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173. Job 17, An Introduction and 17:1
If there is one word that sums up the disjointed and difficult chapter 17 it is “exhaustion.” Job’s mental and physical depletion is everywhere evident as his sentences in Job 17 often proceed with no seeming logical order. When clarity breaks through it is often captured in two-word phrases, as in vv 1, 11. Though some might be frustrated with the apparent muddled or confused thought process in Job 17, I see it as a brilliant literary expression of the ravages that continue to attend Job. He has been worn down by his physical and psychic condition, to be sure, but the friends’ reasoning and lack of support has, also, no doubt exhausted him. Job 17 is a fine expression of the results of those processes.
Consult twenty scholars for an outline for Job 17 and you will receive about twenty different suggestions. Thus, rather than becoming the twenty-first, I will point to what I consider three anchor verses of this chapter, and then try to make sense of its often turbid flow. Those three anchor verses are 17:1, 7, 11.
1 “My spirit is broken, my days are extinguished,
The grave is ready for me.
Verse 1 is the clearest verse of the chapter, though it is not without difficulties. The NASV is as just given. The NRSV has a similar: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me.” In three compelling two-words phrases Job describes the logical implications of the brief remaining years of his life, mentioned in 16:22. He is hyper-aware of the fact that his life is ebbing away, and that reality strikes him with a particular force here. My translation only quibbles with their rendering of the first phrase. I prefer,
“My spirit is destroyed; my days are extinguished; the graves (word is plural) are for me.”
The first phrase is the most difficult. Different translations render it as various as “My spirit is broken” or “my breath is corrupt.” Everything from bad breath to personal distress may be in view. The noun ruach can be rendered as “breath “or “spirit” or “wind.” It is the word that stalks the book of Job throughout, referring to the wind that destroyed the home of Job’s children in Chapter 1 as well as to the “windiness” of the speech of Job and the friends. Job seems here to be referring to his own “wind,” and this probably points us to his spirit or his breath. Though the older translations (KJV among them) read it as referring to Job’s fetid breath, I see it, along with most modern commentators, referring to Job’s spirit or strength.
Hebrew has several good and sturdy verbs that might express the idea of exhaustion or destruction; unexpected here is the verb chabal (27x) to capture Job’s current experience—the experience of his “spirit.” One of its definitions, though probably not applicable here, is “to take/give in pledge” (e.g., Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:6). Hmm. . .this is an interesting possible definition once one realizes that Job seems to go on a “take in pledge” tangent in verse 3. Job also uses chabal in the sense of pledging in 22:6; 24:3, 9. In fact, I don’t know of any scholars that take verse 1 in this sense: “My spirit is given in pledge. . .” (because the thought of the last two phrases of v 1 goes in another direction) though this is certainly an interesting rabbit trail to pursue.
But in a handful or so of cases chabal can also mean “to destroy” or “ruin” (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:6; Song of Solomon 2:15; Isaiah 13:15) or even “to be broken” (Isaiah 10:27). That is the sense I think is suggested in Job 17:1. Job would be complaining that his spirit is destroyed/broken/in ruins. Often the deepest expressions of sadness and despair follow on the heels of the most optimistic feelings. That would be the case here.
Once we see the first clause as relating to Job’s exhaustion, the other two follow quickly, even though the verb in the second two-word clause is a hapax. “My days are extinguished/have become extinct; the graves are for me.” The verb rendered “extinguish” is the hapax zaak, but it is almost identical in form to the much more common verb daak (9x; the Hebrew z and d are easy to confuse), also meaning “to extinguish.” Hence the translation. Though the common word “grave” (qeber) is used in the plural, most take this to suggest a kind of “community of individual graves”—so “my plot in the cemetery” would be the meaning, though it is interesting to muse on what the plural here, taken literally, might mean. Is Job seeing in his mind countless cemeteries, all of which have a grave with headstone, figuratively, marked “Job” waiting for him? Job just says “graves are for me,” but it isn’t a huge leap to conclude that he is expressing a similar idea to 16:22. His days are few; the grave(s) is/are ready; his spirt is broken; his days are almost extinct. The two-word Hebrew phrases hit us with a growing crescendo, bringing us back into the realm of hopelessness. He is in fact on death’s doorstep, a phrase captured in English translations as early as Miles Coverdale’s in the mid-16th century.