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180. Job 18:1-4, Bildad’s Opening Gambit

 

1 Then Bildad the Shuhite responded,

2 “How long will you hunt for words?

   Show understanding and then we can talk.

3 Why are we regarded as beasts,

   As stupid in your eyes?

4 O you who tear yourself in your anger—

   For your sake is the earth to be abandoned,

   Or the rock to be moved from its place?

 

If all we had was the NASB translation of verse 2, we would conclude that Bildad here skillfully linked the concept of hunting for words with God’s alleged hunting Job down two chapters previously. His point would be that by using a somewhat amusing image to describe Job (we can imagine him trying to track down words), he is attempting to neutralize Job’s acid words of Job 16.  

 

Yet, upon actually looking at the Hebrew text of verse 2, we see that our musings are for nought. There is no word for hunting (tsud/tsayid) or breaking in (like the several appearances of parats/perets in Job 16:14). A word-for-word rendering of verse 2 would go something like this:

 

         “How long (until) you place an end/snare for your words? Get understanding

         and afterwards we will speak.”

 

The first five Hebrew words of this verse are difficult. The opening two are similar to Bildad’s opening two words in 8:2. It was ad-an (“How long?”) in 8:2 and ad-anah here. Same meaning. But it is the next three words that occasion problems. First, the common verb sum (“to place/put”) is put in the second person plural, though we can’t imagine anyone other than Job, an individual, who is in view. Then, the word qenets, which follows, is a hapax, but most translators think it means “snare” or “trap” or “end.” The word “trap” here would conveniently dovetail with Bildad’s screed about snares or traps a few verses later, but what is somewhat unusual is that Bildad wouldn’t use this word below. After all, you already have to sort of ransack the lexicon to find six words for “traps/gins/snares”—why not employ one in verses 8-10 that you already have used in verse 2, rare as it is?   

 

If we render qenets in verse 2 as “trap,” we then have, “How long will you keep placing a trap with your words?” It isn’t a bad question, and we can easily imagine how Bildad and the friends might look at Job’s speeches not just as florid accounts of Job’s troubles but also as traps for the unwary who might “bite” or “nibble” at something Job said and then become trapped in his verbal fusillade. 

 

But the majority of scholars now tend to substitute the common word qets (“end/extremity”) for qenets here, under the assumption that it yields clearer meaning. If we do this, we would have, “How long will it be until you place an end to words?” Or, more colloquially, ‘When are you going to shut up, Job?’ This, in the minds of many, then makes the second half of verse 2 more understandable, which goes on to say:

 

   “Gain understanding/get insight and afterwards we will speak.”

 

Bildad’s point would then be that Job, who has been hogging the verbal airways over the previous six chapters (five out of six chapters are in his mouth), would really benefit by listening, gaining understanding and then speaking together (the verb for speak is in the first person plural) with the friends.  

 

I can’t decide on this one but, with a nod to William Carlos Williams, one might say that more depends on a red wheelbarrow than on my decision here. The word for “words” here (millah) is the Job-specific word for “words” (34/38 appearances in Job). In 8:2, Bildad had asked, “How long (ad-an) will you speak (malal, the verb form of millah) these things?” I believe we see a similar idea here.  

 

Yet we recall that in 8:2 Bildad then gave a gratuitous dig against Job by calling the words of his mouth a mighty wind, with language perilously close to the “great wind” used to describe the fatal blast that collapsed his children’s house on them in 1:19. In 18:2, with apparently more aplomb and courtesy, he just urges Job to “get understanding” (using the common wisdom verb bin, which generally is translated "to understand") and then, “we will speak” (using the common dabar). Yet, rather than thinking that a fresh spirit of graciousness has descended upon Bildad, we will see that he is storing up his verbal salvos for verses 5-21.

 

But before getting there, we should look at Bildad’s allegation in verse 3 and his highly-suggestive language in verse 4.  He holds nothing back in verse 3, “Why do you count us as beasts and stupid in your sight?” This is unexpected. We have heard Job call his friends miserable comforters (16:2)  or even worthless physicians (13:4), but beasts or animals? Rhetoric ratchets up when sympathy disappears, and we might take the reference to beasts here in that light.


More problematic is the verb in the second part of verse 3, translated “stupid” above. There is debate whether the verb is derived from tamah, tamam, tame or a variety of much less likely alternatives. Tame has to do with impurity and is actually the idea that I think likes behind the verb, but the verb tame is probably not used here. As Clines says, most derive it from  tamam, which primarily means to “stopped up." If the mind is stopped up it might be said to be “stupid.” Seow seems to agree and renders the word “dense.” Let’s tentatively go with that translation.

