(to return to Table of Contents, click here)
118. Back to Job 12:2-4
2 “No doubt you are the people,
and wisdom will die with you.
3 But I have understanding as well as you;
I am not inferior to you.
Who does not know such things as these?
4 I am a laughingstock to my friends;
I, who called upon God and he answered me,
a just and blameless man, I am a laughingstock.
Thus, when Chapter 12 opens, Job is not only still in dialogue with friends, but he is also moving into uncharted territory in each passing chapter. He knows that his friends won’t provide him much help, but he can ridicule them. That is fun. And sometimes listening to people whose theology you have long since abandoned can give you ideas, even though they are not the ideas that the people intend. They may drop a word that you will find useful in building your own case. Job's thought is thus quite independent from the modes of his friends’ thinking by this time but he keeps up the dialogue because he realizes they still can be useful—either as targets of his invective or as people who unintentionally suggest interesting turns of phrases that Job can use in making his own case.
Thus when he begins his speech in 12:2, his words are dripping with sarcasm. I accept the almost universal addition of the word “the” in the first clause, to yield, “Surely, you are the people, and wisdom will die with you.” Job ridicules their confidence, their narrowness, their seeming claim on wisdom. It is as if Job is saying, ‘I guess you guys have all the wisdom; it is your private possession. You will take it to the grave, I am sure.’ If he wanted to continue the sarcasm, he might have said something like, ‘I should realize, therefore, how privileged I am to be with you and listen to your counsel.’ Dripping with sarcasm—that is the tone of Job 12:2. There may also be in verse 2 a subtle reference to Zophar’s words in 11:6-7, where Zophar had spoken of the inaccessibility of the divine wisdom. Job would then be saying, ‘I guess I don’t have it. How fortunate am I to be in the midst of people who possess access to this hidden and inaccessible wisdom.’
But his tone quickly changes in verses 3-4 to one of self-defensiveness and sadness. Some might even hear in verse 4 the inklings of self-pity, but I leave it as “sadness” at this point. We can render verse 3, somewhat literally,
“Also to me is heart, as (it is) to you; I don’t fall short of you; and with whom are not such things as these?”
Again, we have two-thirds of the verse that makes sense, and then the last third plunges us into confusion. Usually the first clause of verse 3 is rendered, “But I have understanding as well as you,” and I don’t disagree with that, but my translation brings out the fact that “heart” is actually the word used. Recall that “heart” was also used (but not usually translated that way) in Zophar’s proverb of 11:12, “A hollow person gets heart. . .” By using the same word in 12:3 as was used in 11:12 (both of which are usually ignored by translators), Job may be chiding the friends, and Zophar specifically. Zophar asserted that Job, the “hollow man” won’t really get “heart.”Job’s retort in 12:3 is “also to me is heart. . .” Job would be saying, ‘You have it all wrong, Zophar. I am really the one with heart.’
The second clause of verse 3 reinforces this reading. I agree that the meaning is as most translations give it: “I am not inferior to you,” but the language is arresting. “I don’t fall from/beneath you. . .” are the words. It is interesting that Job doesn’t say something like, ‘I am far superior to you. . .’ You wonder, however, if that is how he really felt. . .
Then, we enter opaqueness in the third phrase. I gave it literally above (“and with whom are not such things as these?”). This might mean something similar to Job’s words in 9:2, where he said that what had been said by the friends was common knowledge. Then the meaning of the clause would be that what Zophar, too, was saying is common knowledge. But if we connect it only to Job’s words in 12:3, it would mean that Job’s heart and equality with the friends is quite obvious. Let’s just leave things in the confusion that the words invite.
But 12:4 is no laughing matter, and there is no confusion about words here.
“I am a (man who is) a joke to his companions, one who calls upon God and He answered him, a joke though righteous and blameless.”
The word sechoq, “joke, laughingstock, mockery” appears twice in this verse, skillfully parrying the thrust of Eliphaz’s use of the cognate verb sachaq in 5:22 and Bildad’s use of the noun sechoq in 8:21. Eliphaz had said that Job would laugh (sachaq) at destruction and famine; Bildad confidently asserted that God would yet fill Job’s mouth with laughter (sechoq). All this laughter—such good news! But Job will turn the outward-directed emotion of laughter to the inward-directed reality of his being a “joke” or “laughingstock.” Rather than laughing at destruction or the good things with which God will fill his mouth, Job is being laughed at; he is the target of ridicule. That is his felt reality. He is mocked “by his companions” (rea, 186x), a common word that can be rendered “neighbor/friend/companion.” Zophar had accused Job in 11:3 of mocking (laag), a word that Job had previously used to describe God’s treatment of people (9:23). Now Job responds to Zophar’s gratuitous slam by saying that he is the target of mockery. In saying it this way, Job is echoing almost precisely the words of Lamentations 3:14a,
“I have become the laughingstock (sechoq also) of all my people, the object of their
taunt-songs all the day.”
Later on Job will say that he has become the object of people’s taunt-songs (30:9, using the same word—neginah—as in Lamentations 3:14b). Only Job and the author of Lamentations use neginah in this way. Job may have found a soul-mate in that poet. Or vice-versa.
What makes things ever so painful for Job is that he “calls on God.” The phrase is expressed with the present participle of the common verb qara. Job “is calling” on God. One tends to think that because of his great distress all Job can do is complain or describe his feelings, but these three words suggest that Job is continually crying to God. We are not sure how much to make of the tense of the next verb: Job cries to God and God answered. Does this suggest that Job continually holds out his hands to God in supplication but God has ceased speaking, even though God answered in the past? Perhaps. But Job won’t let us dwell on that idea. He finishes his thought in verse 4 by reiterating that he is treated like a laughingstock, even though he is tsadiq and tam, “righteous” and “blameless.” We know of Job’s blamelessness from the opening words of the Book of Job, but his “righteousness” is something that is growing in literary importance. Job used the verb tsadeq, “to be righteous/to justify,” four times in his last speech (Job 9-10), even using the not-so-hypothetical, “If I am righteous (tsadeq again is verb), I can’t lift up my head” in 10:15. Job is gradually expanding his vocabulary of self-description to include his own righteousness. Now that may be his boldest move to date—gradually adding vocabulary that puts him in the right.
Because of the extreme terseness of the final words of verse 4, one can suggest an alternative translation that fits those three words. It isn’t one that I have yet seen suggested by others. After the word “And He (God) answered him” (meaning, God answered ME),” we just have three words: laughingstock/joke, righteous, blameless. We can combine them as we wish, since the rules of Job’s grammar are somewhat fluid. One way to read them is that “A joke is righteous(ness) and blameless(ness).” This translation may suggest that Job believes his friends consider his own blamelessness to be a bit of a joke or that Job is beginning to re-examine or even abandon his own moral categories, a process that will continue in the Third Cycle. I’ll stick with the traditional rendering, only noting this translation possibility.