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Talk about a peanut gallery.
These guys have plenty to say, and Job isn't their biggest fan. He calls them "miserable comforters" (16:3), and he spends almost the whole book arguing with them. So if they're not Job's friends, what are they doing there?
Well, they definitely give us something to think about. All their generalizations about what happens to sinners seem a little too cut and dry. It makes us think, there must be more to it than that…right?
According to Maimonides, a super-scholarly Medieval, guy, each of Job's friends represents a different position on divine providence: "Eliphaz represents the biblical or rabbinic tradition—Job is being punished for his sins; Bildad expresses the view of the Mutazillites—Job is being tested to receive a greater reward; and Zophar presents the view of the Asharites—Job suffers because of God's arbitrary will" (source). Let's take a look.
Eliphaz poses a loaded question to Job: "Who that was innocent ever perished?" (4:7).
At the core of that question is the statement that all humans mess up. None of us are totally innocent. Eliphaz notes that God disciplines even angels. So yeah, humans have no chance of being sinless. (As you can imagine, this is a popular aspect of the book of Job in Christian theology. Check out our section on faith perspectives for more on that.)
With that in mind, Eliphaz interprets Job's musings as whining. When he sees how massive Job's punishment is, he compares that to his handy dandy chart of sin-to-punishment ratios, and concludes that Job must have done something awful (22:4-5).
Here's the thing, though. The same God is both the punisher and the healer in life. That complicates things quite a bit. Eliphaz and Job would agree that God gives and God takes away, but Eliphaz believes that this system corresponds to who does evil and who does good. Job, on the other hand, recognizes that the system is more randomized (and thus more scary, hence 6:20), and this leads him to the idea of making his case to God directly.
Bildad feels the same way as Eliphaz, but he has another idea on top of it. What if it was Job's kids or ancestors who had sinned?:
Does God pervert justice?/ Or does the Almighty pervert the right?/ If your children sinned against him,/ he delivered them into the power of their transgression. (8:3-4)
Remember, back in the day you could be punished for what your relatives did. The sins of your children could mess with you, too. That means it would be possible for God to inflict a punishment on Job for something his kids did.
Is Bildad trying to give Job an out? Well, maybe. But he's still pretty harsh. Like Eliphaz, he's putting it on Job to admit fault, suck it up, and start over.
Surprise, surprise, Zophar follows the same line as his two friends: God is just, and Job must have done something to offend him. If God's power is absolute, and God's law is that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished, then Job's predicament is his own fault. The end.
Zophar's street cred mostly comes from his gruesome details about how the wicked are, um, hurt by asps: "They will suck the poison of asps; the tongue of a viper will kill them" (20:16). Pure Biblical showmanship at its best—the writer gets a chance to show off his literary bling, and it scares people into believing that the wicked are majorly in for it.