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264. Job 28: An Interlude on Wisdom: Introduction
Job 28 presents a huge problem for many interpreters. First, the speaker of the chapter isn’t identified. Are we to assume that Job just keeps speaking? In 29:1 we are told that Job again “took up his proverbial speaking,” the same rare phrase used in Job 27:1 (as well as the Balaam narrative) to indicate a resumption in speaking, but the phrase doesn’t tell us whether this resumption comes after the speaker just takes a bit of a break or after another speaker has spoken. I assume here that a narrator, who is neither Job nor his friends, speaks. Then, there is the subject matter, the quest for wisdom, which is neither adumbrated previously in Job nor discussed later in the book. As a result, some scholars have concluded that the Third Cycle of speeches and the following section (Job 28-31 or even Job 28-37) are so disorganized that the text can be shuffled around here like one might rearrange one’s living room furniture. Clines, for example, thinks that Job 28 might fit neatly as Elihu’s last speech (his speeches extend from Job 32-37), and so he moves it to that position after Job 37. If the “experts” are all over the map on how to handle Job 28, we think that it must present almost insurmountable problems for us to understand.
Try as I might to become confused by the placement and content of Job 28, I can’t. To me its placement and content is not only brilliant but rather obvious. Speaking in the language of law (and we need to recall that Job is bringing a lawsuit), it makes both procedural and substantive sense for Job 28 to be precisely where it is.
The procedural sense it makes is to give a pause or a break in a proceeding where civility has all but disappeared. The last straw, according to my interpretation, was when Job “talked over” Zophar in 27:13-23. Zophar spoke the words of judgment with deadly seriousness, but Job mocked him and his other companions. When there is a complete communication breakdown, you sometimes need a timeout—even in law.
Procedurally, then, Job 28 makes sense. It is a breather in an intense and exhausting debate. The tone of Job 28 is of mature reflection and studied calm—just what a wild debate needs at this point. Even though I have restored a fairly neat structure to the Three Cycles of speeches (nine, nine, and seven chapters with each of the three friends and Job speaking alternately in each cycle), there is considerable animosity and communication breakdown by the end of Job 27. Break needed.
Parenthetically, Job 28 is also neatly placed from a literary perspective. Job 14 and Job 28 come, respectively, at 1/3 and 2/3 through the book. The former, though put in the mouth of one of the participants (Job) could just as easily have been attributed to no speaker at all or spoken by a narrator. It is another ruminative poem, this time on human mortality. It is our first “mini-time out.” Thus, from a literary perspective, we are given two brief interludes or breaks in the Book of Job, and they are evenly spaced. This isn’t like watching Wagner’s Nibelungenlied, however. Breaks are needed in both to get one through, though one doesn’t need to test the limits of human endurance (unless, that is, you are writing a commentary on the Book of Job!).
But Job 28’s placement also makes sense from a substantive perspective. That is, the actual idea discussed in the poem is exactly what everyone needs at this point. One might argue that debate has become unproductive for the speakers because no one has demonstrated the kind of wisdom which shows itself in prudence, wise decision and good judgment that is taught in the most orthodox of wisdom books—Proverbs. Participants thus need both a break and wisdom. This poem tells them, and us, how to get the latter.
Seen in this light, Job 28 functions much like an intermission at the symphony. It both gives us all a break, but it allows people to do some substantive reflection or talking if they desire. More than one business deal or personal relationship has developed in the 15 minutes between sections of the program.
But the most important observation to make about this poem at this point is its grandeur as well as the simplicity and clarity of its ideas. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every thought is crystal clear, but the general structure of the chapter ought to be understood from the beginning. Perhaps because the discussion between Job and the three friends has been so inconclusive, with true wisdom so hard to come by, the author of Job 28 explores the issue of how to find this wisdom. Wisdom is most needed at this point, but can’t be found. So, the author of Job 28 first talks about the diligent effort of humans in another sphere—that of mining. Miners face great personal danger as they diligently search out (chaqar) veins of precious metals in the heart of the earth. This search is conducted in such remote place that even birds of prey, with their instinctual apparatus of finding valuable things, can’t find the way to the treasures.
The diligent search of humans for something valuable but nearly inaccessible provokes the question about something else that is valuable and also seemingly inaccessible: “Where can wisdom be found?” The middle part of the speech is a series of mini-choruses where various entitles in the earth say that wisdom isn’t with them. Well, the reason for this is that wisdom resides with God, and that God alone knows the path to it. By the end of the poem, then, we are ready for this divine wisdom—which can only be disclosed by God and is the rather simple message embraced by the wisdom tradition, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. By this brilliant poem the author is not only giving the speakers, and us, a mental break from the challenging discussion of Job 3-27, but is also skillfully pointing out to all, the participants included, that the quest for wisdom will only be satisfied if God reveals it. Once this statement is made, there is no more dialogue. There just are three very long and impressive monologues: by Job (29-31), Elihu (32-37) and God (38-41). The author has skillfully prepared us to be ready to ask whether we will eventually discover wisdom and, if so, what the shape of this wisdom will be.
Several outlines to the chapter are possible, but once you understand the procedural and substantive reasons for placement of Job 28 here, quibbling over which verse goes in which of the following sub-sections becomes relatively unimportant. My division is:
Job 28:1-11, The Diligent Search for Precious Metals
Job 28:12-19, But Where is Wisdom?
Job 28:20-28, God, and the Fear of the Lord, is the Source of Wisdom