Friday, June 17, 2016

Bildad the Shuhite: When the Truth Isn’t the Truth

William Blake - Satan Smiting Job with Sores

Bildad the Shuhite was one of Job’s friends.  And when he heard about what had happened to Job and his family, Bildad came as part of a group, to sit with Job in his grief and sickness, to comfort him in his loss.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamanthite.  They met together to go and console and comfort him.  Then they saw him from a distance they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (Job 2:11-13)

Jean Fouquot - Job Visited By His Friends

Bildad the Shuhite was obviously very smart.  Unlike so many, he knew his theology.  He was a keen observer of the way things are and the way things are supposed to be.  Very articulate, he used words to great effect and power.  Direct and to the point, he could have been a prosecuting attorney in another age.  He pushes his ideas and his perspective because he knows that he is right.  And so Bildad the Shuhite looked at Job, what had happened to him, looked at him sitting on his woe-is-me dunghill, listened to Job whinge, and he knew, Bildad knew that Job was just not being honest with himself.  And so Bildad joined with his friends Eliphaz and Zophar in an effort to help Job come to his senses.

Helen Seigl - Job and His Friends

As soon as Job finishes his response to Eliphaz, Bildad doesn’t waste any time; rather, he accuses Job of dissembling, of speaking about things he knows nothing about.  It's pretty obvious that Bildad hasn’t really listened to what Job was trying to express in his pain – Bildad doesn’t need to.  Job’s problem is simply that he is wrong, and that his nattering on is simply self-justification.  Bildad goes straight for the underlying principle in order to wrest the initiative away from Job and put the discussion back on its proper track:  
‘Does God pervert justice, or the Almighty pervert the right?’ (Job 8:3)  
Job has been implying that God has wrongly laid him low, and Bildad wants to put an immediate stop to that kind of talk.  You can tell that he is a bit annoyed with Job because he goes straight for the jugular, and without any apologies:  ‘Job!  Everyone knows that people get what they deserve!: ‘If your children [all of them killed in that terrible house collapse] sinned against Him, he delivered them into the power of their transgressions.’ And then he says, unlike them, Job, ‘If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, then surely he will rouse himself for you and restore you to your rightful place.  Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.’ (Job 8:4-7)  So Bildad’s answer is that Job just needs to repent.  Bildad’s words sound good on first reading, but they are actually an insult, and on several levels.  Job if you will just turn to God, God will rescue him and bless you, if you are pure and upright!  And of course the not so subtle implication is that Job, for all his protestations, MUST be less than pure and upright, otherwise God, WHO IS JUST, would never, ever have allowed any of this to happen!

Gerhard Seghers - Job with Wife and Friends
Bildad then launches on a long stream of beautiful poetry to remind Job of THE TRUTH and demonstrate to Job just how right he, Bildad, is:

For inquire now of bygone generations, and consider what their ancestors have found;
For we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow.
Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?
‘Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water?
While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant.
Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish. 
Their confidence is gossamer, a spider’s house their trust.
If one leans against its house, it will not stand; if one lays hold of it, it will not endure.
The wicked thrive before the sun, and their shoots spread over the garden.
Their roots twine around the stoneheap; they live among the rocks.
If they are destroyed from their place, then it will deny them, saying, ‘I have never seen you.’
See, these are their happy ways, and out of the earth still others will spring. (Job 8:8-19)

William Blake - Job's Comforters

Bildad cannot resist a barb of warning amongst all the beauty and truth – the hopes of those who forget God are like reeds that wither for lack of water.  And Bildad is pretty certain that Job is none other than that man who has forgotten God.  And as he sums up his argument, this is why Bildad can say:

‘See, God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evil doers’ [but Job it is rather obvious that God has rejected and abandoned you!].  He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.  Those who hate you will be clothed with shame and the tents of the wicked will be no more.’ (Job 8:20-22)

Leonaert Bramer - The Trials of Job

From the standpoint of the Old Testament, Bildad sounds rather conventional in his theology.   And from the standpoint of much popular African theology, Bildad is saying what just about everyone around here would expect him to say. God blesses the upright and the good, and God judges the sinful and those who have done wrong.  Moreover, God’s judgement or blessing should be expected in the here and now (there was very little in terms of any understanding of an afterlife where wrongs might be addressed and goodness rewarded and final justice done.  And so there was some urgency to see God do right in the land of the living).  Bildad cannot fathom that all of these terrible things have happened to Job without cause.  Nor can many of us.  The author of Job, of course, has let us in on the real story of what is going on behind the scenes, so to speak, a part of the story to which Job never gains access.  Knowing the why behind Job’s suffering (though it raises its own set of vexing issues) at least puts Bildad and his companions in the bright lights of opposing God:  They claimed to know what God was doing, but in actuality they were making things up in their head.  They claimed to know the truth about Job and the reason he is suffering, but they were exposed as being blind.  They thought they were the solution; instead they were shown to be part of the problem.  They claimed to be right, and they marshalled all their theology in support of it, but for all their intelligence, experience and skill at arguing, they were exposed as frauds, not knowing what they were talking about.

Unknown Flemish Artist - Scenes from the Life of Job


These sorts of contentions are not unheard of today.  And the Bildads of today often carry the field.  Indeed, there is truth in many of the arguments that Bildad and his colleagues are making against Job.  And certainly in the day, they made powerful arguments in support of the truth as just about everybody understood it.  But just because one thinks one knows something, and just because one can win a debate, and just because one has lined up one’s counselors and friends on one’s side and just because one’s acquaintances fall in line and support everything one says against another, and just because one is right in one’s eyes and can marshal so much truth in support of one’s position, it doesn’t mean that one is right, and it certainly doesn’t give on the right to rubbish and abuse the other.  Wrong said and wrong done in the name of right is still wrong.  Just ask Bildad the Shuhite.

William Blake - Job and his Comforters
 Postscript

Turns out, Job can give as good as he gets.  The author doesn't wait till the end to show what he thinks of Bildad's (and his friends') way of interacting with Job.  Instead he has Job explain precisely what is going on:

As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physicians.
If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!
Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when he searches you out?
Or can you deceive him, as one person deceives another?
He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality.
Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.
(Job 13:4-12)

Of course, Bildad and his fellow 'comforters' refuse to listen.  One doesn't need to listen when one is always right.  One doesn't need to change when one is always right.  One need not repent when one is always right.  As if he wasn't already going through enough, Job has had the added misfortune of falling into the hands of a friend who was always right, a friend who can not - who will not - ever be wrong.

God have mercy on such 'friends' and save them from themselves.  And God have mercy on us and save us from those who cannot be wrong.