 

Yet, one might argue that behind our verb in verse 3 is the rare (2x) verb tamah. In its only other appearance (Leviticus 11:43),  tamah is connected to the concept of impurity, which may be behind Bildad’s thought here. Bildad’s entire third speech centers on the concept of impurity (Job 25) and the fact that one might have “impure” or “unclean” animals is a very familiar concept to the Hebrew Scriptures. Job has accused the friends of lacking wisdom, of being rather worthless and of whitewashing with lies. That Bildad might have heard these accusations as questioning the friends’ humanity might not be too far-fetched. So, one might go either with impurity or stupidity here.  In either case, it is a rather damning indictment of the friends in the mouth of Job.

 

In verse 4 Bildad turns the tables on Job, pointing back to Job’s language in Job 16 rather than his allegations of beastliness, stupidity or impurity. Bildad says, literally, 

 

         “Tearing his soul in his anger. Shall the earth be forsaken on your account?  And shall the                 rock be removed from its place?”

 

Each of these phrases is calculated to deliver a forceful counterpunch to Job. In one of his most unforgettable images Job has just accused God of “tearing him (taraph  is the verb) in his wrath (aph is the noun, 16:9). In 18:4 Bildad uses these two words Job used in 16:9 (taraph, aph) but will invert their meaning. Job used them to describe how God is tearing Job apart, while Bildad uses them in 18:4 to describe what Job is doing to himself. In other words, what Bildad is saying is: 'all you are really doing, Job, by your vicious words against God is attacking yourself!'  It is like the advice of many a skilled psychologist in our day, who might argue that one’s anger at others ends up hurting oneself far more than others. There is even a somewhat pleasant euphony in Bildad’s first three words in 18:4: toreph naphsho beapo (it literally says “tear his soul (rather than “your soul”) by his anger). As the Lord said to Paul on the Damascus road, “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Bildad’s first words in 18:4 might be seen in that light.

 

His second statement of verse 4 (“Shall the earth be forsaken because of you?”) seems to come out of the blue until we realize that one of the friends’ leading concerns is to normalize Job’s experience rather than to let him claim it as fully unique. The point shouldn’t be lost. Life experience can be folded under and interpreted in light of religious categories only if we assume that our life experience is a common one, shared by people from earlier times. If we go around assuming that we are fully unique individuals, and that the feelings we have, positive and negative, lodge only in our breasts and in no one else’s, then the comforts and instructions of religion might be fruitless. If the friends were to concede to Job that his experience is unique in the annals of humanity, then they would have nothing to say. So, their strong interest is in trying to include Job’s experience under the category of “acts of divine discipline” or “judgment which ought to lead to repentance” or something similar. Yet, Job will not let them go there. He will hold out for the uniqueness of his experience, and will not permit an explanation which tries to normalize his experience.    

 

The discussion of whether someone’s experience is unique or can be included in a well-worn category is not just an ancient one. Many were the conferences and discussions I attended at Brown University in the 1970s, as Jewish scholars were trying to come to grips psychologically and theologically with the Holocaust. One of the underlying issues, sometimes unspoken, was whether this “Tremendum,” as one scholar put it, was a fully unique experience to the Jews or was just another example of humanity’s unspeakable cruelty to other humans.

 

With this in mind, we can now understand Bildad’s second clause in verse 4. When he asks whether the earth should be forsaken for Job, he is really asking whether time should stop and the orderly processes of nature should cease so that we can just examine Job’s unique condition. The answer is given before the question dies out. No way! But then, as if to bring the discussion back to the very words of Job, Bildad asks whether the rock should be removed out of its place. This seeming non-sequitur is actually an echo of words Job used in 9:5 when he talked about God, who had the privilege and strength to move rocks from their places. More specifically, when Job was hymning the great power of God, he said that God “removes” (the somewhat rare verb atheq, 9x) mountains.  Bildad uses the same atheq in 18:4. Job had even said that God removes mountains “in his wrath,” using the same word as he uses in 16:9 to describe the divine assault on him and the same word Bildad uses in 18:4 to show that Job is hurting himself. The point is that Bildad accuses Job of wanting special treatment from God, of having the earth being forsaken and the rock removed. Yet God already does that, as Job has confessed. Job needs no special treatment. Job’s persistence in self-pity and wild accusation against God not only hurts him, but it also shortens his sight and his understanding. If Job would just recall the same words he has used, he would abandon his desperate attacks on God (and perhaps the friends, too).  

 

Let’s add one final thought on Bildad’s preliminary words.The verb atheq also appears in Job’s mouth in 14:19, where Job laments the inevitable and irreversible erosive processes of nature. The same phrase, “the rock is removed from its place” in 14:19 is repeated by Bildad in 18:4. It is as if Bildad is saying, ‘Job, you have recognized that God removes the rocks; you have confessed yourself that the rocks crumble due to natural processes; shall there be a special theater set up for Job alone so that the rocks might crumble just for you? Are you that unique?’ The answer, of course, is 'No!' Bildad’s careful and skillful use of images and words used previously by Job is meant to show that Job’s experience is to be understood along with the common experience of humanity. It is fortunate that Bildad has made this point, because he now will turn to that one experience which he definitely believes that Job will share with others: the judgment of God (vv 5-20).