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213. Job 21 Job Speaks, Beginning the Third Cycle of Speeches, Introduction
I will begin this section by restating/paraphrasing my argument from an earlier book on Job I wrote.
“We now begin the third cycle of speeches (Job 21-27). The cycle starts predictably enough. Job first speaks, then Eliphaz. Job then speaks, followed by Bildad. But Bildad’s third speech is only six verses in length (25:1-6). He is just getting warmed up by characterizing humans as “maggots” and “worms” when someone pulls the plug. Then, all serious students of the book have noted what appears to be a truncation of this cycle in chapters 26-27. Only Job is said to speak in these chapters, with no words of Zophar. I will stay with a suggestion I advanced earlier, that Job 26 is Job’s third speech of the cycle, but that a good part of Job 27 (vv 13-23) is the combined voice of Job and Zophar. Job is said to be speaking, but the words really reflect Zophar’s theology. My suggestion is to see the two speakers talking over each other, perhaps with Job’s voice being the louder (hence the speech is attributed to him). But each would be speaking in a different tone: Job is mocking and Zophar is deadly serious. Arguing this way yields the result that the Third Cycle really is a complete cycle. Reading it this way also recognizes that Job 27, and the entire Third Tycle, is presented in an artistically imaginative way," When Leaving God is a Good Choice,
(Inkwater, 2020), pp 158-59.
When we talk of a cycle of speeches in Job, we are not speaking of an independent literary unit that has no relation to what comes before or afterwards. For example, Job’s speech beginning the Third Cycle (the Third Cycle is Job 21-27) directly addresses the theme that was so dear to each of the friends in the Second Cycle: the fate of the wicked (Eliphaz in Job 15; Bildad in Job 18; Zophar in Job 20). Yet, we also see in each cycle the development of ideas that will eventually lead to Job’s peroration, Elihu’s words and God’s intervention. If, as I argued, Job’s anchor emotion in the first cycle was anger and the second cycle was grief, in the third cycle we have what you might call “final preparations” for the lawsuit that Job will present. He first attacks the friends’ idea that the wicked will inevitably be punished (Job 21); then he states both his frustration at not being able to find God (Job 23) and the continued depredations of the wicked (Job 24); finally he concludes with a long speech whose connection to all of this is unclear at this point (Job 26-27).
We have often discovered unclarities in the ideas of Job and the friends; sometimes I try to make sense of them; other times I leave them in their apparent inconsistency or even hilarity. The Third Cycle presents us with some of the most difficult verses in the entire Book of Job. It is no wonder that few people have favorite verses from these seven chapters; they are daunting to novices and experienced scholars alike.
But the Third Cycle doesn’t begin in confusion. It begins with clarity. Job 21 is, largely, a clearly-presented response to the florid and obviously overstated rhetoric of the friends in the Second Cycle. Just to refresh ourselves regarding the main points of the friends:
1) Eliphaz argued eloquently that the wicked are currently undergoing torment. “The wicked writhe in pain all their days” (15:20) summarizes his approach in a nutshell. They hear terrifying sounds; they lose their prosperity; they wander abroad looking for bread. “Distress and anguish terrify them” (15:24). In other words, Eliphaz argues that the judgment of God is already being unleashed upon them. They have stretched out their hands in defiance against God; God is paying them back.
2) Bildad is no more charitable to the wicked than Eliphaz. We recall that he employs six words for “net” to describe the traps/constraints that now hold the wicked (18:8-10). They are trapped; terrors frighten them on every side (18:11); they suffer hunger and other privations; their memory will perish from the earth. They have no offspring. It really is a bleak present and future for the wicked.
3) Zophar, as we have just seen, experimented with the two images of poison in the mouth/stomach and arrows ripping the bodies of the wicked (20:12ff). They, too, will lose all their possessions.
Thus, for the friends, the torment of the wicked has already begun. Though much worse things are in store for them, they are suffering now and are even in extremis.
Job, in a word, couldn’t disagree more. In Job 21 Job questions God’s moral government of the world. He moves towards a twofold conclusion. On the one hand, the wicked seem to be prosperous rather than in want, healthy rather than suffering, safe rather than threatened. Yet, on the other hand, it seems that “One dies in full prosperity, being wholly at ease and secure” but “another dies in bitterness of soul, never having tasted of good” (21:23, 25). Whichever of these two realities is the case, it simply is not true, for Job, that the wicked uniformly suffer now or will suffer later. That, then, will be the challenge that Job brings to the debate in Chapter 21.