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TitleThe “Old Dead Book” of Job
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1974
AuthorsCornwall, Rebecca J.
Issue Number7
Date PublishedJuly 1974
KeywordsJob (Book); Job (Prophet); Scripture Study

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The “Old Dead Book” of Job

By Rebecca J. Cornwall

The gospel doctrine teacher had asked us to write one of our feelings about studying the Old Testament. As she read aloud these anonymous confessions, I was sympathetic until the comment, “I enjoy the Old Testament except for the old dead books like Job.” That stung as if it were an insult to an old friend. I wanted to cry, “But you don’t know Job!”

I said nothing, but I remembered my pre-Job days and how I came to know that grand old piece of literature, philosophy, and divine wisdom. It happened during a serious family crisis when my spirit was battered. We had moved far from home, my husband was overseas, and now, with a toddler and a new baby, I was ill. I decided that these problems were Satan testing my mettle—but with faith, perseverance, and a priesthood blessing, we would get through.

But day after day of petty emergencies left us in major chaos. I felt deserted. In my misery, cosmic questions that had been exhilarating mental exercises became torturous doubts that had to be answered. I turned to the scriptures, first to the New Testament. The admonitions of Christ on judging, of Paul on charity, were no longer platitudes to the Saints; they were a summation of my distresses and awakenings of the past weeks. Yet, at that time, the New Testament was little comfort. It seemed like an impersonal sermon when I needed a close friend.

I had only skimmed parts of the Old Testament, but I recalled that Job’s friends blamed him for a bad case of boils and that God made them apologize. Job had been alone and misunderstood. That was enough to invite me to his story.

From the beginning the Book of Job appealed to me. The first two chapters were an intriguing mixture of apparent folklore and knowledge of the premortal existence. While the unknowing Job went about an earth day’s labor, Satan challenged the Lord in heaven contending that goodness was another form of selfishness and Job would forsake it when the rewards were gone.

Satan was permitted to destroy Job’s herds and flocks, to slay his servants and all his children, and to curse Job with boils, all as a test of Job’s faith. But unlike me, Job was not deserted—three old friends came to grieve with him, sitting in sackcloth and ashes and silence. To his wife’s pitiful jeering suggestion that he “curse God,” Job answered triumphantly:

“… What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10.)

Then here in Chapter 3, the sweeping action slowed and focused, narrowing to the “you-are-there” human prospect of long, tormented days. Job lost his confidence and dissolved into wretched mourning. The silent friends were now critical. The book becomes hard reading.

I felt I was reading poetry, more intense and concentrated than prose. Confused, I turned to the only Bible reference in the house, an 1868 Smith’s Bible Dictionary. I learned that Biblical scholars divided the book into five parts:

  1. The prologue, which I had already read.
  2. The symposium, three rounds of debate between Job and his friends on the causes of innocent suffering. (Job 3–14, Job 15–21, Job 22–31.)
  3. The additional arguments of Elihu. (Job 32–37.)
  4. The words of Jehovah from the whirlwind. (Job 38–41.)
  5. The epilogue, in which Job’s blessings are restored. (Job 42:7–17.)

From the library I borrowed Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, which served as a verse-by-verse translator until I caught on to the language and themes.

Gradually a very powerful, intimate drama began to unfold. Job was asking the very questions that tore at me.

“What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?

“And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment?” (Job 7:17–18.)

This was not only Job’s story. It was mine.

“Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 7:11.)

I felt a kinship to all the souls over the centuries who had found solace here—the Savior must have been among them. I saw that God was not, like the mythical Zeus, hurling lightning bolts at me to teach me lessons. He allowed me to partake of mortal life as he had explained it in the premortal existence. The hardships could make or destroy me, as I chose, but escape them I could not.

The “symposium” began with Job’s lament of this shattered world. Then Eliphaz spoke in the dignity of mellowed age and the deference of one sage to another:

“If we assay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved? …” (Job 4:2.)

