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123. Job 12:14-16, Correct Theology, Miserable Life, Continuing

14 If he tears down, no one can rebuild;
    if he shuts someone in, no one can open up.
15 If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
    if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.
16 With him are strength and wisdom;
    the deceived and the deceiver are his.

 

Rather than turning to wonderful ways that this wisdom and divine power has been displayed in an orderly creation, Job unexpectedly turns to God’s destructive power in verses 14-15. Eight verbs describing God’s destructive activity hit us with enormous force in these two verses. God tears down (haras, 43x) so that it can’t be built back up (banah, very common); God shuts up people/imprisons them (sagar, 91x), with no one able to “open” or release them (pathach, 145x). Then, while we are reeling from this unexpected news, verse 15 follows with God’s withholding (atsar, 46x) waters so that things dry up (yabesh, 73x). When God gets around to sending out the waters again (shalach, very common), they “overturn/overwhelm” (haphak, 94x) the earth. I wanted to provide the number of actual appearances of these verbs so that we see at this point that the author is in the realm of common and understandable speech.  


But all these words emphasize God’s undoing rather than upbuilding of creation. The starkness of God’s destructive activity can be seen by looking at the first two verbs: “God breaks down (haras) so that it can’t be built up (banah).”  When the Prophet Jeremiah spoke of a glorious future for the people of God, he precisely reversed the verbs: “God will build up (banah) and not break down (haras; Jeremiah 24:6).” It would be like hearing Psalm 19 “mis-intoned” as “The heavens declare the injustice of God, and the firmament shows forth God’s cruelty.” Most worshippers would stop right there and want a clarification (or a new pastor).

 

The second set of verbs most likely brings us into the realm of imprisonment and release from prison. We have just seen sagar (“to shut up/confine”) in Zophar’s speech in 11:10. Zophar used the verb with three others in 11:10 to describe the unconstrained power of God. God sweeps by and “shuts up/confines” (sagar). Job may have thought, ‘Hmm. . .I don’t like what you are saying at all, Zophar, but that is a really good word. I think I’ll use it.’ Job also will use it in his next speech (16:11) to describe what God has done to him. Job’s verbal indebtedness to Zophar is significant. Even though a person may feel that s/he lives among jerks or obtuse people, these people can often give you the gift of a word, a word that then becomes important for your own thinking. 

 

God “confines” but without “opening,” a thought that best fits the idea of confinement in prison. God locks up people and throws away the key. Can we hear an echo of Job’s despair in those words? But then, Job turns to consider the creation. God actually withholds (atsar) waters so that everything dries up (yabesh). Job’s uses atsar here is in the same way it is used in Deuteronomy 11:17 or I Kings 8:35, where God will “shut up” (atsar) the heavens. Different verbs are used in Genesis 8, where God “restrains” or “confines” the waters that had fallen from heaven (the verb is kala). The verb atsar, however, carries with it an almost a violent connotation. Things that are “shut up” are often unnaturally shut up or hemmed in. In addition to the heavens being shut up, it is used of wombs being closed so that a woman can’t bear a child (Genesis 16:2; 20:18). But it also can be used to describe a plague which is stopped or checked (Numbers 16:50; 25:8).

 

The result of God’s shutting up the waters is that things become dry. This isn’t the delightful dry ground on which the people of Israel joyfully walked when God unceremoniously drowned the hordes of Egyptian soldiers. But the author doesn’t stop and tell us about the dryness. Rather, the waters are sent out again, and they “overwhelm” (haphak) the earth. One of the earliest, and most vivid, appearances of haphak in the Bible is in Genesis 19:25, where God “overthrows” or “overwhelms” the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. So, in Job 12, God’s wisdom and power is seen in overturning, rather than establishing creation. One of the reason why language, as well as theology, is destabilized in Job is that Job feels that God has beat him to it by destabilizing creation.  

 

After describing God’s destructive power, Job seems to want to retreat safely to the familiar terminology of wisdom and power in verse 16. Verse 16 begins as did verse 13 (immo, “with him”), but this time with God are “strength” (oz, 92x) and “prudence/sound wisdom” (tushiyyah, 11x). The “deceived” (shagag, 4x) and “deceiver” (shagah, 21x) are “to/with him” (lo). We are surprised by the words shagag and shagah, both because of their relative rarity and their intrusion into a more “global” narrative. Why is Job seemingly trying to divide the world into these two categories of people? Why is deceived/deceiver, rather than fidelity/infidelity or justice/injustice the categories of dividing people in verse 16? 

 

The distinction of “deceived/deceiver” is simpler than the verbs indicate, and is not a good translation of those words, despite its almost universal representation in various Bibles. The other three usages of shagag, for example, stress that it means “to sin unintentionally” (Lev 5:18) and thus “go astray” (Psalm 119:67). Therefore, rendering it as “deceiver” here is probably not justified. Shagah also emphasizes the process of unintentionally erring (Leviticus 4:13), though it can have the more active meaning of misleading someone (e.g., Deuteronomy 27:18; I Samuel 26:21; Job 6:24). Seow has abandoned the language of “deceiver/deceived” by saying, “The one who goes astray and the one who leads astray.” I’m with him on this one.

 

In mentioning people who go astray and lead others astray, is Job possibly thinking about the rulers or judges or counselors of the earth, who will receive the brunt of criticism in the next verses? No clue, but that may be a helpful way to link v 16b with verses 17-21. Before finishing this essay, however, we pause for a moment, on the “power” and “wisdom” words in verse 16. In verse 16 Job is doing the same thing as he did in verse 13, though only one “wisdom” word is used, along with one “power” word. God’s power in verse 13 was the divine geburah; here it is oz, a general word for strength, might, or power.

 

God is said to have “glory” (kabod) and “strength” (oz) in many places in Scripture. Oz It is a solid word, distributed throughout Scripture, to emphasize the idea of power or might. Note that in Job 9 other words for strength were used: koach and amits (9:4). Just as Job can explore the various words or ways of expressing darkness or trouble, so he regales us with words describing the divine strength. His literary facility is reminiscent of the brilliant variety of terms used in Odyssey Book I to describe mixing bowls, servants, the stoutness or strength of Athena’s sword, the handsomeness of Telemachus, or even the way to say “say.” Eloquence may sometimes be found in repetition of the same word or phrase, but it more frequently comes through skillful use of synonyms in parallel contexts. Job shows us how that is done.  

 

Finally, in verse 16, we see the word tushiyyah, translated variously as “success”or “sound wisdom” or “prudence.” It only appears 11x in the Bible, but nine of the eleven appearances are in Job or Proverbs. It is a divine characteristic as well as a divine gift in Proverbs. Closer inspection of Proverbs 8:14 suggests that it may have provided some of the “background” for Job 12:13, 16. “Counsel (etsah) is mine (so says divine Wisdom) and sound wisdom (tushiyyah); I have understanding (binah, which means the same as tebunah) and strength (geburah).” Job is deeply indebted to the thought world of Proverbs—and none more so than when listing some of the divine characteristics. Job 12:13 had used etsah, tebunah, geburah; Job 12:16 uses tushiyyah.The overlap with Proverbs may not be adventitious.