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186. Job 18:16-21, Finishing On the Judgments
16 “His roots are dried below,
And his branch is cut off above.
17 Memory of him perishes from the earth,
And he has no name abroad.
18 He is driven from light into darkness,
And chased from the inhabited world.
19 He has no offspring or posterity among his people,
Nor any survivor where he sojourned.
20 Those in the west are appalled at hisfate,
And those in the east are seized with horror.
21 Surely such are the dwellings of the wicked,
And this is the place of him who does not know God.”
We would think that by now Bildad has exhausted his verbal repertoire of judgments on the wicked, but the best is saved until the end. In five verses, with one summary verse at the end, Bildad speaks of the wretched abandonment of the wicked—their memory is forgotten (v 17) and they have no offspring (v 19). Horror at their fate, rather than gratitude for their lives, grips all (v 20). Eliphaz had warmly assured Job in 5:25 that despite the “discipline” or “chastening” (5:17) of the Lord, Job will have as many descendants as the grass of the earth (5:25). No longer. Now, as the quality of the interaction between Job and the friends has gone down and the vitriol has ramped up, the words celebrating Job’s glowing future disappear. Wicked people perish, completely and irretrievably. Who can’t hear in this Bildad’s not-so-subtle condemnation of Job?
Bildad knows how to be clear when he needs to be, and verse 16 is a neatly organized six-word beauty. We have,
“From underneath his roots (sharish) dry up (yabesh); from above his branches (qatsir) wither (verb is namal).”
We are plunged back into the world of Job 14:8-9, where Job talked about the hope for a tree. In that instance the roots (also sharish) grow old; yet when the tree senses water, its branches (qatsir) spring back to life. As we have seen, that entire chapter is placed in the context of apparent withering (namal, 14:2). But in Job 18:16, both roots and branches die. Everything withers. Bildad is here trying to undercut some of Job’s most beautiful poetry.
Bildad’s use of the rather unique combination of “dry up” (yabesh) and “wither” (namal) finds its counterpart in Psalm 90. In that memorable Psalm, the author eloquently reflects on the transience of life on the earth. In the mind of God a thousand years are only a day (90:4). Yet this is not the case for us. We are like grass that is renewed in the morning. In the morning we flourish and are renewed; in the evening we “fade” (yabesh) and “wither” (mul, thought by many to be the same verb as namal, though used in the Psalms and earlier chapters of the Bible to describe the practice of circumcision, 90:6). Bildad thus complements the rhythmic quality of verse 16 with deep reliance both on Job’s and other Hebrew poetry. This is Bildad at his literary best.
He then applies that lesson in verse 17, “His memory perishes from the earth; there is no name for him in the streets.” Up and down/above and below were explored in verse 16; now we have here (“earth”) and there (“streets/outside”). We scour up and down. No wicked person. We look here and there. He has disappeared. Some translators try to make these general words (“earth” and “outside/on the streets”) more specific to Job (“farmlands” or “grazing lands”), but I think if we capture the omni-directional flavor of verses 16-17, we understand the completeness of the wicked’s devastation.
Commentators since time immemorial have mentioned that one of the biggest blessings for the ancient Israelites, among other ancient people, was to have many children and a continuing memory of blessedness. Now, however, we learn that such a memory (using the frequently-appearing zeker, “memorial” or “remembrance”) perishes (the common abad). The English phrase, “Shall perish from the earth” appears in the KJV of verse 17a; one wonders if the most biblically literate of the US Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, had that phrase in mind when he intoned one of his most famous phrases, that government “of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Just speculating. . .
Memory has perished. Now the wicked person goes from light to darkness. But the verbs are particularly strong in verse 18,
“He will be thrust (nadaph, 11x, only time in Job) and shall flee (the euphonious nadad, 28x) from the inhabited world (tebel).”
Note that these verbs suggest the unwillingness of the wicked to go from light to darkness; the wicked is a passive agent of the judgment. But if we go back a few chapters, Job willingly, even eagerly, wants to go to the darkness (10:21-22).
If Job could have heaved a mini-sigh of relief upon hearing verse 18, since he wants willingly goes to darkness, verse 19 must have hit him powerfully.
“He shall have neither kith nor kin among his people; there is no survivor in his dwellings.”
The idea is closely tied with the words of verse 17, where his memory perishes from the earth, but here that disappearance is said with unique and show-stopping words.
We might have expected the typical words “son” and “daughter,” but we have the unusual alliterative pair (only appearing as a pair and in two other locations—Genesis 21:23; Isaiah 14:22) of nin/neked. My rendering of it as “kith and kin” tries to capture that rarity and alliteration. Then, the last three words are somewhat unexpected: “survivor” (sarid, 28x/4x in Job) and “dwelling” (magur, 11x, mostly in Genesis) have not previously appeared in Job. The word sarid often naturally appears in contexts of destruction, since concern immediately is turned to the survivors of the destruction (Joshua 10:20, 28; Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:3). Bildad’s use of it here seems to be attractive to Zophar, who picked up on it twice in his next speech (20:21, 26). As for “dwelling” (magur, derived from the verb gur, “to sojourn”), it now is the third term Bildad has used in his speech to describe a dwelling (also had ohel, naveh). We wonder if he is pushing for record for “house”-terms, that might even exceed his “net/trap” terms of verses 8-10. We will meet others in the next few verses, though he never mentions the most common (beth, “house”).
Verse 20 is translated in two different ways, though the meaning is the same. The question is whether the lead nouns in each part of the verse are directional (west and east) or are temporal (former and later). It makes little difference, but a directional reading of the verse helps to reinforce the power of verses 16-17, where there would then be no hope for the wicked either above or below, either east or west. No hope at all. Thus, my rendering is,
“Those in the west (literally “those that come after") shall be appalled/astonished at his day; and fear/horror/tempest (the rare saar, 4x, translated “fear” or “terror” is similar to the word for tempest, sa’ar),seizes those on the east (literally “those that went before”).”
We have seen the verb shamem (“to be shocked, appalled, astonished, desolate”) already in 16:8; 17:8. God has made Job desolate (16:8); righteous people ought to be appalled (17:8) at this. Now, we meet the horror of the the wicked’s destruction. The whole world, figuratively speaking, will hear of it. Everyone will be astonished at it. Those in the east are seized with fear (using the verb achaz, 68x, which has already appeared in 16:12; 17:9). Bildad may be getting his last dig into Job through the skillful use of appallment/dismay and seizing language. Job thought he was the master of those terms; Bildad now shows him that others will use those words—to stare at people like Job!
Bildad is just about ready to rest his case. We as readers are certainly ready for him to finish! His summary statement is in verse 21,
“Surely these are the dwellings of the wicked and the place of the one who doesn’t know God.”
The last words in the chapter are “don’t know God.” You wonder if Bildad’s eyes are boring into Job as he intones these words. For all of Job’s putative learning, goodness and blamelessness, perhaps Bildad ultimately believes that Job doesn’t really know God. He wouldn’t have been the first, nor certainly the last, to accuse someone who questions the validity of religion’s basic categories of having no knowledge of the divine.
What strikes me also about this last verse is that Bildad uses two more terms to describe a dwelling place, bringing to five the number of words he has used since verse 15 to describe that concept. He equals Eliphaz’s lions but falls one short of his own traps or snares. Here we have the common word mishkan (139x), first used to describe the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25:9) and the generic word maqom (“place”). Bildad ties up his speech nicely and n; it really is his neatest speech with respect to organization and clarity, though Job and we may feel that its real target is not just the “wicked” person in general but Job in specific.