Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
The previous week’s lectionary reading recalled the introductory chapters in the book of Job, and in so doing, highlighted critical themes for the book.
Immediately after the opening chapters, Job issues a caustic lament regarding the day of his birth in chapter 3. The cycles of dialogues between Job and his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) commence in chapters 4-27. In their various “speeches,” all four characters remain committed to a mechanistic worldview (that is those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity) and its alleged explanatory power for understanding Job’s plight. Each of the friends contends that since Job has experienced calamity, he (or his family) must be guilty of some sin.
As evident in today’s text, Job, however, moves in a very different direction. He retains his commitment to a mechanistic worldview but unlike his friends, he is confident of his righteousness. Job remedies this cognitive dissonance by challenging the justice of God. Because God is not following the dictates of a mechanistic worldview, God must be held accountable. This thought is not new in the book. In earlier chapters (Job 9-10; 13; 16), Job envisioned placing God on trial in hopes of being vindicated.
In Job 23, the opening lines (verses 1-2) rehearse Job’s rationale for a trial. God has made his life “bitter” (following the Septuagint reading). The word recalls the lament uttered by Naomi whose similarly calamitous life led her to declare, “Call me Mara for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Because of this bitterness, Job wants nothing more than to present his case before God (verse 4) and to learn of God’s accusations against him (verse 5). Job remains convinced that in such a setting, he would be acquitted (verse 7), a decision that would serve as a rebuke to the friends and a validation of his own view of the justice of God.
The challenge for Job, however, is the seeming remoteness of God (Job 23:8-9). How can he place on trial, much less confront, a God that is so elusive? The four movements (forward, backward, left, and right) provide a sweeping spatial image — regardless of direction, God is not to be found. Despite God’s apparent absence, however, Job remains certain that God is cognizant of “the way that I take” (Job 23:10a).
The metaphor “way” is a rich sapiential term used in the Hebrew Bible to call to mind life in all of its fullness (for example actions, behavior, inclinations). Even though it seems like God is hiding from Job, Job confesses that God is fully aware of his righteousness, and as a result, the only reasonable conclusion is that he will come out like pure gold when this test is complete. In contrast to the other uses of metallurgy metaphors associated with smelting (compare with Malachi 3:2b-3), the metaphor here does not imply that Job is being refined of impurities but instead suggests that pure gold will result because it has been pure from the very beginning (Job 23:10).
Job provides evidence of his faithfulness in Job 23:10-12. Job confesses that he has followed in God’s steps, kept God’s ways, and uttered his commandments. In verse 12b, the Hebrew reads literally, “more than my portion,” hence the New International Version (NIV). The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) follows the Septuagint and other Latin manuscripts with “in my bosom.” If the NRSV is retained, then the bodily imagery is suggestive. From his feet (verse 11a) to his lips (verse 12a), the law of God has been evident, and Job’s faithfulness is possible because he has treasured God’s ways deep within him (verse 12b), a claim that echoes that of Psalm 119:11.
In the final verses of chapter 23, Job’s heart grows faint as the Shaddai, the Almighty, terrifies him (verse 16). What follows in verse 17 proves critical to understanding the chapter. The NRSV understands verse 17 as a quiet, or not so quiet, resignation on the part of Job; Job’s only source of relief would be death, a theme voiced earlier by Job (3:11-24; 7:21).
The NIV, however, provides a better reading of the Hebrew text: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” Rather than a resignation to death, Job concludes the chapter with a voice of resistance. Job refuses to acquiesce to the claims of his friends or the apparent injustice of God. He will not be silenced. This reading accords better with the movement of the book and points towards Job’s final soliloquy concerning his innocence in Job 29-31.
Because Job 23 does not resolve the tensions inherent in the book of Job itself, any attempt to teach or preach this text in isolation will result in a skewed appropriation of this challenging text. Job is not “vindicated” and God is not justified; the chapter ends just as it began: in tension. But the text does suggest that the resolution to the tension will be found in relationship, a relationship expressed in presence. Yet as Job discovers in chapters 38-42, an encounter with the divine does not result in vindication, but rather in profundity.