A Fiction, based on the Book of Job

by Michael R. Rountree


There he was, returning. All of the rhythms of life in our dusty town had been shaken, the day the raiders came. Had I been ready, I would have fought them with spear or sickle, placing my own life as a hedge around Job's, for he was the most blessed of us all. My own master's sheep were out to graze as well, and all I had was my crook. I watched helplessly as Job's servants, armed only as I was, tried to fend off blades with their staves. It spared them but a single blow, for in one strike the wood was cut, and in the next strike it was their flesh. They were like sheep led to slaughter, and I used what advantage I had to fly from there.

So I did not go out to Job with the others. I feared that somehow he knew, that he knew I did not fight his enemies when they came, that I spared my own life even as he was losing all. Of course I did not know the depths of what was being lost to Job, and when it was all told to me I saw clearly that this was from the Most High. We all agreed on that. Still, I did not wish to face him.

He had not ventured from his tent until now, and I saw him walking arm in arm with Eliphaz and Zophar, and behind them came Bildad, carrying two jars. I knew then that were come to fetch from the well, which meant that they were coming towards me. I determined to hold my tongue, but to listen and learn what I might of how things stood with the poor man.

Why would God visit such judgement on a man?

They approached in silence, which I took to mean that the period of mourning was not finished. I learned later that I was wrong, as Job spoke, but I followed the wisdom of my elders in allowing Job the first words. Had I thought about it more, I would likely have realized that they had to converse once already, just to gain his assent to come into town like this. But it was in silence that Job drew the water - this they insisted that he do for himself, holding up the jars for him to fill. Those that saw him, those who were going about their own routines, slowed down and quieted their own tongues as well. They watched him as I did, seeing him gaze longingly into the black of the well.

Then they were off to purchase grain. This we had never seen Job do before; the stores that in previous years were overflowing were all his own, and he had merely to send one of his servants down to retrieve his needs. Job began to quiver some, as he filled first one bag and then another, and then realized that he would, this time, need to have them weighed and payed for. Bildad jumped at this, offering his own coins for the exchange and taking the bags in hand. He set them on the scales, even as the merchant began to wonder at who it was, now coming to him. The fee was announced, then paid, and that was when Job finally spoke, at least the first time in my hearing.

"If only my anguish could be weighed," he growled, "and all my misery be placed on the scales!" It was hard to hear, and I felt again the weight of my own secret guilt. "It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas - no wonder my words have been impetuous!" I saw that he turned as he said this, to face Eliphaz. "The arrows of the Almighty are in me. My spirit drinks in their poison. God has marshalled His terrors against me!"

It seemed that it was then that he finally noticed my presence, though I had followed him from well to granary. He knew me as one of the shepherds, of course, but he also knew me as one of the many that would come to him as pupil, to gain in wisdom. So I was not surprised when he turned his attention to me, and addressed me.

"Does a wild donkey bray when it has grass? Does an ox bellow when it has fodder?"

I knew what he meant. The beasts of the plow grow loud when they have not had their fill, and it is one of my duties to ensure that they are not lacking. Now that Job had lost so much, it was right that he should bray and bellow. I did not wish then to point out that sometimes, when the lack is acute and there will be no end to the braying, we will resort to slaughtering one animal, so that there will be plenty for the others. This is not done lightly, of course, for a live animal is a man's livelihood, while a dead one is his burden.

All of these thoughts flashed through my quick mind, yet I said not a word. I am yet a young man, and had not heard my elders speak. I doubted not, that they had words of wisdom for Job, beyond what I might offer.

Job walked again over to the well, and spoke down into it. "Oh that I might have my request," his voice boomed in the deep echoes, "that God would grant what I hope for! That God would crush me, let loose His hand and cut me off! Then I would at least have this, my one consolation in unrelenting pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One."

At this, Eliphaz stepped forward. "Call if you will, but who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?" Job did not turn to face him, but continued to stare into the depths. Eliphaz stood a little behind, and spoke much more softly, such that it was hard for me to hear him. "Resentment kills a fool," he said. "I myself have seen a fool taking root, but suddenly his house was cursed."

Job snapped at this, whipping around to show Eliphaz the anger on his face. I was taken aback, as well, to hear my mentor called a fool. Who but a fool could wish that God would crush them?

Eliphaz persisted, despite the challenge in Job's eyes. "His children are far from safety, crushed in court without a defender. The hungry consume his harvest, and the thirsty pant after his wealth." Eliphaz met Job's hard eyes with his own, and something passed between them. It must have been hard for Job, to hear his own sad circumstances talked about like this, but there was trust there between them, as if a trust between brothers. It was the trust that I had failed to gain, by not going with them to be by his side, these past seven days.

His tone grew tender, and he put a hand on each of Job's shoulders, saying "Hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward."

I saw that Job understood, that such talk of being cut off, of longing for the grave, was the talk of a fool. There was yet hope for the living.

Job's eyes grew watery, his grimace perplexed. "What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What..." and he choked, "what prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of stone?" He smacked the flat of his palm on the stone of the well. "Is my flesh bronze?" Job slapped his own cheek. "Do I have any power to help myself, now that everything has been driven from me?"

Even as Job held out empty hands to show his own poverty, Eliphaz took him into his arms and embraced him. It was a moment so tender, it embarassed me that it was all happening right here at the well. There were so many eyes on them, and somehow it felt like they were on me as well.

At last, Eliphaz held him out again at arm's length, and looked deeply into his eyes. "If it were me, I would appeal to God. I would lay my case before Him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, and miracles unnumbered! He bestows rain on the earth, bringing water to the countryside. The lowly He sets up high, and those who mourn, He lifts to safety. He saves the needy from the clutches of the powerful, so that the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth." Job wiped his face dry.

And then I saw that they determined to leave, to go back to Job's tent. He told them not to come with him, but they insisted that the two jars, now filled with water, were too much for him to carry. Still, he tried, and with grain sacks slung over a shoulder, one jar hanging from each hand he began to walk. Again, Bildad tried to take one of them from him, but he refused. "Leave me this night," he requested. "Find me here again at this well, at noon tomorrow."

I saw that he struggled greatly with his burden. I do not know what moved me, other than that it was apparent that he would not let these three help him any longer, and there was none other to rush to his side. My feet, for once, moved quicker than my mind, and I raced up to him. "Teacher," I said, "let me help you." He surprised me by letting me take one from him. And we walked, with equal burdens, back up the hill in silence.

Yet the burdens were not equal at all, I knew.

Author's Notes:

I sat down to write, not having any real clue how to begin. The first order of business was to introduce a new speaker, and I pondered who it would be. Then I hit upon the fact that, when he finally speaks, it is as if Elihu has been there all along, listening to the other three. This meant that I needed to introduce him, now that the week of mourning was over, and so I chose him.

From there, the choice to make him a direct witness of the tragedy felt natural, and then his secret shame just grew out of the circumstances. Yes, this is conjecture, but it implants a character flaw that will develop into the underlying reason for his hostility, when at last he does speak. If you've read ahead, you know that Elihu is noted for his anger as well as his youth.

I've done a lot of interspersing of dialogue here; if you try to read along in the Bible you'll be flipping pages back and forth a lot. I hope that I am not straying far from the real intention, by doing so. Please check my work, by reading the real deal for yourself!

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