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4. The Order and Disorder of the Book of Job
The previous discussion might give the impression that the Book of Job is a disordered mess, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Unlike many books of the Bible, it has a clear structure, and the flow of the argument is also pretty clear, even though we get bogged down in most speeches because the speakers descend into unclarity. After the Prologue, the lengthy first section of the book (Job 3-27) is best divided into three cycles of speeches. Though there is some disagreement among scholars as to whether the First Cycle of speeches begins in Job 3 or Job 4, I agree with those who affirm the former. Thus, as will be shown below, Job 1-2 presents the "problem" of the Book of Job, and then Job 3 launches the First (of Three) Cycles of speeches.
The reason for seeing the First Cycle beginning in Job 3 is a legal one. Crucial in presenting and responding to a case presented in court is the notion of “opening the door.” Opening the door begins when one side in the case either makes an admission or introduces a topic that is may only be tangentially related to the case. Because of this tactic, which is usually designed to get an advantage over one's opponent, the other side can use whatever is said/admitted, and then probe further with help of that admission. For the Book of Job that means that Job 3 functions as Job’s “opening the door” by admitting things that weren't admitted in Job 1-2, that is, Job’s feelings about God, about a desire to die, about the worthlessness of life. After making that admission, the friends are then free to pick up on the admissions and pursue them in detail—which is what happens beginning in Job 4. Thus, Job 3 makes most sense if it begins the First Cycle, principally because in it Job opens the door by admitting a different kind of evidence than in Job 1-2, an admission which triggers the entire subsequent argument.
Thus, we can tentatively outline the content of the Book of Job as follows:
Job 1-2 The Prologue: Narrative of Job’s Family, Distresses and Initial Reaction.
Job 3-11 The First Cycle of Speeches. The book establishes a pattern of speaking where Job goes first, followed by Eliphaz; then Job followed by Bildad; and then Job followed by Zophar.
Job 12-20 The Second Cycle of Speeches. We have the same pattern followed here of Job-Eliphaz; Job-Bildad; Job-Zophar.
Job 21-27 The Third Cycle of Speeches. Many see this cycle as incomplete because it appears to present a Job-Eliphaz; Job-Bildad (with Bildad’s speech in Job 25
only being six verses), and Job speech, without a response from Zophar. As I argued in When Leaving God is a Good Choice, Job 26 is Job’s third speech but I also argued that some of Job 27, put in the mouth of Job, is best read as being said both by Job and Zophar. The point would not only be that people are ‘talking over’ each other but that communication between the friends has completely broken down at this point. All they can do is to try to speak louder than the other. Thus, I argue for a complete Third Cycle of speeches.
Job 28 An Interlude or Intermission. We need a mental break at this point. Two-thirds of the way into the book we have a pleasant, and temporarily distracting, hymn to wisdom.
Job 29-31 Job’s Peroration. He makes his case in three chapters of great power and
Job 32-37 Elihu Speaks
Job 38-41 God Enters and Speaks
Job 42 Resolving the Dilemma
The outline of the Book of Job is so clear that we can easily get our bearings at any point in the often difficult-to-follow discussion. Thus, if we are “stuck” on 16:4, for example, we can calmly say, “Ah, we are in the Second Cycle where Job is giving his second speech. . .” The clarity of structure of the Book of Job encourages us to ask other questions, such as whether the speakers are talking to and answering each other’s questions or talking past each other from the beginning. That is, clarity of structure allows and encourages us to pose deeper questions about the meaning of arguments and the Book of Job as a whole.
Yet, this structural clarity happens in the midst of a linguistic chaos that gradually unfolds as we read. We often are told that the difficult language of Job only begins with the poetry in Job 3, but if we look closely at Job 1-2, for example, which is the narrative of Job’s blessedness, distress and initial reaction to distress, we see that chaos or linguistic challenge already occurs in that section.
But, first, we should recognize the predictable and repetitive linguistic structure in Job 1. This neat structure serves as a neat foil to the chaos that will happen in Job's life. Job is introduced as a man who is upright and blameless, fearing God and turning away from evil (1:1). But then the predictability starts. God the same things to the Satan in 1:6-8 and 2:1-3. The word “hand” is used six times, the word baad, translated “for” or “behind” is used five times. Four times we have the phrase “I alone have escaped to tell you" (in 1:15, 16, 17, 19). The repetition gives a growing sense of ominousness to the story, but it does tend to stabilize us in the midst of that ominousness. Three times we have “while he was yet speaking” (1:16, 17, 18); the verb “fall” occurs four times. Even as disaster unfolds, it is done in a way that maximizes the literary predictability and stability.
But then we have two ways in which language already begins to challenge us. The word “bless” (barak) appears six times in these two chapters but we find as we read and re-read the chapters that it often should be translated as “curse.” And, then, we don’t know if it is “curse” or “bless” in 2:9, when Job’s wife is given her only curtain call of the entire book. There seems no other precedent in the Bible for taking “bless” as “curse” especially when the Biblical authors have a well-developed language of cursing ready at hand—and which will freely be used beginning in Job 3. So, why should the narrative of Job 1-2 continually talk about blessing God when the obvious meaning of the text is its opposite? Commentators and especially Bible translations usually ignore the problem, as if saying “winter” naturally means “summer.” Yes, that is how we speak all the time, isn’t it?
My thesis is that this is a shot across our literary bow, telling us that all of our categories, and not simply the basic categories of language, will be upended as the book precedes.
But then there is another way that language is used in Job 1-2 that makes things a bit less certain. We usually think of the purpose of language as to clarify thought and aid conversation and understanding. Yet, what if the meaning of language may sometimes be solely in the sound of the words? I am not talking about onomatopoeia, where someone might say the word “buzz” and we immediately think of a bee, but of the repeated use of similar sounds being the meaning. Job 1-2 open us to this idea when we realize the prevalence of the “s” or “sh” sound to begin words. We have sur (1:1, 8; 2:3); sim (1:8, 17; 2:3); suk (1:10); suth (2:3). Then we have shalach (1:3, 5, 11, 12; 2:5); shathah (1:4, 13, 18); shakam (1:5); shut (1:7; 2:2); shachah (1:20); shub (1:21) and shamar (2:6). Thus, in two short chapters we have more than 20 appearances of verbs that begin with these two sounds. Is the meaning in the sounds itself, as if the author is trying to say, in our words, “Shush…” and “just listen to what is being said”?
We don’t know, but we know that destabilizing and alliterative language will appear already in the so-called clear and stable narrative of Job 1-2.
Let’s get ready, then, for a long and bumpy ride. We don’t know as we begin whether it will ultimately be worth it, but through the text we will be brought into a complex and powerful story, we will be given enough clarity to lurch to the next point, but then we will often have that clarity ripped out from under us.
The Scriptural translations at the head of each section come either from the NRSV Bible (Job 1-13) or the NASB translation (Job 14-42). I usually “retranslate” each verse along the way, but those standard and respected translations are provided to give us our initial bearings with each passage. Let’s begin.
Getting Our Bearings on Job 1-2