Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Last week we looked at the larger canonical context of the book of Job and the larger literary context for Job 1-2. The larger canonical context was Job’s dispute with Deuteronomic orthodoxy and its simplistic theology of retribution. The larger literary context was that Job 1-2:42 functions as the narrative framework for the theological conversation in chapters 3-41.
Chapter 23, then, is a long way into that conversation. So what happened in chapters 3-22?
In chapter 3, Job laments of his birth (because someone never born would not be experiencing what Job is going through). Job’s lament affirms “that his despair is total; only his righteous character forbids taking his own life.”1
In chapters 4-14, Job and his friends have at it in Round 1 (Round 2 includes chapters 15-23 and is mostly more of the same), with this important qualification: “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).”2
This ideology leads Job’s three friends to assert that Job’s sufferings are because he must have sinned, and that if he would only admit, confess, and repent of that sin, all would be restored (for example, 4:7-11; 8:2-7, 20-22; 15:17-25; 18:5-21).
But this shared ideology leads Job in a different direction, namely that God has established the rules for how the universe runs and when those rules go wrong, then it is God who must be held accountable (see Job 9-10; 13; and 16).
Nor should Job’s response surprise us. Criticism of anyone’s rules can be leveled at the unjust nature of the rules themselves or the capricious nature of how they are enforced. (Ask your friendly neighborhood middle school teacher about that!) Job cannot call his mechanistic worldview into question, so he has no other rational alternative than to call the one enforcing the rules to be held accountable.
In this context, then, Job 23 brings the second cycle of speeches to an end. Job lays forth his “legal” case for a hearing before Yahweh. Following the introduction in verse 1, Job begins his lament with the words, “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning” (verse 2).
Be aware of two textual/translational issues in this verse. Is Job’s complaint “bitter” (NRSV, NIV, and NJPS) or “rebellion” (NASB)? And is it “his hand” (NRSV, NIV, and NASB) or “my hand” that is heavy (NJPS [my strength])? The standard commentaries3 can provide guidance for both of these issues.
Fortunately, verses 3-7 do not present similar difficulties. In these verses, Job laments his inability to lay his case out before God. They are all governed by the Hebrew idiom mi-yitten,4 which the NIV translates helpfully as “If only…” Job wants, desperately, a hearing before Yahweh.
Job’s desperate cry for a hearing is completely understandable. Imagine coming to work one day only to be greeted by security guards who tell you that you have 10 minutes to clean out your workspace and vacate the premises. Wouldn’t you want to know why? And wouldn’t you want to talk to your supervisor or HR department to plead your case?5
That’s the emotional content of this paragraph: something bad has happened and I want to speak to the person in charge because I know I haven’t done anything wrong, much less anything to deserve what I’m getting. Verse 7 (“I should be acquitted forever by my judge”) seems to reflect Job’s hope that if he were able to lay out his case before Yahweh, he would be acquitted.6
But Job is disappointed. He can’t argue his case before Yahweh because Yahweh is nowhere to be found. Verses 8-9 read like a reversal of Psalm 139, which affirms the psalmist’s belief that escaping the presence of God is impossible (“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?,” 139:7). Job 23:8-9, in contrast, lament that Yahweh “is not there… I cannot perceive him… I cannot behold him… I cannot see him” (see also Psalm 22:1-2; Isaiah 45:15).
Verses 16-17 bring our reading to a close. While verse 17 is “very obscure” (NJB) and “very difficult” (NET), there are no similar problems with verse 16, which places the responsibility for Job’s situation squarely on Yahweh: “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me” (emphasis added).
And there our reading ends.
Is anything resolved? Nope.
Any new or brilliant theological insight to be considered? None whatsoever.
There’s just Job’s frustration and anxiety around his desire to plead his case before Yahweh without being able to do so.
So what’s the point of the passage for today?
One of the things I navigate worst of all is transitional time; anthropologists call this “liminal space.” What makes liminal space hard for me is that while I am in this space, I see no exit from it. For me, liminal space was the most stressful between jobs. I was laid off from a job as a Corporate Mortgage Underwriter in September 2007 and did not find a full-time job until August 2008, a year later.
That year was excruciating.
And I imagine that it must have been similar to what Job was going through. He wanted a hearing but didn’t have one. I wanted a job but couldn’t find one. He was convinced of his innocence, but didn’t have the chance to prove it. I was convinced that I could still contribute to society, but wasn’t given the chance to show it.
In this sense, Job provides the canonical counterpoint to scriptural exhortations like “Do not worry about anything” (Philippians 4:6), “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), or even “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25, Luke 12:22).
Worry and anxiety born from uncertainty are the very essence of liminal space. Job gives us permission to navigate those spaces as we experience them, as we wait for the liminal space to clear, and as we see a resolution to uncertainty in our future without the guilt that a simplistic reading of these exhortations will create.
And it reminds us that the spouting of platitudes, no matter how well-intended and no matter how theologically orthodox, is usually not the most appropriate response to someone struggling in their own liminal space.
In this sense, Job’s friends are anti-heroes because they model how NOT to respond when someone is struggling, no matter what liminal space they may be occupying at the moment.
- John F. Hartley, “Job” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 2:1068.
- W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3793), accessed 21 March 2020
- E.g., David J.A. Clines, “Job 21-37” (Word Biblical Commentary 18A [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 574-75, 593.
- See GKC 476-77 (§151.1). Jouon-Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1991) 2:616 (§163d) translate, “Oh that I knew!”
- “[The] awareness of simply being heard … is already an experience of deliverance,” Gerald J. Janzen, Job (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1985), 166.
- E.g., Habel, The Book of Job (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 349; Clines, “Job 21-37,” 596.