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32. Job 4:1-6, Time to Listen, Job!

 

1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

2 “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?

    But who can keep from speaking?

3 See, you have instructed many;

    you have strengthened the weak hands.

4 Your words have supported those who were stumbling,

    and you have made firm the feeble knees.

5 But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;

    it touches you, and you are dismayed.

6 Is not your fear of God your confidence,

    and the integrity of your ways your hope?

 

I used to think that the only way to interpret Eliphaz’s opening words was as an olive branch extended to Job. It was the compassionate expression of an older friend who himself was perhaps deeply affected by Job’s pain. I still believe that is a credible and defensible explanation of Eliphaz’s approach, but I am becoming open to seeing it as more like a fist in the velvet glove, figuratively speaking, than Eliphaz's avuncular comforting of Job. The reason for my partial change of heart is Eliphaz’s first word in 4:2: it comes from the verb nasah

 

Eliphaz’s opening words are usually rendered, “If one ventures a word with you, will you become weary?” or “Will you be impatient/offended if someone tries to talk to you?” or, using the delightfully elegant language of the KJV, “If we assay to commune with thee, will thou be grieved?” The tone of each of these translations is gentle, as if Eliphaz knows he is walking into a sensitive situation and doesn’t want to set off any more alarms. Eliphaz feels he has to speak, probably because Job has opened the door (as we say in law) and invited his friends to speak by his own words and probably because he, Eliphaz, feels he has something to say.

 

Yet, this translation of nasah misses its essential nature as a verb of testing. It appears 36x in the Bible and none more revelatory, and troubling, than the first instance: Genesis 22:1. In that passage, God decided to “test” (nasah) Abraham by instructing him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. One undergoes a test to prove the genuineness of one’s belief or commitment. That is how the verb nasah is used, for example, in Judges 3:1, 4; 6:39. Non-Israelites were left in Canaan to “test” Israel, to discover the genuineness of its commitment to Yahweh (Judges 3:1, 4). The Queen of Sheba came to Solomon with all kinds of difficult questions to “test” him (nasah, I Ki 10:1); i.e., to prove to herself whether or not all the stories she heard about this fabled king were true.

 

If we apply this understanding to Eliphaz’s first word, a somewhat different reading of 4:2 results for us. With this new translation, the meaning would be, ‘If someone were to test you Job, would you get upset/impatient/offended/weary?’ It is a gentle but firm shot across Job’s bow in his suffering.  It would be suggesting that Job can expect no special treatment from the friends. We also need to go into more detail on the next verb, which is usually translated “upset.” It is laah, a 19x-appearing verb, also appearing in Job 4:5, that occupies the verbal field of “weariness” or “impatience due to weariness" rather than "upset."The weariness/exhaustion meaning of laah is neatly captured in Job 16:7, “But now God has exhausted me (laah). . .”  A better translation of Eliphaz’ opening words, then, is “If someone brings a test through a word to you, would you become impatient/would it wear you out?” That is, Eliphaz lets Job know from the outset that he will be challenging Job, testing him, forcing Job to “prove himself” in the midst of his suffering. Thus, Eliphaz’s opening words tell us that he sees this more as a test of Job’s understanding than simply an opportunity for comfort. Perhaps Eliphaz thinks that comfort has already happened during their seven days and nights on the ash heap with Job in 2:11-13. After silence come words. These words are meant to test Job, to “prove” him.

 

Perhaps our re-reading of Eliphaz’s first line as a “test” to Job will explain why Job, in his response in Job 6-7, turns “testy.” But first, of course we need to examine Eliphaz’s words in more detail. By asking Job if he would become weary/impatient (laah) if Eliphaz “tested” him, Eliphaz has unwittingly given Job a word that, as just mentioned, he will later use against God in 16:7 (laah). Job will say that God has “exhausted” him through his sufferings. There are many other instances where a word in one speech becomes taken up by a subsequent speaker and used for his advantage. Another example is in 5:2, where Eliphaz gives what seems to be proverbial wisdom that “anger (kaas) kills the fool.” Job picks up kaas in 6:2, making it the centerpiece of his defense: “Oh that my anger (kaas) were weighed. . .” In that sense, then, the friends are indebted to each other, though that literary indebtedness also means that they can use the borrowed words for their own purposes.

