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278. Job 29-31, Job’s Concluding Speech: Introduction
There is a real change of pace now. What had been neatly, or sometimes clumsily, crafted speeches in the context of dialogue will now turn to long monologues or soliloquies, as first Job (29-31), then Elihu (32-37), and finally God (38-41) get center stage. Job’s speech in Chapters 29-31 functions as a peroration or concluding summary to his case which he has been preparing off and on for many chapters. The overall structure of Job 29-31 is as clear as anything in the entire book. Job 29 treats of Job’s longing for the “good old days” when he was respected and when he handed down just judgments. Job 30 deals with the sudden reversal Job faced, narrated in Job 1-2. What makes Job 30 so memorable is not only that he speaks of his physical suffering, which he has amply mentioned previously, but also he stresses what one might call the social torment attendant upon losing his face and position in the community. Finally, Job 31 functions as Job’s solemn oath, in multiple parts, calling down all kinds of punishment on himself if he has violated the commandments or been deaf to the cry of the poor or widows. Both Job 29 and 31 also function as a rebuttal to Eliphaz’s alleged, and unsupported, claims of Job’s immoral life that he made in 22:5-9.
Though the analogy is imperfect, we might look at Job 29-31 not simply as a summary or peroration presenting Job’s case but as a kind of Reply Brief in an appellate court. That is, when an appellate argument is made in most American courts, plaintiff submits an opening brief, defendant responds and then, just weeks before a hearing is held, plaintiff gets the last word—his/her reply brief. The function of such a brief is not to rehash the case but to focus on the nub of the issue that had emerged as the various briefs went back and forth between the parties. The Reply Brief also can rebut false claims introduced by the defendant in their brief. So, whether we want to look at Job 29-31 more like a dramatic Ciceronian-style peroration or a Reply Brief in a court of law, we look to it for the final presentation of the nub or heart of Job’s case.
What makes Job 29 stand out is its overwhelming sense of wistful longing, a longing captured all the way from the opening miy-yitten of verse 2 (“Oh that..” or “Would that…”) to the closing thought that Job was more like a king among his troops, or a chief among the people, than simply a respected elder in the community (verse 25). Wistful longing or yearning about our past always colors that past, making the highs seem a bit higher, the meaning descried a bit deeper, the honor received a bit more honorable, the glory experienced a bit more glorious. But who is to say that the memory of the event, fresh perhaps only in Job’s mind, is false? It was incorporated into the marrow of his being, coiled around his heart, and now is delivered in straightforward, earnest and heartfelt poetry. Memory is Job’s personal keepsake.
Yet, others might see Job’s past differently. Who is to say that if others were quizzed about Job’s past influence in the community, described in Job 29, they might simply say something like,
‘Oh, yes, Job. He was a person who had a big estate outside of town. Came into town for judgments and such, and to keep up with his friends. Kind of a nice guy, though I didn’t really know him.’
‘Oh, yes, Job. He was the judge of in a dispute between two of my friends. He decided it in a pretty fair fashion, in my judgment, though one of my friends was pissed off by the verdict.’
But for Job the past is viewed through a different lens. Even though Job speaks of the past, it is almost as if he speaks, paradoxically enough, in aspirational terms. He not only made the widows’ hearts sing (29:14) but we think we also hear through this powerful statement a longing for the return of the “widows’ chorus” in praise of Job’s judgment on their behalf. His glorious past fuels his present despair, expressed most poignantly in Job 30. In the words of Shakespeare’s unforgettable 30th Sonnet, in Job 29-30 Job will
“. . .heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
the sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before…”
Job’s selective memory of glorious former days (Job 29), coupled with current ignominy (Job 30) make him susceptible to the stabbing pricks of memory, memory that cannot simply be dismissed or willed away.
Let’s enter into Job’s longing and wistfulness, but as we do so let’s also realize that Job’s story may also echo our story—a story of distinct and memorable accomplishments, replete with social recognition and utility. It was a time that Job surely thought would never end and, if it ever did end, would never have ended as it did.