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161. Job 15:31-35, Finishing the Oracle of Judgment
Just as Eliphaz unsuccessfully tried to play off sur with itself twice in the same verse (v 30), once saying that he (the wicked) won’t depart and once saying that he will depart, so in verse 31 he uses the concept of “vanity” or “futility” (shav) once with a negative and once with an affirmative meaning. The question naturally arises whether he makes any more sense in verse 31 than he does in verse 30, but that will be resolved after a translation:
“Let him not trust in vanity (shav), wandering about, because vanity (shav) shall
be his recompense/reward.”
The word shav includesthe ideas of emptiness, vanity, lying or futility. He will receive this vanity as a reward. It is hard, however, to see how he trusted in vanity along the way. It seems that he just had a run of terribly bad luck, or practiced very poor judgment—living in shanty towns ready for the junkyard, fighting against the Almighty and thinking that smearing fat on his neck would do him some good. He wasn’t rich, he lived in darkness, he was writhing all his days. This doesn’t sound like trusting in vanity. Trusting in vanity, in my understanding, is someone who has accomplished a great deal or amassed many possessions and, in that position, vaunts him/herself against God and lords it over people, thinking that somehow wealth and possessions will insulate against all loss.
But the real news of the final section of Job 15 is that the judgment is coming. It shall happen “without his day” (i.e., before much time passes, v 32). Unable to resist an image from nature, Eliphaz says that “his branch shall not be leafy” (using the rare kippah, 3x, “palm branch”) and the more common raanan (20x, “to be green”). This wicked guy is so going to be cut off before his time.
But then Elihpaz runs into another problem in verse 33. Nature images got him going in verse 32, but they now entangle him in verse 33. We saw that judgment is coming before the wicked person’s branches are even green. In verse 33, however, we have
“he will destroy/be violent (hamas, 8x) like a vine toward his unripe grape (beser is a hapax) and cast away like an olive tree his blossom (nitstsah).”
This image implies that blossoms and even grapes have already appeared on the “tree” of the wicked person’s life. Well, perhaps we shouldn’t press the image too far or require Eliphaz to lay out precisely the natural history of growing plants and trees. His point is that the wicked will be cut off even before they have had a chance to get going.
This seems problematic, too, because if they are wicked it presumes that they have had considerable time to develop and demonstrate their wickedness. If they are cut off not only before their prime but even before they are able to leaf out or turn green, how precocious they must have been in their wickedness! They must have demonstrated it with full colors while still in infancy. You wonder if there were special committees of people commissioned to find examples of precocious wickedness who would then become the fodder for the literary imagination as it developed images of plants or trees being cut off before their time. . .
Now that Eliphaz has completely lost us, he concludes actually with two fairly clear verses. Lest we become too confident that we have understood anything, however, he also throws in a few strange words. Verses 34-35 read,
“Because the congregation/company of the hypocrites shall be barren, and a fire shall eat up the tents of bribery. He conceives trouble (amal); and gives birth to iniquity; treachery shall (already) be established in their womb.”
Verse 34 is fascinating since Eliphaz introduces us to a completely new vocabulary in the final verses of his oracle. We thought we knew all about the wicked person, even though some of his actions and past life were rather inexplicable and confusing to us. He dwells in darkness, writhing away, attacking God, smearing fat on himself, making bad choices as to where to live. Ok. Got it. But now he has a congregation (edah, 149x) which he apparently heads up, though his name has changed now from a wicked person (rasha, v 20) to a hypocrite (chaneph, v 34). Bildad mentioned the hypocrite previously (8:13), as did Job (13:16), and perhaps it was too inviting a target for Eliphaz to ignore.
Yet now this congregation, which the hypocrite apparently leads (1st Hypocritical Church of Teman?) is galmud, “barren.” Job used that rare (4x) word in 3:7; it is used to describe a woman without children in Isaiah 49:21. Suffice it to say that it can have a literal (without children) or metaphorical (gaunt/desolate/barren) meaning. Just as “hypocrite” was unexpected, so is galmud. We didn’t see the wicked person as a social sort; but now he is, even though the congregation is barren, whatever that means. It probably means that it doesn’t give birth to anything, but then you ask, ‘Where is the next generation of wicked people going to come from?’ It really is a terrible problem to contemplate.
The new vocabulary does get our attention, however, and we can’t help reading to the end of verse 34, where it says that a fire (the typical word esh; it differs from the rare (3x) shalhebeth,“flame,” of v 30) will burn up the tents of bribery (shochad, 23x, almost always translated as “bribe,” though the social world of bribery in antiquity was rather subtle). Where did bribery come from? It is the only reference to the concept in the Book of Job. So, is that what the wicked guy, now apparently the hypocrite, spent his time doing? Bribing people? We were hoping for more, Eliphaz.
I think what happened is that Eliphaz (or, more accurately, the author of the Book of Job) probably found a speech on the topic of judgment. It wasn’t very well-written. Perhaps the teacher had said to the student, ‘Ok, 300 words on judgment.’ The student had tried his best. He wanted to end his little speech at the end of our current verse 33. Teacher said, ‘Keep going!’ Panicked, the student had to come up with a few more lines to satisfy the teacher’s desire. So, drawing upon other images from other ‘bad people’ in antiquity, the student dutifully continued, now clobbering the hypocrites and their tents of bribery. After all, he was on the spot and just had to finish the assignment under the watchful but disapproving eyes of a teacher. Eliphaz found the speech lying around. It seemed good for his purposes. ‘No one, really, will read it,’ he thought.
The student concluded actually with a useful verse (v 35), about conceiving trouble and bringing forth iniquity, with bellies founded on/preparing deceit. Not bad for barren people!