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106. Job 10:18-22, Fading Away
18 “Why did you bring me forth from the womb?
Would that I had died before any eye had seen me,
19 and were as though I had not been,
carried from the womb to the grave.
20 Are not the days of my life few?
Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort
21 before I go, never to return,
to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
22 the land of gloom and chaos,
where light is like darkness.”
This section may be further divided into Job’s complaint about being born (vv 18-19); his desire to be left alone (v 20); and, finally, an unforgettable description of the darkness that he feels is his final destination (vv 21-22).
The thought Job expresses in verses 18-19 is familiar to us. Verse 18 begins with: “Why did you bring me out of the womb?” The second part of the verse can be variously translated: “I will perish and eye will not see me” or “Would that I had perished and eye would not then see me.” Whatever the translation, the idea is clear. Job expresses again his desire never to have been born (already expressed in 3:3-10). I suppose if God can renew the divine witnesses against him (10:17), Job can renew an earlier argument.
Though on the same theme as verse 18, verse 19 is a unique Joban thought expressed with memorable eloquence: literally, it is
“As I was not, so I shall be, carried from the womb right to the grave.”
We have a somewhat philosophical reflection at first, where Job wishes that his prior condition of non-existence would have been his future condition directly after birth. Lest we become confused by the existence/non-existence words, he then says, “from the womb to the grave carried.” He wished that he could have come out of the womb and be ushered quickly to the tomb. The verb yabal (“to carry/lead”) is a neutral one in Biblical Hebrew; one might be “led forth (yabal) in joy” (Isaiah 55:12); one might also be like a lamb that is led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). We can imagine Job’s desired midwife in our mind’s eye, saying something like, ’Here comes Job. . .let’s get him right to the grave ASAP!’
But this wish of Job obviously wasn’t granted. So, the next best thing is to hope for some peace in this life. Consistent with Job’s words at the end of Chapter 7 are the words of 10:20-22. Job will find his greatest peace if God leaves him alone. For Job, God’s presence is not comforting. Rather, it is oppressive.
Verse 20 is neatly ringed by the Hebrew word meat,“small/a little/few.” Job asks, “Aren’t my days few?” The next three words are a bit confusing. The most natural reading is to put them together in one thought: “Cease and place away from me” (i.e., cease and desist or leave me alone). Instead of using the clear and visually precise verb shaah (“gaze/look”), which he used in 7:19 when requesting that God “look away from him,” here Job talks about “ceasing” (chadal) and “placing from me” (shith mimeni). 8/83 appearances of the verb shith are in Job. It can be used of God “placing your (i.e., the divine) heart” on humans (7:17) or of the umpire “placing his hands” on both of the contending parties (Job and God; 9:33). Job also uses it in his phrases “place a limit” (14:13) and the powerful, “disdain to place with dogs” (30:1). Job’s request here that God “cease” and “place from me” probably means the same as shaah of 7:19. He is asking that God would look away from him and leave him alone.
The result of Job’s desire would be that he would get a little (meat) comfort, with the little word meat closing the verse. The comfort he seeks is not laced with the sarcasm of 7:19, “so I may swallow my spittle.” Here it is so that Job may “take comfort” (balag) for a little (meat). We have already seen the 4x-appearing verb balag in 9:27, where Job debates in his mind whether to “put on the happy (balag) face.” Now he seeks comfort/a smile, something that will come through God’s leaving him alone. We can imagine a smile breaking out on Job’s face when he is assured that God will no longer be with him or harass him. That is Job’s level of pain at this point.
If God were to grant Job the joy of the divine absence, it would provide a little comfort. The reason it is only a small comfort is that Job will, sooner rather than later, sink into oblivion. That oblivion is expressed in verses 21-22 with the finest collection of words for darkness that appear together in the Hebrew Bible, with the possible exception of Psalm 88. When reading them, my first thought was that this is Job’s “matching” Eliphaz’ eloquence on terms for “lion” in 4:10-11. But then I saw that this wasn’t simply an intellectual exercise or a vocabulary-builder.
Job uses four distinctly different terms for “darkness” here, with two of them repeated, and then a thought that expresses the same desire though without using the word “darkness.” But what is most astounding to me is not the varied vocabulary of darkness, a vocabulary that gives an awesome finality to Job’s desire (the words are choshek, tsalmaveth, ephathat/ephah, ophel), but the way that two other Biblical passages may have “responded” or “been in conversation” with Job in his moment of deepest bleakness. Only the third word in this list is problematic; Seow, for example, takes it out of the realm of darkness and renders it as a “flicker,” so that the first phrase of verse 22 for him is, “whose flicker is as gloom,” but I am not sure I understand what that means. I will stick here with four terms for darkness.
A serviceable translation of verses 21-22 is,
"Before I go and don’t return to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; the land of deep darkness like pitch black, the shadow of death and no order, where light is as darkness.”
Job twice uses the rather rare word tsalmaveth (literally, “shadow of death”) in verses 21-22 to describe his ultimate destination. 10/18 appearances of the word are in Job. Yet its most resonant and memorable appearance in the Bible is in Psalm 23, the Shepherd Psalm. The Psalmist states, in words that continue to echo through the corridors of time, and have been on the lips of countless believers, “Yea though I shall walk in the valley of tsalmaveth, I will not fear evil” (“evil” is the common word ra; Psalm 23:4). For the Psalmist the tsalmaveth is a real threat, but is one that will ultimately not be fatal for the believer because, “You (God) are with me. ..” In the Book of Job the tsalmaveth is Job's final resting place. Can’t we hear the gentle chiding of Job by the Psalmist? In words of 19th century Christian hymnody, we have a similar thought: “Yea fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head” (“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”).
But the author of Psalm 139 also gets into the act of gently chiding Job. I have previously spoken about how Job and Psalm 139 seem to be in dialogue with each other in describing God’s wonderful acts of creating humans/Job. But now the dialogue takes on a different flavor. In Psalm 139:11-12, the Psalmist also speaks of darkness. Instead of using four different words for the phenomenon, as Job does in 10:21-22, he uses the same word four times: choshek, the first word used by Job in 10:21 (and its related verb chashak). The Psalmist says,
“And if I say, ‘Surely the darkness (choshek) shall envelop me, and the light around me shall be night’; Even the darkness (choshek) is not too dark (the verb is chashak) for Thee, but the night shines as the day; the darkness (choshek) is even as the light” (Psalm 139:11-12).
Even though Job is speaking in Job 10:21-22, and therefore get the privilege of plunging us into as many kinds of darkness as there are words in the dictionary, the Psalmist won’t let Job get too comfortable in his darkness. It is all really “light” to God. Job had talked about this dark region as the place where “the light is as darkness.” The Psalmist boldly said, “the night shines as the day.” Gentle chiding and antiphonal cries are heard between Job and the authors of Psalms 23 and 139. We see, through this manner of reading the Scriptures, that Job’s only interlocutors aren’t really his friends. Other parts of the Biblical tradition want to enter the debate with Job. So powerful and direct is Job’s challenge to religious faith that the others pull out every literary stop to counter him. Its result is a symphonic richness of cries to God, to nothingness and to each other.