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140. Job 14:4-6, A Growing Uncertainty and Fear

4 “Who can make the clean out of the unclean?
No one!
5 “Since his days are determined,
The number of his months is with You;
And his limits You have set so that he cannot pass.
6 “Turn Your gaze from him that he may rest,
Until hefulfills his day like a hired man.

 

Verse 4 then reflects Job’s growing uncertainty and even fear. As with many verses in Job it can be read in two ways, either as a general remark on a fixed quality of human life (i.e., one’s condition of uncleanness doesn’t change, which might then complement life’s brevity and limitedness in vv 1-2, 5-6) or an indication that Job is aware of his individual sinfulness and frailty. The language of cleanness/uncleanness is unusual for Job, even though common in the Bible. Categories of cleanness (tahor) and uncleanness (tame) are prevalent especially in the Pentateuch, but this is the only place Job uses the word tame and, apart from another appearance of tahor in Job 28 (thought by many to be a non-Joban poetic insertion), this is the only place where tahor appears. Faced with these difficulties, many scholars decide to excise the verses, a solution that rarely is satisfying to me.

 

Note that verse 4 is not really a full sentence in the Hebrew, though all English translations make it into one. The NASV above is a good example. Verse 4 is presented as a question of who can bring a clean thing from an unclean. But the grammatical construction that begins verse 4 is miy-yitten.This phrase expresses a strong wish (“Oh that. . .”), and is an expression of signal importance in Job. I count nine appearances of it in Job, to wit, 6:8; 11:5; 13:5; 14:4, 13; 19:23; 23:3; 29:2; 31:35. If we take it seriously here as an ejaculatory expression of great desire it would best be rendered, “Oh that (it would be possible that) a clean thing (comes) from an unclean!” Then, the concluding two Hebrew words would present the answer, “(It) is not one.

 

Returning now to the concept of purity—we have Job briefly entering the world of sacrificial terminology in verse 4 to talk about, in all likelihood, his awareness of a personal “stain.” There is “not a one” (lo echad) who can extricate him from his uncleanness. If Job demonstrates any personal shortcoming throughout his speeches, it is his sense that things, once having fallen apart, can never change. He doesn’t accept his new situation with equanimity (at least after Chapter 2); he assumes now that his new, potent, and all-consuming reality cannot change. It is the new hand he has been dealt, the new facts on the ground. I think 14:4 comes out of that world. Job may be aware, in ways he hasn’t earlier expressed, of his “stain” or “uncleanness,” but he sees this as a fixed condition. “Not a one” can alter it. Perhaps this (premature) conclusion of life’s unchangeableness provides the fuel for his beautifully hopeless words in verses 7ff.  

 

Job’s lifespan is brief and his condition (impurity) is fixed. Verses 5-6 return to the theme of brevity, though the emphasis is on an aspect of that brevity, life’s limited or bounded nature. The sum of all these things makes Job ask God to leave him alone to have a bit of pleasure in his day.  

 

Verse 5 may be divided into three clauses, of three, three and four words. We might translate,

 

     “If indeed it is true that his days are decreed/decided upon; the number of his months is with       you; (and that) you have made a boundary  (for him) that he can’t pass over. . .”  

 

The verb for “decree/decide” is charats (12x, the only appearance in Job) and it’s root meaning is “to cut or sharpen.” It secondary meaning is to decide. I suppose the logic is that if you “cut” something figuratively, you are “dividing” it or “deciding” on its disposition. Its meaning as “decide” appears in I Kings 20:40; Isaiah 10:22, 23 and three places in Daniel. More than half of its usages, then, are best rendered “decide/determine.”  

 

The second clause just echoes the first. There is no verb; we just have “the number” (saphar) of his months (is) with you.” The language sounds hauntingly similar to that of Psalm 139:16. Recall that Job’s poignant reflection on God’s care in making him in 10:8-10 echoed the actual phrases, as well as the process, of human creation in Psalm 139:13-15. Now we have three more verbal echoes of Psalm 139. Psalm 139:16 talks about yamim (days) that are saphar (numbered) when there was not even one (lo echad). The last words of Job 14:4 and these words of 14:5 speak of lo echad (not one), and yamim and saphar. In Psalm 139 the days are “fashioned” or “made” (yatsar, a word used of God’s creative activity in Genesis 2); in Job 14 the only thing that will be “made” (asah is verb) are limits of life. Thus, Psalm 139 presents the “days” that God gives the creature as a beneficent gift, to be received with wonder. In Job 14 the days are a confinement that add to a human’s growing sense of hopelessness.  

 

Humanity’s confinement is evident in the last clause of Job 14:5, “you have done/established (verb is the common asah, “to do/make”) limits (choq) and he cannot pass them" (abar is common verb, both in the Bible and in Job). The word translated “limits” is usually translated “statute” and is one of the eight or so words used synonymously in Psalm 119 to sing the wonders of the Torah of God. But here it is to be understood in its most basic sense: something prescribed or allotted. Humanity’s allotment of months can’t be passed over. That is Job’s frustrating reality. It almost sounds like Job is giving a Woody Allen (of Annie Hall)-type of complaint: ‘life is so painful. And short to boot!’

 

Faced with this situation, Job then asks God in verse 6 to leave him alone. We might translate, “Look away (saah) from him that he may cease/desist/rest (chadal), until his day has pleasure as a hireling (sakir).”This passage powerfully echoes Job’s earlier words in 7:19 and 10:20-22. The verb for “looking away is the fairly rare saah (15x) which we saw used similarly in Job 7:19. In that passage Job requested God to “look away” from him until he has a chance to swallow his spittle. Rather than finding comfort in God’s presence, it is God’s absence that is craved.

 

Job wants God to look away so that he/humanity may chadal. Chadal appears 58x and often means to “cease” or “stop.” It first appeared in Genesis 11, where the eager builders stopped building the tower of Babel  (11:8). But its meaning of “leave alone,” not much of a stretch from “stopping,” is found in Exodus 14:12 as well as Job 7:16 and 10:20.  Job is building a vocabulary of abandonment, and saah/chadal are its basic building blocks.  

 

Job wants to be left alone so that he might have a bit of pleasure. We are surprised to find the verb ratsah (57x) here, since its basic meaning is to have enjoyment. It can also mean to “be favorable toward” or “to accept” something, and perhaps that is the meaning here—‘leave me/humanity alone so that we may just accept our days,’ but I adopt the meaning of “enjoy” (see, for example, its use in II Chronicles 29:17; 36:21). I don’t believe Job is just saying that by God’s leaving him/humanity alone, he might just accomplish his work like a hireling, but that he might even be able to eke out a bit of a pleasurable existence. His thought might then be: ’Just think—a good day’s work in the fields, with no responsibility for anything other than the task right before me, and then returning to a good meal and restful sleep. What could be more alluring and comforting that that?’

 

Yet, even though he might enjoy his day, he closes with the realization that he is basically a sakir, a hireling. We met such a character in 7:1 when Job stressed the hard service of human life. The overwhelming irony of this text, that Job will find pleasure in being apart from God, is captured in the appearance of both “pleasure” and “hireling” so close to one another. No one imagines the life of a hireling to be pleasurable. But now Job does. If there is any pleasure left for Job in life, it has to be apart from God.