Abstract:Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite are often perceived as delivering an essentially uniform message that (erroneously) upholds the rigid, retributive justice of God as the answer to Job’s devastating plight. This paper presents a more nuanced and individualised examination of Job’s three comforters. Through a textual and thematic exploration of each friend’s corpus of speeches, the case is put that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar embody three subtly differentiated worldviews and epistemic frameworks. Consequently, each is shown to develop his own unique line of argument with regard to the origins and mechanisms of human suffering and the means by which Job may attain deliverance and restoration.
Famed as the anti-heroes of the Book of Job, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite deliver some of the longest uninterrupted monologues of the whole Bible, speaking expansively on issues pertaining to the character of God, the nature of morality and justice, the essence and attainment of wisdom, the dynamics of the divine–human relationship, and the experience of prosperity and suffering. The sheer extent of coverage afforded to these three much-maligned ‘comforters’ warrants our interest and attention as readers of inspired Scripture. Nevertheless, across the vast body of scholarship devoted to the Joban speech cycles, it remains comparatively rare to find treatises that specifically read the contributions of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar alongside each other for the purpose of articulating and evaluating their similarities and differences. There can be a tendency, especially in some shorter works, toward viewing the friends as a collective rather than weighing their distinct contributions to the dialogue.
Following David Clines, who opines that ‘[o]nly genuinely distinctive argumentation would fully justify the introduction of three interlocutors into the body of the book’,1 this article explores in turn the speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, applying thematic and linguistic analysis to elucidate (1) their respective presentations of the character and workings of God in the context of Job’s predicament, (2) the sources of authority they defer to, (3) the terms in which they frame Job’s apparent transgression, and (4) their views on how Job may achieve reconciliation to God. The case is put that each of the friends brings subtly unique perspectives to bear on the discussion. Eliphaz, it will be argued, presents as a ‘legalist’ with a covenantal understanding of God, who exhorts Job to accept his suffering as divine discipline pending his restoration. Bildad is identified as a ‘deist’ with a deterministic view of the world, who advises Job to reclaim his place among the righteous by humbly returning to God. Zophar is conceptualised as a ‘mystic’, upholding the inscrutable wisdom of God as the answer to all things and pressing Job to seek personal communion with God as his means of restoration.
1. The Dialogue with Eliphaz
1.1. His Stance: Authoritarian, Yet Not Unsympathetic
From the outset, Eliphaz presents as a domineering and no-nonsense figure, seeking to correct Job’s erroneous complaints by reference to various sources of superior wisdom, and apparently claiming that his consolations are divinely inspired.2 His first speech in particular is punctuated with authoritarian imperatives: ‘remember’ (Job 4:7),3 ‘call’ (5:1), ‘despise not’ (5:17), ‘hear’ (5:27). As the dialogue plays out, his overarching approach is to shut down the conversation, warning Job that he is only indicting himself by his continued protestations.4
Nevertheless, Eliphaz’s manner need not be construed as simply belligerent or patronising. Rather, it is in keeping with a recognised technique of sapiential counselling, in which the sufferer is moved from a past understanding of reality to a new knowledge by virtue of the wisdom being shared (cf. Prov 3:1, 5, 11; 4:1).5 Indeed, on two occasions Eliphaz substitutes his usual mode of appeal with more deferential approaches. In 4:2, he employs an indirect third-person conditional: ‘If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?’, and, in 5:8, an empathetic hypothetical: ‘As for me, I would seek God’.
There are further plausible arguments to be made that both the language and content of Eliphaz’s speeches evidence a considerable degree of magnanimity, and certainly to an extent that neither Bildad nor Zophar comes close to emulating. If his opening exhortations can legitimately be construed as tending towards consolation and gentle chastisement rather than outright rebuke, then the tone is set for a series of addresses in which Eliphaz seeks to extend genuine help to his friend, albeit in an insensitive and badgering manner.
Behold, you have instructed many,
and you have strengthened the weak hands.
Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope? (4:3-6)
Of particular significance is the likely translation of the verb יסר in 4:3 as ‘instruct’, contra its more common biblical sense of ‘chasten’ or ‘admonish’.6 From this, it may be inferred that Eliphaz is not accusing Job of hypocrisy—being unable to deal with his own chastisement in spite of having meted it out to others—but praising and encouraging him for his prior efforts to minister to the suffering, as is reiterated in the following verse (4:4). In turn, this casts his observation on Job’s response to his trouble (4:5) as no more than mildly reproachful, and allows the following exhortation (4:6) to be heard in a tone of sincerity, not sarcasm.7
In addition, Eliphaz’s discourse is distinctive for retaining a thread of compassion and encouragement right to the end. In the second cycle of speeches, by which time Bildad and Zophar have turned their focus almost entirely to accusation and threat, Eliphaz is the only friend to include another exhortation to wisdom (15:7–16). Likewise, his third speech climaxes in a last call to repentance, accompanied by assurances of prosperity and bliss (22:21–30). Bildad, by contrast, ends his final address on a note of lofty disdain (25:2–6), while Zophar has already retreated to silence.
