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141. Job 14:7-12  Hope for a Tree


Though one might look at verses 7-17 as one long section, I break it down into two.  The two seem best characterized as “hope for a tree” (vv 7-12) and then a wistful mental retreat (vv 13-17), much like 3:14-19, where Job imagines how much better things might be if life were different.


7 “For there is hope for a tree,

    When it is cut down, that it will sprout again,

    And its shoots will not fail.

8 “Though its roots grow old in the ground

    And its stump dies in the dry soil,

9 At the scent of water it will flourish

    And put forth sprigs like a plant.

10 “But man dies and lies prostrate.

    Man expires, and where is he?

11 “As water evaporates from the sea,

   And a river becomes parched and dried up,

12 So man lies down and does not rise.

    Until the heavens are no longer,

    He will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep.


In these six verses of wretched but alluring hopelessness, Job draws on images from nature to illumine the sad situation of humanity. The passage may neatly divided be into verses 7-9 and 10-12.  The first talks about nature’s hopeful return to life, even after it has seemingly died; the second talks about humans' inability to imitate nature in this regard. Nature springs back to life, but humans die and remain dead. Rather than looking at this as an example of injustice, or quietly complaining about the unfairness, Job only makes the observation. He lets his observation simply sink into the reader’s consciousness.


The transition from verse 6 to verse 7 is rather abrupt, and the unexpected word “hope” (tiqvah) emphasizes that unexpected transition. “But/for there is for a tree hope,” is how the Hebrew literally reads. We don’t usually think of inanimate objects having hope, especially when the word tiqvah (34x/13x in Job) always elsewhere in Job appears as a human aspiration. Everyone, seemingly loves the word tiqvah in Job.  Eliphaz uses it in 5:16; Bildad in 8:13; Zophar twice in Job 11:18, 20; and Job the other nine. It is especially potent in Job 14 where hope is ascribed to a tree (v 7) but not to humans (v 19). In fact, verse 19 talks about God’s destroying (abad) human hope. Perhaps as a sign that this unusual “hope/tree” connection sunk into Job’s consciousness deeper than one might think, Job will later speak about God’s uprooting “my hope like a tree” (19:10). The tree is the object that has hope. Job’s hope is removed, as he can imagine a tree being removed.  


What is the tree’s hope? To become fruitful after being cut down. “If it is ‘cut’ (karath), it will sprout again (chalaph); and its branches/tender shoots will not cease (chadal).”  The language invites closer inspection. The verb karath is a very common verb for “cut down” or “cut off.” There is no need to review the breadth of its appearances in the Bible. Suffice it to say that it usually means “to cut down” rather than “uproot,” thus leaving a stump or other remnant behind. That is how it is used here. If the tree gets cut down, its branches lopped off, what happens? It will chalaph (28x).  Normally that verb means to “change” as when Laban was accused by Jacob of changing his wages ten times (Genesis 31:7, 41) or when people change clothes (Genesis 35:2; 41:14), but it can emphasize the result of the changing—i.e., growing or sprouting into something new.  


Ps 90:5-6 is the closest parallel to our usage in 14:7, though human mortality rather than trees returning to life is the theme of Psalm 90: 


    “You carry them (humans) away as a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass        which grows/sprouts up (chalaph); in the morning it grows and sprouts up (chalaph); in                          the evening it is cut off (using the verb mul (cut/circumcise, which is very close to the                            namal of Job 14:2) and withers” (yabash, the same verb as in Job 12:15; 14:11).  


Trees sprout again once they have been cut. Their young branches will not chadal. We have seen the centrality of chadal as “leave me alone” already in Job 7:16; 10:20; 14:6. Its most basic meaning is “to cease.” But the good news for the tree is that its cut branches will not, literally, “be left alone” or will not “cease.” They will flourish again, changing and coming back to life (chalaph).  


Though I have spent considerable time reading Job 14:7, we recall that it is only the first of three verses regarding nature’s coming back to life. Verses 8-9 continue the thought, almost without pause—


     “Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stem/stock/stump perishes in the dust, yet at the        slightest whiff of water, it buds, and yields branches like a plant.”  


Verse 8 gives us a slightly different take on plants or trees. Rather than being “cut,” as in verse 7, here they seem to wither and die. Zaqen (26x) means “to grow old,” and the noun form, also zaqen, is usually translated as “elder.” We have seen those trees—bending with age, tops bare, bark flaking off and crumbling in our hands. They have dominated the forest skyline for generations; now, it seems, they too will die. The second part of verse 8, parallel to the first part, talks about its “stump” (geza) dying in the dust. Geza only appears two other places in the Bible, one of which is the famous Messianic passage of Is 11:1. Fruitfulness is also at issue there. “There shall sprout (yatsa, the same verb as in Job 14:2, to emphasize the growth of a flower) a branch/rod from the geza (as in Job 14:8) of Jesse, and a sprout shall grow (parah) from his roots” (sharish, same word as in Job 14:8).  


Of course we don’t know exactly how the authors of the Hebrew Bible “talked” to one another, but I like to think of the writers as engaged in a great conversation on the most important themes in life. I have already illustrated that in several instances in Job. What if the author of Isaiah got a whiff not only of the refreshing water of Job 14:9, but of the entire text and, thinking of a way to transmute the hopelessness of Job 14:7-12 into hope, had taken the images of Job in 14:7-9, which only related to trees/plants and extended their meaning to humans? There would not just be hope for a “stump” but the very “stump” of Jesse would bear the most influential fruit in the world—a promised Messiah. Much like Psalm 23’s “redemption” of the concept of tsalmaveth (the shadow of death), which is so prominent in Job’s hopeless conclusion of 10:20-22, so we might here have the “redemption” or, better said, the “extension of meaning" of a stump from the world of natural history to human history.


The hope for a tree of verse 7 comes to fruition in verse 9. Once it gets a whiff (word is reyach, 58x, usually emphasizing the pleasant odor or aroma of a sacrifice to God) of water, it buds. Note the pleasant mixing of metaphors. We usually don’t smell water, but here the tree does. Even the mere “sensing” of water in the soil makes the tree “bud” (parach). The word for “bud” in 14:9 is almost identical to the parah (“bear fruit”) of Isaiah 11:1. The end of Job 14:9 is unexceptional. Literally we have, “and makes branches as a plant.” The only word calling for comment is qatsir, usually translated “harvest” (Genesis 8:22; 30:14), but also with the meaning of “branch” (as in Job 18:16; Psalm 80:11). The lesson of 14:7-9 is clear: nature renews itself. Even those plants or trees thought to be dead can easily return to life.

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