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111. Zophar in Job 11:10-12
10 If he passes through, and imprisons,
and assembles for judgment, who can hinder him?
11 For he knows those who are worthless;
when he sees iniquity, will he not consider it?
12 But a stupid person will get understanding,
when a wild ass is born human.
The verbs of Job 11:10 are open to a few interpretations. My straightforward translation is:
“If he passes by and shuts up, or if he gathers, who can hinder him?”
Other translations, taking a few of the verbs in a judicial sense, have:
“If he comes along and confines you in prison and convenes a court, who
can oppose him?” (NIV)
Zophar’s words in 11:10 appear to be a clear echo of Job’s words in 9:11, where God passes by him or sweeps by him but Job can’t perceive God. God is quickly gone, having disappeared like the morning dew in the hot sun, like a prairie wind that sweeps by and is gone.
The same verb, chalaph (28x), is used in both places. Chalaph often means to “change” (e.g., Jacob accused Laban of “changing” (chalaph) his wages ten times), but it can also mean to “pass on quickly or “pass by” (e.g., I Samuel 10:3), which is how I read it here. When Eliphaz said that a scary spirit passed him by (4:15) he used the word chalaph. Zophar has thus picked up on the usage of both Eliphaz and Job to emphasize God’s sovereign and free movement. God can “pass by” or “sweep by” without anyone being able to forbid it.
But in 11:10, God also sagar (91x), which means to “imprison” or “confine” or “shut up.” The variability of its meaning has led some translators to suggest that this confinement is imprisonment, which would launch a judicial process of confinement and judgment. Yet, the verb is also used for God’s securing the ark when the rains came (Genesis 7:6), or simply shutting a door (Genesis 19:6, 10). I tend to see it in this more minimalist way. Just as God is vast, without specificity, so God can pass by or can confine.
God isn’t done. God can also qahal (38x), a verb which generally means to convene an assembly of the people of Israel (e.g., I Chronicles 15:3; 28:1). But if we see sagar as initiating a judicial process, we might persist in that thought and see qahal as continuing the judicial process— literally, “gather in judgment.” But there is little support for that idea in the usage of qahal. Thus, I prefer to keep God’s actions as vast and uncontrollable as the divine size in 11:7-8. “God sweeps by; God confines; God gathers. . .” God can both isolate people and gather them together. The final verb summarizes Zophar’s theology in a word, “Who can hinder it?” But the verb here is one of the most general verbs in the Bible—shub, “to turn, return, turn back.” If God decides on a course of action, passing by, shutting up, gathering together—who is anyone to turn God back from such a plan? In using shub here, Zophar is echoing Job’s use of it in 9:12. “Behold, God snatches away (the hapax chathaph), who can hinder (shub) him?” Zophar is merely repeating the theology that Job has so eloquently uttered a few chapters previously, but now is using it in aid of a broader conception of a good God, rather than a narrow conception of a God who is out to “get” Job.
In verse 11 we are starting to lose cell phone reception as Zophar speaks; by verse 12 we only have his intermittent crackling voice. If we were to read verse 10 in a judicial context, then verse 11 could follow nicely from that:
“For God knows the vanity/baseness/emptiness of humans; when he sees evil, won’t he discern it?”
In other words, the thought would be that God imprisons and then brings a person to judgment; God sees and discerns the evil in a person’s deeds. There wouldn’t be a great leap from this interpretation to Zophar’s earlier words in verse 6—that God has given Job less than he deserves.
Yet verse 11 is also subject to a different rendering. Looking at it as a thought independent of verse 10, we might say, “For God knows vain (shav, 52x) people. God sees iniquity (aven, 78x). Will he not discern it?” But there is no reason to think that the last clause is a question. It could be rendered; “(When) God sees iniquity, he simply doesn’t discern/understand it.” The idea would then be that God is scratching the divine head to try to figure out why humans behave as they do. The last verb is bin, a quintessential wisdom verb, primarily meaning “to understand.” Again, Zophar may well be responding to Job’s use of the verb two chapters previously, when Job said the also couldn’t “perceive” (the same verb bin) God’s sweeping by (9:10). But when considering all the possibilities, the most reasonable seems to be to see the last clause as a question—“won’t God discern/understand iniquity/sin?” God can’t be hindered in the divine course, whether that is passing by or confining or gathering together or discerning transgression/guilt/sin. Job may not discern the meaning of the sweeping movements of God, but God sees all things, including the guilt or bad acts of humans.
This sobering assessment of the divine mysteriousness and knowledge leads Zophar to attempt a proverbial expression in verse 12. But reciting or coming up with proverbs is difficult business. Eliphaz discovered that in Job 5. Recall that Eliphaz got wound up after speaking of the judgment coming on the fool (5:3-5) and uttered a proverb that is probably incomprehensible (5:7; “humans are born to trouble, and the sons of Resheph rise up flying. . .”), so Zophar gets his big chance to utter a parable here in 11:12. Surprisingly, he uses the same passive participle as Eliphaz used 5:7 (yulad, “to be born”); but here, unfortunately, the opaqueness is just as clear. . .
The first part of the proverb is all in the sound. It says, quite unclearly, a “man nabub yillabeb.” Nabub yillabeb is such a euphonious combination of words that the meaning of the phrase may be secondary. Yet, translators get paid for coming up with English equivalents. The verb nabab is rare (4x) and elsewhere means “hollowed out.” It is twice used in Tabernacle construction to describe the (hollow) boards of the altar (Exodus 27:8; 38:7). Job 11:12 is the only place where the verb (here in the passive participle) is used to describe a person. We don’t have far to go to see why. The next word is a rhyming verb labab (5x) which twice appears in II Samuel as “to make cakes” but which must have something to do with the underlying noun (lebab—heart) here. Thus, we literally have a “hollow-hearted man” in Job 11:12, a term whose meaning isn't crystalline. In fact, since labab is a verb here, it probably should be a “hollow man shall have heart. . .” Yet, if we realize that meaning is in the sound, then nabub yillabeb is just fine. Some kind of “beb/boob” is here in view, a boob who “gets heart.”
Now that we have unsuccessfully unlocked the mystery of the first part, the second part confronts us. Literally we have, “the colt of a wild ass is born human.” The meaning is probably what is usually surmised: that the offspring of a wild ass is born as a human. It is meant to suggest an impossibility. Pere (wild ass or donkey) only appears 10x in the Bible, the first of which is most memorable. It is the word used to describe Ishmael, who will be a “wild ass” of a man (Genesis 16:12). But that phrase in describing Ishmael is subject to the most divergent interpretations. One scholar has it: “The wild ass of the Arabian deserts is a very noble creature, and is one of the animals selected in the Book of Job as especially exemplifying the greatness of God” (Job 39:5-8). Another commentator describes the “wild ass” (pere) as “untameable, strong, free, roaming, suspicious, and untrustworthy.” We cannot read Zophar’s proverb without thinking of the Ishmael story, even though the reference in Job 11:12 is probably to the animal and not to Ishmael.
So, putting it all together, we have for verse 12: “For a hollow man will get a heart, and the colt of a wild ass is born human.” The little “and” in the middle is usually rendered “when” by translators, though there isn’t really a justification for it. Yet, by rendering it “when,” we have a plausible meaning. A hollow man will never really “get a heart” because will wild asses will never bear humans. But there is no reason to believe that a “hollow” person is a bad person, a person in need of forgiveness or life amendment. We really have no idea who or what such a person is. It’s all just word play. Yet, Zophar seems to suggest that the proverb is directed against Job. Our feeling after Eliphaz and Zophar have tried their hand at proverbs is to say, “Leave it to the Book of Proverbs!”