Job 28 appears at the end of the dramatic dialogue as the calm following the storm. It is a peaceful, reflective wisdom teaching on the search for wisdom. It sticks out like a sore thumb between the dialogue (3-27) and monologue (29:1-42:6) sections of Job. Or, is it a frustrated, anguished cry that wisdom is so unavailable to human beings?
Its placement and ambiguous tone create a problem. Is Job 28 spoken by Job or is it an interlude (pause) inserted by author/narrator? Is it a continuation of Job’s speech in 27 or is it the narrator’s theological comment?
On the one hand, the text indicates no break between Job’s speech in chapter 27 and this chapteras it does between Job’s last response to the friends in Job 26 and the oath of innocence in chapter 27 (cf. 27:1). The narrator gives no indication that the speakers have shifted. All editorial indicators are that the text is a continuation of Job’s final speech of the dialogue. On the other hand, the seeming calm tone of Job 28 appears out of place for one who has been engaged in a strident dialogue with the friends. There are no allusions to the friends and no internal turmoil appears in the poem as it does in the dialogue (unless this appears in 28:12, 20). Further, the oath theme of chapter 27 is nowhere found in chapter 28. Also, it makes sense of the structure of Job to this wisdom poem as a divider between the dialogues (3-27) and the monologues (29-42). It is like an “intermission” in the dramatic story.
Ultimately, we cannot determine which is intended by the final editor/author with any absolute confidence. I can see it both ways. But it appears to me that Job 28 is most likely the narrator’s theological reflection on the struggle to find wisdom (but I am not confident of this). It is a pause that serves as a hinge between the dialogue and monologue sections of the book. In any event, whether the theology is on the lips of Job or from the narrator, this chapter has tremendous hermeneutical significance.
The poem comments on the futility of the human search for wisdom and raises the question of what is the place or location (maqom) of wisdom. Where is wisdom/understanding found?
The structure of poem is three stophes: (1) Job 28:1-11; (2) Job 28:12-19; (3) Job 28:20-28. The repition found in verses 12 and 20–”from where does wisdom come?/where is the place (maqom) of understanding”–is a structural indicator that identifies the beginning of new sections.
The first section (28:1-11), on one level, recounts the human capacity to dig deep within the earth in order to mine precious minerals and stones. Humans probe more deeply than the rest of creation (reflective of their capacities and role in the cosmos) and bring “hidden things to light” (28:11). At a deeper level, Bartholomew and O’Dowd suggest that the poem functions more profoundly as a metaphor (Old Testament Wisdom Literature, pp. 172-176). The miners are the friends who dig deep into the depths of their own resources of wisdom but come up empty. Miners retrieve gold and silver, but the friend’s search for wisdom has not been so successful. There is an ironic twist in the description–miners know where the gold is but humans,with their own resources, don’t know where wisdom is.
The second section (28:12-19) clarifies the irony of the first. Humans “do not know the way to” wisdom and understanding (28:13). Humanity has its limits when it comes to wisdom. It cannot be secured like gold or silver though it is more valuable than either. “The price of wisdom is above pearls” (28:18).
The third section (28:20-28) identifies the way to wisdom. It is rooted in God who knows its place (maqom). It is hidden from humanity, even in the depths of death and destruction (28:22). Humanity cannot find the way of wisdom; humans as finite creatures are limited epistemologically.. Only God knows for only God “sees everything” on earth and under the heavens (28:24). The wisdom of God created the cosmos, established its boundaries, and searched out its resources. The Creator God identifies the location (maqom) of wisdom. God says to humanity:
Behold, the fear of the Lord (‘adonai), that is wisdom,/and to turn from evil is understanding.
The central questions of 20:12 and 20:20 are answered in the final climatic line of the poem in 28:28. Where does wisdom come from? It comes through fearing God. Where is understanding located? It is found in turning away from evil. Job 28:28 describes a wise person.
Significantly, this describes Job himself as he appears in the Prologue. Job is thrice described as one who fears God and turns away from evil (1:1, 8; 2:3). Job is a wise person.
Could Job have uttered this poem? Yes, I think so (but not necessarily so). Job is a wise person who knows the way he takes before God and is committed to it (Job 23:10-12). He understands that wisdom is not a matter of human ingenuity but a divine gift. Job has already voiced many of the sentiments of this poem (cf. Job 12:12; 26:14). As the dialogue comes to an end, Job returns to his roots, that is, he returns to where the narrative/drama began–the fear of God and turning away from evil. After all the investigation, debate and argument, Job’s conclusion (if it is Job rather than the narrator) reflects what he has known from the beginning–the fear of God is wisdom. Job could have said this as part of his final speech in the dialogue.
Does the narrator intend us to see this poem as a hinge between the dialogues and monologue? Yes, I think so. It links the Prologue and Epilogue, as Job is God’s servant and speaks what is “right” about God. It vibrates with the wisdom Job has already expressed in the dialogue and will find climatic expression in the Yahweh speeches. Job 28:28 is the theological heart of the whole poetic drama. This is wisdom and not the rational and/or traditional wisdom of the ages or sages. It points to the epistemological and sapiential limits of human thought and life, but it also points to where humanity may embrace authentic wisdom.
The poem highlights the futility of the human search for wisdom on its own terms, but at the same time embraces the embodiment of wisdom in a pious, obedient life. Neither the friends nor Job can discover the wisdom of God’s actions in the suffering of Job, but Job can embrace the trusting piety that embodies wisdom.
We sit where Job sits–we cannot know but nevertheless we trust. We cannot figure out or search out what God is doing, but we know trust (faith or fear) is true wisdom.