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171. Job 16:18-22, Job’s Witness in Heaven, More Specifically

18 “O earth, do not cover my blood,
And let there be no resting place for my cry.
19 “Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven,
And my advocate is on high.
20 “My friends are my scoffers;
My eye weeps to God.
21 “O that a man might plead with God
As a man with his neighbor!
22 “For when a few years are past,
I shall go the way of no return.

 

That the rather veiled reference to the Cain and Abel story through the use of the memorable verbs nua and nud (from Genesis 4:12) in Job 16:4, 5 was really a hint to the reader to think about that seminal story becomes clear when we read 16:18. Job, in terrible pain and obvious frustration, wants his words never to die. Later he will express that concept in even more eloquent language, when he talks about his words being graven in the stone  forever (19:24), but here he makes an obvious reference to the Genesis 4 story when he says in verse 18,

 

        “Earth, don’t cover my blood; and let there be no place for my cry.”

 

The appeal to earth as either as a witness or a sympathetic source is not unique to this passage. Isaiah, for example, could say, “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 1:2). When God “heard” the blood of the just man Abel crying out from the ground, God needed to do something about it (Genesis 4:10). Now, the cry of Job’s blood, which is an interesting concept in itself, will shout out to God. God can’t ignore this! But Job’s precise language is unprecedented. He asks that the earth not “cover” (kasah, 152x) his blood. Though kasah is a common verb, it doesn’t appear in the Bible until the Flood narrative, where the waters cover the earth. The blood of Abel “cried out” (tsaaq, which is almost identical to the zaaq of the second part of Job 16:18) from the ground. Most commentators add the little word “resting” before “place” in the verse, so that there is no “resting place” for Job’s cry. But I prefer to leave the word maqom by itself, as if there is no “place” for Job’s cry. That is, it becomes a cry without a place, an absurd cry, a disembodied ululation impossible to control, to sequence, to put to rest.  

 

With this wailing of Job’s cry suffusing our mind, Job then utters the memorable verse 19. Noteworthy is that it takes him about four words actually to even begin to get to his point. Literally we have, “Also now behold…” to start things out. It is as if some kind of herald or messenger has come into the meeting and is clearing his throat for several words before the big “message” is delivered. Perhaps Job is nervous, realizing that he is, once and for all, setting out on uncharted seas in his life of faith. But after these first few halting words, we have in verse 19:

 

            “In heaven is my witness (ud); and my evidence/advocate (the hapax sahed)

            is on high.”  

 

We have a clear instance here of parallelism; thus, our uncertainty regarding the precise meaning of sahed ought not to deter us. Some scholars emphasize it as “advocate” or “spokesman” while others talk about the “testimony” or “record” that is in heaven (Seow renders this hapax as“testifier” while Clines stays with the more traditional “advocate”). The word is almost identical in form to the Aramaic-looking term in Genesis 31:47 to describe the place where Jacob and Laban concluded a treaty. That place is “Yegar Sahadutha” or, probably, “heap of witness/testimony.”  

 

But the idea that screams at us in this verse is that Job, after rhetorically clearing his throat for three words, tells us that his witness (ud), a witness that will begin to balance the equities of the case, is in heaven. If he had just continued with the image of 16:18 we would have thought that his witness should have been in the pool of blood that was coagulating on the ground. But somehow he is able to raise his thoughts to the heavenly realm to posit the existence of a witness for him.

 

Two thoughts call for comment. First, how does the existence of this witness relate to the non-existence of a mediator/daysman in 9:33? Then, second, who is this witness? We saw in the emotionally draining 9:33-35 that Job seemingly abandoned the idea that there was some kind of figure who would be a mediator or even arbitrator between him and God, a figure who would “lay his hand on both” and give each room to speak. It was a low point for Job, a point that led to his wanting to be put in the four-nouns-describing-the-darkness location of 10:21-22.  

 

But now he calls for a witness. Is this an inconsistency in Job’s thought? Far from it. I see it as a development of the thought, going from ‘I can’t imagine’ something to ‘I can imagine it.’ He makes this mental journey because he has no help from any other source. One of the benefits of the divine silence for Job is that it gives him an opportunity to develop his own mind more fully, to learn how to be free with his thoughts. And the direction of that thought is toward a witness in heaven. He doesn’t just want someone who can call ‘time out’ or to separate the participants; he wants someone who can speak for him.


The answer to the second question has already been provided. I see Job’s appeal to a witness as a development from the idea of the mediator in 9:33. There wasn’t a mediator, but now there is a witness. The mediator was certainly not God; it was an entity who would keep the parties separated from each other, allowing free speech and discussion. The witness here is also certainly not God, but one who will help Job bolster his case which he has assembled against God. Job has taken the fascinating thought of Abel’s blood “crying” out from the ground, applied it to his blood also crying from the ground, but then transmuted this blood into the life-giving source for his witness, a witness who doesn’t inhabit the earthly spaces with Job but is in heaven.  The witness will, as it were, be the carrier of the cry for vindication, uttered plaintively by the blood on the ground.  

 

It is all too much for Job, and probably for us, too, if we give the matter some thought. Even to imagine the existence of another heavenly figure that would testify on one’s behalf is to encourage us to ask if Job is looking for a “God behind God” or a “different” God or a force subordinate to God. He doesn’t say, of course. He only leaves us breathless with his positing of the existence of a witness in heaven. Note that there are no verbs in 16:19; Job is still “inching” his way towards the position in 19:25 where he will say that he “knows” that his Redeemer lives. Charting new intellectual terrain is often a torturous process.

 

All this, as I just said, is too much for Job, and he lapses into obscurity in verse 20. Scholars and translators dutifully try to make sense of the six words of that verse, but here are a few examples of diverse translations from very authoritative sources (i.e., people who really know the language well). The NRSV has, “My friends scorn me; my eyes pour out tears to God.” Other translations of the first phrase have “My intercessor is my friend,” which is light years removed from the NRSV.  Clines has “It is my cry that is my spokesman,” which is similar to Seow’s, “My intermediary is my outcry.” The Jewish translation from a century ago has, “Mine inward thoughts are my intercessors.”  The difficulty swirls around how to render the first word (melitsay).  All agree it comes from the verb luts, but that verb can either be translated “to be an interpreter” or “to mock.”  We don’t know if in antiquity the two concepts were related, i.e., whether the translations of interpreters were so bad that people mocked them or whether the interpreters were themselves known to deliver their words in a sardonic fashion. In any case, such a problem creates headaches for those who try to render this verse.  

 

So, we don’t know if the ‘tone’ of melitsay is one of mocking or interpreting. Then, though not to become overly technical or boring, the question arises of whether the melitsay functions here as a noun or a verb. If it is a verb, then someone is mocking; if it is a noun, it may be interpreters who are reay (the next word).  But then there is a raging debate about how to render the reay—“friends” or “inward thoughts” are two suggestions. Finally, there is quite some debate about how to translate the rare verb dalaph in the second part, a verb that only appears here, Psalm 119:29 and Ecclesiastes 10:18.  It appears to mean “leak” or “weep,” but that hasn’t deterred translators from seeing in it something else. Clines renders it “sleeplessly I await for God’s reply,” while most translations follow the NRSV with “My eye pours out tears to God.”  We might try to make a last-ditch effort to establish meaning by saying that in verse 19 Job recognizes a heavenly witness and in verse 20 he then lowers his eyes to earth to see once again the crippling reality in front of him (the mockers all around, making him weep before God).  He then, unexpectedly, raises his eyes to this heavenly witness again in verse 21. Perhaps that is what is going on. Perhaps not.