A Fiction, based on the Book of Job

by Michael R. Rountree


Several more days have passed, without an utterance from our friend. We have passed some of the time by mending his rent canvas, and uprighting the poles of his tent. We have honored him by meeting his silence with our own, save in those times when, away from his ears, I have whispered to his wife and requested that food be brought. The sweetness of figs seemed wasted on him; he grimaced as though they were a bitter thing to him. No doubt, every joy of life could, in these days, seem bitter for the taunt that is provides. The drop of honey reminds us that there are things that we should enjoy, the provisions of God Most High. But what if God has removed His provision? The honey mocks.

Job has said all of this, and more, with his screaming eyes. He needs no words. We are gaining his trust, and with the slightest shift of an eye he tells us more than we need to know. Yesterday, as I handed him the bread and the fig, I watched as he minced the fruit with open teeth, as though a predator ripping flesh. The bread, also, he took angrily, his searing stare never leaving my face. What I cannot describe is how it moved me, to tears of my own.

In the night, now, he clings to us all, as we surround him. It might be unseemly for me to mention this, of a man with a fine wife, and I risk my own honor in relating it. But we held him, and he us, our shared warmth better than any fire. It was as if he feared the arrival of another messenger, informing him of the loss of his last three friends. Whatever God might do to us, Job was not going to let us go. I know that God punishes the wicked, and it is for their own discipline; perhaps withholding from Him is a sin in itself. Yet, I would not let him go now, either. I am bound to this wasted man with the thickest of cords. Each day, with his sores and his reluctance to look to his own safety, Job threatens to go down to Sheol, and I must be an anchor to hold him here. He knows how my heart would break, and so he does not end his own life. Yet I know that he has that evil desire. As for me, my evil desire, should the Almighty come to claim Job's broken body for Himself, is that I would resist Him to the utmost of my strength. What has come over me?

After a seventh day of reverent mourning, Job at last stands to his feet. We rise with him, as the sun is falling back to its place beyond the hills. Abruptly, he turns his head to the west, and walks. At first he is unstable, for he has not stood to his feet in all this time. His scabbed knees barely support him, and so we rush to his side - Bildad at his right hand, and I to his left. He welcomes us, then urges onward, and we find the path that leads down into the valley. Soon he is stable again, and shrugs us off; we allow him a space before us as we follow him down to the river's edge.

He walks straight into its turgid flow, and streaks of muddied water peel away from him as the layers wash away. The stink and the caked clay come free, as do the scabs, and swirls of red mix in with the filth. Finally, he plunges. We wait, but then Bildad realizes what I do not - that he may not be intending to breathe again. As my companion races out into the stream I deduce the same, and next we are both slogging our heavy feet out towards where we saw him go under.

Oh, Job, do not add to your sin with this act of defiance!

Before we can reach him, though, he throws his head up out of the water, with a great gasp for air. He reaches out and we each grab an arm, and pull him together up onto the strand as though fishermen with an encumbered net.

"May the day of my birth perish!" he growls. He slumps in our arms, but we will not let him collapse again to the dust. We drag him along, back up the path towards his home. Zophar wordlessly inquires how he might help. I answer him, knowing that now the silence at least is broken.

"Go and spread a blanket on the earth for us," I command. I drew his attention to the dripping legs, where the wounds had been opened once again, but were at least now clean. When we all arrived, we set him down, then took our seats around him. It was growing dark, for the sun was now hidden, yet none of us moved to establish the fire. Job has spoken!

"When it was said, 'A boy is born!', that day - may it turn to darkness!" he yelled. "May God above not care about it; may no light shine upon it!"

I wanted to speak, but I had no words ready for him. He looked around, at each of us in turn, as though challenging us to retort. But he needed us to listen.

Then he looked beyond us, to the twilight. "May darkness and deep shadow claim it once more! May blackness overwhelm its light."

Job stood to his feet. "May it not be included among the days of the year! May no shout of joy be heard in it! If any day is cursed by men, let it be that day! May it wait out the night in vain, to never see the first rays of dawn! For it did not shut the doors of the womb on me, to hide trouble from my eyes."

I rose and stood beside him, placing an arm across his shoulder. I did not know the words that I would offer, but I knew that I needed to speak, somehow to soothe... "My friend," I began, but he interrupted.

"Why did I not perish at birth?" He seemed to be asking me; I had no answer. "Why were the knees there to receive me, and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace, asleep and at rest." Job laughed a little, at his own thoughts, which were as a foreign language to me. "Ha, yes, asleep under the earth, together with all the kings and counselors, who built for themselves places now in ruins! That should be my place - why was I not simply hidden in the ground, like a stillborn child, never seeing the light of day?" He strode forward, out from our sitting circle, and took up a log that had been set out for the fire. With it, he began to dig out his own shallow infant's grave. Zophar reached over and steadied his hand, as if to say, that is enough.

Job stared deeply into the rut he had made, and pointed at it. "There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the wearied are at rest. Captives are finally at ease, no longer hearing the master's shouts, for both small and great are there, and slaves are freed." Job then knelt down, and begun to push the earth back over the empty grave, sealing it in.

