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172. Concluding with Job 16:21-22
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.
If we conclude that verse 20 just leaves us with ambiguous thoughts, we shouldn’t be too troubled by that. We can easily imagine Job being overwhelmed by the amazing statement in 16:19. Who wouldn’t experience some kind of mental destabilization after that? Job 16:20 is testimony to that process.
But even if we believe that Job has sunk into obscurity in verse 20, he surprises us in verse 21 by providing a thought consistent with verse 19. It almost seems as if verse 21 could follow directly on verse 19. We might best render it,
“who pleads/argues/reasons (yakach, 59x) for a man (geber) before God, and for the son of a man before his neighbor/companion/friend.”
Previously it was God as “warrior” (gibbor) who was bursting in on Job (16:14); now we have a related word, geber, referring to Job.
Job also defines the role of this heavenly witness more precisely by using the familiar verb yakach. This is already the tenth time it has appeared in Job, with concentrations in Job 6 and 13. It is the quintessential word to use when one is making a legal case because it covers the whole waterfront from reasoning or presenting the case to the rebuke that might come at its conclusion. Here it suggests the reasoning process. This heavenly witness will present Job’s case to God. Thus, we have a curious (to us) picture of a witness who is also the plaintiff’s attorney.
There is also a two-fold ambiguity in the second part, which just says in Hebrew, “as a son of man to his friend/companion.” First, we don’t know if the “friend or companion” (rea, the same word used in v 20 seemingly to refer to Job’s three friends, though that is disputed) is meant to refer to Job’s three friends/conversation partners or is meant more generically. Then, it is ambiguous whether the last phrase should be rendered “before” (i.e., as if the friend or neighbor is listening/adjudicating) or “for” (i.e., on behalf of). The first alternative seems more consistent with the flow of the verse (pleading before God; pleading before a friend), while the second is more true to the grammatical structure. I take the reference to friend as a generic one.
Thus, the most compelling reading of verse 21 to me is to see the witness as helping Job in presenting the case before God like one would make a case or present one’s ideas before a friend. What verse 21 would be pointing to, then, is a mild and amicable legal environment. This idea is consistent with Job’s earlier notion in 9:33-35, discarded as quickly as it arose, of a mediator who would calmly lay hands on both parties so that each might speak in turn. Job seemingly has fixed in his mind the idea that one actually can “reason” with God, that this reasoning process includes a respectful presentation of ideas, and that it is more akin to a discussion with friends than a battle with a warrior. This Joban understanding will be severely tested in Job 38-41, with (in my mind) unexpected results in Job 42.
We saw how Job’s confidence or wish in 9:33 disappeared as quickly as it arose. Perhaps surprisingly, this also happens in 16:22 and in Chapter 17. What was seemingly such a major theological and personal breakthrough in verses 19, 21 now appears to be more like a mountain peak jutting through the clouds only to buried in the next minute as celestial winds return the cloud cover over the snow-capped peak. Job’s fears and insecurities will again stalk him; his eyes return to his physical condition and he recognizes that his days are numbered. All the great plans for a calm and successful legal proceeding, developed in the glimmering and shimmering moment of clarity in 16:19, 21, have seemingly now disappeared.
Verse 22 says, in pithy language,
“Because the years, numbered as they are, come, and (then) the path of no return I will tread.”
Other translations also capture the two important ideas of this verse—the brevity of time left to Job, and the irreversibility of his path to death. These two thoughts inform the shape of his pitiful lament in Job 17.