Eliphaz’s specific encouragements to Job may be grouped under three central points, which will be elaborated in more detail in the following sections: first, that Job is to be counted among the ‘foolish’ rather than the truly ‘wicked’; second, that suffering may have a disciplinary as well as a punitive function; third, and relatedly, that restoration is assuredly available for those who amend their lives in accordance with God’s demands.
1.2. His Argument: The Rigid Moral Justice of God
As the first of the friends to speak, Eliphaz sets out the fundamental presupposition that will go on to underpin all three sets of speeches: namely that God blesses those who walk righteously, but brings cursing and destruction upon sinners (4:7–9). These principles of divine justice are made manifest in the processes of nature and of human society, and in particular through the remarkable reversals of fortune that come upon the weak and the strong respectively.8 In reasserting the moral order of the world, the friends seek to help Job redress the existential turmoil expressed in his opening soliloquy (3:1–26).9
To justify his assertion that there is a self-evidential distinction between the righteous and the wicked, Eliphaz rhetorically challenges Job to offer a single example of an innocent person who has ‘perished’ (אבד) or been ‘cut off’ (כחד), then uses the same vocabulary to spell out the contrasting fate of the ungodly (4:7, 9).10 Of course, Eliphaz knows that everyone, including the righteous, will eventually die. Yet the type of death in view here is an untimely and disgraced one, a summary act of judgement by God, which contrasts to the righteous who end their days without the burden of sickness and having lived a satisfying and prosperous life (5:24–26).11 Prior to this final and just reckoning, Eliphaz concedes that the wicked may enjoy at least the appearance of good fortunes (22:15–16, 18), and conversely that the righteous may experience hardship for a season, not least if they fall victim to the schemes of the corrupt men around them (5:11–16).12
Although the entirety of the Book of Job has been described as ‘markedly Jehovistic’,13 it is Eliphaz who speaks in the most explicit terms of what might be called a Deuteronomic-covenantal relationship between God and man. Such an understanding of the divine–human interaction begins with the gracious character of God, who instructs people in his ways and binds them to keep his commands for the purpose that he may bless them (Deut 8:6–9). In this vein, it is noteworthy that Eliphaz begins his ‘retributive-justice’ discourse by highlighting the reward of the righteous rather than the destruction of evildoers (4:7). As he continues, Eliphaz paints a portrait of a God who tends his creation (5:10), cares for its most vulnerable members (5:11), and ensures the poor are not exploited by those of foul intent (5:15). Thus, while even-handed justice prevails in God’s dealings with men, it is fundamentally underpinned by a benevolence and generosity towards those he favours. As he intervenes to thwart the plans of the wicked and throw their self-styled wisdom into confusion, the victims of their violence are not only delivered from pitiful circumstances but also healed emotionally with the gift of תִּקְוָה—expectant hope (5:12–16).14 In this way, it might be argued that Eliphaz is as much a proponent of ‘restorative’ justice as he is ‘retributive’.
In spite of this, it would be an overstatement to suggest that Eliphaz speaks of God in expressly loving or familial terms. It remains that God is too far removed from man to derive any pleasure or profit from his righteous conduct (22:2–3), and logically it stands to reason that neither does human wickedness intrinsically harm or grieve him.15 Since there can be no personal advantage to God in deviating from the principles of strict justice, Eliphaz can argue confidently that God’s treatment of man will always be objective and impartial.16
Within this covenantal framework, man carries a solemn responsibility for his conduct before God, on the basis of which he can expect either commendation or condemnation. Thus Eliphaz begins his first speech by invoking Job’s ‘fear of God’ and ‘integrity’ (4:6)—that is, his compliance with religious and social obligations—as the basis on which he can expect God to pay heed to his distress.17 Conversely, when later Eliphaz charges Job with ‘doing away with the fear of God’ (15:4), he uses the verb גרע, a strong term associated with the violation of a covenant (cf. Deut 2:4).18 His incorporation of both the particle אַף (‘indeed’) and the emphatic second person pronoun אַתָּה in this statement further affirms that it is Job, not God, who is responsible for their damaged relationship.19
Similarly, when Eliphaz speaks more generally of the wicked, it is with metaphors that demonstrate the arrogant purposefulness of their evil ways: the ploughing and sowing imagery in his first speech (4:8) suggesting one who deliberately prepares and cultivates a life of depravity.20 Such a person stands in open impudence and hostility toward God, ‘stretch[ing] out his hand’ (or ‘shaking his fist’) in a defiant yet foolhardy effort to ‘def[y] the Almighty’ (15:25).21 When troubles befall him, he can know that they do not simply appear ‘from the dust’—that is, from nowhere (5:6)22—but manifest the fact that he has been ‘cursed’ (5:3).
In the face of such disloyalty by his reprobate people, God the provider shows himself to be God the judge. By his own breath—blown from his very nostrils, and characteristically the source of life—he destroys them, the image reinforcing that their demise is not mere natural consequence, but an act of divine punishment (4:9).23 In 4:10–11, Eliphaz references the lion, a biblical metaphor for the deceptively powerful evildoer (cf. Ps 58:6). The illustration of this fearsome beast dying ignominiously for lack of food vividly adds to the picture of God’s inescapable judgement falling on those who oppose him.24 The language Eliphaz uses to portray the disgrace and destruction of sinners is expansive and emphatic, both in relation to the calamities they may expect to encounter in their lifetime (15:20–35) and in their ultimate demise: they are pounded to pieces, yet no-one seems to take notice, and they end their days never having gained insight into the value or meaning of life (4:20–21).
