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127. Job 12, Concluding and Summarizing Remarks
My conclusion is to see Job 12:13-25 as a midrash or interpretive reading of a number of Scriptures: Proverbs 8:14; Psalm 119:66; Psalm 107:40; Psalm 107:27, which also is supplemented by some of Job’s earlier thoughts from 9:5-7. All you need in order to make a coherent oracle is to put these together with some categories of people whom you think need to be brought down a peg. Job is already familiar with the language of overturning, even though he uses a new word in verse 19 (salaph) and a new word in verses 17, 19 (sholal). He has already shown an impressive command of terms for rulers or leaders in Job 3:14-19. He just adds a few more categories here, despite the fact that we can’t identify what they mean.
The most interesting thing about the final words of Job’s judgment oracle in 12:20-25 is the way that Psalm 107:40 is split between verses 21 and 24. By splitting the thought, Job has space to insert all kinds of things between the ideas of “pouring contempt on princes” and “wandering in a wilderness.” Let’s make a list of the things in 12:21-24 that fit between the severed parts of 107:40:
1. God “relaxes/loosens” the belt of the strong (v 21)
2. God uncovers deep things from darkness (v 22)
3. God brings to light the shadow of death (v 22)
4. God makes nations increase and then destroys them (v 23)
5. In a parallel thought, God enlarges the nations and leads them away (v 23)
6. He moves the heart of the chiefs of the people (v 24)
We have already had God messing around with girdles and loins in 12:19, where God “opened” the bonds of kings and bound their loins with a girdle. Here, in verse 21, the word for “girdle” is different (the rare maziyach, only appearing elsewhere in Isaiah 23:10; Psalm 109:19) and the word for loosening is also different (rapha, “to relax”). Forgive us if we don’t get on the chairs and cheer for God’s relaxing the belt of the strong (aphiq, which elsewhere is rendered as “channels” or “brooks” or “ravines,” but is probably derived from aphaq, which means “to be strong”) when we have no idea what is going on.
Then, verse 22 seems at first to be a promising enough verse, drawing on familiar Joban themes of the depths (we have seen the same word amoq in Zophar’s speech, 11:8), darkness (choshek), light (or), and the shadow of death (tsalmaveth). I say “seems” to be promising, until you look at it more closely and find that we have, “He uncovers deep things from the darkness, and he draws out the shadow of death to the light.” You don’t have to go too far in the commentarial literature to find collective scholarly confusion, even though there are always several scholars who will claim to make sense of dense passages such as this. Some have pointed out that many of these words also appear in Psalm 107, so that Job may just be “playing” with that Psalm, though not the theme of deliverance, in verses 21-25. Clines has made the interesting suggestion that the “deep things” that God uncovers here are nothing less than the deep things of God, the very things that Zophar spoke of that Job didn’t have (11:7-8). But that would be strange indeed in a judgment oracle. Zophar looked at these deep things of God as a sign of the divine wisdom and knowledge; in Job 12 we are in the realm of the removal of kings and destruction of nations—hardly the place we would expect a revelation of divine knowledge. Thus, though Job has drawn upon familiar terminology, he seems to have lost his footing in verse 22. We have no idea what he is saying.
Job lurches back to semi-stability in 12:23, which is often rendered,
“He builds up (the rare saga, only appearing elsewhere in Job 36:24) nations and he destroys them (the common abad); he enlarges (shatach, usually translated “spread”) them and disperses them (verb is nachah, 39x)."
This is meant to be an oracle of judgment, regarding destruction of the nations, but the final verb is a poor choice to express judgment. Nachah is best translated “to lead,” and is the culminatory verb of Psalm 77, where God faithfulness in deliverance and leading of the people is celebrated. Some earlier verses are memorable: “The waters saw you, O God; they were in deep pain” (77:15); “The voice of your thunder was in the whirlwind” (77:18); “the earth trembled and shook” (77:18). “Your way was known in the sea” (77:19). Then, finally, “You led (nachah) your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron (77:20).
Then, take Psalm 23, the most beloved of Psalms. Twice in the first few verses God is said to be leading the Psalmist, and the two Hebrew verbs are nahal/nachah—no doubt variants of each other (Psalm 23:2, 3). The point should be clear—nachah is emblazoned on the hearts of the people as a positive verb, showing the care of God’s leading of the people. It doesn’t really “fit” in Job 12:23.
In Job 12:24, then, Job returns to the safe confines of Psalm 107, a Psalm that keeps him from wandering off course still further. But then 12:25 finishes the chapter.
“They grope about (mashash 9x) in darkness (choshek again) without light (or again).”
A variant of the verb mashash is the rare gashash, also translated “grope” and appearing twice in Isaiah 59:10, where blind people are said to grope along a wall. But then Job quickly finishes with the reference to Psalm 107:27, and people are wandering like drunken people. Job has certainly shown an ability to draw upon a rich assortment of biblical words and themes in 12:13-25, but the effectiveness of his oracle is blunted because of unclear categories, confusing use of verbs, and inability to weave his own material with the inherited material from the tradition into a powerful and convincing oracle of judgment. Hmm. . .maybe some of the unspoken judgment of Job 12 is on the scholars who have the temerity to try to figure out what is being said.