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12. Job 1:13-19 Multiple Extreme Disasters

 

13 "One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, 'The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.' 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, 'The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.' 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, 'The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.' 18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, 'Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.'"

 

The heavenly agreement being concluded, the next scene opens. It is filled with repetitive and formulaic expressions. Rather than boring us or slowing down the story, the repetitions actually intensify the action. Framing most of the story, in 1:13 and 1:18, is a brief description of the children’s eating and drinking. In between these two markers are three disasters, each of them concluding with “And I alone have escaped to tell you” (vv 15, 16, 17), and with each subsequent one beginning with “And while he was yet speaking” (vv 16, 17, 18). The last of these phrases introduces a fourth disaster in verse 19, where Job’s children themselves are killed. Four calamities will thus be presented: the first three describe the loss of Job’s possessions; the last one presents the loss of Job’s children. Repetition allows for rapid introduction of new calamities as well as a growing sense that not only Job’s, but anyone’s life, can become unraveled in fairly quick order.

 

The story begins innocently enough. It opens with the same words as the narrative in 1:6, vayehi hayom, “It fell/was upon the day. ..”  The children, as is their wont (v 4), were eating and drinking (v 13). The only differences from verse 4 are that verse 4’s mishteh (drinking party) is replaced by yayin (wine) in verse 13 and the celebration is now in the home of the first-born. No substantive change. Celebratory parties continue. But the atmosphere of blissful celebration is interrupted not by an insider’s description of an event at the party but by a description to Job by a messenger of what happens while the party was going on.

 


That is, the author chooses an interesting and unexpected method to recount the four disasters in verses 14-19. Rather than, as it were, a reporter at the scene with smoking ruins in the background or with a camera panning the landscape showing strewn bodies and collapsed buildings, we have a messenger briefly reporting what has occurred to Job. We are thus spared the gory details such as, ‘The head servant screamed as the axe cleaved his skull’ or ‘the blood of the animals formed little rivulets across Job’s front pasture.’ All that will be related are simple and concisely-reported accounts of four disasters.

 


Yet the sanitized reports are no less chilling for sparing us the grisly details of disaster.  We have rapid-fire tragedies with no intervening break. Adding to the trauma is the scene of complete naturalness as things get going. Children are celebrating (v 13); oxen were ploughing, she-asses are eating beside them (v 14). The scene is almost reminiscent of Quaker painter Edward Hicks’ ‘The Peaceable Kingdom,’ (ca 1830), a stylized portrait of bliss in the animal world as described in Isaiah 11.

 

But the messengers who appear are anything but bearers of good tidings. They will describe disasters that happen to Job’s goods and his children. Note the care in description. We know from 1:3 that Job’s possessions included, in addition to children, tson, gamal, baqar, athon, abuddah, or “sheep, camels, oxen, she-asses, servants/household.” The disasters will take away each of these categories, with the oxen and she asses in the first disaster, the sheep in the second, and then the camels in the third. Rather than the servants, who are now called “young men” (naar) perishing all at once, their deaths are recorded in each of the three disasters (vv 15, 16, 17).  

 

This final detail allows an unexpected, and certainly unintended, humorous reaction, as if the servants are killed three times. You can imagine the Chaldeans arriving on the scene in verse 17, seeing only the camels left, along with bodies of the servants, and saying, ‘Darn! It looks like the Sabeans have beat us to it again.  Let’s take the camels and kill the dead guys once more. . . The Sabeans ran them through with the sword; we will just cut off their heads.’  Of course, what is meant is that the messenger, seeing bodies lying (still) lying around, just assumes they were victims of the latest calamity.