Let my arm fall from the shoulder? What?! This doesn’t seem like much of a curse – until we look at alternate translations. Longman’s is more graphic “may my shoulder blade fall off my shoulder, and my arm be broken at the socket.“
We are nearing the end of a long, spread out, interaction with the book of Job. If interested you can find the earlier posts here: Wow, Job, Justice or Wisdom?, The Accuser is not Satan, Job is Innocent… And He Proves Faithful, Job’s Lament (And What’s in it For Me?), God’s Role in the Cosmos, Is God Just?, I Know That My Redeemer Lives, Oh Where Wisdom? (Hint – Not in Science).
The climax of the book of Job comes when Yahweh answers Job from the whirlwind in Chapters 38-42. Before looking at this section, however, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the final speech delivered by Job. Chapters 29-31 of Job contain Job’s final lament and plea for justice. He calls curses on himself, among them “let my arm fall from the shoulder” should he be guilty and deserving of the suffering he is experiencing. In their commentaries John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)), take slightly different approaches to this passage, although they agree in its main thrust.
In the book of Job, Job’s friends don’t assume that his sin, the one that caused Job’s great suffering, was some ritual sin against God. Rather it was a failure to live a righteous life. And what did this righteous life entail? Well Eliphaz the Temanite in his third speech gives a list of Job’s presumed offenses:
Is not your evil abundant, and is there no end to your guilt? For you have exacted pledges from your brothers for no reason; you have stripped off the clothes of the naked. You have not given the weary water to drink; you have withheld food from the starving. The powerful possess the land; the favored reside in it. You send widows out empty-handed; you crush the arms of orphans. (22:5-9, Longman)
Job does not respond directly to Eliphaz’s charge in the next chapter. Rather he expresses a desire to encounter God and make his case. A desire he expresses repeatedly. He does address and deny the charges in chapters 29-31.
In the first section (Ch. 29) Job recalls his former life, before misfortune befell him. God was with him and he was respected by his fellow men.
The youths saw me and hid; the aged got up and stood. Princes restrained their speeches; they set their hands on their mouths. The voices of the Nobles grew silent; their tongues clung to the roof of their mouths. When an ear heard it blessed me. When an eye saw, it bore testimony on my behalf, because I rescued the poor who cried out for help, and the orphan who had no helper.. The blessing of those perishing came on me. I made the widow's heart shout for joy. I clothed myself in righteousness, and it clothed me. My justice was like a robe and turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was father to the needy. I examined the cause of the stranger. I broke the jaw of the guilty; I removed the prey from their teeth. (29:8-17, Longman)
The righteousness of Job was the core of the way he conducted his life. He was compassionate and generous toward his fellow man (male and female). Ritual worship played a role. He offered sacrifices after all, for himself, his children, and at the end of the book for his friends as well. But this was not the defining feature. He rescued the poor and the orphan, he cared for the widow, he was eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, and a father to the needy.
In chapter 30 he contrasts his previous life with his current suffering and calls out to God, by whom he has, he feels, been despised and humiliated. According to Longman: “When Job heard cries from the needy, he was moved and acted on their behalf. He felt empathy for the needy in a way that neither God nor the three friends have demonstrated toward him.” (p. 351)
Chapter 31 wraps up Job’s speeches. After this chapter he speaks again only briefly in response to God. In this chapter he once again declares his innocence. He has not lusted after a virgin or slept with a married woman. He has not mistreated the poor. Had he done any of these his suffering would be deserved.
If I deprive the poor of some pleasure, or cause the eyes of the widow to fail, or if I eat my morsel of bread alone, and let not the orphan eat of it - ... If I see anyone perishing for lack of clothing or a needy person without covering, ... if I have raised my hand threateningly against an orphan, because I saw I had allies in the gate, then may my shoulder blade fall off my shoulder, and my arm be broken at the socket. For I was panic-stricken at a calamity from God; I could not bear his majesty. (31:16-17, 19, 21-23 Longman)
And he has not made wealth his God – if he had all his suffering would be deserved.
If I place my confidence in gold, or my security in fine gold; if I rejoiced at the abundance of my wealth, or because my hand had found much; ... this would be a criminal offense, for I would have defrauded God above. (31:24,25,28, Longman)
Powerful words. And it gets better. Job calls a curse on himself. If he rejoiced in the disaster of those who hate him, asked for their life with a curse, failed to open his door to a traveler, concealed his guilt in his bosom, eaten produce without paying, then may he suffer the punishment he deserves. May the land give him brambles rather than wheat and stinkweed instead of barley.
God’s wisdom is an important theme here. John Walton takes a rather harsh view of Job’s discourse, suggesting that it display a false, and rather manipulative view of God. If the primary question is “Why do God’s policies allow righteous people to suffer?” Job’s response is to insist on his righteousness. He attempts to force the point with his call “let the Almighty answer me.” (v.35) But the corollary to Job’s view is that God is rendered something less than God.
If Job prevails in the confrontation, God is reduced to a powerful being who possesses neither wisdom nor justice. He is a chaos creature who is not just arbitrary, capricious, or inscrutable; rather he is uncontrolled even by himself. … In Job’s scenario, God is no God at all.
… Job’s attempt at wisdom, entangled in his struggles for coherence, requires him to discount God’s wisdom.(Walton p. 332)
Longman is not quite as hard on Job as Walton is, but the fact remains that Job knows he is innocent (and here we know from the prologue that he is right). This leaves him in a quandary. Because of his innocence Job rejects option 1 assumed by Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (and in ch. 32-37 by Elihu) – that he suffers because he has sinned and therefore needs to repent to restore himself to God’s good grace. His suffering is not a deserved punishment. But the apparent alternative, that God is capricious, unjust and unwise, is also unsatisfactory. Something has to give.
We can relate to Job’s quandary. Much suffering in this world appears to be excessive and undeserved. At times this suffering appears to be built into the very fabric of the world. We are not invincible, and accidents happen all the time, automobile accidents, plane crashes, falls. Natural disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes. Cancers – an apparent consequence of the evolutionary mechanisms that give rise to the diversity of life – strike without regard for person.
Job calls out for justice. “Oh that someone would listen to me! Here is my signature! Let Shaddai answer me!” or in the NIV “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me.”
God will come, but Job will be silent in the face of the God in whom wisdom is found. To this we will turn in the next post.
How do you resolve Job’s quandary?
Is suffering strictly a just consequence for sin?
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