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149. Finishing Job 14
The second half of verse 20 parallels the first half: After prevailing (taqaph) against humans, God “repeats” the human “face” and “sends him away.” The verb I rendered “repeat” here (shanah, 22x, 2x Job) is almost always so rendered, but it has a secondary meaning of “change,” perhaps because of the idea that action is often repeated in order to yield a different result. So, we might best render it in 14:20 as “You change the human countenance and send him away.” The phrase “change the face/countenance” is provocative and may mean nothing more than that humans show signs of age as they get older. But I think there is also the notion of changing for the worse; the care that lined the face is now etched into a permanent scowl; the lines that covered the brow are now furrows of everlasting pain. Our author would not have agreed with the optimistic words of Shakespeare;
“To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eye,
Such seems your beauty still. . .” (Sonnet 104).
Humans walk—eventually to their deaths, of course, but immediately to their pain-filled bodies; their faces are changed and they are sent away from the divine presence.
Verse 21 continues the description of this awful reality:
“His sons come to honor and he has no idea of it, or they become insignificant and he doesn’t perceive it.”
One of the greatest joys of being a parent is to be able to celebrate the victories of your child; conversely, one of the greatest lessons for a parent is learning how to commiserate with your child in defeat or loss. The thing that gradually dawns on a parent is that the child you once knew, seemingly pure and protected from he vicissitudes of life because of your care, is now subject to the same forces that have buffeted you over your life. But to share with them in joy—of a job, a relationship, the ownership of their first home, the birth of a child— or to share with them in loss— perhaps of a relationship or job or health— is something that both humbles and elevates us, something that contributes in a major way to the experience of being human.
This will not happen for Job. Job is cut off from understanding the life of future generations. Job has already lost his friends; he will soon call them “miserable counselors” (16:2). He knows he won’t see either the pride or the losses of his children, since they are now removed from him. The twofold appearance of “knowledge-type” verbs (yada/bin), beloved of the wisdom tradition, is usually a sign of positive understanding, but in both cases here, the verb is preceded by the word lo, “not.” Abject and shivering loneliness is the portion or lot for humans whom God sends away, who “walk” on the isolated road, whose face has been “changed.”
It gets worse in the last verse of the chapter. Such a person, whose hope has perished and relationships with the most important people in life have disappeared, now has only his/her own body to think about. But that body is racked with pain. Verse 22 may be, a bit pleonastically, rendered,
“Certainly his body will be in severe pain, and all he can do is mourn over his own soul.”
Maybe this is the reason why the human “walks” in verse 20 rather than “dies” (muth or gava); there is stored up for him the terrible reality of continuing pain as he “walks” to death. Job doesn’t imagine that human life will end “old and full of days” as is asserted of some of the Patriarchs; here it is best captured by the two verbs kaab and abal.
Kaab only appears 8x in the Bible, but its first appearance captures the “excruciating pain” meaning that may be intended here. When the Shechemites were recovering from their circumcision operations, while still in great pain (kaab, Genesis 34:25), Levi, Simeon and their retainers descended on the vulnerable men and killed them. Eliphaz used the verb in 5:18, to describe one part of the divine plan of discipline: “God brings into pain (kaab), but God also gives relief from pain.” The abject loneliness and vulnerability of the author of Psalm 69 is captured by the words, “But I am afflicted and in deep pain” (kaab is verb; 69:29). Even in deepest pain, however, the Psalmist retains his literary flair: “I am afflicted” is ani ani, with two different “a” sounds starting the words.
What is left for our author in 14:22 is the “flesh” (basar) feeling this grievous pain. Anyone who is the least bit sensitive to the human condition knows that a goodly number of people spend a goodly amount of time either crippled or hobbled by pain. One of the greatest and most unwelcome mysteries of life is how shooting and stabbing feelings through your body can deplete your energy and sap you of the joy of living. But it is real. If one wanted broadly to characterize twentieth century medicine in America as learning how to deal with acute and life-threatening situations, one might optimistically look at twenty-first century medicine as trying to assure a good quality of pain-free living. Yet, we are still in the infancy of this process, still baffled by the mystery of pain, still humbled (we ought to be) by our inability to understand pain’s pathways and messages to us.
What does Job do when facing this pain of the “flesh?” All he can do is mourn. The last word of the chapter is abal (39x, only time in Job), which is almost always rendered “to mourn.” Again, its first appearance in the Bible takes us to the depth of its meaning. When Jacob has been presented with the torn garment of his son Joseph, he tore his own garments, put sackcloth on his loins and mourned (abal) his son for many days (Genesis 37:34). Thus, it is a word capturing the feeling of deep or profound grief. Samuel mourned for the fate of Saul after Yahweh decided to wrest the kingdom out of his control and give it to another (I Samuel 15:35). Even God was sorry that He had made Saul king over Israel (I Samuel 15:35).
Job 14 ends on a beautiful note of quiet desperation. It is beautiful because of the neatly balanced clauses of verse 22. That verse is seven words in Hebrew, with two three-word clauses consisting of “flesh/soul” and “upon him” and either “be in pain” or “mourn." The phrases follow after the simple word ak, "certainly" or "but." Perfect and desperate parallelism. The momentary hope that Job entertained-- the possibility of restored relationship with God after the divine anger had passed-- has now long disappeared. It seems but a dream, sinking with the evening sun. Life continues in its absurd form. It is absurd because trees and plants keep coming back to life but humans must just “walk”—to their deaths. In the meantime, however, humans suffer frayed and broken relationships and racking pains in the body. “Grief” or “mourning" is the last word of Job’s hopeless but beautifully-constructed soliloquy. We have now heard the music of Job’s grief.