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74. Job 8, Meeting Bildad

 

We might divide Job 8 as follows:  

 

8:1-7, Opening Words

8:8-10, Learn from the Elders

8:11-19, The Reality of Judgment

8:20-22, Hope for the Innocent

 

Job 8:1-7, Opening Words

 

1 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered:

2 “How long will you say these things,

    and the words of your mouth be a great wind?

3 Does God pervert justice?

    Or does the Almighty pervert the right?

4 If your children sinned against him,

    he delivered them into the power of their transgression.

5 If you will seek God

    and make supplication to the Almighty,

6 if you are pure and upright,

    surely then he will rouse himself for you

    and restore to you your rightful place.

7 Though your beginning was small,

    your latter days will be very great.

 

Though it is tempting just to jump into an exposition of Bildad’s ideas and his response to Job’s words and situation, our first observation relates to his language in the first seven verses. In a word, Bildad is the master of relatively rare words. His words aren’t incomprehensible (yet), like some of the vocabulary that made both Eliphaz’s and Job’s speeches in Chapters 4-7 a bit confusing, but they are rare enough to make us pause. For example, we have malal (5x, “to speak”) and kabir (10x, “mighty”) in verse 2, avath (11x, “to pervert”) in verse 3, and mitsar (5x, “small”) and sagah (4x, “to increase”) in verse 7.  The effect of the words, even though the sense is clear enough, is to make us read slowly, to try to savor Bildad’s words, to determine if there is any merit in them.  We wonder at times if he is speaking with a kind of affected eloquence. In any case, his word choice confirms what linguists tell us about each person’s language—we each have our own little languages, or idiolects, unique to us, with which we communicate.

 

His opening words betray some impatience: “How long will you continue to speak these things, with the words of your mouth being a mighty wind?" (8:2) The reason for his impatience is that he believes that Job’s words have impugned the integrity of God. In Bildad’s mind, Job’s words were tantamount to saying that God has “perverted” (avath, used twice in verse 3) justice and that therefore God is unjust. Whether Job has actually alleged that in Chapters 6-7 is debatable. but we might see Job’s declaration that the arrows of God have gone into him (6:4), that God’s presence scares rather than comforts (7:14) and that he is God’s target for oppression rather than love (7:20) as providing some warrant for Bildad’s words in verse 3. Bildad is certainly right in anticipating the direction of Job’s speeches. By Job 9, Job will in fact be asserting the moral confusion of God, and that God willy-nilly sweeps away the righteous along with the unrighteous (9:22).  Bildad rightly saw the direction of Job’s argument.  

 

Bildad’s anticipation of the direction of Job’s speech betrays a razor-sharp mind with clear theological categories. In any human endeavor, it is helpful to have a grid of possibilities to interpret a confusing situation before you. In assessing human behavior in law, for example, the prosecutor has to decide into which statutory ‘box’ a potential defendant’s behavior fits so that the defendant may be rightly charged. In interpreting someone’s actions, a psychologist or counselor usually has to fit someone’s actions into one or more of the behavior explanations provided by the DSM-IV in order to understand the client. 

 

Theology is no exception. Theology also provides a series of categories or explanatory principles by which to understand the world. Sometimes these categories are Procrustean—that is, they interpret behavior by forcing it into a rather restrictive mold. The clearest example of this in the Scriptures is the theology of the Deuteronomic historian. For page after page he will interpret the complexity of human behavior through the simple filter of loyalty or disloyalty to God--loyalty that is measured by whether the Northern Israelite king set up high places or permitted worship of Yahweh or other gods in locations other than Jerusalem. One king might have reigned a dozen or more years, but the Deuteronomist can simply say that his behavior was evil in the sight of the Lord. Simple. Disloyal. God judges. That’s it. Theology can, at times, eliminate nuance.

 

Bildad seems to be a person who not only can skillfully draw out the implications of an argument (i.e., he sees the direction of Job’s argument, even if Job hasn’t yet accused God of moral confusion) but also wants to minimize theological complexity. Categories are clear for him, and God works according to these categories. If there has been disaster in life, it has to be because someone has sinned. He will actually provide a new explanation for Job’s suffering—perhaps Job lost his children not because of Job’s sin but because of the children’s sin. They got what they deserved. What Job should do, according to BIldad, is to seek God, be pure and blameless, and wait for the vindication of God. 

 

We don’t know if Job, before his great loss, was also inclined to view the world with Bildad-like clarity or in the categories that Bildad uses in Job 8. Sometimes a prosperous business person becomes rich precisely because s/he is able quickly to size up a situation, make snap decisions, go with the gut while weighing the data, and thus take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. For all we know, the “pre-disaster Job” might have shared Bildad’s capacity for quick and decisive analysis of a situation, and for dividing the world into clear categories. Through his suffering, however, Job will learn to expand his categories. Or, said in other terms, Job will realize how flimsy the so-called firm categories of inherited theology actually were. Thus, before we condemn Bildad, as many students of Job are inclined to do, we ought to consider whether he was Job’s friend precisely because Job was of like mind with him before his great disaster.   

 

Bildad, then, is a man whose theological categories are clear. In Job 8 he begins by asserting his thesis in the form of a question (“Does God pervert justice?”—i.e., he believes that Job asserts that God is unjust in the divine judgments), and then giving an alternative explanation of Job’s suffering (i.e., the children themselves sinned, bringing the judgment of death upon them), and finishing with his exhortation to Job to seek God. The rest of the chapter will flesh out his theological system a bit more: God judges the wicked, but God will never forsake a righteous person. It is a tight and consistent system, one that has an explanation for almost all of human activity, but one that also holds out hope for Job’s future.  

 

Bildad’s theology is what one might attribute to a person who doesn’t have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to make theology a full-time occupation. Theology simply gives categories, or an explanatory system, to handle almost all the rough and smooth spots of life. It has kept him safe thus far, and it will bring him home. The problem of the Book of Job is that Job will allow his experience of loss to question, indeed shatter, his categories. Yet the friends continue, as we surely must expect them to continue, in the theological worlds they have occupied for many years. In this reading, then, Job is the odd one, the one who is breaking the mold. Usually when we have friends or loved ones that break out of the mold of tried and true categories, we try to rescue them, to bring them back. Job’s friends aren’t very different from that.