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163. Job 16:1-5, You are the Ones Speaking Windy Words!

 

Let’s begin, then, with his verbal joust with the friends:

 

1 Then Job answered,

2 “I have heard many such things;

    Sorry comforters are you all.

3 Is there no limit to windy words?

   Or what plagues you that you answer?

4 I too could speak like you,

   If I were in your place.

   I could compose words against you

   And shake my head at you.

5  I could strengthen you with my mouth,

   And the solace of my lips could lessen your pain.        

 

I often find that an expanded translation gets at what is being said more clearly. In verse 2 Job says, “I have heard these many things” or “I have been listening as these many things (were said).” Then, the verse concludes, “All of you are comforters of trouble/miserable comforters.” The first clause may either mean that Job has been listening closely to what has been said or that he has heard all these things before and that the friends brought nothing new to the table.  

 

More interesting is the second phrase of verse 2. We have just seen the word for “trouble” (amal) in Eliphaz’s last verse (15:35). The wicked person, he said, conceives trouble (amal). That is Eliphaz’s approach. But Job is saying, by cleverly using amal in 16:2, that the friends are the one’s who really are conceiving the trouble (amal) in life. Amal appears a disproportionate number of times in Job (8/55), and the previous usages were on the lips of everyone but Bildad. Trouble is a reality of life in general and of Job’s life. But here Job is deftly pointing to the friends as the ones who are the “comforters of trouble.”

 

The verb for “comfort” is nacham (108x), and this word stands behind the “comforters” of Job 16:2. Nacham appears seven times in Job, but its most interesting appearance is in 42:7, where Job will derive some kind of comfort in his confession/melting away before God. Though the verb nacham isn’t used as frequently as many others in Job, we might tentatively suggest that the Book of Job is a search for comfort, comfort that the friends can’t provide but that Job ultimately finds. The big question, however, is whether God will play a role in the provision or experience of Job’s comfort.

 

Job turns the tables on his friends in verse 3, using one word (ruach, “wind”) that has been repeatedly bandied back between the friends to this point. Everyone is accusing the other of being filled with wind, whether it is the hot eastern wind, the wind that caused the collapse of the house in Chapter 1, or just an unspecified windiness. Verse 3 may be rendered,

 

     “Shall words of wind ever come to an end? Or what has provoked you that you answer (this               way)?”

 

Job’s use of ruach here echoes Eliphaz’s use of “windy knowledge” in 15:2. Job had also suggested (13:5) that it would be wisdom for the friends if they would just shut up. He continues that line of thought here.


The second part of verse 3 is more difficult. The word I translated “provoke” is the 4x-appearing verb marats, whose meaning hovers between being sick or being painful (Job 6:25) or bringing a plague (here, possibly) or being violent (I Kings 2:8). Most translators take it as meaning “to irritate” or “provoke” or “agitate” here. Job would then be saying, using colloquial English, ‘What has rubbed you the wrong way that you answer in this way?’ Or ‘What has made you so sick that you answer this way?’ If we render it in this way, Job would be expressing his incredulity and hurt at Eliphaz’s use of such severity in his judgmental words of 15:17-35. But, then again, Eliphaz might have ramped up the ferocity of his words of judgment after Job had attacked them as “plasterers/smearers of lies” or “deceitful” speakers (13:4, 7). Once a quarrel has developed it often is difficult to pin responsibility for its escalation simply on one side. 

 

A literal rendering of verse 4 brings out its power,

 

     “I also could speak as you do if it were the case that your soul were instead of my soul.”

 

That is, if the tables were turned, it would be easy enough for Job to assume the role of a (faux) friend. He not only knows everything the friends know, he could use the words they use. But, as we know by now, Job thinks his friends’ words are completely useless. It is always easier to dump on someone than to understand and constructively to suggest a solution for a difficult issue. 

 

Job’s situation might be likened to someone who was brought up in a certain expression of a religious tradition, has learned its contours very well, but now finds its supposed eternal verities and comforting assertions to be empty. The words which provided comfort for him and others (because he also uttered them) for so long now no longer have any power in his life. Something about the new experience has brought into question the helpfulness of the words he has inherited and been taught by the tradition. Job, therefore, will search for another vocabulary to try to understand his distress. Meanwhile, the friends must watch with ever-increasing bemusement and anger as they realize they are ‘losing’ Job. Job knows all the words of all the verse of all they hymns, but he just can’t sing them with any gusto anymore.