1.3. His Justification: Divine Revelation, Observation and Tradition
Eliphaz is the only one of the three friends to expressly reference divine revelation to underpin his pronouncements about Job’s suffering—indeed, it is a rarity within wisdom literature as a whole for insights to be imparted in this way.25 The ‘night vision’ he recounts in his first speech, and specifically its rhetorical charge, ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God?’ (4:17), forms the basis of his entire argument. He repeats the content of the vision in his second address (15:14–16) and opens his final declaration with a similarly themed statement (22:2). Nevertheless, and in spite of his intimation that he may only have been privy to a part (‘whisper’) of the divine proclamation (4:12), Eliphaz will consistently presume to have the last word on this extraordinary visitation, self-importantly explaining how his own observations singularly verify the message that was revealed to him (5:3–5).26 Indeed, he only introduces the subject of the vision after having first summarised for Job his personal perspectives on the matter of God’s righteous judgement (4:7–11).
Later, Eliphaz will argue that his views are representative of unadulterated ancient wisdom, which Job, by virtue of his youth, is in no position to gainsay (15:7–10, 17–19). Here again, Eliphaz’s appeal to a higher authority is at best adjunctive to his personal observations: the phrase ‘what wise men have told’ (15:18) forms a relative clause to the leading statement ‘what I have seen’ (15:17). In this discussion, Eliphaz seems to allude to the primordial, ‘first principle’ wisdom that governed the very creation of the world (15:7–8), which will form the subject of the book’s later ‘wisdom poem’ (28:1–28).27
In other ways too, Eliphaz’s discourse remains heavily self-centred. His prominent use of the first person, including throughout his recall of the revelatory night vision, stands in contrast to the oratory styles of Bildad and Zophar, and ensures that Job’s attention remains on what he, Eliphaz, personally has to say.28 His opening speech concludes in 5:27 with the definitive assertion כֶּן־הִיא (‘thus it is’), leaving no room for dissent concerning the truth of what has been stated,29 while the triumphal ‘we’ that forms the subject of this verse indicates that he is confident to represent all three interlocutors in the discussion.30
The irony, of course, is that Eliphaz is far more ignorant than he realises of the supernatural realities that lie behind Job’s present predicament. With no insight into the heavenly court where Job’s affliction was decreed (1:6–12; 2:1–6), Eliphaz crushes any hope Job might have of accessing, or being heard by, the members of God’s council (5:1, 15:8) and confirms his confidence in an earthly assembly to pass final judgement on Job’s culpability (5:27).31
1.4. His Accusation: Foolishness and Presumption
In line with his strict retributive-justice framework, Eliphaz holds to a firm line that suffering is proof of unaddressed sin in a person’s life. However, as noted above, it is not to the wretched sinner that he first draws Job’s attention but to the ‘innocent’ whose firm hope is deliverance and justice (4:7).32 Already, Eliphaz has highlighted Job’s piety and exemplary conduct (4:6), and as he proceeds to deliver his observations on the manifest distinction between the righteous and the wicked (4:7–11), he neither indicts Job nor demands a confession. His subsequent discourse on the fate of the self-destructively impetuous ‘fool’ (5:2–7) begins with a proverb that Job was likely familiar with, and hence continues the spirit of gentle rapport between teacher and learner that is characteristic of Eliphaz’s presentation.33 Eliphaz apparently perceives Job to have spoken erroneously and in haste, but not in a way that marks him among the truly wicked, and he can therefore have confidence that God will deal with him accordingly.34
In his second speech Eliphaz undeniably takes a firmer line with Job, as it were showing him the trajectory of godlessness that he is in danger of sliding down. Yet he is still charitable enough to attribute Job’s irreligious outcries to hot-headed anger (15:12–13)35 and a flawed dependence on ‘wisdom’ that is not grounded in sapiential tradition (15:2–3, 7–10) rather than to outright apostasy.36 Behind Job’s stubborn attempts at self-absolution lies a failure to grasp the fundamental point Eliphaz has been trying to communicate: that no-one can be wholly innocent before God (15:7–10).37 The corrective nature of Eliphaz’s otherwise uncompromising excursus on the fate of the unrepentant sinner (15:20–35) is seen in the way he does not make reference to any specific crimes in this section. Rather, mirroring Job’s own language, he exposes how Job has testified to characteristics and attitudes in himself that alarmingly resemble those of the wicked man.38
The clue to Eliphaz’s overall measured assessment of Job’s offences may once again lie in the message he heard during his ‘night vision’: namely that mortals are naturally less than righteous and cannot stand clean before their Maker (4:17). This runs contrary to the usual vein of wisdom literature, which sees humans as intrinsically responsible and capable of carrying out God’s requirements, though they may not care to do so (that is, they partake in unclean activities rather than possessing an inherently unclean nature).39 Eliphaz purports to have been shown that impurity and fickleness extend to the very members of God’s heavenly council (4:18; restated in 15:15), with the implication that all created beings are substandard by very virtue of their creatureliness: fragile like clay (4:19) and prone to trouble (5:7).
