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158. Job 15:20-24, Eliphaz’s Judgment Oracle, Essay Two


As we have just seen, by the time we get to verse 21, the wicked person is “in peace” or “in prosperity” (shalom), despite writhing in pain. Maybe we are to suppose that his life before the writhing agony came upon him was peaceful, but this would mean that Eliphaz is already stretching our credulity in the first two verses. Perhaps he used this oracular example because it was the only one lying around when he needed it. Furthermore, perhaps this exemplar was really only given a C+ by the original teacher—but it was the only one available to him. Who knows? Maybe Eliphaz’s son had declaimed it at a school pageant in Teman and dad was so moved that he kept it readily at hand.  


When Eliphaz says that “The voice/sound of terror (pachad)” is in his ears (v 21), he skillfully uses a word Job has emphasized in describing himself in 3:25. Recall that in his painful but moving summation of feelings attending his great loss, Job said, “I feared a great fear (pachad used twice consecutively), and It has come upon me.”  Eliphaz may have been “tweaking” the inherited judgment oracle topic by using Job’s word of terror. ‘Nothing personal, Job, but the wicked person will experience the terror that you said you are feeling.’


What’s next for this person, who is both writhing and at peace at the same time?  Perhaps aware that he has already lost some of his credibility, Eliphaz temporarily descends into more unclarity. Verse 22 reads,


     “He does not believe he will return from darkness; he is on the lookout for a sword.”


We have just seen that the wicked was both writhing and in peace, stretching to the limit the Western law of non-contradiction. But now a few other things are thrown in. He is also in darkness. When did it get dark? I didn’t notice it getting dark. Did you? All of a sudden, our wicked person is in darkness, a darkness from which he doesn’t think he will return. 


The thing that seemingly adds to the sound of terror in his ears is the fear that a sword is going to come his way. Many versions render the verb tsaphah here as “wait for” but it is more literally “to look out for;” it often is used as the noun “watchman.” So, while writhing, he is on the lookout for some kind of sword. What a terrible life—to both be in numbing pain and have to be on the lookout for some kind of sword that is coming your way. It makes most sense that this is a sword of judgment, such as in Isaiah 31:8, where Assyria is said to fall thrice by a sword (chereb, same word as in Job 15:22), but it is not a human sword. Such a sword will devour Assyria, even as he tries to flee from it. Perhaps unfazed by Eliphaz’s threatening words, Job picks up on the theme of the sword in 19:29, “Be afraid of the sword yourself (even though the verb is not “be afraid”), for wrath brings punishment of the sword.” Job can not only match Eliphaz in obscurity but in turning the sword against his verbal foe. Perhaps facing the obvious problems described, Seow decides to render verse 22 as “He would not rely on turning from darkness; He would look forward to the sword.” Even with Seow’s elegance, we have to deal with the issue of how the guy got into the darkness that seems to envelop him and what it means that he is looking forward to the sword. Is he thinking, ‘I so want to be killed?'


Well, the sword hasn’t come by the time Eliphaz gets to verse 23, and so he changes his images. Two contrasting translations have been given for the first clause:


    “He wanders about for bread. Where is it? (ayyeh)”


Or, by pointing the last word slightly differently, we have,


    “He is cast out as bread/food for vultures (ayyah).” 


So, we don’t know if the verse is trying to capture the desperate experience of the wicked person’s looking for food or whether he is so worn and vulnerable that he is now prey for the vultures. Compounding the problem is the use of the verb nadad (28x) as the first word of the sentence, which can mean “to flee, stray, flap (wings), wander, shake” and perhaps a few other things. Clines has the wicked person being cast out for food of vultures; Seow keeps the same thought, only changing the vultures to “kites.”

So, this writhing wicked person  is now either on a desperate search for bread or is a vulnerable target for scavenging birds. All the while he is looking for some sword to come at him.  And he is in the darkness. At least he doesn’t seem to be worried about being crushed before the moths (4:19). The rest of verse 23 keeps us in darkness,


     “He knows that the day of darkness is determined/ready at hand.”


His fate is sealed. The darkness he currently experiences will only be a foretaste of a greater “day of darkness” that has already been “set/established” (common verb kun).


I think if I were Job at this point, I would be looking at Eliphaz with a combination of bemused amazement as well as disgust. One of his thoughts must have been, ’Why are you reciting a middle-school oration rather than dealing directly with my complaint?’ If Job was in any way scared by anything Eliphaz was saying, he doesn’t let on. 


Eliphaz is not deterred in the least. He plunges on in a difficult-to-translate verse 24. The first clause is clear: “Trouble and oppression terrify him.” Then, we descend into obscurity. “They prevail over him like a king prepared for battle.” A few comments on the words and then the meaning. The combination of tsar and metsuqah (trouble and oppression/anguish) is unique here in the Bible, but these are two of perhaps a dozen words that could be used interchangeably to express generic pain. These things “terrify” (baath, 16x) the wicked person. You wonder if these are related to the threat of the sword. Eliphaz doesn’t tie things together well here.

Well, these things overwhelm/prevail over him (verb is the rare taqeph, 4x; Job used it in 14:20 to speak of God’s overwhelming humans in general). But they overwhelm him through an image, an image that seems to say the opposite of what Eliphaz wants to say. Distress and anguish overwhelm the wicked like a king who is attir lakkiydor.  Again, the phrase is difficult, but the first word is related to the verb athod, which means “to prepare” or “be ready” (we will see it in 15:28). Kiydor is a hapax, and is related to no other Hebrew word we know. Translations of it range from “battle” to “onset.” But if we translate it as a “king ready for battle” or a “king poised to attack,” we scratch our heads at the image. Usually a king ready for the attack is not quaking in his boots. He is confident, though not a little concerned. He has meticulously planned a strategy, prepared his men, chosen his method of proceeding. But one thing he can’t be as he heads into battle is terrified. That is a sure way to court disaster. Eliphaz has almost completely lost us.  

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