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309. Job 31: Job’s Multi-form Oath and (Finally) Filing His Complaint
Though Job has been inviting a divine explanation for his condition for more than 20 chapters, in Job 31 he actually signs his legal document and files it with the court, as it were. The function of Job 31, then, is formally to call on God to respond to Job’s lawsuit. In the common law legal tradition, any party that is properly served with a complaint has a legal responsibility to respond to it within a specified period (usually 30 days) or else run the risk of nonsuit—i.e., lose the case. Though our legal understanding can’t simply be projected back to the Joban situation, we are no doubt on good grounds for asserting that lawsuits of substance filed in any jurisdiction warrant a response.
But before Job affixes his signature to the complaint (v 35), he presents a multi-form oath of innocence. Some have called it a “clearance oath,” as if Job is “clearing himself” from any blame just before signing the complaint. Scholars differ as to how many oaths Job makes here—my number is fifteen. These oaths not only are protestations of Job’s innocence but they also function to summon God to the table. It is now time for God to “put up or (once and for all) shut up. . .” God has been shutting up all along, but now is the time for God to respond. Perhaps because many scholars think of Job 31 as Job’s filing of his lawsuit, they look at the speeches of Elihu which follow (Job 32-37) as out of place. Clines, for one, puts them before Job’s peroration. But I think that the drama of the Book of Job intensifies yet more by having Job conclude his words in the dramatic fashion of Chapter 31 and then, before God even responds, have the Book of Job present another kind of “break”—this time with Elihu.
The oaths of Job 31 may be contrasted with what we may call the blanket denial of Job 23:10-12. In that passage Job just said, “My foot has held fast to his step…I have not turned aside” (23:11). Here, however, Job will focus either on particular allegations raised by Eliphaz in Job 22 or several other possible bad acts he might have performed. In each case, the form is the same: ‘If I have done XXX (bad thing), then let YYY (bad thing) happen to me.’
Two brief examples will show how this works in Job 31. First, Eliphaz has alleged in 22:6-7 that Job has oppressed the poor, by taking away clothing from the naked and giving no water to the weary. Job denies that charge specifically in 29:12 (“because I delivered the poor who cried”), and he goes further to say in 31:16 that if he had seen anyone perish for lack of clothing and did nothing about it, let his shoulder blade, supporting his right hand in oath, fall from its socket (31:22). The solemn duty to assist the poor is laid out as a legal requirement in Deuteronomy 15:7-11. Thus, Job has upheld the law and has denied Eliphaz’s charge by his oath.
Second, Eliphaz has alleged in 22:9 that “you have sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the orphans you have crushed.” Job will deny those two charges in 29:12-13, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper,” and “I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.” Then, attaching his solemn oath to this denial in 31:16, he says, “If I have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,” and in 31:21, “If I have raised my hand against the orphan”, then let his shoulder blade fall from its socket (31:22). The care for orphans and widows was likewise a legal requirement (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18 and elsewhere). Job thus clears himself from this charge, too.
As mentioned, Job 31 isn’t simply a catalogue of Job’s good acts or a point-by-point refutation of Eliphaz’s charges in ch 22. It presents an assorted series of denials of bad activity, denials that give Job complete confidence that as he signs his complaint in v 35 he will be vindicated. He must be vindicated. Anything other than full vindication will be a loss.