It is not a complete cycle. Eliphaz’s speech is shorter than his previous two (Job 22), Bildad’s speech is the shortest in the whole dialogue (Job 25), and Zophar does not even speak. The friends are clearly exasperated and Job, too, is done with them. One might say they are no longer “friends.”
The Friends on Divine Transcendence and Human Value
The common theme of the two speeches by the friends is the chasm between the divine and human. But it is not the chasm to which Job objects and which the narrator rejects. Everyone agrees God is transcendent–God’s power is great (Almighty is God’s name), his wisdom or understanding is beyond human comprehension, and his activity in the world is comprehensive and pervasive. But what does this mean in how God regards humanity?
For the friends, it appears as if God is practically disinterested in humanity. Wisdom functions more as an impersonal principle rather than as God’s active engagement. God, according to Eliphaz, has little use for humanity. Listen to his opening lines (NRSV) in Job 22:2-3.
Can a mortal be of use to God? Can even the wisest be of service to him? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?
Eliphaz’s rhetorical questions assume the answer is “No!,” but the Prologue screams “Yes!” God does care. God delights in the righteousness of Job and God gains a cosmic witness with Job’s blamelessness (integrity). Eliphaz’s disinterested God is not the God of the Prologue.
Bildad returns to the same theme (25:3): “How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure?” The answer is found in the Prologue: Job is righteous! Of course, neither the Prologue nor Job himself mean that a human being can be absolutely righteous or pure before God, but it is possible–indeed, part of the function of the book itself–for a person to authentically trust God and turn away from evil. And that person, in this book, is Job.
What we hear in the friends is a practical devaluation of creation and particularly humanity. Their sense of transcendence and their defense of God has left us with a disinterested God.
Job, however, is convinced that God is interested even though God is transcendent and Almighty (see his hymn of praise in 26:6-14). His bitter complaint (23:2) is that God has not yet shown up to hear his case, but he is nevertheless confident that “an upright person” can get a hearing from God and a fair judgment (23:7). At the same time, Job lives with terror–terrorized by God’s power, potential presence and the prosecution (23:13-17). Job is caught in the tension of lament–the tension between the distress of his situation and his appeal for God’s fairness; the tension between trouble and trust.
At the heart of this is Job’s sense of his own self and God is interested in it. Job confesses that God “knows the way that I take” and “when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold” (23:10). Job knows his own heart and life–he has not turned aside from the way of God and he has treasured God’s words more than his bread (Job 23:11-12). Job hopes for vindication because he knows his own commitment to God. God is interested and values Job’s faith.
Job’s Sins and the Wicked
Eliphaz finally gets specific, that is, specifically accusing Job of particular sins. Up to this point it has been a backhanded accusation. The wicked do “X,” and are thus punished. Job has been punished, so–implicit and not specifically stated–Job must have done “X” as well. But now Eliphaz offers a list of sins in which Job is complicit and assures Job that “there is no end to [his] iniquities” (22:5).
According to Eliphaz, Job “exacted pledges” from family members, “stripped the naked of their clothing,” gave “no water to the weary,” withheld bread from the hungry,” “sent widows away empty-handed,” and he “crushed” the “arms of the orphans” (22:6-9). “Therefore,” Eliphaz says, “sudden terror overwhelms you” (22:10).
At the same time, Eliphaz once again, as he has each time, offers Job the hope of repentance. “If…If…” “If you return to the Almighty,” he assures him, “you will be restored” (22:23). Then when “you pray” to God, “he will hear you” (22:26). After all, Eliphaz knows, God “saves the humble” (22:29), so Job must humble himself in repentance. But in that there is hope and assurance.
But Job does not accept Eliphaz’s premise. Job has not “departed from the commandment” of God’s lips (23:12). Further, Job questions whether the wicked are always punished. “Why are times not kept by the Almighty and who do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1). In other words, when is this judgment going to come upon the wicked? Their evil is unceasing, and Job details their evil. God does not deal with the wicked. Instead, it appears that “God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power…and gives them security” (24:22-23). The evidence is so clear that Job demands that if it is not so that he be proved wrong (24:25).
Job’s characterization of the wicked is a thorough portrayal of human sin. They remove landmarks, steal from widows, terrorize the poor, “take as a pledge the infant of the poor,” murder the innocent and filled with adultery (Job 24:2-17). Job protests the evil and at the same time affirms the “way” he takes–he is not one of these wicked (which is apparent from Job 31). Job knows who he is, he knows his ethical life, and he knows his commitment. He is not one of the wicked–this is clear to Job and, through the eyes of the Prologue, it is clear to the reader.
Bildad only offers a short response (5 verses) and Zophar does not answer at all; his frustration has driven him to silence. In this third cycle the friends have given up on Job; he is beyond recovery.
In the place of Zophar’s silence, Job offers one last speech in the dialogue (Job 27). It functions as a closing statement for the dialogue. We might hear it as the culmination of Job’s own rising tension between trouble and trust, his final lament in the dialogue before his friends.
It begins with an oath of innocence (27:2-6), moves to an oath against his enemies and opponents (22:7-12), and ends with a hymnic confession that ultimately the wicked will experience the judgment of God (27:13-23).
The oath of innocence is sworn on the reality of the living God but at the same time charges God with removing his just rights and embittered his soul (27:2). Job recognizes God as the ground of all life and also recognizes his responsibility for his trouble. He swears his innocence. In particular, he does not speak any falsehood or deceit (27:4), maintains his integrity (27:5), and hangs on to his righteousness (27:6). Job has no regrets concerning his faith and commitment to an ethical life, God’s “way.” One could read this as a self-righteous vindication, but it could also be the truth. Job has been honest about his feelings, integrity is at the core of his life and response to his trouble (as Yahweh acknowledged in the Prologue), and his ethics have never been questioned by Yahweh or the narrator. This is the plea of an innocent person, an innocent sufferer–and that is a critical point for understanding the plot of the drama in the book of Job.
The oath against his opponents is not directed toward God or the satan. His opponents are his friends; his friends have become his enemies. Job–no doubt to the utter contempt of the friends–gives them over to the category of the “godless” in whom God takes no delight and doubts that God will hear their prayers (27:7-12). Rather, they should listen to Job. “I will teach you,” Job says, “concerning the hand of God” (27:11). And, as Job taught us earlier, everything is in the “hand of Yahweh” (12:9). Is this arrogant? Actually, Yahweh confirms it. Job, according to the Epilogue, said what was right about God and the friends did not (42:7).
Job confesses the destiny of the wicked (27:13-23). Even though he does not see the evidence of it at the moment; indeed, he sees some contrary evidence. Nevertheless, he confesses–by faith–that God will deal with the wicked according to their sins. “Terrors will overtake them,” Job confesses (27:20). While Job questions why the wicked continue to prosper in the present, he believes that “the portion of the wicked” is judgment (27:13).
Job is innocent. The friends are wrong. The wicked will ultimately be punished. This is where the dialogue ends. Where do we go from here? The narrator, as a pause in the structure of the drama, offers a poem on wisdom to which we will turn next (Job 28).