which is no doubt the meaning of the sentence), but the author doesn’t use any of them. Rather, he chooses a word or phrase, “to give tiphlah” that not only appears nowhere else in the Bible but consists of a word that only occurs on two other occasions, once of which is later in Job. In those two other occasions, it is usually rendered “folly” or “something offensive.” Huh? These meanings don’t exactly overlap. So, scholars have scratched their collective heads and seemingly have agreed on the word “unseemly,” That is, Job didn’t ascribe anything “unseemly to God,” even though we don’t much use the word “unseemly" in English. Clines prefers the word “unseemly,” but Seow renders this verse, “he (Job) didn’t give offense to God.” We see that Clines’ and Seow’s translations take us down different interpretive roads, roads which I will not explore here.We really don’t know what tiphlah means. It makes most sense to me from the context to say, ‘Job neither sinned nor gave God the blame for what happened.’ I wish the text has said so without equivocation.
By the end of Job 1, however, we have a clear picture of a faithful person. Job has experienced the most devastating losses,but seemingly comes through them blessing God. Score: God 1, the Satan 0. But, as we will now learn, it is still the early innings of the game.