Eliphaz again?

Eliphaz spoke up. “Is it even possible for a mortal to make a profit for God? He is so beyond our reach that He pays Himself His own dividends and interest without outside influence. Would He gain anything if you were actually righteous?

“So, if God rewards the wicked, I suppose you’re telling me he punishes the righteous. Do you see how backward that is? No, he’s punishing you because you’re endlessly wicked!

“Maybe I can help jog your memory. Did you refuse to lend someone money? Or did you loan them money only if they put up collateral? That must be it. You stripped the meat off their bones. Did you withhold water from the thirsty or food for the hungry? No doubt you freely gave to the wealthy and important. You ignored widows and injured orphans. That’s why you’re terrified and surrounded by darkness.

“You figured that God was too high above us and shrouded in holy smoke to notice your crimes. And what of your children’s crimes? Don’t you see that those who walk the ancient path of the dragon are snatched away in their youth and they never plant seeds for a legacy? They say, ‘We want nothing of God because he has nothing to give.’ They have forgotten all the good things they enjoyed while living under your roof. Now we who are innocent laugh at the wicked man’s scorn.

“Stop fighting with God! Admit you’re wrong, turn away from your sins and you’ll find peace. Return to God and heed his way. Give up your love of money, release your lost gold, and let God be your treasure.”

Inspiration: Job 22

Wicked reprieve

The silence that followed meant that Zophar had finished thrusting his knife in and awaited Job’s response.

“Light a lamp,” Job said. There’s fire on the hearth.”

One of the men fumbled around in the dark until he grasped a lamp Job always kept near his bed. He felt his way through an opening in the cloth that separated Job’s bedchambers from his hearth. The lamplight threw a distorted silhouette through the thin fibers of the fabric. Eliphaz’s facial features flickered grotesquely as he entered the room and set the lamp on its stand.

Job was still lying flat on his back, naked and exposed, without shame and without concern.

Zophar and Eliphaz sat on the floor in silence.

“Zophar of Naamath, listen carefully without interruption,” Job began. “Eliphaz, you too. After I finish, you can all carry on with your incessant mockery outside.

“My complaining has nothing to do with you or any man. Look at me in horror. Look at the condition of my wretched body and try not to cover your mouth in disgust. Even I shudder with fright when I see my reflection. Is it any wonder that my soul is racked with sorrow?

“Zophar, the wicked often live to old age, powerful, well-fed, and comfortable. They live long enough to see their own children flourish, as well as their grandchildren. Their homes are secure from bandits and natural disasters. God never lays a finger on them. Their prodigious cattle low in the fields and their wealth supplies every fancy. They break out the tambourine, the lyre, and the pipe, and they dance until morning. This is all despite telling God they want no part of him or his way.

“‘Who’s this God?’ they jeer. ‘What does it profit me to obey him?’”

“Everything the wicked touches turns to gold, yet I want nothing to do with them. They get away with murder, avoiding trouble in the courts every time. When God doles out wrath and sorrow, the wicked get a reprieve.

“Before you come at me with your next argument, listen. You are thinking, ‘If God doesn’t punish them, he’ll punish their children.’ But I disagree. Wouldn’t God punish the one who sins? Shouldn’t the penalty go to the man who commits the crime? Your argument has no merit.

“But who are we to judge the Judge? He punishes the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor. They all go to the same dust and are devoured by the same worm.

“You’re tempted to tell me of a rich man who was punished for his sins. But I say, ask anyone with any experience, and he’ll tell you the evil usually escape the wrath of God. Instead of being publicly shamed, he gets a great procession before and after his funeral. Your whole argument is flawed!”

Inspiration: Job 21

Wicked end

“I can’t listen to this any longer,” Zophar interrupted. “I took your scolding like a man out there, but I stand by every indictment against you.

“You know as well as I do that a wicked man’s triumph is short-lived. His joy is like a puff of smoke. Even if he reigns over all the earth, he still perishes in the end like garbage, never to be seen again.

“The evil that he hides under his tongue is sweet in his mouth, so he savors it slowly. But in his stomach, it turns to venom. What he has been sucking all the while is from the dragon, Satan.

“He misses out on the cascading rivers flowing with milk and honey. With nothing more for him to devour, his stolen wealth dries up.

“The wicked man encounters trouble at the peak of his power, and usually it’s the company of the wicked that destroys him. Just as he’s about to eat, death comes out of nowhere. When the arrow is pulled from his still-warm carcass, you can see he’s wearing terror on his face.

“His treasures are lost in a raging fire, his secret sins are revealed to the world, and the world judges him without mercy. This is what God prepares for the wicked.”