If his manner was sympathetic, his judgments were not. He believed without question in the Hebrew tenet of his time that suffering was the result of sin. Eliphaz was amazed that Job should question this simply because he himself happened to be the sufferer. His advice to Job was to have faith in his maker and to search his soul. This was the way of righteousness.

“Lo, this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good.” (Job 5:27.)

Job was stunned. He had not asked for sympathy, but he did not expect condemnation. With his life in ruins and his soul racked by self-doubt and despair, was censure all they had for him? His instinctive defense was a mistake—they had no pity for him, either. The quiet Bildad accursed him with words “like a strong wind,” (Job 8:2) and prayed Job to be “pure and upright” (Job 8:6) so that the Lord might defend him. Zophar, irritated and agitated, scorned him:

“… Oh that God would speak, and open his lips against thee,

“And that he would shew thee the secrets of wisdom.” (Job 11:5–6.)

Their ears were deaf, their succor taunting. They were so concerned with defending truth that they completely forgot compassion. If only they had remained in sackcloth and silence.

I was furious with them and very busy at first comparing them to friends who had involved themselves in my predicament. They had been as eager to advise and slow to listen. I had been depressed, desperate, and deluged with tales of problems more serious than mine. A phone caller had advised me that a proper attitude would solve everything.

I could fiercely appreciate Job’s overpowering frustration when no one would even admit that he had a problem! Truly I could say with Job, “Miserable comforters are ye all.” (Job 16:2.) If I had been in their shoes, things would have been so different, I said.

But then, I looked at myself to see if, in their shoes, I would have done things differently. Had I gone to a friend intending to comfort him, but instead judged and even preached at him in his anguish? In visiting teaching or associating with neighbors, had I “sprinkled dust upon [my head] toward heaven” (Job 2:12) in the outward expressions of charity, fooling myself by pretending to accept those I presumed to bless? I remembered instances of ill-begotten words that must have deeply hurt an already-wounded friend, and I was shocked at my insensitivity. Had they forgiven me? Could I not now forgive those who had seemed callous toward me?

By the third round of debate, Job and his friends were totally estranged. The friends had become loud and brazen in their accusations. Strangely, Job was calmer. He seemed to need their approbation less and less, speaking with a deepening inner confidence. His responses were often irrelevant to what the others had said.

His anguish remained:

“Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me;

“When his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness.” (Job 29:2–3.)

But his doubts diminished—“… When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10)—and he had occasional glimpses of heaven. He expressed the inequality between human and divine wisdom in thought and language as beautiful as anything in the Bible. (Job 28.) My commentator said the ancients were not sure of a life after death, but I knew better. To Job came the testimony:

“For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

“And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:

“Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.” (Job 19:25–27.)

Through affliction Job found a new understanding of life. He discovered in his desolation what his friends could not grasp in their abundance—that when all a man cherishes is gone, when his friends desert him and his theology is not enough, only his faith can sustain him.

I cannot write how that realization stirred me. There had been—and there were to come—many mornings when I would have to decide, “Today I will exercise faith that there is a God and that he cares about me. I do not know that he does, but I will act and pray as though he does.”

There was one great hardship for Job before his faith would be justified. Elihu, a younger man not mentioned in the prologue or epilogue who had listened intently but indignantly, could hold his tongue no longer:

“Behold, my belly is as wine which hath no vent; it is ready to burst like new bottles.” (Job 32:19.)

They had all missed the point, said Elihu, whereas:

“My words shall be of the uprightness of my heart: and my lips shall utter knowledge clearly.” (Job 33:3.)

If, as Peake suggested, Elihu’s speech was added in some revision of the original book, I am glad for the addition, for some of Elihu’s arguments were good. He said that God spoke to man through suffering. This did not necessarily mean that tribulation was a direct reprimand; instead it bore a message for those who had ears to hear. Suffering was the great refiner of the human soul.

But Elihu had missed the point, too. Though he claimed to be inspired, he was not inspired by charity, nor could he perceive that suffering had refined Job’s spirit.

