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78. Job 8:8-10, Learning from the Tradition

 

8 “For inquire now of bygone generations,

    and consider what their ancestors have found;

9 for we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing,

    for our days on earth are but a shadow.

10 Will they not teach you and tell you

    and utter words out of their understanding?

 

Just as Eliphaz was at his most eloquent when recounting his eerie night vision in 4:12-16, so Bildad’s language regarding the traditions of the elders in 8:8-10 is striking and moving. He speaks of the tradition as if it was a living thing, a thing consisting of people long gone that still “utter words from the heart” (v 10). Those few words constitute one of the more memorable descriptions of a tradition I have seen.  

 

He first challenges Job to look at the source which he, Bildad, admires most: the earlier generations. Verse 8 may be rendered, “For ask, I bid you, the first/former generation, and get solid information from that which their fathers have searched out.” He begins by referring to the rishon, literally the “head” generation, which connects the thought with the resheth (the “beginnings”) of verse 7.  The second half of verse 8 is meant to be parallel to the first half of the verse, even if the three words are a bit more difficult to render. The first of them, kun, means “to establish” or “to be firm.” Thus, Bildad is calling on Job to confirm something from this earlier generation.  My translation ("solid information") tries to do justice to the “firmness” in kun.  

 

The content of this firm information will be the “the things searched out/the searchings of their fathers” (Seow renders it as “the search of their predecessors”). We thus have a sort of double search process implied in verse 8. Job is to get solid information from those who also searched diligently for something. A living tradition exists when eager searchers in the present seek knowledge from those who just as eagerly searched in past generations. Here we have the noun form of the verb chaqar (“to search out,” 27x, which Eliphaz used in the last verse of his speech, 5:27).  The word is cheqer (12x, a majority of which appearances are in Job), a noun fraught with immense meaning in Job. It first appears in Eliphaz’s mouth as a description of the depths of the divine activity in the world. “God does great things, and unsearchable (eyn cheqer), wonders…” (5:9). Job will like the idea and sound of the word so much that he repeats Eliphaz’s phrase of 5:9 in 9:10, where God does unfathomable/unsearchable things and wonders. Zophar completes the cycle then in 11:7 by asking if Job can find God by a deep search (cheqer). There is no other word in Job, to my knowledge, that appears relatively few times (7x in Job) and that is in the mouth of each the four major figures in the first poetic cycle. Everyone wants to get into the act regarding the things searched out. Though Bildad’s thinking as reflected in 8:1-7 has seemingly hardened into an inflexible theological system, he gives the impression here that faithful living is all about searching things out. That is the spirit of 8:8.

 

Bildad doesn’t go into what constitutes the imagined process of the searchings of the first/former generation. But it might be a useful exercise for us on some occasion to imagine this multi-generational "searching" process. How do we imagine that the storied figures of the past, Augustine and Jerome and Luther and Calvin, for example, searched out the deep things of God? Did they have nocturnal sessions of deep intimacy with the divine?  Frustrated times where study and searching had to be fit in between practical realities of life? How did they understand, internalize, move from idea to conceptualization and then writing?  One scholar has argued, for example, that Thomas Aquinas’ enormous productivity as reflected in his Summa is simply the result of memory that came rushing back to him, with such a profusion and specificity that we get the finest and most precise expression of a theological system in the Christian tradition. Thus, we learn not simply from an earlier person’s product but also from his/her process.

 

Verse 9 simply continues the thought of verse 8, “For we are of yesterday, and we do not know, because our days are simply a shadow upon the earth.” Hebrew has an unusual way of saying “formerly” (kethmol shiloshim, literally “as yesterday, three days ago”), and in verse 9 we just have the first part of it:  temol or “yesterday.” We are such young creatures, like infants, who struggle to learn about the world. Bildad has never been so eloquent as when he says two words in the next clause, “And we don’t know” or “we know nothing.” The appearance of the verb yada (“to know”) here seems to unleash something in our author, for the verb then appears six more times in the next two chapters (9:2, 5, 21; 10:2, 7, 13). It speaks so eloquently to us that we also recall the questioning in Job 28 when an earnest search for wisdom is going on. In succession, the deep and the sea say, “It is not with me” or ‘I don’t know’ (28:14). This wisdom sought by all is a precious and valuable commodity; we don’t have it because we are so late-arrived on the scene. Even the ancients felt that they were late arrivals. That is why we have to consult those who have searched things out from the deep past, according to Bildad. I suppose it never occurs to anyone that those whom we search out were themselves just shadows on the earth, too, just people who struggled like we did, just people who also “didn’t know.” 

 

If the first clause of verse 9 emphasized human youth (“from yesterday”) and ignorance, the second focuses on its ephemeral character. Our days are like a shadow (tsel). What a mature and thoughtful approach to life! We just appear on the scene, without knowledge, and our days pass away before we know it. Faced with such realities, the humble person has to admit, like the sea and the deep of 28:14, that wisdom isn’t in us. So powerful is Bildad’s thought here that Job picks up on it in 14:2, the anchor thought in what many believe is his most profound poem. Other Biblical authors pick up on the notion of the swiftness or shadowy character of our days.  Psalm 102:11 has “My days are like a shadow” (tsel) that stretches out and I, like grass, wither away.” Or, Psalm 144:4 has, “Humans are like a breath; their days are like a shadow (tsel) that passes by.” Bildad would have understood and concurred.

 

Tradition is a living reality for Bildad, and that is never more clear than in the rhetorical question he poses to Job in verse 10, “Shall not these teach you and speak to you?  Words flow forth from their heart.”  The question is simple, but the construction of the last three words is arresting. Literally we have “from their heart” (milibbam) “leap out/emerge” (yatsa) “words” (millim).  “From the heart” and “words” are identical except for the medial “b” in the former. It is an imaginative picture. We almost imagine the words leaping out, flowing forth from the mouths of those of the earlier generation. Just as Eliphaz had to be hyper-vigilant to see and hear all that he saw in his night vision, so lovers of the tradition must have that same heightened awareness to perceive all the words that flow freely forth from the heart of the past generations.

 

By the time Bildad finishes his brief interlude on the value of the tradition, we almost feel warmly inclined toward him. He is not simply a legalist, we think, with no appreciation of the living character of a tradition. Unfortunately, this positive assessment won’t last. By the time Bildad gets started again, he descends into a kind of obscurity we have seen in both of the previous speakers. Perhaps the warm thoughts kindled by reminiscing on tradition kindled his own emotions temporarily and thus destabilized his clear categories and straightforward speech.