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125. Job 12:17-19, Judgment on Illustrious People, Essay Two
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.
We would like to go more quickly, but we are hung up immediately in verse 18 by what God does to the kings. The first word is musar, a classic wisdom tradition word for “discipline” or “instruction” (see Eliphaz’s use of it in 5:17). In almost all of its fifty appearances in the Bible it simply means “discipline” or “instruction.” But “instruction” wouldn’t make sense here and, besides, the verb asar (“to tie/bind”) appears later in the verse, so translators have almost unanimously rendered the musar in line with the later “binding” rather than linking it to its usual verb: yasar. Who knows? We may have another “defective” form of the verb asar, rather than the present participle of yasar. Thus, the standard translation of the first clause of verse 18 is “he loosens (patach, “to open”) the bonds of kings.” But it seemingly could be translated “He opens/loosens the instruction of kings,” though the meaning of that would be up for debate.
Once one decides on the translation “he loosens the bonds of kings,” itself a mini-stretch, one has to decide what this means. Most see this as the king’s authority being removed. After all the king has authority to “bind” or “enslave” people. If God loosens their bonds, it might refer to God’s loosening the royal grip on power, though one often thinks of loosening bonds as freeing, rather than limiting, the king. No wonder this passage is never quoted by anyone as the most clear and ringing endorsement of divine power in the Bible.
We are only halfway through verse 18. Once God has perhaps loosened their bonds, God now “binds a girdle with their loins” (last phrase is ezor bemathneyhem) Sorry, I am just reading what the text says. But almost all translators rush to translate, “and binds their loins with a girdle.” I suppose you just ignore the position of the preposition and think that the author must have meant something clear. I wish my composition teachers in high school would have cut me similar breaks. But even if we render it as “bind their loins with a girdle” we still should try to come up with some meaning for it. The consensus seems to be that it means that they now taken on the marks or features either of a laborer or a captive. So, this would be Job’s rather clumsy way of saying that the kings of the earth face a most dramatic reversal in their lives. I would have been satisfied with a haphak (“to overthrow/overturn”) here but perhaps Job felt that since he had just used the verb in verse 15 he can’t repeat himself. The only other place where I could find the phrase ezor bemathneyhem in the Bible is in Ezekiel 23:15, where the phrase is used to emphasize the glory, rather than humiliation, of the Chaldeans. In this case the girding of the belt on the loins is expressed with chagor and not asar. So, the phrase “with girdle on the loins” isn’t necessarily a clear phrase meaning “a captive.”
Well, now that we are descending into confusion again, we might as well finish this mini-section, where other illustrious people are led away sholal. This time the priests (kohen) are led away “stripped” or “barefoot,” though many scholars have changed the word for “priests” because it seems out of place. But almost anything can seem out of place in Job at times, so that isn’t convincing. The final phrase of verse 19 is also confusing. Most translations render it as God’s overthrowing the mighty, but other than the fact that the word that most render “mighty” isn’t generally translated “mighty” nor is the word for “overthrowing” generally translated “overthrowing,” we have a perfect match.
I may have overstated my frustration a bit. The verb salaph (7x, here rendered “overturn”) has the basic meaning of “twist” or “pervert,” such as when the foolishness of a human “perverts” his way (Proverbs 19:3), but it isn’t really a far journey from the idea of twisting to overthrowing. Another place where the verb salaph appears, Proverbs 22:12 may best be translated, “He overthrows (salaph) the words of the treacherous.” The word translated “mighty” is ethan (13x), which elsewhere means something that is “ever-flowing” (a stream, for example, in Amos 5:24) or something that is perennially watered (Jeremiah 50:44). Thus, the emphasis is on something that is permanent. From this scholars have inferred that the word might mean people that endure or people who are secure. Who are they? Bingo, the powerful. Of course that fits in with many of the categories already mentioned in 12:17-19, even though we have no idea who is meant if we just say that God “perverts/twists/overthrows” the ethan.
Thus our unexceptional conclusion is that 12:17-19 is a series of judgment statements against powerful people. The language is tortured; perhaps we are to feel or understand some of the unsettling situation felt by those who are overthrown when the unclear language strikes us. This point perhaps should give us pause. In most instances the work of Biblical translation, though challenging, doesn’t upset too many of our mental categories. We tend to see what we think we are going to see, even if we are constantly learning new things from the text. But when we run across a text that in nearly every sentence makes us scratch our heads and say, “What is being said?” we realize, if we permit ourselves the feeling, that our own grip on knowledge is pretty flimsy. We have to confess we have no idea who the author is referring to (are they personal enemies, specific targets, or just some cabal of people that they author wants to bring down a peg?) or what our reaction to the judgment should be. Do we affirm it? Just record it? Maybe one of the reasons we often can’t understand what is going on in this passage is that the judgment causes dust to fly, and we are all then involved in that dust-filled melee with our world turned upside down as much as it was for the ancient kings. Perhaps the Book of Job is unclear in so many of its verses because, in the final analysis, it wants to make our minds unstable, our categories unclear, our faith a bit more brittle, whether or not at the end that same faith will be strengthened or will collapse. Can we endure that?