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21. The Friends Arrive
12 "When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."
Normally when we think of friends coming from afar, it is a joyful occasion. As the opening words of the most famous of all the Chinese classics has it:
“When friends come from afar, isn’t it a joyful thing?” (Confucius, Analects 1.1).
Before we get to verse 12 we don't really know if the visit of Job’s friends will be a joyous and comforting occasion, or a time filled with great sadness. Yet they come, and they come from a great distance. Verse 12 turns out to be an enormously sad verse. Like Job in 1:20, the friends here perform several ritually-proper actions. They “raise” (nasa, a common verb) their eyes from far off, don’t “recognize” (nakar, another common verb) him, then lift (nasa again) their voices and weep (bakah). Surprisingly, the first people said to weep over Job’s disasters are the friends from far away. Then, like Job in 1:20, they tear (qara) their robes (meil, the same word as was used to describe Job’s clothing in 1:20). We have a new ritual action at the end of the verse: they “sprinkle” (zaraq) dust heavenward and it lands on their heads. The meaning of that last unusual phrase probably is that they were standing, rather than sitting or reclining when sprinkling. The verb zaraq (35x) is normally used in priestly rituals of Israel; 12/39 of its appearances are in Leviticus. Other things that are sprinkled in the Bible are “ashes from a kiln” (Exodus 9:8, 10) or blood (many times, among them Exodus 24:6, 8) or, more specifically, the “water of purification” (Numbers 19:13). It is unquestionably the case that the friends are here to mourn. Their weeping, tearing of robes and sprinkling of dust on their heads all indicate their solidarity with Job in his great pain.
This observation is confirmed by the next verse, 2:13. Now they join Job in sitting on the ground (not the ashes of 2:8) and for seven days they don’t utter a word. The later Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva” on low benches or chairs for seven days in mourning for the death of a family member comes to mind when we learn of the friends’ seven days of mourning on the ground with Job. Rather than just say, “They didn’t speak,” the text says that they didn’t speak a word (dabar as both noun and verb). Complete silence. Some have remarked that the friends were never so eloquent as when they didn’t speak a word to Job.
The final words of the chapter capture Job’s distress in excruciating simplicity. They saw that his “grief was very great.” We are familiar with the word “great” (meod), but the word for grief here (keeb) is somewhat unexpected. Hebrew has several words for pain and its resulting grief, and the one we might have expected here is atsab or even yagon. But we have keeb, whose noun appears six times and the corresponding verb, ka’ab, only eight times. But of those 14 combined appearances, four are in Job. Job 16:6 uses the word in the same way as here: “Though I speak, my pain isn’t lessened.” Just as it is difficult to tease out the differences among sorrow, misery, anguish, pain, distress and heartache in English, so it is hard to know exactly how to calibrate the meaning of keeb/ka’ab. “Grief coming from pain” sounds a bit too wordy; “distress” is a much overused, though still useful, word. The various English translations have different words, as might be expected:“suffering” or “grief” or “pain” or “anguish” or “affliction.” When grief is overwhelming sometimes it is just the weight of it all that bears down on the person. While the three friends and Job are sitting in silence, perhaps it is the weight of the grief that overwhelms them all. What to say? What to do? If someone is to begin a conversation, who begins? If there are no words, we have no Book of Job. But let’s just leave the three friends and Job there, quiet, sunk in grief, because this will be the last quiet they have for a good long time.