After that, there was a long silence. I thought it to be mine, to fill with words, and so I began. "Job, if one of us were to venture to speak with you, will you have the patience to listen?" He looked at me as if I had offended him, but I saw that it brought him out of his reverie. "When you would curse the day of your birth, how can I keep from speaking? Think of many you have instructed, including us! I recall how you have strengthened feeble hands, how your words have supported those who stumbled. But now, trouble has come to you, and you are the one stricken down, dismayed, and faltering. Should not your piety and blameless ways be your confidence?" I felt like I was offering him nothing, the way he just looked at me.

"Consider, now," I continued, nonetheless. "Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and sow trouble, reap it."

"Let us not speak more of this now," Job said to me, turning away. "Let us enjoy our rest, as men condemned to remain above the grave."

Bildad spoke last that night, echoing Job's heart in a way that permitted us all to sleep. "Then let the darkness sieze us all. We can speak again under the morning stars." And so we slept.

It was the deepest sleep, deep enough that it felt like bright awareness, for in my dreams I saw that our camp was visited. I heard a scratching sound, at first, and it caused me to sit upright. The noise was coming from that hidden hole, that unsatisfied grave, and in the moonlight I saw that a mist or a vapor was pluming up from it. Had Job buried an ember, that now was set to smoking? But no, in my bones I knew that this was something more, and a fearful trembling took hold of me. As I watched, the wisps took form, the shape of a man, though not a man with a face; it was but a spirit. I wanted to alert the others, but my voice, it would not work! I could barely breathe. This body of mists floated past my face, and I was held there, unable to turn away. The form stood before me, and spoke in a voice so soft that I am not sure that I heard it with my ears.

And then, I saw that it returned into the clay, just as it had come. When it was well gone into the grave, I finally was able to move again, and so I crawled towards the place it had been. But just as I came upon the disturbed ground, a tendril shot up again! Not at me, but beyond, where we had erected Job's tent. This whip of smoke seized the peg that was hammered into the soil, and dislodged it, and the edge of the tent came down. And this was as much as I remembered of my dream.

When the morning came, it was Job's voice that awakened the rest of us. "Why is light given to those in misery!" he yelled out at the newly risen sun. "Why is life given to the bitter of soul? To those who long for death that does not come?"

We rolled ourselves up to face him, knowing that he needed us. His need was for someone's thoughts other than his own, and at last he was beckoning for them.

"Why is life even given to a man, whom God has hedged in? Sighing comes to me instead of food, and my groans pour out like water." Then he saw that we were awake with him, and he spoke to us directly. "What I feared," he sobbed, "has come upon me. What I dreaded has... happened to me! I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; I have only turmoil." We received him in our arms at this.

I should say, though, that my own arms did not hold him, for I saw something that gave me a great fright, and put fresh visions into my mind. The corner of the tent was down, the stake uprooted just as I had seen.

"A word was secretly brought to me," I said, mesmerized by the plot of earth and the fallen canvas. Job looked up at me, over the shoulder of Bildad, interested in what I might have to say. "My ears caught just the whisper of it, amid my disquieting dreams in the night. As I slept last night, fear overtook me, and all my bones shook. I saw a spirit that moved past my face, and all the hairs on my body stood on end. It stopped before me, yet I could not see its form; all I knew was that I heard a hushed voice." And suddenly, I knew what the words were, which it had spoken to me in my dream. They were words meant for Job's ears, entrusted to me.

"Can a mortal be more righteous than God?" Were these my own words? Yes, and they had been given to me, and not to the others, nor to Job himself. I had spoken, just before sleep came, about trouble coming to the evil; my reassurance to Job was that he could trust in his blamelessness. Had I misspoken?

"Can a man be more pure than his Maker? If God places no trust in His servants, even charging His angels with error, will He not find fault with those who live in the clay, whose foundations are in the dust? Men are crushed as readily as a moth; all day long they are ground into pieces and forgotten! Are not the cords of their tent pulled up, so that they die in their ignorance?" And I pointed at the fallen tent.

Author's Notes:

Here you can see a bit of my conjecture playing out, in that the dialogue between characters passes back and forth a little more than it does in the Bible. I'm trying to feed some of Eliphaz's lines from his later response back to Job as a more immediate conversation, and it is tricky to do this editing. This fits in with our modern sensibilities and attention span; likely the Biblical account is how it really happened, with wise men yielding the floor to one another for the more developed soliloquies that are recorded. A straight reading of Job can have it all take place as though it were one big forum or debate, but in my mind I always saw time passing in the unrecorded intervals. Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz turn against Job gradually, as he continues to disrupt the established order around town, merely by his unresolved presence.

What I am adding very little to, surprisingly, is the visit by a phantom, that moves Eliphaz to speak. This surreal experience is well attested in the Biblical account. Keep in mind that Job predates any establishment of the Jewish religion, even Sabbath observance, and revelations from God came to men primarily in visions and in encounters with angels. It is interesting to contemplate Job's blamelessness, in light of the fact that the Law, as Moses would be given, did not exist as such. Even in its absence, though, men know that God Most High is righteous in character, and He is an absolute judge of all.

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