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18. Job 2:7-10, The Screws Tighten: Physically and Emotionally
7 "So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9 Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.' 10 But he said to her, 'You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips."
The Satan, ever the diligent implementer of the divine will, went forth from the presence of God. He did that also with the identical five words as in 1:12. In both chapters the discussion concerned God’s “touching” (naga) Job and his possessions (Chapter 1) or his person (Chapter 2), but in 2:7, when the Satan goes on the offensive, he nakah (smites/strikes/destroys) Job. The verb has a uniformly violent connotation, whereas naga could also be used for a more gentle “touching.”
In this case the Satan covers Job with shechin or “boils” from foot to head. These are called, literally, “evil boils” (shechin ra). The word shechin only occurs 13x in the Bible, and most of them are near the beginning of the Bible. It appears four times both in Exodus 9 and Leviticus 13; twice it appears in the great poem of judgment in Deuteronomy 28 to signify the punishment on the people if they disobey God’s covenant. They too will break out in boils just as the Egyptians did, though these boils will be incurable (Deuteronomy 28:27, 35). Though the plague of boils on the Egyptians was severe in Exodus 9, it was not without its humorous dimension. Even the magicians, who were able to imitate many of the plagues to date, were also struck with the boils (Exodus 9:11). We see them in the mind’s eye working in their “lab” trying to come up with something that was crawling or erupting all over their skin.
Job’s boils are said to be ra, or “painful/evil.” We really don’t need to go much further; the imagination of the reader fills in the gaps from his or her own experience of painful skin eruptions. Most interesting to me at this point are not the boils themselves, but the way that various English translations over the years have tried to describe them. Though my collection isn’t complete, I have run across the following: “evil eruptions” or “painful boils” or “foul ulcer” or “evil inflammation” or “sore biles” or “loathsome sores.” I suppose you could mix and match and come up with several other possibilities.
The fact of diverse translations of the simple phrase shechin ra makes us pause to think about the nature of translation and the precision or imprecision of the resulting language. How much of translation, really, is just getting the “gist” of what is being said? When is a translation “incorrect”? Or, are translations usually just better or worse? Who is to judge?
The word we normally to describe the process of rendering from one language to the other is called “translation.” Derived from the Latin infinitive transferre, it can communicate the notion of moving an object from one place to another, or of rendering words from one language to another, but the OED tells us that it also has another major definition: “To change in form, appearance, or substance; to transform, alter.” Thus, even the word we use to describe the process of rendering words from one language to another has a slippery dimension to it. A translation may “change” the “substance” of what is said.
Few translators see themselves, however, as “changing” the “substance” of what is said. Most want to make what we call a “serviceable” translation—one that is close enough in meaning to the original so as to not to betray it, but vivid enough to communicate to readers of the current day. But even this latter task is fraught with difficulties, principally because the receiving (i.e., the language into which the text is translated) language itself changes over time. For example, I have recently been poring over the six volumes of Jataka stories (the stories of the former lives of the Buddha) in the Buddhist Pali canon, trying to make sense of those diverse tales. The only translation of the whole in English done to date was finished more than a century ago by the first generation of Pali scholars in England. Often while reading them, I have to ask myself if English is really my native language, since the renderings of the stories are anything but clear to me. Yet, some of the stories have been translated anew more recently, and they read with a kind of fluency and clarity that you expect from a good modern translation. Thus, even the receiving language changes considerably over time, obscuring meaning. Try to read the King James Version of the Bible, which several people still do. Though often rejoicing in felicitous turns of phrase of that classic, we also realize that such a phrase as “Let your conversation be holy” (Philippians 1:27) has more to do with one’s conduct than simply one’s mode of speaking. Dozens of other such examples can be given.
The translation problem was highlighted again for me recently as I was reading the Dhammapada, one of the most accessible Buddhist texts in the West. Consisting of 423 pithy statements, with one statement often put in contrast to the next, the Dhammapadahas captured the imagination of all readers since being penned probably about 2000 years ago. But one commentator remarked about the problem of translation as he began to translate chapter 2, entitled Appamadavagga, into English. He noted that even the English translation of the title is difficult. The following have been suggested: “heedfulness, carefulness, diligence, earnestness, reflection, thoughtfulness, wakefulness, watchfulness, zeal.” Then, as if wanting to reach almost a dozen, he threw in two more: “non-laxity and indefatigableness.” Translators have to choose. Sometimes they are paid to choose. But even the mere act of choosing often “transforms” the “substance” of what is said.
So, we can say that “painful boils” is a good translation of shechin ra but it might be that in 2020, with the word “inflammation” in almost every medical advertisement you read, that one ought to go in that direction. Little of ultimate significance rests on the translation here, but translation choices later in the book will have more significance. When you add this to the problem of the lack of clarity of many of Job’s verses in the original language, you have a multi-layered problem. . .
But not here. Job has broken out in something more than pimples, more than pustules, more than sores. They erupt, fester, and cause pain. They are on him from the sole (kaph, which also can be rendered “palm” of a hand (Genesis 40:11, 21)) of the foot (regel) or “socket” of a thigh (Genesis 32:32)) to the crown (the rare word qadqad) of the head. He is covered with these miserable boils. Remarkably, the same phrases “he struck/afflicted them with painful boils” (nakah; shechin ra) and “from the kaph” and “regel" to the "qadqad" reappears in Deuteronomy 28:35. One wonders if one of the passages is modeled on the other. The Deuteronomy passage has a few additional words: these boils will also be on the “knees” (berek) and “legs” (shoq). But the phrase “sole of his foot to the crown of his head” can also be used positively in the Bible—it was used to describe the incomparable beauty of Absalom (II Samuel 14:21). It goes without saying that Absalom had no boils—at least that we know of.