When Eliphaz speaks for the second time, it is primarily to warn Job that his foolish words are now harming both his own faith and that of others (15:4). His protestations of innocence are so vacuous as to be קָדִים (15:2)—the dry, hot east wind that blows off the desert, bringing irritability and listlessness (a charge both Bildad and Zophar will echo in their speeches: 8:2; 11:2).40 In seeking to defend himself and by complaining against God, Job has purposely chosen (בחר) the speech of the ‘crafty’ (15:5). In other words, Eliphaz deems that Job is trying to mask his guilty conscience with shrewdly deceptive words.41 Later, he will similarly accuse Job directly of denying God’s sovereign omniscience in order to cloak his sin (22:12–14, cf. Ps 73:11).42
Finally, his impatience apparently mounting, Eliphaz is moved to spell out some specific wrongs he believes Job has committed (22:5–9) and that have caused God’s anger to be aroused against him (22:10). Once again, there is a distinctly Deuteronomic overtone to Eliphaz’s accusations, which centre on Job’s alleged abuse of power, exploitation of the vulnerable, and failure to care for the neediest members of society (cf. Deut 24:6, 10–13). While at one level the specificity of these accusations lends Eliphaz’s discourse—and his closing speech in particular—a peculiarly harsh air, it bears acknowledgement that he alone among the friends provides Job with a concrete diagnosis of his supposed wrongdoing (Bildad and Zophar only ever speaking in generalised terms about human wickedness). This may yet reflect a sincere desire on his part to help Job begin amending his life and moving towards reconciliation with God.
1.5. His Remedy: Accept Divine Discipline and Turn Back to God
As noted previously, Eliphaz is not of the view that godly people should expect never to experience affliction. For one thing, this would leave no category in which to place the ‘lowly’, ‘mourners’, ‘needy’ and ‘poor’, who are shown to suffer at the hands of the unrighteous before God intervenes to rescue them (5:11, 15–16). More broadly, Eliphaz’s perspective accords with an established Old Testament pattern in which even a pious person may come under God’s reproof for the purposes of discipline or instruction (5:17; cf. Deut 8:2–5).43 As Eliphaz has rigorously established, no mortal is capable of conducting himself perfectly before God (4:17) and so all must expect to suffer deservedly on occasion.44 When it happens, the sufferer is faced with a choice either to resent and reject divine chastisement, or to submit in humility and penitence and so come through their trials to vindication and renewed blessing.45
This is the hope that Eliphaz steadfastly holds out to Job (5:17–26). Even when faced with the extremities of human suffering (metaphorically denoted by the ‘six’ and ‘seven’ afflictions of 5:19), he can yet be assured that God will deliver him from the humiliation of being overtaken by them.46 Renewed comfort, prosperity and divine guardianship are still his for the taking, if only he will face up to his having offended God, and submit once more to him. In concrete terms this will mean internalising and keeping God’s laws, purposely eschewing sin, and discarding his earthly securities in order that he might find true value in God (22:22–24).47 Pre-empting Job’s later appeal for a heavenly mediator (9:33–34), Eliphaz quashes the idea that any member of the divine council, themselves tainted by unworthiness and folly (4:18), would be in a position to appeal or intercede to God on his behalf (5:1). If Job wants to approach God, it can only ever be in the context of a personal admission of guilt (5:8).48
All this considered, Eliphaz’s extended discourse on the fate of the wicked (15:20–35) need not be read as a pointed accusation but rather as a foil to the main point of his speeches, which is to encourage Job to humbly seek reconciliation with God and resume his rightful standing among the blessed.49
2. The Dialogue with Bildad
2.1. His Stance: Prophetic and Deterministic
Like Eliphaz, whose language he echoes at several points, Bildad rests his argument on the justice of God in the face of Job’s alleged sin. However, his position is subtly more deterministic or even fatalistic, always looking ahead to the inevitable accomplishment of God’s purpose. His is a ‘black and white’ view of the world, demonstrated in part by his frequent use of polarities to describe the relationship between good and evil: light and darkness (18:5–6), the hunter and the hunted (18:8–10), security versus terror (18:14).50
While Eliphaz was willing to talk Job through the apparent illogic of his claims to innocence before proposing a remedy to his situation (in textual terms, this part of his address spans 29 verses), Bildad seems to have little patience to indulge Job in a discussion on the matter. In the opening statements of his first speech, he merely scolds Job for his foolish talk (8:2), defies him to refute the justice of God (8:3), and states, as though already obvious, the connection between sin and punishment with regard to Job’s children (8:4). He then immediately proceeds to prescribe his solution to Job’s predicament: he should return and make supplication to God (8:5).
In other senses too, Bildad’s manner is brisker and harsher than Eliphaz’s, not least as seen in his early chilling pronouncements concerning Job’s deceased family. He gives over his entire second speech to a frank exposition on the miserable fate of the wicked and specifically challenges Job for his impudence in suggesting his is an ‘exceptional case’ (18:4).51 At the same time, his overall approach is perhaps less combative, and by his final (short) speech he has ceased to directly accuse Job. Satisfied with his ‘self-evident’ doctrine of divine governance, confident that the truth will speak for itself, he seems content to state his case and withdraw. In Bildad’s view, what has happened to Job is right, and it was always going to be this way.