 

Job goes on to say in verse 4, “I could join (chabar, 28x) words against you and shake (nua, 40x) my head (rosh) at you.” A full third of the uses of the verb chabar in the Bible are in the Tabernacle narrative of Exodus 25-40, where the things that are “joined” or “linked” to each other are curtains in the Tabernacle. The verb is also used to speak about military coalitions, as people “ally” themselves with each other before joining battle (II Chronicles 20:36; Genesis 14:3). It is used a few times to describe a “caster” of spells (Psalm 58:5; Deuteronomy 18:11), which is the closest parallel to Job’s use of it here as “joining words.” Perhaps with the background of spells cast (chabar), Job is trying to suggest that their words are not simply ineffective but are some kind of useless conjuration. Job could also play the conjurer's game of linking punchless words if he were in their position. That’s all their thoughts of purported deep insight have become to him: empty words. 

 

The verb in verse 4 (nua) had its impressive debut in the Bible in the divine punishment of Cain in Gen 4:12. In words yielding euphonious delight, no doubt more delightful to us than what was experienced by Cain, God would make Cain a wanderer and fugitive (na venad, with the first verb derived from nua). Thus, though nua has a wide verbal range, including concepts of fluttering or shaking or quivering or trembling or tottering, it basically means to shake or move back and forth. Its use by Job here, “to shake the head” at someone, is also replicated in one of the saddest passages of the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 22:7, where those who pass by the Psalmist “ridicule” him, they “shoot out/separate” the lip,” and they “shake (nua) their heads (rosh)” at him. The Book of Lamentations also captures the idea when it describes people who pass by the defenseless sufferer as “hissing/whistling” and “shaking their heads" (nua rosh) at the daughter of Zion (Lamentations 2:15). If the shoe were on the other foot, Job could easily match the twofold reaction to the friends—of conjuring useless words and of judgmentally wagging the head.

 

We don’t know whether Job speaks the words of the final verse of this section, verse 5, with full sincerity or with tongue-in-cheek. We can’t hear the tone of his voice. I will ultimately argue for tongue-in-cheek. If, however, he speaks with sincerity, then verse 5 would stand in contrast to what has come before,

 

     “I would (in contrast) strengthen you with my mouth (words), and the moving of my lips would            restrain your grief.”

 

Job uses unusual words to express this idea, but one of the words can’t help but direct our attention back at the judgment on Abel in Genesis 4. 

 

First, however, the strengthening. We might have expected the common verb chazak here, but Job uses a much more specialized verb amats (“to be strong/courageous, 41x), which is most memorable because of its six appearances in Deuteronomy 31 (vv 6, 7, 23) and Joshua 1 (vv 7, 9, 18), always in parallel construction with chazak, to express the quality needed successfully to enter the Promised Land (usually translated as, “be strong and of good courage”). The verb amats only appears one other time in Job, on Eliphaz’s lips, where he pointed out to Job that he had spent his life “strengthening” others (4:4). By using the verb in 16:5, Job would be saying that he would play the role that Eliphaz had understood was his life role—to “strengthen” others.

 

But the second clause of verse 5 draws our attention even more. The “nid of Job’s lips” would relieve, restrain, spare (chasak, 27x) the friends. There is no word in the Hebrew text for "grief," which appears in the NASB translation above. To me it seems sufficient just to translate it, “the nid of my lips would restrain (you).” Something that Job would do will restrain, rather than exacerbate, them. The word nid is a hapax, but it is closely related, both in spelling and meaning, to the verb nud, and means to flutter, quiver, move.  So, Job would be saying, using a word that is slightly more flowery than necessary, that the “fluttering/movement” of his lips would restrain them, whether this means a lessening of grief or just a restraint of whatever arguments they might bring against him/God if they were in Job’s situation.  

 

When we realize that the word nid no doubt is the same word as nud, and that nud is the companion verb to nua bothin this passage and in Genesis 4:12, we are encouraged to see Job’s words here as dimly recalling that event from Genesis. His words then would be particularly cutting rather than encouraging. He could “shake” (nua, the first verb of Genesis 4:12) his head at the friends; the movement (nid/nud) of his lips would restrain them. Right. Just like the movement of Cain after the judgment of God would be beneficial. Job would know how to slice and dice his friends just as the friends had treated Job. Though at the end of the book Job will be called upon to pray for his friends, for all purposes here, the relationship is over. And so, beginning in verse 6, he turns to God.