Why Are Humans so Special?
In Honor of David Kenagy
Job launches his first attack on God in 7:11-21. His major complaint is expressed in 7:12, "Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?" In saying this Job reveals his central frustration with God. God's "focused attention" on Job--God's desire to destroy him--makes no sense at all. 'Why,' he asks, 'do you consider me as dangerous or threatening to your world as the primeval sea monsters whom you subdued before creation?' Job then generalizes his experience: "What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment (7:17-18)?" By framing it in this manner, Job reverses the meaning of one of the most beloved verses in one of the most beloved Psalms.
Psalm 8 is an eloquent hymn to God's majesty in creating the world. God's glory is above the heavens (8:1), and they bear mute testimony to the careful sculpting of the universe by God (8:3). In the context of this glorious theater, humans seem small indeed. The Psalmist asks, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them (8:4)?" But, in fact, God made humans only a little less than divine, crowning us wiht glory and honor and giving us dominion in the earth (8:5-8). The Psalmist is overwelmed with gratitude at God's special treatment of humans.
The link between the mental worlds of Job and the Psalmist is through the Hebrew verb "pekad," translated as "visit" in Job 7:18 and "care for" in Psalm 8:4 (8:5 in Hebrew). What Job does in the passage quoted above is to play on the broad linguistic field of "pekad" and thereby turn it on its head. The verb can be used in a wide variety of contexts, from "visit" in a loving and caring manner to "visit" in judgment or harassment on a person. In Job's frame of mind, he decides he to choose the latter. But how the world changes depending on how you construe a verb!
By interpreting "pekad" in the sense of "harass" or "vex," Job has completely undermined the Psalmist's meaning. Job sees God's constant "visiting" as a sign of God's irrational need to keep Job on a very tight leash. God subjects him to a suffocating presence, a nearness that torments. In unforgettable words, Job goes on to say, "Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle (7:19)?" God's great "visiting" of humans, envisioned by the Psalmist in the context of the divine glory, is now a sign of God's oppressive presence.
Job could only have done this if he was thoroughly familiar with the biblical tradition. That is, his huge argument with God arises because his life has been immersed in faith, and not because he was skeptical from the beginning. The complaints of true believers about God are always more poignant than those of people who have never believed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long