2.2. His Argument: God’s Immovable Decrees
Bildad grounds his discourse in a doctrine of God’s undeviating ways and the associated established and inflexible order of creation. In this stable and predictable cosmos, moral precepts are as fixed as physical matter and systems.52 In both his first and second speeches, Bildad introduces his indictments against the unrighteous by reference to a ‘natural law’ phenomenon: first, the impossibility of a plant growing or surviving without water (8:11–12), and second, the immovability of the earth and its rocks (18:4). In this way, Bildad suggests that the doctrine of retributive justice has the validity and regularity of a law of nature.53 There is a subtle contrast here with Eliphaz’s ‘natural’ metaphors, which occur at the end rather than the beginning of his speeches, and appear to function as illustrative similes rather than critical premises (5:26; 15:31–33).
In Bildad’s conceptualisation, the inevitability with which the godless man comes to destruction does not detract from the reality that—much like a deceptively prolific plant—he may flourish and prosper for a short time due to his resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity to exploit even the weak for personal gain (8:16–19).54 Bildad’s approach, much like Eliphaz’s, carries echoes of biblical wisdom writings, which acknowledged that evildoers might prevail for a time until God’s justice was manifest and that during such intervals some innocent people might suffer in a manner never fully requited.55
Whereas Eliphaz conceived of affliction as an express intervention by God to chastise (and, in the worst cases, destroy) the wicked, Bildad projects the view that sin as it were carries its own punishment and that God merely ‘releases’ or ‘gives over’ sinners to the natural consequences of their depravity: ‘he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression’ (8:4).56 Throughout the remainder of the speech, as Bildad graphically elaborates the inevitable downfall of evildoers, God is never the grammatical subject behind the action. The vitality of the wicked man is shown to be self-limiting: it is the lamp that goes out, the flame that stops glowing (18:5). The schemes by which he vainly sought to manipulate the moral order of the world are converted into the means of his own destruction (18:7–8).57 Inanimate agents (‘a trap’, 18:9; ‘a noose’, 18:10) and personified forces (‘terrors’, 18:11; ‘calamity’, 18:12) arrest his steps and drag him to his deserved death and arraignment before the prince of Sheol (18:14).58 Here, Bildad’s perspective is more in keeping than Eliphaz’s with traditional wisdom literature, which stresses the triumph of the created order over chaos, and God’s unswerving competence in overseeing its function.59
2.3. His Justification: Transmitted Wisdom and General Observation
Lacking any expressly revelatory insight of the kind Eliphaz purports to have received, Bildad leans more strongly on the wisdom of ‘bygone ages’ (8:8), the language suggesting an unbroken line of truth as each generation recalls and passes on what their own fathers taught them.60 This ancient knowledge is designated חֵקֶר, ‘that which was probed’,61 and its trustworthiness is such that it is described as coming literally ‘from their heart’ (מִלִּבָּם, 8:10).62 Yet, as already discussed, there is also a sense in which Bildad regards the principles he is expounding as ‘obvious’, self-evident as the observable laws of nature. While this is essentially a repeat of the logic set out by Eliphaz, Bildad does not assert the same level of personal authority in communicating these insights, and his speeches thus carry a greater humility than was manifest in Eliphaz’s self-affirming arguments.63 Although in his closing speech Bildad directly echoes the declaration of Eliphaz’s nocturnal messenger (25:4–6), he does so not as an abstract word of prophecy but as the reasoned conclusion drawn from his wisdom and observations concerning God’s fixed moral order, which is established in the very ‘heights of heaven’ (25:2).64
2.4. His Accusation: Unacknowledged Sin and Obstruction of God’s Purposes
As noted previously, Bildad draws a direct and uncompromising link between sin and suffering, pointing callously to the demise of Job’s children in order to illustrate his point. However, unlike Eliphaz before him, Bildad never confronts Job with a record of his personal transgressions. Rather, reflecting his overall deterministic stance, Bildad’s chastisement to Job centres on his resisting God’s justice and endeavouring to contend against his eternal decrees. In blunt and sarcastic terms, he challenges Job to as to whether he thinks the world’s absolute moral order should be interrupted for his convenience, enabling him to escape the just punishment for his sins (18:4).65 In the universal scheme of things man is, after all, a mere ‘maggot’ (25:6). Bildad gives no space for even musing on questions of God’s justice: his very first address to Job denounces the latter’s words of protestation as hollow and futile, abundant and yet without content, like a ‘great wind’ (8:2).66 That said, unlike Eliphaz he does not identify Job’s words as an integral (and purposeful) aspect of his sin. Rather, he surmises, they simply put him in company with the unrighteous, ‘him who knows not God’ (18:21).
