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13. Looking More Closely at the Disasters
Care in examining the language of each of the disasters yields interesting nuggets. In the first (vv 14-15), we have the oxen (baqar) and she-asses (athon), the third and fourth categories of animals listed in verse 3, plowing and grazing. The verbs for their activities aren’t exceptional. Charash (74x, “to plow”) is a more complex verb than we might imagine, as many of its appearances are best translated “be silent,” though “plow” or “cut” is also a frequent translation (see Deuteronomy 22:10; Judges 14:18). The she-asses are feeding (raah), where the word used to describe their activity is also used for a shepherd or for tending a flock. Picking up on the bodily nature of the language highlighted in the previous essay, we learn that the latter were grazing “on their hands”—i.e., near the oxen.
The messenger describes the Sabean raid on these vulnerable creatures in verse 15. We don’t know who the Sabeans are, other than there probably were a tribe of people from the “East” or possibly from the Arabian Peninsula. Again, the verbs to describe their activity are “Hebrew 101” verbs: they “fell” (naphal) upon the oxen and she-asses and “spirited them off” (laqach). We will see the verb “fall” four times in verses 15-19; it is an appropriate way to describe the sad series of disasters. Marauding human bands “fall” upon Job’s possessions in verses 15 and 17; natural disasters “fall” upon Job’s possessions and children in verses 16 and 19. Very little is left to Job after this series of “fallings.”
The Sabeans not only took away the oxen and she-asses but struck the servants (naar or “young men” rather than abuddah or “household” of v 3) with, literally, the “mouth (peh) of the sword.” Thus, more and more parts of the body are being implicated as the narrative unfolds: we have seen heart and face and hands; now we have “mouth.” The story of the first disaster concludes with the seven tragic words, literally, “And I have escaped, only I myself, alone, to report to you.” There is rhythm and euphony in the report of disaster. Words 2-4 are raq ani lebadi, a beautifully-sounding phrase in Hebrew (“only I myself, alone”), but the beauty can’t conceal the cataclysm. The last three words all begin with the letter lamed: lebadi lehagid lak ("alone to tell you"). Hopelessness has never been described more beautifully or hauntingly.
Disaster two (v 16) is, in the language of insurance policies, an “act of God.” Introducing this disaster is the first of three identical phrases (also beginning vv 17, 18), “while he was yet speaking” or od zeh medaber. The phrase adds to the intensity of the disasters, for Job doesn’t have a moment even to catch his breath before the next report comes. Here we have no description of blissfully pasturing animals; the narrative gets right to the problem. Described only as a “fire of God,” it also falls (naphal) and destroys category one of the animals from verse 3: the tson or sheep. Some commentators scratch their heads and wonder how a lightning strike could have killed 7,000 sheep but then they conclude, unsurprisingly, that it must have been a big lightning strike. Others, like myself, aren’t quite so concerned with what meteorological phenomenon is described nor how potent it could possibly have been. The point of the story is that another swath of Job’s possessions is wiped out. We have the second death of the servants/young men here. Really rough day for them. The verb for “burning” them up is the common verb (95x) baar, whose most famous occurrences are in Exodus 3:2, 3, where Moses sees a bush that “is burning but not burned up.” In Job 1:16 the fire burns (baar) and consumes (akal) them. The last verb is the same one used to describe the peaceful process of “eating” in the familial celebrations of verses 4, 13.
Disaster three (v 17) follows without a chance for us even to catch our breath. Od zeh medaber, a third calamity follows. This time it is through the Chaldeans, another group from “the East.” These people decided to break into three bands (literally “three heads”) to do their marauding work. The only thing left for them to take are the camels, which they “raided” (pashat) before carrying them off (laqach again). The verb translated “raided” or “made a raid” is often rendered “strip off,” such as when victorious troops strip off clothing and valuables of slain foes (I Chronicles 10:9). The messenger, no doubt seeing the bodies of the young men/servants still lying around, says that the Chaldeans also slew them. By now these servants are not just merely dead; they are really most sincerely dead.
Verses 18-19 describe the most painful blow of all. As expected, od zeh medaber begins it, as it had the previous two verses. Another “act of God” happened, this time a “great wind” from “across the wilderness” (i.e., from someplace in the east). Picking up on the language of the Satan’s challenge in verse 11, the messenger reports that it “struck/touched” (naga) the four corners (pinnah, 29x) of the house. Then, in language as devastating as it is brief, the messenger just says, “It fell upon (naphal again) the young people (using naar, the same word as used to describe the servants who thrice perished) and they died.” Sometimes disaster strikes this quickly. One is living one’s life, blissfully unaware of any danger that lurks, and then comes the accident or the fatal heart attack or the stray bullet. In one second, the world changes. As if to emphasize the chilling finality of the story, the passage ends with the predictable but no less gruesome words, “And I have escaped, only I myself, alone, to tell you.”
Come to think of it, the story, really, needed little commentary.