 

Is Eliphaz really posing a question, expecting Job to respond? He says, ‘If I test you with words, will you become weary/impatient?’ But then he plows right ahead, not seemingly waiting for an answer. Eliphaz really can’t restrain (atsar, first appearing in Genesis 16:2 to talk about God's "restraining" Sarai's womb from becoming pregnant) his words. The book of Job is full of people who can’t hold in their words. Job will say a few chapters later, “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth” (7:11; using chasak rather than atsar in that passage). The greatly humorous picture of Elihu in Job 32-33 is made more humorous when we realize that he has been trying to restrain his words for nearly 30 chapters, and now he finally bursts with words. As Elijhu says in the context, “The spirit within constrains (tsuq is the verb, 32:18) and “I must speak, so I can find relief” (ravach is the rare verb, 32:20). Eliphaz feels a bit that way in 4:2.

 

Job 4:3-4 contains one thought. Job has helped others when they were in need, providing timely guidance and insight; now that the tables are turned, however, he appears to be undone.  What is going on? That is what Eliphaz would like to know. This is the first way he “tests” Job, by pointing out a contrast between Job’s former activity and present reaction. Job himself, in his wonderful peroration of Job 29-31, will explain and defend his former conduct, though he has no opportunity to do so here. The images Eliphaz uses in these two verses are powerful. Job has yasar many people; that is, he has “instructed/chastened/warned/disciplined/corrected/admonished” them over the years.That was Job’s modus operandi. The verb yasar appears 43x in the Bible, with about one-third of those in Psalms and Proverbs. It is a quintessential “instructional” or “correction” word in the wisdom tradition. God disciplines or chastens (Psalm 94:12); the parent is to discipline the child (Proverbs 19:18). Job has done that in his role as elder, leader, and judge in the community.

 

But discipline doesn’t just consist of imposing painful punishments on people. In Job’s case, as Eliphaz said, he “strengthened” (the common verb chazak, v 3) weak hands. He helped make those who stumble (kashal) stand upright. Job’s words, in addition, have “made stout” (amats, 41x, v 4) the vulnerable knees of people. The combination of chazak and amats is particularly attractive, since these words were repeatedly used in Deuteronomy 31 and Joshua 1 to capture the courage needed for the leaders and people of Israel as they enter the Promised Land. Joshua 1:7, for example, puts these two verbs together in urging the people to be prepared for the daunting tasks ahead: “Only be strong (chazak) and very courageous" (amats). Thus, Eliphaz knows how to draw on words deeply embedded in the traditions of Israel and apply them to the situation at hand. In Job’s case, he strengthened people by his “words.” Though we don’t usually pause on such a pedestrian word as “word,” in this case Eliphaz uses millah, rather than the common dabar. Millah appears 38x times in the Bible, all but four of which are in Job. It is almost as if we want to render it uniquely as “winged words” or “special words.”  

 

Though Eliphaz appears to be “testing” Job, he is doing so at this point with gentle chiding. That gentle chiding is made more explicit in verse 5. “Now it comes upon you, and you are weary (laah again). It “touches” you (using the familiar naga, the word used to describe the Satan’s attack on Job) and you are troubled.” Job has been the mainstay of weaker people, helping them onto their feet. Why doesn’t he take some of his own advice in this instance? It isn’t really a bad question. Physician, heal thyself, is the tone of it. Eliphaz closes this section with the salutary: “Isn’t the fear of God your confidence and the integrity of your ways your hope” (v 6).”  It all flows so clearly, that one might wonder why I now suggest an alternative translation of 4:5-6. . .