2.5. His Remedy: Repent and Seek God
From the earliest parts of his discourse, Bildad presses the necessity of seeking God, entreating Job to ‘plead with the Almighty for mercy’ in order that his prosperity may be restored (8:5–7). However, again in contrast to Eliphaz, Bildad does not direct Job towards any concrete deeds of repentance or restitution.67 The undertone of his exhortation is not that Job has it within his own power to make good his life before God. Rather, his act of penitent submission will demonstrate the pre-existent reality of his righteousness by which (according to the mechanical principles of retributive justice) he need only claim his rightful entitlement by appealing to God, and he will be saved.68
Indeed, Bildad apparently remains optimistic for Job’s prospects of restoration. God does not pervert justice (8:3), and Job has not yet been struck dead, so the possibility is still open that he has not utterly ‘forgotten God’ and is innocent of any sin deserving death (8:13).69 The Almighty may yet ‘rouse himself’ to deliver Job (8:6), even as the psalmist will later entreat God to act on behalf of those who have been crushed by terrible destruction without being indicted for sin (Ps 44:23).70 Bildad closes his first speech on a note of hope that Job’s lot is indeed among the righteous, as he distinguishes him—in language again evocative of the Psalms—from ‘those who hate you’; that is, the ungodly (8:22).71
3. The Dialogue with Zophar
3.1. His Stance: Arrogant and Mystical
From the outset of his discourse, Zophar takes the bold stance of implying that he has somehow been initiated into the esoteric mysteries of divine wisdom that are normally beyond human reach.72 He shows himself confident to speak on God’s behalf (11:5), as though unquestioning that his words are divinely endorsed, and that his doctrine, unlike Job’s, is ‘pure’ (11:4). As such he embodies a frustrating paradox, for he both lays claim to, and yet renders unattainable, a personal relationship with God as the mark of the truly pious and the solution to Job’s state of affliction.73
Of the three friends it is perhaps Zophar whose manner is most harsh and cruel, not least for the way he persists in parodying and throwing Job’s words back at him.74 To take just one example, his use of the term עָמֵל (‘misery’ or ‘trouble’) to characterise the state of the wicked man when he is sated with evil (20:22) is a mocking echo of Job’s earlier reference to עָמָל as he described his own plight as a mortal (3:10, 20). While Eliphaz, and to a lesser extent Bildad, show some level of engagement with Job’s complaint, there is little sense of Zophar being a ‘good listener’ in this respect. Indeed, his entire discourse is essentially framed around a misquoting (and misinterpretation) of Job’s anguished musings (11:4). Job has not, as Zophar reports, asserted to be בַּר (‘pure’) in God’s sight (11:4); rather, Job’s self-attribution תָּם signifies his integrity and sincerity (9:20–22).75 This will prove to be the most significant point of disjunction between his own and Zophar’s understandings of his present predicament.
3.2. His Argument: The Unsearchable Wisdom of God
While Zophar retains the broad principles of retributive justice in his discourse, he is the first of the friends to effectively bypass an explanatory ‘logic’ of the relationship between sin and suffering. When read alongside Eliphaz, for whom affliction constituted divine judicial punishment for wrongdoing, and Bildad, in whose view wickedness entailed its own destructive consequences within the established moral order, Zophar’s basis for argument seems comparatively abstruse. Certainly his speeches contain echoes of Bildad’s ‘natural law’ theology: for example, he depicts the wicked man greedily consuming vile pleasures only to soon horrifyingly discover that they have become an emetic and poison to him (20:12–15).76 Yet his reference point for this state of affairs remains abstract and rhetorical: the vastness and inscrutability of God’s wisdom as the answer to all things (11:7). Zophar’s account of retributive suffering may satisfy poetic justice, but by its own admission it does little to ‘fathom the mysteries’ of divine justice such as Eliphaz and Bildad have, albeit falteringly, attempted in their speeches.77
In this vein, Zophar is notably the only interlocutor never to use the term מִשְׁפָּט (‘justice’), which is otherwise a prominent theme in the book.78 His sole points of engagement with Job’s litigious speculations are found in an early and brief allusion in 11:4–6 and his closing statement in 20:29, both of which exemplify his arrogance and presumption. In the former, he quickly suppresses Job’s aspirations to a day in court with the dual assertion that Job not only has no case to put, but has been treated more leniently than he deserves.79 In the latter, he pronounces legal condemnation on the wicked on behalf of God the Judge.80
In spite of his general elusiveness on the subject of divine justice, Zophar is certainly more explicit than Bildad in identifying God as the agent behind the wicked man’s demise (20:15, 23, 28–29; implied in vv. 24–25).81 That his destruction is timed to fall when he least expects it, at the very height of his arrogant self-indulgence (20:22), is further evidence of its being a direct intervention by God.82 Yet in contrast to Eliphaz and Bildad, for whom punitive justice consisted primarily in the reversal of outward circumstances, Zophar depicts God as striking the sinner in his inmost being: pouring down his anger ‘into his body’ (20:23), causing him to ‘vomit up’ his ill-gotten riches (20:15), and piercing his internal organs with a perfectly aimed arrow (20:24–25). Corporeal metaphors form an important part of the Joban drama, especially with regard to the interplay between divine power and human dignity. Job’s body constitutes the final testing ground for the Satan (2:5), and its ravaged state is the enduring mark and experience of his dishonour.83 While Job himself used extensive corporeal language to voice his complaint in response to Eliphaz and Bildad, Zophar is the only one of the friends to speak explicitly in these terms, and in doing so may be seen to have breached a last and particularly tender boundary of Job’s defences.
