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119. Job 12:5-6, Descending into Unclarity

5 Those at ease have contempt for misfortune,
    but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable.
6 The tents of robbers are at peace,
    and those who provoke God are secure,
    who bring their god in their hands.


After Job has expressed both raw and clear thoughts for the first few verses of Chapter 12, it is about time for him to descend into obscurity. So in verses 5-6 he meets our expectation. Though various parts of verse 5 can be made to make sense, the overall meaning is elusive. It might be helpful to explore it in the context of another verse which uses two or three of the same concepts/ideas: Psalm 123:4. 


Psalm 123 is one of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), traditionally held to be sung by pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. These Psalms start with the experience of distance and aloneness (Psalm 120) but end with the writer in the middle of a festive celebration (Psalm 134). In between the author(s) will face a myriad of issues in getting to the “center” of life in Jerusalem. One of those issues is explored in Psalm 123, the feeling of contempt and rejection by others that is felt by the pilgrim. Psalm 123:4 says, “Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn (laag) of those who are at ease (shaanan), of the contempt (buz) of the proud.”


Job has just spoken of how he feels like a laughingstock; he has been characterized by Zophar as one who scoffs (laag), with no one to make him ashamed (11:3). He has already responded to the scoffer comment in 12:2-4; now in 12:5 he takes on the concepts of contempt (buz) and those who are at ease (shaanan). But it isn’t clear what Job does with these concepts. As we will see when we look at his words in 12:13-25, he seems to be quite familiar with the powerful words of Psalm 107, but he also doesn’t effectively integrate them into his speech. Sometimes Job carefully interprets other Scriptures, but in this case he doesn’t seem to do so.


The first two words of 12:5 are lappid buz or, literally, a “contemptible torch.” Only a traditional Jewish translation of this passage clings to that phrase (actually a “contemptible brand”) while other translators, for reasons not clear to me, take the word lappid, which means “torch” in all its appearances, to be a “calamity” or “misfortune.”


But if we look at the first two words as Job’s self-description, weird though it is, at least we have some meaning. He is a “torch” held “in contempt.” With that inauspicious start, we then descend into further problems. The next two words consist of one hapax, which we think means “to think” or “thoughts” and then the word from Psalm 123, shaanan, which we can render “those who are at ease.” Naturally, then, many have rendered this “in the thought of those who are at ease.” Thus we would have Job describing himself as a despised torch in the thought/mind of those who are at ease (his friends?).  As I write this, I realize that our/my grip on reality is becoming more tenuous.

The second half of the verse confirms that not only do someone’s feet slip (a good rendering of the final two words—lemoadey ragel) but our minds are fast slipping, too.  


We begin with a dispute. The word nakon is taken by most to be derived from kun, a familiar verb meaning “to prepare, make firm, establish.” But if we take it this way we have the nonsensical “Prepared for the ones whose feet slip.” Not exactly a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Clarity. But Clines opines that the nakon is really derived from nakah, “to strike,” and thus he reads the last phrase as a command given by those who are at ease (presumably the friends), “Strike the man down!” The entire clause, for Clines, is “Strike the man down now he is staggering.” Seow reads the verse completely differently:  “It is right for those whose feet have slipped.” One would never imagine that they were trying to understand the same verse.


Emboldened by these results, and putting it all together, I say we have “A lamp despised in (even though the preposition is usually translated “to” or “for”) the thought of those at ease, (who say) “Strike the man down whose feet slip.” That is his felt experience with his friends. But to show how unlikely my translation is to gain up-votes on Facebook, I conclude by looking at a few other translations:  


    “A contemptible brand in the thought of him that is at ease, a thing ready for them whose foot         slippeth” (Jewish); 


    “He who is at ease holds calamity in contempt, as prepared for those whose feet slip” (NASV); 


     “He that is ready to slip with his feet is like a lamp despised in the thought of him that is at ease”      (KJV); 


     “‘Add insult to injury!’ think the secure, ‘Strike the man down now he is staggering!’” (Clines).


Job 12:5 may be giving us a distant echo of Psalm 123:4, but that echo is so distant that all we can say is, ‘I thought I heard an echo. Did you?’  


If Job 12:5 knocks us down, Job 12:6 knocks us completely out. On the surface at least the words seem to be clearer. We can go one by one or two by two. “Prosper/at ease are the tents of the destroyers/robbers.” The next clause seems to say, “and secure (are) those who quarrel (with) God.” Finally, we have “to which God brings by his hand.”  


If the first clause is meant to be a reflection on the prosperity of the wicked, it surely is not said very clearly or as powerfully as Job has said it in 9:24. In addition, the first word, shalah, has already appeared in Job 3:26 and was translated as “be at ease.” It is a mini-stretch to render it as “prosper.” The second clause of verse 6 begins with the same idea as the second clause of verse 5: security—but with two different words. Verse 5 used the relatively common shaanan, while verse 6 uses the hapax battuchoth.  Yet battuchoth is obviously derived from the verb batach, which means “to trust” or “be secure.” If there is some kind of parallelism going on here, it certainly isn’t pellucid.


But why would the “provokers of God” be secure? The verb behind “provokers” or “those who quarrel” is ragaz, a rather familiar term in Job (usually in the noun form rogez), which means “to be agitated, quiver, be perturbed.” If the thought actually is that those who quarrel with God prosper, it would be a strange thought coming from Job’s mouth at this point, since the only realistic referent would be himself (because his fight with God is underway), but the whole point of the book to date is that Job is not feeling very secure. Perhaps we are to read this verse, however, in connection with 9:22-24, but that isn’t clear. The final words are nearly untranslatable: literally, they say, “to which God brings with/by his hand.” Some have rendered this “those whom God has in his own power,” but I will stop here and admit defeat. Job has shown that he not only is the king of clarity and powerful thought and emotion, but also of unclarity.  If I were being paid a great deal to come up with a translation, I might go with the following:


     “The tents of those who violently despoil are at ease; secure are the provokers of God, they            who bring god in their hands.”


Feel better now?

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