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One of the characteristic difficulties associated with expositions of the main debate between Job and his three friends, in my opinion, is the level of detail. They tend to have either too much or too little. Some expositors talk through the debate line by line, which generates a large volume of text, yet doesn’t necessar- ily lend significant illumination on the unfolding progression of the philosophy. By contrast, other expositors barely quote word one from the debate, but simply agglomerate all of the speeches in hand-waving terms, speaking of Job’s rectitude and his opponents’ folly. In fairness, a definite progression is hard to identify. The questions and answers seem circular and, though we are aware Job is ultimately exonerated and his friends rebuked, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between one of Job’s speeches and one from his friends!

We shall attempt to find a middle ground where the details of the debate are not overlooked, yet we do not over-focus on the nitty-gritty of each accusation and rebuttal to the extent that we cannot see the bigger picture.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the debate’s structure.

Eliphaz speaks (1) (ch 4-5)

Job replies (ch 6-7)

Bildad speaks (1) (ch 8)

Job replies (ch 9-10)

Zophar speaks (1) (ch 11)

Job replies (ch 12-14)

Eliphaz speaks (2) (ch 15)

Job replies (ch 16-17)

Bildad speaks (2) (ch 18)

Job replies (ch 19)

Zophar speaks (2) (ch 20)

Job replies (ch 21)

Eliphaz speaks (3) (ch 22)

Job replies (ch 23-24)

Bildad speaks (3) (ch 25)
Job interrupts, and speaks twice

(ch 26-28 and 29-31)

Table 8.1: The structure of the debate between Job and the three friends

At first glance there appear to be eight speeches from the friends, each with a response from Job. But on closer examination Bildad’s third speech is clearly

truncated. The speech is less than 15% of the average length of any of the friends’ speeches, strongly suggesting that Job has cut Bildad off before he got going. This leaves us with only seven complete speeches from the friends.

8.1 The debate proper

I divide the seven completed speeches and rebuttals by the differing tones which I perceive dominate (Table 8.2). 1 There are no crystal-clear watersheds between the proposed levels; to some extent the tones slide from one to the next. Some themes, such as interpretative arguments and the doctrine of retribution, appear throughout. In proposing these different levels, I hope to identify the tone that rises to prominence during that period of the debate, in order to represent the subtly advancing tide of attack on Job. We will also see a model of behavior where each of the friends picks up an idea passed to him by the former speaker, briefly repeats the ground covered, and then advances into new prosecutorial territory.


Dominant Tone of friends’


Dominant Tone of Job’s responses


Eliphaz speaks (1) (ch 4-5) Job replies (ch 6-7)

Level 1: Observations

Humility and despair


Bildad speaks (1) (ch 8) Job replies (ch 9-10)


Zophar speaks (1) (ch 11) Job replies (ch 12-14)

Level 2: Interpretative criticisms



Eliphaz speaks (2) (ch 15) Job replies (ch 16-17)


Bildad speaks (2) (ch 18) Job replies (ch 19)

Level 3: Condemnations

Anger and pride


Zophar speaks (2) (ch 20) Job replies (ch 21)


Eliphaz speaks (3) (ch 22) Job replies
(ch 23-24, 26-31)

Table 8.2: The structure of the debate, identifying different levels according to the dominant tone of the speeches

I will not be reattributing speeches from one speaker to another, or changing the order of the speeches to suit my ideas. It is almost commonplace for expositors of Job to rearrange or reattribute the speeches, seemingly arbitrarily. For example, Balchin believes the speeches of Elihu are best placed directly subsequent to the conclusion of the friends’ speeches, before Job’s final addresses, 2 and many other

expositors perform similar reshuffles. 3, 4, 5 In each case the transfer seems driven by the expositor’s need for his chosen interpretation to run more smoothly. I have not encountered any persuasive evidence that any of the speeches belong with any other character than those to which they are attributed in the Scripture.

