Miserable Comforters: Job and His Peers

My weekly Bible reading consists currently of readings in the Torah (Monday thru Friday) and readings in the rest of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures on the weekends. Lately, I’ve been in the book of Job and today’s reading was Job 16-20. I came across this gem.

Then Job answered and said:

I have heard many such things;
miserable comforters are you all.
Shall windy words have an end?
Or what provokes you that you answer?
I could speak as you do,
if you were in my place;
I could join words together against you
and shake my head at you.
I could strengthen you with my mouth,
and the solace of my lips would
assuage your pain.
(Job 16:1-5)

If you’ve ever read the book of Job you know that following the narrative portions in chapters 1 and 2 the rest of the book is mostly poetry. Leading up to chapter 16 you have various speakers including Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. It is to Eliphaz’s words in 15:1-35 that Job replies that his peers who have travelled far to see him in his suffering (2:11-13) are all “miserable comforters.” Eliphaz had accused Job of dismissing God outright – “You are doing  away with the fear of God and hindering meditation before God.” (15:4) He also accused him of standing in opposition to God – “Why does your heart carry you away, and why do your eyes flash, that you turn your spirit against God and bring such words out of your mouth?” (15:12-13)

In chapter 16, Job is taken back by this accusation. Job had been described as being “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (1:1) Even in the midst of his suffering, when he lost his children and his wealth, and proclaimed that “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” (1:21), the text tells us that Job “did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (1:22) He was, at his core, a God-fearer who trust in him above all else. So when he confronts Eliphaz and his other friends, you can sense the frustration in his words. What Eliphaz tells Job he has heard before and to him they are nothing more than “windy words.” (16:2) If their roles were reversed and it was Eliphaz who lost his children, his wealth, and his health, Job could just as easily speak as he did and accuse him of not fearing God. (16:4) And he could even bring solace to Eliphaz in his pain.

But Job points out that when he speaks his own pain is “not assuaged” for “God has worn me out” and “he has made desolate all my company.” (16:6-7) In other words, no amount of complaining out of Job’s mouth is actually helpful and so when his friends accuse him of not fearing God they are doing him no good. God has already “torn me in his wrath and hated me,” he tells Eliphaz. (16:9) And even though his “face is red with weeping” and on his “eyelids is deep darkness,” yet “there is no violence in [his] hands,” and his “prayer is pure.” (16:16-17) The Job of 1:1 and 1:22 is the same Job who confronts his peers and their accusations.

The book of Job is perhaps my favorite of the books of the Hebrew Bible. It is filled with emotional language and circumstance and one can sympathize completely with Job and his reaction to his less-than-helpful friends. Job is in all likelihood a legendary figure and the book of Job is nothing more than pious fiction, but it doesn’t mean that there is nothing to enjoy about it and nothing to glean from it. The person Job may be fictional but the terrible things that happened to him in the story – the loss of children, the loss of personal wealth, and the loss of his health – are all completely relatable for many people, whether a believer or a skeptic.

Atheists tend to dismiss the Bible too quickly and read it with the sole purpose of finding problems with it. Frankly, that is child’s play compared to giving the text a deeper reading and seeking to understand the worldview from which it was written. Christians too have this tendency to read the Bible superficially, using it as a reference book to prove this or that doctrinal belief. Both groups have a tendency to be unaware of the fact that the Bible is a complicated and messy anthology of books.

Let’s read the Bible anew and see it for what it truly is: the words of ancient writers trying to understand their world and the events that happened in their own lives.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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