Inspiration: Job 20

Last judgment

Job answered in the darkness. “How long are you and your friends going to torment me? Have you no shame reproaching an innocent man on his death bed? If I’m guilty, prove it. As I said before, God has dealt this blow against me for reasons I don’t understand. He has stripped me of my glory and left me without any justice, and he no longer answers my prayers.

“In his unjustified anger, God made me his enemy. His legions surround me on every side and attack. My family is gone, and everyone I knew are now strangers. You call yourself my friend, but you utterly fail me. My former house guests have forgotten me. My wife is disgusted with me and sleeps in a neighboring tent. All hope has been ripped up by its roots and goes down with me to the grave.”

Job heard movement in the dark around him and realized he and Bildad were now joined by another party. Whether Zophar or Eliphaz or both, it didn’t matter. They were all equally malignant fixtures in his home.

“Have pity on me, please. God’s hand has crushed me completely. Why do you also batter me with your words? Are you not satisfied that I am a festering bag of dust?

“I wish I could engrave my words in stone for posterity because I know that my Vindicator lives. In the end, he’ll be the last one standing. After I die, he’ll stand beside me at the judgment.”

Inspiration: Job 19

Death interrupted

Job took a deep breath and prepared for his final rest. His body, still burning from the rotting cocoon of disease enshrouding his soul, lay exposed to the night air which circulated through the sides of the tent.

As the dark night was fading into dreamless oblivion, the faint sound of footsteps stirred Job from his slumber.

“You think we’re mindless like cattle, don’t you.” The distinctive voice of Bildad the “oracle” was unmistakable, but even in the starry dark, neither men could discern the features of the other.

“You’ve thrown your tantrum, and you expect the whole world to crumble and fall. Your tent is pitch black because the light of the wicked has been quashed. You tripped up somewhere on the path, and now terrors come at you from every direction.

“Your sin gnaws at you like the disease consuming your skin. Here in your bedchamber, nothing is left but smoking sulfur. Your roots are shriveled, and your branches have withered. With no child left, your memory will fade into the dust of the hills.”

Inspiration: Job 18

Lost hope

With this last pronouncement, Job carried himself to his tent, leaving his unwelcome guests to stay or go. Closing the goatskin flap behind him, he felt his way in the dark to his bed, and with eyes closed, he prayed.

“My soul is ripped open, and my days are poured out. I’m ready for the grave. The mockers wait outside to provoke me.

“God, give me your word that you’ll preserve my name. You’ve obviously prevented them from understanding, so surely they cannot win in the end. Those who betray their friends curse their own offspring to the same blindness. Eliphaz and his lot have smeared my good name in the dirt where people spit and piss.

“I’m also blind, but from grief, and my body is only a shadow of what it once was. Any sane passerby would groan at my turmoil, but my friends aren’t among them.

“One day the righteous will prevail and come out on top, but for me, my days are done, my plans have been dashed, and all my hope is gone. If I go and embrace the grave as my father and welcome the worms as my mother and sister, where is the hope? I’ll tell you where! My hope has gone with me into the dust from whence I came.”

Inspiration: Job 17

I’m innocent

“How easy it is for you to come here, look at my condition, and tarnish my good name with mere conjecture,” Job answered. “If I were in your place, Eliphaz, I could do the same thing.”

He limped back to the fire circle, staff still in hand, to address the others.

“I could also soothe you with sympathy to ease your sorrow and encourage your strength.”

Job threw Eliphaz’s staff to the ground and inched closer to the fire. His body looked like it had been stoned. The grey-green pus and blood draining from his sores comingled into a black jelly that glistened like pitch in the firelight.

“In his anger, God hunted me down and ripped me to shreds. He handed me over to Satan, who lurks in the shadows of my dreams and glares at my misery. God set me up as a target for my so-called friends. Without mercy, you notch your arrows and pierce me with lies.

“Yet I plead my innocence. When I die, may my racked body continue my protest. Surely my advocate is up there somewhere.

“I no longer consider you my friends. I’ll pour my heart out to God alone, believing he will listen as a friend before I exert my last breath.”

Inspiration: Job 16

Second volley

Job lay still with his eyes fixed on the stars. The night air offered an ominous silence, interrupted by the rustling strain of someone adding a log to the fire. Then he heard the crunch of Eliphaz’s staff stabbing the dirt, and perceived its owner standing again to his feet.

