November 7, 2011

Hard Sayings XXIII: Seven Day Silence

“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13

It is hardly possible to conceive that three men actually remained seated, without food, or drink, or spoken word, for so long a time as seven days. Is this hyperbole or conceivable in ancient near eastern culture?

Explanation: Ignorance of Eastern customs leads us to assume that Job's three friends never moved, and took no food during seven days according to these passages. The passage only says that they said no words to him. As for sitting in perfect silence for a very prolonged period, this is quite a customary Eastern practice unlike our short attention span and overly stimulated modern nervous systems. Seven days was a/the usual period of mourning, and all we can reasonably assume is that there was some degree of fasting but not enough to endanger health or one’s life.

According to this account, if Job did not speak, the friends would not as is custom in ancient near east culture. No one spoke until the primary person mourning spoke first. Among the Jews it is a point of decorum, and one did not to speak to a person in deep affliction until he gave an intimation or desire to be comforted. This appears to be the exact case with Job if we note the very first verse of chapter three after the end of chapter 2’s “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was”. Chapter 3 starts with, “After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth”. It is after this that his friends begin to chime in and they do so for nearly forty (40) chapters.

Many see in this silence as a sign of perplexity as to the origin or cause of Jobs affliction and a suspicion that Job's conscience might be burdened with some secreted guilt. Regardless, the long weary tension was too much for his feelings and at last he gave expression to the agony which he and the others had endured in silence. With that expression a prolonged discussion ensues between Job and his “friends” about the heaven-sent hardships.

Barnes commentary states, “It cannot be supposed that they remained in the same place and posture for seven days and nights. The meaning is that they obviously mourned with him during that time in the usual way. An instance of grief remarkably similar to this, continuing through a period of six days, is ascribed by Euripides to Orestes.

I think the fact that Job’s friends sat on the ground seven days and seven nights in silence may not be that horribly far-fetched. What I do find incredible is that Job himself, weakened by disease and excessive grief, should be able to endure seven days successively not speaking not moving without expiring. This makes me believe that God was supernaturally buoying Job even during his afflictions through grace.

I believe that if we correctly understood this situation it does not preclude them from sleeping, eating, and going about not even from some slight expressions of sorrow and condolence. The passage only says that they didn’t speak until spoken to. This seems an acceptable interpretation to meet the demands of the Hebrew text. Regardless, we must never try to bring the people of the Old Testament forward into our time by contemporizing the text to relate to us in the 21st Century for application purposes. We need to understand what the Scripture meant to the writer and the person the text was written for. We do need to find the parallels of human behavior and human nature though since these things never change. We must never forget we are far removed from the culture Ancient Middle Eastern world. We do an injustice to the text and rob ourselves of the true meaning of the text for us and others.

Art Credit: Tyrus Clutter's Artwork
Watercolors on Book Pages

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