3.3. His Justification: Personal Knowledge and Spirituality
Given that Zophar neither claims access to the supernatural nor appeals to tradition, it is not entirely clear how he purports to diagnose and speak into Job’s predicament so boldly.84 Some commentators have noted the corresponding use of the verb חלף in Eliphaz’s account of the heavenly spirit that ‘passed by’ and revealed the mind of God to him (4:15) and in Zophar’s reference to the Almighty himself ‘passing by’ with such force that none could stop him (11:10).85 While this may allude to his having some form of advanced spiritual insight, Zophar does not report an actual encounter with the divine, which is in keeping with his overarching point about the inability of humans to perceive the presence of God in any direct way.86 Nonetheless, he seems to assert the right of private judgement in spiritual matters.
While Eliphaz and Bildad appealed directly to the wisdom of ‘the fathers’ to substantiate their arguments (8:8; 15:18), Zophar makes no such reference. The ancients may have rightly observed the manifest workings of God, but Zophar seems to associate himself with a more profound and concealed divine wisdom that is integral to God’s very being (11:7). Its תַּעֲלֻמָה—literally its ‘hidden dimensions’ (11:6)—are inaccessible to mortals, stretching beyond the boundaries even of the heavens and of Sheol (11:8).87 Accordingly, the words Zophar uses to describe humanity’s comparative ignorance are uncompromising: ‘men of emptiness’ (תַּעֲלֻמָה, 11:11) and irredeemably dull (11:12).88
3.4. His Accusation: Ignorance and Mockery of God
Zophar is the most direct and uncompromising of the three friends in confronting Job with his alleged sin. While Eliphaz defaulted to Job’s pious track record to frame his discourse on God’s justice, and Bildad began by deflecting attention to the example of Job’s children, Zophar’s first statements boldly establish his view that Job is a sinner, and moreover a secret one—spuriously claiming purity before God (11:4) while in fact deserving an even severer punishment than that which has been sent him.89 Once more, Zophar is unhesitant to speak on God’s behalf here, asserting that the Almighty must have found something amiss in Job in order to be treating him in this way (11:11), whether or not he chooses to divulge it.90 On this basis, Zophar’s long discursus on the inevitable ruin of the godless (20:6–29) can be seen as carrying a sense of prediction and not simply warning.91
For Zophar, the heart of Job’s problem is that he neither has access to nor understands the wisdom of God (11:4–12). Lacking the capacity to discern or remedy his own impurity, Job’s ignorance has led to him commit such sins as are greater than he realises (11:6)92 but that have not escaped God’s notice (11:11). Moreover, even now Zophar perceives Job to be speaking boastfully and mockingly to and about God (11:2–9); thus, with characteristic self-assurance, he believes he has every right to silence such presumptuous talk (11:1–2).93
3.5. His Remedy: Personal Communion with God, Attained through Repentance
In keeping with Eliphaz and Bildad, Zophar does not go so far as to pronounce Job irredeemably wicked, though he certainly comes the closest of the three to doing so. The glimmer of hope he holds out to Job is that God may yet be undeservingly merciful to him (11:6): the emphatic pronoun ‘you’ in 11:13 suggests that Job will not necessarily turn out to be one of the ‘men of emptiness’ just referred to.94Like his two companions before him, Zophar exhorts Job to seek God in order to be restored to his favour, but there are some notable points of contrast in the manner of his appeal. Both Eliphaz’s chosen term דרשׁ (5:8) and Bildad’s שׁחר (8:5) simply denote orienting one’s attention to an object. Zophar, on the other hand, describes in more detail the ritual practice of ‘seeking God’ using a number of references to the body, its posture and gestures (11:13–15).95 He begins with an allusion to the religious practice of concentration that precedes prayer (‘preparing the heart’, 11:13). In this, the suppliant creates a physical and temporal boundary between spiritual and non-spiritual activity, and takes time to settle and re-order any turbulent thoughts before ‘stretching out his hands’ in prayer and an attitude of penitent self-examination (11:13–14), ultimately coming to what one author has called ‘a space of tranquil intimacy with God’.96
While Eliphaz and Bildad focused on the material rewards that would await Job if he repented, Zophar’s promises are less tangible and at best only indirectly connected to outward circumstances. Job’s reinstated blessings will include confidence, fearlessness, oblivion of the past, rest, and the favour of others (11:15–19). Ultimately the end goal is for Job to ‘forget’ his trouble (11:16), but there is no clear assurance given here that Job will see the restoration of his health, wealth, or relationships.
In spite of Job’s hopes expressed previously, Zophar crushes any possibility of a mediator to intercede for him. At the close of his second and final speech, he proclaims of the wicked man, ‘The heavens will reveal his iniquity, and the earth will rise against him’. The language mockingly echoes Job’s earlier appeal that (in the manner of Abel) his blood should cry out to heaven until the injustice wrought against him be vindicated by an ‘advocate on high’.97 Zophar contests rather that the earth itself will testify to Job’s sin and that the skies will yield not intercession but condemnation.98 Further, Zophar dismisses Job’s hopeful musings on the prospect of vindication after death by announcing that the dust is only a grave (20:11).