Eliphaz had always been annoyingly investigative and meddlesome, ever concerned with the law at the expense of law’s purpose. Job supposed Eliphaz had been calibrating his next oratory while Job was busy grappling with God in the dirt. Lying alone and immobile in the darkness, Job accepted his powerlessness against the accusatory arrows aiming to fly from the mouth of his friend.

“Bildad’s right,” Eliphaz shot out. “You truly are a windbag.”

Job turned his head toward the red-bearded Temanite, who appeared now like a looming shadow, black as death and backlit by fire. Although he could see no features in the smoke-veiled face, he imagined a self-satisfied grin across its breadth like a row of stone-cold merlons.

“You call yourself wise?” he taunted. “Where’s your fear of God? Where’s your loyalty? Your mouth condemns you more than any of us can.

“How very crafty you are. Tell me, were you the first man alive? Surely you overheard God as he planned the creation of hills and streams. Pray, tell us what you know that we don’t. We have only the elders, older than your father, to counsel us. Or, are God’s comforts not enough for you?

“You lash out in anger against God for not accepting you, when his own angels, the Watchers of Souls, aren’t even as pure as you claim to be. Sin flows through you like water through a spring, friend.”

Eliphaz knelt beside Job and set down his staff. His face was close enough to touch but still as black as night. His beard glowed like the aura of a blood moon.

“Listen to me, Job,” he said smugly. “I’m going to give you the solution from my experience, confirmed by the wisdom of the ancients. Are you ready to listen?”

Job dared not give Eliphaz the satisfaction. Instead, he used what little energy he had reserved to lift his head and turn his back on his friend. The ground felt like a bed of iron firepots searing through his anguished body.

“A wicked man is in trouble all his life,” Eliphaz said, seemingly oblivious to Job’s torments. “Every day is full of terrors. Even good days are interrupted by fear because he knows that death is coming for him. Why? Because he has defied God. In his arrogance, he has sacked cities and eaten stolen food until fat. But not for long.”

Job sat up, turned around and reached for Eliphaz’s staff. “Sorry comforters you’ve all turned out to be,” he managed through clenched teeth. With both hands grasping the crook, he lifted himself upright, wincing all the way.

“You clung to worthless possessions, Job, so fire swallowed up your tents.”

“Is there no limit to your lies?” Job asked, his black eyes catching the firelight like beaten gold.

“Go on,” Eliphaz said, “prepare your next deception. But remember, the wicked man drops from the vine like a grape before its time.”

Inspiration: Job 15   

Rise again?

“I’m weak,” Job said almost in a whisper. “How weak and frail are all mortals. How full of sorrow. A man flourishes for an instant, then like a spring blossom, he withers.

“Why are you so severe with us? Why do you demand a payment of blood for our impurities when we’re born impure?

“Why can’t you give mortals a break? Unlike the tree, we’re here for a moment, and then we die. If a tree comes down, even an ancient tree, it grows again with a little water. But cut a man down and bury him, and where’s his soul?

“Like water drying up from a lake, we lie down, never to rise again unless the heavens fall. I wish you’d hide me in the grave for a time, but remember me when all is said and done. Is that wishful thinking? After we die, will we live again? The thought of it soothes my torment, giving me a strange hope in death.”

Inspiration: Job 14

Liars’ club

A cool breeze swept through the camp, causing the tent walls to clap against their ropes. Job wanted to stand and receive some of the sudden rush of air over his burning body, but he couldn’t summon the energy. Instead, he remained flat on his back and gazed into the light-speckled sky, away from the glow, heat, and ungodly company of the firepit.

His eyes were drawn at first to the brilliant cluster of Pleiades, but, perhaps because in life he preferred the open spaces of a more sparse community, his eyes rested on the unbounded orbs in Orion’s Belt.

“You’re all liars,” he said, unconcerned whether they heard him. “You’re worthless physicians. Take a lesson from the stars, and choose silence as your most heavenly wisdom. By accusing me of sin, you’ve become false witnesses of God’s character. He doesn’t just afflict the wicked, as you say, or you’re also calling me a hypocrite. What do you suppose God will do to you for twisting the nature of his way? He doesn’t need you to lie for him.

“Now, let me pray in peace. Even if God kills me, he’s going to hear what I have to say.”

Job took in a deep breath, and the sores over his torso ripped open like the fissures of an old wineskin. He howled in agony.

“God,” he groaned, “two things I pray. Don’t abandon me, and don’t terrorize me.

“What have I done to offend you? Help me understand. Point out my sin so that I may turn away from it. Why instead do you turn away from me? Do you also chase a leaf in the wind only to chastise it for doing so?

“You have bound my hands and feet, and like a rotting tree, I wither away.”

Inspiration: Job 13