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 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 entire 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 very watchers of souls, aren’t even as pure as you claim to be. Sin flows through you like water, friend.”

Eliphaz knelt beside Job and set down his staff. His face was close enough to touch but still as black as a chasm. 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 to his side. 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 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 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   

Not impressed

Job lifted his head and forced himself upright. He could smell the putrid mixture of blood and pus emanating from his skin, like a combination of iron and rotting flesh. Every surface of his body radiated heat like the gray embers of a dying fire.

If pressed, Job wasn’t sure he could recite the gist of Zophar’s indictment against him. Aside from the physical pain contending with his will to concentrate, Zophar had always been a troublemaker, and Job discovered a long time ago that his motives were rarely pure.

Zophar likely felt jealous of Job’s life until now, and Job suspected that his Canaanite friend enjoyed watching the God-fearing priest suffer. So, after hearing his commentary through the filter of distrust, Job made his reply.

“I am awed by your great wisdom,” he mocked. “No doubt the secrets of your understanding will die with you.”

“Be careful, friend,” Zophar answered with a dull resentment. “My robes hide no festering affliction.”

“None of you have told me anything I don’t already know,” Job said calmly. “My own children, in their lowest state of drunken debauchery, knew these things.  In fact, the beasts and birds and fish are apt teachers of the way we are to follow.

“As plainly as I can discern good food from bad, my mind knows the truth when I hear it. You know as well as I do, old men like us gain wisdom from experience. But God’s wisdom and strength are beyond us. No one can rebuild what he has destroyed. No one can open what he as closed. No one can replenish what he has exhausted. No one can stop what he has started.

“God is strength and wisdom. The dragon and his victim belong to God. He strips counselors and judges of their dignity. He makes subjects of kings and kings of subjects. He casts away priests and humbles titans. He silences the trustworthy and makes fools of elders. He strips the princes of their position and the warriors of their strength. He causes the rise and fall of nations, enlarging, then scattering them. He forces the waymaker to wander through a roadless desert, groping like a drunkard without a hint of light.”

Inspiration: Job 12

Zophar’s indictment

Job fell to his knees in the flickering darkness, letting his limp body drop to the earth. Lying on his side, he seized a handful of dirt and smeared it into an open sore on his face.

Zophar, the man who had come from Naamath to see his friend through the double tragedy, watched Job with a tilt of his head. Like a lion stalking prey, he had observed, in silence, the anguished and broken priest lead himself into a circle. Exhausted by his repeated boasts of innocence, Job had finished where he started, lying with his spine curved inward, like a defenseless animal or an unborn child.

Now Zophar took his turn to speak.

“Perhaps someone should have put a muzzle on you when you started your arrogant rant,” Zophar started in, his raven hair melding into the pitch black mountain behind them. “‘I am pure,’ you say. ‘I am clean.’ But now that you’ve lathered yourself into speechlessness, maybe God will share with you the many facets of his wisdom, starting with the fact that you’re better off than your guilt deserves.

“The knowledge of God is larger than the earth, broader than the ocean, higher than the heavens, and deeper than the final grave. What makes you think you can do anything about it? Sadly, you won’t find understanding until donkeys speak and reason like us.

“Before you speak again, take my advice and put your misdeeds far behind you. There can’t be a hint of dirt residing in your tents if you wish to approach God without fear. Your confidence will bloom from your innocent expectation. The only expectation of the wicked is their final breath.”

Inspiration: Job 11

Eliphaz’s wisdom

Eliphaz had been digging into the dirt next to the fire with the butt of his staff while listening to Job, carving a rank and file of notches like a company of soldiers waiting to be dispatched into chaos.

“May I offer my opinion?” he asked, the shadows on his face dancing in the firelight, his red hair shining like molten bronze. “You’re usually the one telling us what to do, where to go, how to cope. But this time, trouble has come to you, and you’re undone. You said that fearing God makes you bold and that your integrity makes you resilient. What happened to you?

“Let me ask you,” Eliphaz continued, setting his staff aside and rising to his feet. “Have you ever known a righteous person to die before his time? In my experience, those who sow chaos, reap chaos. By God, they die, consumed in a flash by his righteous anger.

“I’ll tell you a secret. One night in sleep, a phantom passed by my face, and every hair on my body stood on end. It said, ‘If an angel, who is made of light, can fall to the depths, how can a mortal, made from dust, be righteous before God?’

“If I were you, I’d beg the heavens for help. See if God or his band of angels answer you. Fools can be successful for a season, but resentment, jealousy, any number of things will snuff them out and leave their children homeless and starving. Hunger and misery don’t sprout up from the earth; they come out of mortals. As sure as these sparks are flying upward from the firepit, you brought this trouble on yourself.

“If I were you, I’d confess my wrongs before God. He works in mysterious ways. He provides rain, thwarts evil, makes kings of paupers, and calms storms. You should consider yourself lucky for being punished for whatever sin you committed. Don’t despise discipline, because it will be your salvation. Whoever God wounds, he will heal. He delivers the troubled and redeems the hungry from starvation.

“In the end, you’ll be like a smooth stone in a field,” Eliphaz concluded, self-satisfied and taking his seat. “Even the wild beasts will lie down with you in peace. Your tent will be secure, your livestock accounted for, your quiver full, and your years plenty.”

Inspiration: Job 4-5

Judah’s plea

The brothers returned to the palace and fell at Zaphenath’s feet.

“What is this evil deed you have done? Were you not aware that I am a man of deep insight?” Zaphenath asked them.

Judah spoke up. “Tell us how to make amends. Our God has seen our guilt and has repaid us for what we’ve done. We have come to serve you in your house. If Benjamin is a slave, then his brothers are slaves along with him.”

“You speak nonsense,” Zaphenath replied. “The guilty party acted alone, and he alone will be my slave. No, go to your father in Canaan and live in peace.”

Judah stood up. “My lord,” he said, taking a step closer, “I pray, allow me to speak without getting angry at your servant. You’re like Pharaoh in wisdom and splendor.”

“Very well. Speak.”

“My lord, you accused us of being spies. We told you that we have a father who is old and a younger brother, born in his old age. He’s the only son left of his mother’s children because his brother is dead. You ordered us to bring him to you, to prove that we weren’t spies. We told you Benjamin couldn’t leave our father, who loves his son more than his own life. You insisted, taking Simeon captive and threatening to sever our relationship if we didn’t return with Benjamin. We went back to Canaan and told our father everything. Our father, Israel, refused to release Benjamin to us. After our rations were gone, he told us to go buy more food. We refused, having remembered your words, lest we take Benjamin with us. Our father said, ‘The wife I loved gave me two sons before she died. One has surely been ravaged by wild animals. If you take Benjamin, and he is hurt, I will die along with him.’ If we don’t return to Canaan with Benjamin, our father, whose life is entwined in Benjamin’s, will go to the grave, full of sorrow. I have vouched for his life, and I would rather die than return to my father without my brother. Now, release my brother, and I will serve you in his place. Let Benjamin return to the father who loves him more than life itself.”

Inspiration: Genesis 44