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121. Job 12:7-12, Looking at the Words
With this long introduction, the wording of verse 7-8 is readily understandable:
“But ask, I pray, the beasts, and they will teach you, and the birds of the heavens and they will declare to you; or speak/complain to the earth, and it will teach you, and the fish of the air will explain things to you. . .”
It is a wonderful, full, and clear introduction to the big thought, or question, which will come in the next verse.
The word for “but” in verse 7 is ulam, (19x, 10 of which are in Job), a strong adversative, showing that the thought of verse 7 is an abrupt transition from the confusing words of verse 6. Note that the four categories of creatures or objects approached or addressed here are all characterized as teachers. The beasts (behemah is singular noun) will “teach” (yara, 81x, the typical word for “teach”—“Torah” is a noun form of the verb, but the verb can also mean to shoot (arrows) or cast (lots)); the birds will “declare” (nagad, a common verb for saying or telling); the earth will “teach” (yara) and the fish will “enumerate” (saphar has both a “counting” and “explanatory” meaning, as if one is to “explain by enumerating”).
Once these categories or objects are mentioned, Job tells us in verse 9 the question he would pose to them,
“Who among all of these (categories/objects) is ignorant/doesn’t know that the the hand of the Lord has done this (zoth)?”
The question is simple, straightforward and powerful. As mentioned above, however, it isn’t fully clear what Job is asking. Most scholars take this question as forward-looking, i.e., as pointing to the creative activity of God specified in verses 13-25. But I think it is a Janus-word, both looking backward and forward. Job’s question would then mean, “Who even among the unreasoning creatures of the earth, as well as the earth itself, doesn’t know that God’s hand has done these things to me (i.e., has brought about my suffering, has wrecked my life, has made me a laughingstock)?” It would also mean, “Who doesn’t know that God has done all these magnificent things in creating, sustaining and judging the world?” (the passage which is to come, Job 12:13-25).
Even though the words of verse 10 are simple enough, the thought is potentially confusing:
“In whose hand is the soul of all living things and the breath of all humanity.”
The connection between verse 9 and verse 10 is the word “hand” (yad), but other than that, the link appears tenuous. We might argue that because everything in earth is in the hand of God (v 10), and because all these things know Job’s pitiful condition (v 9), then God also has to be aware not only of how He has destroyed Job’s life, but that Job also knows this. If we read verse 10 in this way, it would not be read as a comforting thought, which is the way that many want to read it, but actually a scary thought—God’s hand destroys life, and, by the way, one's life is completely in God’s hands.
Job returns to his wandering ways through questions in verses 11-12,
“Doesn’t the ear test words? And (doesn’t) the palate taste food for itself? Isn’t wisdom with the aged? and Isn’t understanding with the drawing out of days?”
As one prominent commentator has said, “The bearing of this verse on the general argument is not clear.” We seem to have either one or a series of proverbial statements here but, as we have seen, the Book of Job’s record with proverbial statements isn’t impressive to date. Job 5:7 was confusing; Job 11:12 was no less opaque. Should we expect anything different from these terse adages? Verse 11 is reminiscent of Job 6:5-7, where Job also spoke of the mouth’s ability to test good food. The point in that passage was that Job, like the beasts of the field, can “taste” when something is good or not good in his life. The same message may be behind the proverb of 12:11. If the ear tests (verb is bachan, almost always meaning to “test” or “examine”) words, and the palate can taste (taam, 11x) food, then Job can figure out what is happening to him. Note that for the first time in the book of Job the English translation is more alliterative than the underlying Hebrew: 'the ear tests, and the mouth tastes.'
So noteworthy are the proverbial questions in 12:11 that Elihu picked up that verse word-for-word in 34:3, giving a broad hint to Job in that passage that Elihu, too, can understand the obvious as well as the subtle meaning of his words. If 12:11 then is a statement reflecting Job’s confidence in being able to discern what is going on, then 12:12 is a bit of a cipher. It seems again to be in a proverbial form, and it also seems to reflect the most commonplace of all wisdom tradition commonplaces: wisdom is with old people (yashish is a rare word for "old/aged"; all four of its appearances are in Job). The parallel thought in the second half of 12:12 is that “understanding” (the common wisdom term tebunah) is with those who have lived long. Elihu also will pick up on this idea in 32:6, but he actually disagrees with it. He had waited so long to speak because they were old (yashish). But age didn’t provide wisdom, and so he waited, and then spoke. At this point in Chapter 12, Job is calmly mouthing the platitudes of the tradition; there is no reason for him to believe that everything that tradition teaches is mistaken.
After these transitional thoughts, Job launches into another hymn of praise to God but, like Job 9, is it a kind of mixed hymn, singing God’s glory and destructive power in antiphonal or successive thoughts.