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159. Job 15:20-35, Eliphaz’s Judgment Oracle, Essay Three
Perhaps aware that he is piling up non-sequiturs, Eliphaz deftly switches the topic in verse 25 for the rest of his speech. Rather than looking at the fateof the wicked, he returns to the conduct of such a person. He seems to have forgotten that the wicked is still writhing in great distress, because the actions performed by the wicked in verses 25ff seem incompatible with writhing in pain. Yet, Eliphaz goes on, dauntlessly. Because of the way he has tangled himself in the first five verses of this section (vv 20-24), we are not very scared. In fact, we tend to abstract ourselves from the content of what he is saying to ask ourselves (and him) the question, ‘Do you think anyone is the least bit impressed with what you are saying here?’
Verse 25 says,
“Because/for he stretches out (the familiar natah) his hand to/against God and raises himself up to/against the Almighty.”
Normally when one stretches out hands el someone in the Bible, it is in compassion or for support. Note God’s words in Isaiah 65:2, “All day long I have stretched out (parash) my hands to (el) a rebellious people.” This is stretching out in mercy. In the great Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26, when God makes the divine countenance shine on people it is el (“upon”).. .you” But, just as the phrase shub el (“return to” or “turn against”), which we have already seen, can be translated as a turning against or returning to God, so here it makes most sense to render the el as “against.” But Eliphaz could have used al or ba to express the idea of “against” if he didn’t want to create trouble for us.
The picture in verse 25, then, is of someone (the wicked) who is vaunting the self, making himself great (the verb is gabar, “to prevail” in the hithpael, or literally, “to make himself a man”) against God. What more will he do? Well, let’s descend into obscurity again. In verse 26 the wicked, not content with this behavior, does the following:
“He runs against him/to him (el again) with the neck, his shield with thickness at its back."
Normally commentators try to remove the difficulties of this verse in two ways. First, they take the word for “neck” (tsavvar, 41x) as standing for something that the neck sometimes stands for (i.e., stubbornness) and thus render it as “stubborn” in the first half. Then, they take the obscure phrase “strong back his shield” and render it something like “with a strong, thick shield” or a “thickly bossed shield.” Seow tries to maintain a parallelism between the two parts of the verse by talking about a charge with a “hauberk” and then with a “thick-bossed (literally, “backed”—gab) shield.” The word for “back” (gab) stops us short. We ran into the word gab previously in Job 13:12 where another metaphorical meaning was imported into the term. Anderson neatly translates these two verses as, “acting like heroes against Shaddai; charging at him in full armor; neck-mail and thickly-bossed shield.” Very very nice, and that is probably a fair way of expressing its meaning. We are somewhat confused, however, with how the guy writhing in pain all his days is able to get the strength and resources together to attack God.
It seems that the author of the judgment oracle, whether it was originally a middle-schooler or a scholar, was trying to pick up on two strong human body parts (neck and back) and say that the wicked man is charging against God with all his strength. But how does Eliphaz imagine the wicked person, who apparently has stopped writhing for a minute, charging God? Is this an assault on the Temple of God? How about an attack on the people of God? Or is Eliphaz speaking of some internal process where the wicked person acts defiantly in spirit against God? We really have no idea. We check our watch and look at the text. Alas, Eliphaz still has a lot more to say.
The list of things that the wicked does is just beginning. While we can’t decide whether to shiver in our boots or burst out laughing, we read on. Eliphaz says in verse 27,
“For he has covered his face with his fat; and he does/makes pimah upon his loins.”
First, a word about pimah. It is a hapax, variously rendered as “superabundance” or “fat.” So obscure is the word that the BDB defines it with an English word that almost no one knows: “collops” (a “slice” according to the OED). It would make sense if it means the same thing as cheleb (“fat”) in the first half of the verse. Let’s assume it does. The final word of the verse, rendered “loins” is kesel, which can either be “loins” (mostly in Leviticus) or “foolishness” (mostly elsewhere); here we go with the Levitical meaning.
So, we now have the wicked person, apparently recovered from his writhing, dashing into battle, suitably accoutered, against the Almighty, but now he for some reason smears fat on his face and loins. Is this some kind of apotropaic device unknown to us? Or, is this meant to suggest that he is fat, having gained the fatness because of his oppressive tactics? I love the older commentators who try to spiritualize things. This must mean, according to one, that they have fallen “into brutish fleshliness,” which is some kind of spiritual insensitivity. He is just satisfying his own lusts, fighting against God.
Why get a subscription to Netflix when you can have this kind of entertainment for free? For we seemingly have a wicked person who was writhing, well aware that his days were numbered, sinking into darkness, with distress and anguish overwhelming him but suddenly, in a trice, he is fighting against God with neck and back, and slathering fat over his loins and face. This is quite an interesting wicked person, with a remarkable transformation right before our eyes. If the fat is meant to be some kind of protective device, he now has his neck, back, face and loins covered. This conjures up the picture of the bank teller in the Coen brothers recent movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” (I confess, I watched it through a Netflix subscription) who fights against bank robbers with a collection of pans, skillets and other metallic things protecting his vitals.
Now that we have a picture of him fighting the Almighty in verse 27, that picture is taken away from us in verse 28. Maybe Eliphaz realized that the image in verse 27 was going nowhere. So, he moves to another image. This is either literary brilliance of a kind rarely seen or is the expression of a desultory mind. Verse 28 reads,
“He settles down in hidden/desolate cities; houses where no one dwells, which are prepared for the heaps.”
I think what is happening in this passage is that Eliphaz is secretly vying with Bildad for the “greatest obscurity” prize. Eliphaz will hit Bildad right where it hurts, here, with reference at the end to “heaps” (gal). I’m sure you recall Bildad’s torturous and abstruse dilation on “heaps” (gal) in 8:17-19.
But let’s return to the language of verse 28. Recall that the writhing wicked person, aware of imminent darkness and death, has decided to attack the Almighty. But just after applying the fat to the face and loins, he seems to think better of it and then return home. But where is home? Well, he lives or has lived in “hidden” (kachad, 32x) cities. Most translations try to clean up “hidden” and make the cities “desolate,” but still we have the problem that he, the wicked person, is settling down in “cities” (plural). These cities, whether hidden or desolate, seemingly all have a house of the wicked person. Thus, we either need to understand verse 28 as pointing to this guy as having several houses, each in desolate/hidden cities (maybe he made a wrong bet years previously on the economic growth possibilities of these cities, everything tanked and now he is the proud holder of worthless properties in many cities) or that he moved around from place to place, all of which were “hidden” places. He had terrible luck in picking habitable dwellings, because they were houses no one would live in.
The verse closes with the enigmatic, “which were prepared/made ready (athad) for the heaps.” As mentioned in my exposition of Bildad and his heaps in 8:17-19, I pointed out that heaps normally point to waves of the sea or rocks piled up, sometimes as memorial stones. But here the heaps seem to be just piles of worthless rocks. Is this the author’s way of saying that the houses which the wicked person inhabited over the years were in such bad shape that they were ready for the junkyard? Why would anyone willingly choose this kind of life when there is so little lure in wickedness? So much pain, and then it is over far too quickly. Woody Allen would love this stuff.