Job and Psalm 139 II
The first theme we explore in Job's borrowing from and reflection on Psalm 139 is stated in Ps. 139:5--"Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me." This is a wonderful and gratifying expression of divine omniscience for the Psalmist. It means God not only knows us but accompanies us intimately all the days of our life. It means that God lovingly encircles us with his presence. Humanity thus is always carefully cradled in the strong arms of a merciful creator. That is what the Psalmist means by using the language of "besetting" (Hebrew 'sur').
Job will have none of the Psalmist's optimistic exuberance. His midrashic reading of God's fencing him in [to use the New Jerusalem Bible's translation of "beset"] will be a fountain nourishing his own creativity. Instead of reading the word "beset" in the positive sense of "lovingly encircle," as the author of the Psalm reads it, Job will read that term in its another way it can be read in Hebrew, "to besiege" or "to confine." With this legitimate but bold linguistic construal, Job will then be free to enter into a new interpretive field. Job will filter his own life experience through the word "sur" and conclude that through bringing him into his great distress, God has been besieging and confining him. Several vivid verses of Job now become fully explicable.
1) Job 3:23. The flow of Job's first desperate cry of pain (Job 3) moves from expansive and even dreamy verses in the beginning and middle of the chapter to short, pithy and flinty words by the time we get to 3:23-26. Job's intellectual breathing space, as it were, is being constricted, like a windpipe gradually occluded. One of the verses near the end of the chapter captures this constriction: "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, whom God has hedged in (v. 23)?" God's arms may have lovingly embraced the Psalmist; here they limit and cramp Job.
2) Job 7:19. Job's second soliloquoy (Job 6-7) contains some of Job's most venomous language against the friends and God. The friends are treacherous (6:15); God is his terrorizer rather than his companion (7:14); Job's entire life on earth is one of "hard ["conscript"--NJB] service (7:1)." In the midst of his attack on his friends and complaint against God, Job returns to God's "besetting" plan for his life. In words that have either an air of poignancy or sarcasm, he says, "How long wilt thou not look away form me, nor let me alone till I swallow my spittle (7:19)?" God's confining act against Job has become an oppressive presence, a presence that even interrupts his swallowing instinct.
3) Job 9:17; 13:27. The metaphor of confinement or besetting even enters into one of Job's most beloved images in the book, that of him arguing his case in a legal context. In two of the chapters where the legal imagery is developed most fully (Job 9; 13) Job also brings in an allusion to his confinement. Job knows that the power differential between him and God is immense; God probably will not even listen to him, for "he crushes me with a tempest ["for one hair"--NJB] (9:17)." Again, in Job 13, after vowing to defend his ways to God's face, Job returns to the dismal reality of his life, "Thou puttest my feet in the stocks (13:27)." Here the pictures are not simply put in terms of general limitation (such as hedging him in); rather they are specific and brutal. We see Job pulverized; we see him humiliated with his limbs protruding through the wooden hand holes of the stocks.
4) Job 19:8. Finally, Job returns to the root meaning of the term "beset" when he describes God's attack on him in Job 19. Against what kind of entity is a siege laid? A city, of course, usually a walled one. So, Job is described as confined within walls, against whom troops have come to set up siegeworks against him. "He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass (19:8)." Now Job returns to the precise linguistic field of the concept of 'sur' in Psalm 139--to confine. Thus, we see it means to encircle lovingly; it means to besiege as in a war. Job interprets it in the latter sense.
All of this occurs because Job has learned to master the sacred text that came down to him, and to have his heart shaped by its cadences even if he will turn its meaning on its head. To the Psalmist's confident question, "Aren't you glad that God 'encircles' you lovingly ('sur')?," Job would answer, "God certainly has 'besieged me' ('sur'). And, by the way, thanks for the concept, Psalmist."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long