4. The Divine Verdict
The text of Job does not establish for certain whether Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were privy to God’s dramatic self-revelation that is recorded in the book’s closing chapters (38–41), whereby Job is brought to silent contrition for his unfettered complaints against the Almighty and ultimately to a humble acceptance of God’s good sovereignty in the face of all that has befallen him (42:1–6). Regardless, the ‘Yahweh speeches’ undoubtedly resound with judgement against the messages of Job’s comforters and illuminate their subsequent indictment by God for having failed to ‘speak what is right’ of him (42:7).
‘Justice’ has been a common thread across the friends’ speeches, as they vehemently sought to confirm Job’s guilt and press his acceptance of deserved punishment. Yet God shows that his perfect rule is not primarily seen in his juridical administration of man’s affairs. Rather, it manifests more vastly and gloriously in his creation of the world (38:1–13), his knowledge of its structure and workings (38:16–22), his command over natural forces (38:24–38), animals (39:1–30; 40:14–24) and man (40:11–13); and in his sovereign providence for all creatures (38:39–41).99 As far as the friends are concerned, this serves as a cutting rebuke to anyone who would assert the right to judge the course of matters in the universe from his limited mortal perspective.100
Eliphaz is right that God loves righteousness and hates wickedness (38:12–15; 40:8–14), but he has taken too narrow a view of what it means for God to exercise moral government over the universe. God is greater and the world is more complex than to operate on observable, predictable, ‘tit for tat’ principles of retributive justice.101 Bildad is right that God ‘sees the end from the beginning’, that his ordinances are unshakeable (38:8–11) and that the universe is ordered and demarcated according to his righteous decrees (38:4–5, 33). However, he has underestimated God’s loving concern for the smallest of his creatures (38:41) and by implication the high esteem placed upon mankind as his image-bearers.102 Zophar is right that God’s wisdom extends to the extremities of creation and is beyond man’s grasp (38:16–18), but in his desire to uphold the transcendence of the divine, he has effectively reduced God to a set of abstract principles and conceived of fellowship with God as some sort of esoteric experience rather than the dynamic relationship with a loving, active, speaking Creator that Yahweh’s speeches show it to be.103
Significantly, God’s self-disclosure and accompanying ‘cosmic tour’ do not reveal a utopian theocracy in which evil is summarily expunged as soon as it appears. Herein lies the strongest refutation of the friends’ shared dogma of divine retribution,104 for the natural world, elegant and splendid as it is, still includes elements of predation and savagery (39:26–30).105 The extensive treatment in Yahweh’s speeches of the sinister Behemoth and Leviathan, who are subdued but not as yet destroyed (38:8–11; 40:15–41:34), alludes to the ongoing spiritual realities of death and evil that pervade the created order106 and such as characterised the events of the heavenly courtroom in the book’s prologue.107 In their ignorance of these truths, the friends have erred in regarding evil as a purely human phenomenon. Consequently, they have mistakenly fixated on the constraint of wrong and exercise of retributive justice in the here and now.108 A corollary of this is that they could only ever hold out the hope of temporal, material blessing as the token of God’s vindication.109 By encouraging Job to repent so as to restore his health and wealth, the friends simply lent weight to the Satan’s argument that no man serves God for who he is but only for what he gives.110 Furthermore, they undermined Job’s integrity by ignoring the fact that in all his complaints he never pleaded for physical and material restoration, being concerned rather for the restitution of his intimate relationship with God.111
Ultimately, the weight of Yahweh’s speeches is such that they ‘undermine the truth value of all theological statements and expose human ignorance’.112 As Job himself appears to express (40:3–4), to hear the Creator God speak in glorious self-revelation is in itself enough to silence the intellectual dialogues he and his friends have engaged in, and to re-orient their vision to God as the origin and giver of all wisdom. Nonetheless, it remains that even in the depths of his hardship, Job continually yearned to see and hear God, and hence now finds ultimate consolation in his manifestation and presence.113 Conversely, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar spent this time presuming to speak authoritatively on God’s behalf with apparently no desire to personally entreat him,114 and ultimately this renders even the more considered aspects of their discourse morally irredeemable.
It has been said of Job’s comforters that their words are ‘dangerous because they are nearly true’.115 Without doubt, each of Eliphaz’s, Bildad’s and Zophar’s basic premises—moral justice, divine ordinance, inscrutable wisdom—provides a lens through which to view the grand sweep of creation and redemption, including the dynamics of good and evil, and it would be hasty to vilify their every utterance as repugnant to the greater truths of Scripture in which they find their place. However, when rigidly applied as narrow, isolated constructs, none of these paradigms is sufficient to capture the beautiful complexity and absolute integrity of God’s sovereign ways as revealed at the end of the Joban drama. Moreover, according to God’s own declaration, such ignorant and inflexible dogmas fundamentally dishonour his holy name by virtue of their misrepresentation of his character and workings in the world, not least when conveyed in the guise of comfort and consolation to the suffering believer.