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124. Job 12:17-19, Judgment on Illustrious People, Essay One

17 He leads counselors away stripped,
    and makes fools of judges.
18 He looses the sash of kings,
    and binds a waistcloth on their loins.
19 He leads priests away stripped,
    and overthrows the mighty.


Job has shown his theological bona fides in verses 13 and 16 by drawing on terms from the wisdom tradition to sing the virtues of God. He also, in verses 14-15, gives his own particular twist on God’s power—a power to destroy—which he had also done in 9:5-7. But now he ventures into new territory, and he presents God as the great judge who upsets the lives of honored people: counselors, judges, priests, kings, nations. Along the way he relies on a rare word (generally translated “barefoot” or “stripped”) to describe the judgment on some of them (vv 17, 19), and then he quotes Ps 107:40 (and refers to Ps 107:27), but splits the quotation from Ps 107:40 down the middle of that verse, putting the first half in 12:21 and the second half in 12:24, inserting his own content between those two halves. The overall effect of these verses is what one might call a somewhat  “weak” version of Isaiah 40:21-31. 


Because of the repeated phrase halaksholal beginning verse 17, 19, let’s look at verses 17-19 as the first subsection of the nine verse section from 12:17-25.  We already saw that with God was “counsel” (etsah, v 13), but now we see that God leads “counselors” (noun is derived from the verb yaats) away “barefoot.” This is a controversial translation. The word sholal appears only here, verse 19 and Micah 1:8. In the latter instance the prophet talks about going sholal and naked (arom) as he mourns for the people. One assumes from the Micah reference that sholal has a meaning parallel to arom, which generally has led translators to see it as “stripped.” “Stripped and naked” would then be a hendiadys, pointing to the humiliation faced by the prophet.  


The verb from which sholal is derived, shalal (16x), primarily means “to plunder/loot” or “to capture.” As a sign of divine judgment, the foreign nations will “plunder” (shalal) Israel (Zecharaiaha 2:8). Habakkuk expresses the identical thought (Habkkuk 2:8). Using the Micah passage and the meaning of shalal as a guide, many translators have rendered the sholal in Job 12:17, 19 as “plundered” or “stripped.” Very little rests on whether we cling to “barefoot” for a translation, but it probably is better to talk about the captives being led away “stripped” rather than “barefoot.” Indeed, the translation as “barefoot” may be the same as our modern meaning of “stripped,” but employed as a kind of Victorian “muting” or euphemism. When you are sitting around your drawing room, with tablecloths draped to cover even the “ankles” of the tables, a mere reference to “barefoot” here might have caused “decent” people to blanch.  

Back to Job. Job is just getting warmed up. If the counselors, who may have their gift of counsel from God--yaats is frequently used as advice from God, e.g., Exodus 18:19, or to designate the king’s counselor--are humiliated, who won’t be? His list continues: God does something to judges (v 17).  I say it that way because the verb halal to describe what God does to judges is far from clear. Normally the verb halal is translated “to praise,” but that can’t be right. The form of the verb is also rare, a defective formation called the “polel.” Dictionaries which review the appearances of halal in the Bible are somewhat amusing. They give example after example of its use as “praise,” but then say: “Polel: to be foolish.” Huh? Well, most scholars have connected it with the obscure toholoth of 4:18, which itself is a hapax, and whose meaning is “conjectural,” but which most agree means “foolish/fool.” They see toholoth and yeholel (the form in 12:17) as synonymous. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense, one thinks, to say that God leads the judges to become praised. But, then again, Job destabilizes us with language, and this may just be a hint to us to go slowly and wonder.

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