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152. Job 15:7-16, You Aren’t So Special, Job (Overview)


This essay provides a reflection on the uniqueness of our human experience.


Fueling Job’s indignation and grief has been his belief that the suffering he has endured is out of proportion to any wrong he has committed. He no doubt believes the Biblical doctrine of divine punishment for sins committed or judgment for lack of fidelity, but that judgment or punishment is understood to be meted out justly or proportionally.  Thus, he is both enraged and grief-stricken as he tries to understand, and then decides to bring a case against, God on the issue of his colossal suffering when he has done nothing remotely calling for that judgment.  


His underlying point is that he is a unique sufferer as he suffers. His punishment is so out of proportion to what a faithful person might have expected in life that his situation is sui generis, unique or special. Once Job is convinced of the uniqueness of his case, he can demand an individualized answer. “Two aspirins and call me in the morning,” won’t be the remedy that heals. He needs a particularized diagnosis and treatment, just as those suffering from an idiopathic medical condition know that they need lots of concentrated attention from several specialists in order to try to figure out what really is happening to them. A generic explanation of “you sinned” or “your children sinned” won’t cut it this time. Theology will have to expand its categories to incorporate Job’s great suffering.


Job believes, then, that his suffering has placed him in a Category of One, and that God is therefore under obligation to answer him in his need, with at least an explanation if not a reversal of fortunes. The sticking point between Job and the friends on this point is that they see his suffering as part of the normal flow of human life, easily explicable under theological categories handed down since time immemorial. They believe that Job’s experience, though devastating, is not so devastating as to require rethinking of any theological principles. For them, Job’s problem illustrates rather than confounds the theological principles of Israel.  


The difference between Job and the friends on this point encourages brief consideration of the issue of whether friends can truly perceive the uniqueness of friends, or whether there is an unbridgeable gap in understanding even between the closest of pals.The point is significant and our answer needs to be nuanced. Friends can perceive a friend’s uniqueness in skill or ability to do something. Friends know, for example, if a close friend is smart or really smart, able to do excellent woodworking, can carry a tune, is a gourmet cook, or can play a musical instrument with some skill. That is, friends can often discern some special characteristics of friends.


Yet, exceptionalism is hard or impossible to perceive even between the closest friends on other issues. For example, if one friend says, “I love my wife with an unexampled love; my affection for her passes that of other people for their spouses,” he is liable to get an argument. Might his love for his spouse exceed that of his friends for theirs?  Certainly, but we as humans are in a very poor position to measure the extent of love of one human for another. The best we can say is, “He loved her so much. . .”  and then tell some stories about this love.

The same can be said about pain. If a person says, “I am in pain, a pain never before experienced by humans,” the medical establishment calmly notes that and then will patiently ask him/her to grade the pain on a scale of 1-10, representing the pain commonly felt by humans. Even the most accomplished pain doctors, however, recognize the mystery of pain—that its extent often can’t be perceived by the onlooker, however skilled. Pain and love are private experiences, though shared by almost everyone on earth, but our ability to calibrate the extent of another person’s love or pain is limited.


Job’s friends become incensed with him because Job is making a claim for uniqueness in an unmeasurable area. Job believes he is facing unique pain. Yet, there are also elements of Job’s situation that can be “measured.” He is saying that his pain (and suffering) exceeds what ought to have happened to him, according to what the traditions teach. He knows he is a loyal person, tam and yashar. He ought not to have been treated this way, according to the traditions of Israel. Thus, Job’s situation is clearly (in his mind) unique, and the friends ought to have been able to pick up on that. This gap in understanding, as well as the pain racking his body, also fuels Job’s anger and mockery. 


Yet, to speak in the friends’ defense, even though the friends saw that Job’s pain was very great (2:13), they also knew that the God of Israel was Israel’s healer, and that God often in the past used plagues and other painful situations as disciplinary devices to draw the heart of wayward people back to their obligations to God. Perhaps God was trying to do so in this instance, too.  


So what happens as the Book of Job proceeds is that the friends begin arguing past each other. Job is trying to say, ‘My situation is unique and calls for a special answer—from God,' whereas the friends say, ‘Your suffering is great, but it fits well within categories of what might be expected in life. There are already remedies prescribed in the sacred texts and traditions of how one ought to treat this situation. Why can’t you see that, Job?’ So, the ultimate standoff is when friends look at each other and come up with diametrically opposite conclusions. The friends say, ‘The tradition has an answer.’ Job say, ‘My situation blows apart the tradition’s answer.’ Unless one of the two goes over to the other’s side, we have effectively reached the end of productive conversation.

The conversation with the friends continues. But, as more than one commentator has mentioned, it seems like the stream of new ideas from the friends has pretty much dried up. Job, in contrast, who is exploring the explosive notion of the inadequacy of inherited traditions, continues to probe deeper and deeper, making new discoveries each time he speaks. Once we grant Job his premise (that his suffering is, in fact, unique), he is thrown into a world whose contours aren’t clear. The really scary thing as Job continues to speak is the thing that happens to every discoverer of virgin territory,  or space of the mind: a realization that s/he is clueless at first to determine what really is “out there.” One’s initial sense of giddiness is soon accompanied by a profound fear. In Job’s case it means that he simply must keep searching and asking questions. One of them that will guide his quest, beginning in Job 16 is, ‘Are there are additional characters or individuals or beings that might affect my fate, and not simply God alone?' Another question might be, ‘Should we re-evaluate the tradition’s belief in the goodness of God? Might we conclude that if some other character or characters exist “up there,” that they are also beneficent or malevolent?’ The questions will continue to pour out of Job’s troubled heart.  


With this background, Eliphaz’ argument in 15:7-16 becomes easily understandable.

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