8.1.1 Level 1: Speeches characterized by Observations: Eliphaz 1 and Bildad 1

Eliphaz the Temanite, the kindliest of the friends, bases his opening speech on observations of Job’s life. He sees Job as loving and charitable, and he draws from these observations to encourage Job that God will restore him:

“Think how you have instructed many,
how you have strengthened feeble hands.
Your words have supported those who stumbled;
you have strengthened faltering knees.
But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed.
Should not your piety be your confidence
and your blameless ways your hope?” (Job 4:3-6).

In this Eliphaz unwittingly predicts the future, though — alas — it is the last time he speaks with such accuracy.

Even then, this ‘accuracy’ is suspect. Eliphaz supposes God must restore Job because Job is upright and blameless; thus he extends directly the doctrine of retribution. As we will see, God will restore Job because He loves him, and because Job’s work in suffering (which we will explore later) has been completed.

Bildad the Shuhite evidently takes his cue from Eliphaz and speaks similarly. However, even at this early stage, the first small step away from supporting Job is taken. Where Eliphaz speaks explicitly of Job’s innocence, Bildad makes observa- tions which imply, but don’t state, that innocence (Job 8:20-22).

8.1.2 Job’s response to Level 1 Speeches: Humility and despair

Job has not been put on the defensive by accusations, so he freely expresses his own inadequacy before his Maker, albeit in the context of all men’s failings. Job pleads for release against his current condition and shows he understands God both knows about, and controls, his condition (Job 7:21 and 9:2).

Job offers statements which explicitly refute the doctrine of retribution and are, with some bitterness excused, accurate:

“It is all the same; that is why I say,
‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’ When a scourge brings sudden death,
he mocks the despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it?” (Job 9:22-24).

This principle, of the obscurity of divine judgment, is one which his friends have not absorbed. This may count significantly towards the Almighty’s final analysis of who has spoken “that which was right” about Him.

Job finishes this series of exchanges with a heartfelt plea to God to end his suffer- ing, in full recognition of God’s irresistible power and authority to do as He will (Job 10:5-9). For now at least, the plea is not granted, and Job’s pain continues. To exacerbate matters, the tone of the friends’ speeches subtly changes to a more aggressive form.

8.1.3 Level 2: Speeches characterized by Interpretations: Zophar 1 and Eliphaz 2

Zophar the Naamathite’s first speech and Eliphaz’s second are characterized by the rising dominance of interpretative arguments. To illustrate the point: “You are wearing a red shirt” is simply an observation, but: “You are wearing a red shirt because you are a member of a gang” is interpretative: an explanation, even a motive, has been attributed to the observation. Clearly there is more potential for error with interpretative reasoning than with observations.

Zophar, the most reckless of the three friends, immediately names Job a mocker and a generator of idle talk (Job 11:3), severely tarnishing any friendly or col- laborative nature the discussions may have had. That done, Zophar proffers his opinion that Job’s sufferings are a direct result of his sins and, furthermore, that an immediate cessation of those sins will realize, equally immediately, a cessa- tion of his sufferings. It is the clearest declaration to date of the flawed doctrine of retribution (Job 11:14-16).

Perhaps emboldened by his colleague’s lack of restraint, Eliphaz abandons his erstwhile supportive testimony. Copying Zophar’s labeling of Job as a mocker and Job’s words ‘idle talk’, Eliphaz deems Job ‘crafty’ and his replies ‘useless words’ (Job 15:3-5). Eliphaz then runs further with Zophar’s argument, that salvation can be achieved when Job’s sins are abandoned, by turning his attention to the negative side of the same coin. Eliphaz focuses on the detrimental retribution supposedly immediately received by the sinner while in the state of sin. He characterizes a hypothetical wicked man:

“Terrifying sounds fill his ears;
when all seems well, marauders attack him.
He despairs of escaping the darkness;
he is marked for the sword.
He wanders about — food for vultures;
he knows the day of darkness is at hand.
Distress and anguish fill him with terror;
they overwhelm him, like a king poised to attack, because he shakes his fist at God
and vaunts himself against the Almighty, defiantly charging against him
with a thick, strong shield” (Job 15:21-26).

