‘Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? Should they argue in unprofitable talk, or in words with which they can do no good? But you are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God. For your iniquity teaches your mouth, and you choose the tongue of the crafty. Your own mouth condemns you, and not I; your own lips testify against you.
‘Are you the firstborn of the human race? Were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council of God? And do you limit wisdom to yourself? What do you know that we do not know? What do you understand that is not clear to us? The grey-haired and the aged are on our side, those older than your father. Are the consolations of God too small for you, or the word that deals gently with you? Why does your heart carry you away, and why do your eyes flash, so that you turn your spirit against God, and let such words go out of your mouth? What are mortals, that they can be clean? Or those born of woman, that they can be righteous? God puts no trust even in his holy ones, and the heavens are not clean in his sight; how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, one who drinks iniquity like water!
Eliphaz can’t accept Job’s dismissal of all the traditional wisdom that he, Bildad and Zophar have offered and accuses Job of claiming to be wiser than they are. The debate is getting personal as each character becomes more disparaging about what someone else has said. Eliphaz tries to suggest that Job should listen to his ‘elders and betters’, although there is no suggestion in the text that Job is any younger than he is! He accuses Job of condemning himself out of his own mouth and suggests that no-one could say such irreligious things unless corrupted by sin. Therefore, Job must simply have been concealing his sinfulness and is getting his just deserts.
I am painfully aware of how easy it is to dig one’s heels in, to keep repeating exactly the same line of argument; and even to distort the evidence presented by someone else so that it will fit one’s own prejudices. Eliphaz doesn’t hold back and says many things to preserve his own authority and to diminish Job.
In verse 8 he asks rhetorically whether Job has had the privilege of listening to God in the divine council. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible this privilege is understood to be the context through which prophets receive their messages from God; but this is not the meaning here. Eliphaz is implying that Job seems to regard himself as akin to wisdom personified (Prov.8:30) alongside God at creation. As readers, we recognise the irony of the question. The prologue to the book is set in the divine council; and if Job had been able to listen in, all of his questions would have been answered before he even thought of asking them.
As the book unfolds, though, we progress with Job on his journey of discovery about God, about himself, about the universe, about cherished religious traditions, and even about the sincerity of friendship. Hopefully we are making similar discoveries for ourselves.
I’m sure that God could reveal everything about everything to us without our needing to ask questions; but then we would never know what it means to learn, or have the joy of that ‘eureka’ moment when we solve a tricky problem. The idea of growing in faith would also be meaningless. So I will thank God for everything that bewilders me and keep pursuing answers to all my questions.
Amazing God, grant me an inquisitive mind and an unwillingness to accept easy answers that fail to engage with the heart of a matter. Preserve me from belittling others, though, in my search for truth. May I delight in all that you reveal to me through the unexpected, and even unwanted, events of my life as I journey through Lent on the road to the Cross. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.