‘Despite all that silence Bildad doesn’t seem to have done much listening.’

Inside Job: Joseph Jones’ thought for the week

‘Job’s raging against God is naive and wild. But it is honest and personal’ | Photo: Job’s Tormentors, William Blake, c1785-90

According to Wikipedia, there are at least three countries that claim to host the tomb of the Old Testament character Job. Being buried multiple times might seem fitting for the author of a book about why bad things happen to good people, but it also speaks to his influence among each of the Abrahamic faiths – and well beyond.

It’s Job’s comforters who have been on my mind more recently though – the three friends who visit him as he suffers. At first they seem to be thoroughly considerate. For seven days they sit with Job in silence, before giving him the space to vent his feelings. So far so good. But then Eliphaz, representing the fêted wisdom of the Edomites – and like so many people who think themselves wise – can’t resist offering some personal advice. ‘If I were you,’ he says (don’t they always?), ‘I would appeal to God’, and not ‘despise the discipline of the Almighty’. To be fair this was (and perhaps still is) the accepted truth of the faithful community, but his finish is insenstive to say the least: ‘We have examined this, and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself.’

Bildad is worse. He blames Job’s children, whose sin must have brought God’s judgment on the family. There is no particular malice in this – he too is only repeating the teaching of the day – but despite all that silence Bildad doesn’t seem to have done much listening.

Zophar tries another familiar gambit. It’s Job’s own wickedness that is the root of the problem. ‘If you devote your heart to [God]’, he says, ‘If you put away the sin that is in your hand’ then ‘You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by’.

Job will have none of this. His friends, with their perfectly-rendered, perfectly-orthodox theology, are perfectly wrong. Their learning is not enough: he must go to God on his own terms.

Ultimately, Job comes to understand his raging against God as naive and wild. But it is honest and personal. It is the beginning of a relationship. It is this relationship – rather than facts or theology or common sense – that gives birth to the truth. This truth isn’t owned or codified. Nor is it straightforward – God’s response, after all, comes in the form of seventy further questions. Truth is the thing that happens between two open parties. Perhaps that’s why, in the end, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have to rely on Job’s prayers to save them – none of them has thought to address God directly in any of their proclaiming.

Whatever we mean by God, we cannot confine it to the limits of one human’s learning. It dwells, as Paul wrote to Timothy, in ‘light unapproachable’. And yet it must always, always be approached.

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