Sadly, there seems an extra vignette of cruelty here. One of Eliphaz’s chosen in- dicators of the wicked man’s distress is that marauders will attack unexpectedly. As Eliphaz well knows, this is precisely what has very recently befallen Job: i.e., an unexpected attack by both Sabean and Chaldean raiding parties (Job 1:15, 17). The perfect match of circumstances between Eliphaz’s hypothetical wicked man and Job’s actual case is surely deliberate; and how tragically sad for Job to see his former friend round on him this way. The three would-be friends are egging each other on, perhaps unwittingly, to attack Job more and more severely, each speaker borrowing an idea or tactic from the previous speaker and enlarging upon it in an increasingly condemnatory way.

8.1.4 Job’s response to Level 2 Speeches: Self-justification

Job’s integrity has now been denounced and his blameless motives replaced by imputations of wickedness. Perhaps it is understandable, but now his replies are sarcastic, energized and self-justifying. It is at this point, for the first time, he names himself righteous (Job 12:2-4). This is an unfortunate progression. An inherent danger of the self-declaration of righteousness is that the human mind is then tempted to take a combative role against others, even God, buoyed by the confidence that person has in his or her perception of righteousness. Job’s language now adopts the flavor of one preparing a court case, with the implication that God is his prosecutorial opponent — his Satan (Job 13:18-22)!

But Job does not eschew Satan, or distance himself from him. To the contrary, Job taunts him and invites further combat. We will return to this later, as one of the critical points where Job may have stumbled:

“But come on, all of you, try again!
I will not find a wise man among you” (Job 17:10).

Sadly in a manner similar to the Br’er Rabbit story “The Tar Baby”, 6 this continued engagement is a poor choice for the hero. For Job, as for Br’er Rabbit, continued re-engagement with the opponent leads to a sticky mess from which the protago- nist is unable to extract himself.

The overriding feature of this session is that we have seen the Satan show his true colors. Emerging from the earlier sympathy the three friends had for Job, Satan naturally devolves to harangue Job with an aggressive and self-righteous attitude.

And the attitude of Satan is so very, very contagious.

8.1.5 Level 3: Speeches characterized by Condemnations: Bildad 2, Zophar 2 and Eliphaz 3

The Satan has riled Job, and Job wants to box. It doesn’t turn out well for anyone.

In the final level outright condemnation takes the reins. Bildad’s second speech has a single thesis and employs a single mechanism. His thesis presents the lot of the wicked man. His mechanism is to observe every detail of Job’s current condi- tion and then, extrapolating backwards, claim that those details are exactly what would befall an evil man (Table 8.3).

Calamity befalling Job

Calamity incumbent upon Bildad’s hypo- thetical evil man (ch 18)


Job no longer knows peace and experiences only turmoil (3:26).

Terrors startle him on every side and dog his every step (v 11).


Job is afflicted with a wasting skin disease (2:7,8).

[Calamity] eats away parts of his skin; death’s firstborn devours his limbs (v 13).


The ‘fire of God’ burned up Job’s sheep and herdsmen (1:16).

Fire resides in his tent; burning sulfur is scat- tered over his dwelling (v 15).


Job’s friends have for- gotten him (19:14).

The memory of him perishes from the earth; he has no name in the land (v 17).


Job’s children are killed (1:18,19).

He has no offspring or descendants among his people, no survivor where once he lived (v 19).

Table 8.3: (L) Job’s contemporary circumstances and (R) What Bildad specu- lates in his second speech will happen to a hypothetically evil man

As is the pattern within the friends’ speeches, Bildad is borrowing an idea that Eliphaz began in the speech before and enlarging upon it. Bildad has obviously chosen to have the circumstances of his hypothetically evil man match perfectly Job’s current sorry state. Just in case Job could somehow miss the repeatedly implied condemnation, Bildad the Shuhite spells it out explicitly:

“Surely such is the dwelling of an evil man;
such is the place of one who knows not God” (Job 18:21).

Zophar is still seething with injured pride, stung by Job’s sarcastic rebuke. Zophar claims his depth of understanding prompts his response (Job 20:3). He raises the ante from Bildad’s condemnation. Again he describes a hypothetical evildoer with Job’s exact circumstances, for the third time, before advancing into new territory of describing specific crimes which this wicked man is alleged to have performed, such as oppressing the poor and seizing their property (Job 20:19-22).