At last Elihu and the other men were silenced, not by the strength of Job’s defenses, but by disgust at his stubborn “self-pity.” They had rejected his certainty that man cannot understand all of God’s whole purposes in adversity, and they had ignored his claim of an honest, charitable life. On the other hand, Job remained unconvinced of wrongdoing. The debate was at an impasse.

Then the one person justified in judging Job, the friend who had sustained him all along, who had stood by him until the time for knowledge, came to his defense. From out of the whirlwind the Lord first chastized Job. After all, Job had argued with little more perception of his friends’ motives and needs than they had allowed for his: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2), the Lord pointedly demanded.

But his friends had scourged a defenseless man, and now their scourges fell upon themselves. The Lord condemned Eliphaz:

“My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends, for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” (Job 42:7.) The Lord did not argue with them. Nor did he answer Job’s questions. The revelation was addressed to Job’s faith. God reaffirmed his dominion over the heavens and earth in a majestic, thrilling survey of his creations (Job 38–41). When Job was humbled as never before—the chapter heading reads, “God convinceth Job of ignorance and imbecility”—God asked him if he wished to instruct the Lord. Job didn’t.

His present trial was finished. Because of his righteousness, Job’s blessings were returned twice over. Although it might seem contrary to the spirit and theme of Job’s own beliefs for him to prosper so obviously, it was symbolic to me, not only of the reward that awaits those who endure to the end, but of the awakening in Job’s soul. He had a new understanding of truth and a faith turned from steel to gold. He was twice the man he had been.

Job’s story had a happy ending, but what about the rest of us poor human sufferers? What about me? The Lord personally was not going to come in a whirlwind to defend me.

But it became apparent that I had a few unfailing friends, the comfort and assurance of Job’s record, and a priesthood leader who discerned the problem, accepted it, and gave precious hours in wise, prayerful counsel. If his wisdom had been foolishness it would not have mattered much—what mattered was that he did not categorize me or guess at my eternal fate or pretend to understand all the causes of my predicament; instead he listened, he prayed, and he wept with me. I felt then and now a gratitude without bounds for that help and the helper. Misguided counseling by one or two modern Eliphazes had taught me a lesson but had not inspired any change in my habits. When someone showed a sincere, alert concern for me, it surprised me. I wanted to share that intelligent compassion with someone else. I urgently wanted to fine-tune my hearing to the sensitivity of that leader’s.

Later I realized that Christ was that kind of counselor and more. I began to thirst for anything said by or about the Savior. The sympathy I had felt earlier for his suffering blossomed into an unexpected reverence and a craving to learn his way of doing and seeing.

One dark night it occurred to me that the ancient history of Job was a conscious, brilliant testimony of the Savior’s mission. It was a preview of the Atonement.

There were only bits of evidence to justify such a conclusion, but how could I see it any other way? Job was so oppressed that death would have been a blessing, and his greatest agony was that he could see no reason or end to his suffering. Only the revelation of his Redeemer sustained him through his suffering. Job drank his cup on faith.

That is how I came to meet the old “dead” Book of Job. In my innocence I had been unaware of its awesome position among the world’s written masterpieces, which I later discovered.

It doesn’t bother me to know that the book must have seen many transcriptions and perhaps even some distortions before I found it. Nor is it painful to read that some skeptics even doubt that the events actually occurred; whoever wrote the book was familiar with sorrow; whatever its circumstances.

What does bother me is how some Biblical scholars view the author as a cool, merciless skeptic presenting one intellectual view of suffering.

I picture him a Hebrew leader, forced by life to question the traditional dogma, groping for reasons and finding more than he sought, writing out of profound feeling and faith and inspiration. It may be he used another man’s story to tell his own discoveries. Could it be that he was followed months or years later—even hundreds of months or years—by an editor who revised the work with an eye to preserving it? Then came many scribes and translators, variously inspired. The fundamental message remained pretty much intact, and it is scripture.

Now I wonder what some of the other Old Testament books have secreted away in their seemingly lifeless, dusty pages.

Rebecca Cornwall is a homemaker and a member of Garden Park Ward, Salt Lake Bonneville Stake.