Finally, Eliphaz speaks for the third time. He takes the ball Zophar ran with: the accusation of oppressing the poor and leaving them destitute. But where Zophar left the accused as an unnamed hypothetical man, Eliphaz advances in attack and crosses a new line, in some ways the final line, and specifically names Job as the perpetrator. Ironically it is a desperately sad insight into humanity that the kindest of all the speakers ultimately sinks to the deepest of accusatory depths:

“Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless? You demanded security from your brothers for no reason; you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.

You gave no water to the weary
and you withheld food from the hungry,
though you were a powerful man, owning land —
an honored man, living on it.
And you sent widows away empty-handed
and broke the strength of the fatherless.
That is why snares are all around you,
why sudden peril terrifies you, why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you” (Job 22:5-11).

He caps the accusation with a flourish of the doctrine of retribution, naming the alleged sins as the necessary cause of Job’s suffering; even though, in voicing these accusations, he is flatly contradicting his earlier testimony (Job 4:3,4)!

8.1.6 Job’s response to Level 3 Speeches: Anger and pride

The aggression level has certainly risen. Where Job was driven to self-justification before, now the outright condemnation provokes an even more negative mindset, which as Gutierrez noted was largely provoked: “Job’s rebellious attitude is due not so much to his sufferings as to the arguments that his friends develop in their pompous manner.” 7

We might suppose Job’s knowledge that the accusations were false might pro- vide him some internal solace, even if he is angry with the accuser (Job 21:34). Yet I suggest Job’s innocence is a disadvantage to Job maintaining a spiritually healthy attitude; for pride is even more dangerous than anger. When one is well aware one is innocent of all charges leveled, it proves harder to keep a prideful counterattack in check.

Job stops short of condemning his friends, despite the fact they have roundly condemned him. But he utters stern warning to them:

“If you say, ‘How we will hound him,
since the root of the trouble lies in him,’
you should fear the sword yourselves;
for wrath will bring punishment by the sword,
and then you will know that there is judgment” (Job 19:28,29).

Why do I consider Job’s comments a warning, not outright condemnation, when he threatens them with the sword of judgment? Is it because I have pre-selected him as ‘the good guy’ and assessed his comments with more generosity than those of the friends? No. It is because Job uses the conditional tense, saying that if their intent truly was to hound him then his knowledge of his innocence likely spells trouble for them. This seemingly small distinction is important, though it is clearly a sentiment of didactic threat. More importantly, Job has veered away from speaking well of God: he is now drawn to speak well of himself. Job has been roused to anger, no doubt, though it would be a harsh exegesis that would accuse him of any sin at this point.

But, alas, worse is to come.

John Pople (San Francisco Peninsula, CA)


1. IbelieveithelpstoreadthedebateinJobatleastone‘level’atonetime,i.e.,twoorthree speeches along with Job’s interspersed replies, to best appreciate the flow of the dialogue. Reading just one speech per day, and the reply the next, is too slow a sampling rate to easily deduce the genuine developments in the debate, and the book might always remain obscure if approached that slowly.

  1. J.Balchin,“SittingwithJob,”1998,RhoswielBooks,Oswestry,UK,55.
  2. E.J. Kissane, “The Book of Job,” 1939, Dublin, Eire, reassigns chapters 25 and 26:5-14 to

    Zophar; and 26:1-4 and 27:7-23 to Bildad.

  3. W.A.Irwin,“Job,”in“Peake’sCommentaryontheBible,”Ed.M.BlackandH.H.Rowley,1962,

    Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, UK, 391, reassigns chapter 27 to a variety of speakers

    including Zophar.

  4. S.Terrien,“TheBookofJob:IntroductionandExegesis,”in“TheInterpreter’sBible,”1954,

    Vol. III, Abingdon, Nashville, TN, USA, 878-884, reassigns chapter 27:13-25 to Zophar.

  5. J.C. Harris, “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” 1881, in J. Torrence “The Importance of Pot

    Liquor,” 1994, August House, Little Rock, AR, USA.

  6. G.Gutierrez,“OnJob,God-TalkandtheSufferingoftheInnocent,”1987,Orbis,NewYork,

    NY, USA, 56.

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