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196. Job 19:16-20, Repulsive to Those Low and High
16 “I call to my servant, but he does not answer;
I have to implore him with my mouth.
17 “My breath is offensive to my wife,
And I am loathsome to my own brothers.
18 “Even young children despise me;
I rise up and they speak against me.
19 “All my associates abhor me,
And those I love have turned against me.
20 “My bone clings to my skin and my flesh,
And I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth.
Job’s pathetic situation is made more so by his words in verse 16:
“I call (qara) to my servant but he gives no answer (anah); I beg (chanan; chanan often means to be gracious or show favor, but its meaning as "beseech" or "beg" is well-attested) him with my mouth.”
This verse captures the social and theological reversal that Job feels. Psalm 123:2 states the way things are “sposed” to work in a home such as Job used to enjoy, “As the eyes of the servant look to the hand of their master. . .” Servants stand, ready to fulfill the master’s bidding with alacrity. But Job calls in vain for the servants. Who knows? Perhaps they are gathered together in the kitchen, whispering against their master, laughing at him. The use of qara and anah in verse 16 are particularly significant because these are words used to capture the relationship of humans to God. Jeremiah 33:3 has God giving the invitation: “Call (qara is verb) to me and I will answer (anah is verb) you. . .” We call and God answers, but Job calls and his servants don’t answer. The verse is eight words in Hebrew; anah is near the middle (the fourth word); it is almost as if it is the hinge on which the entire verse turns. Calling—no answer; pleading/begging—no answer. Silence.
The emotional intensity ratchets up in verse 17 through the repeated use of zur and a second appearance, in as many verses, of chanan. We aren’t quite sure, however, exactly what is being said. A word-for-word rendering of the first part gives us,
“My breath/spirit is strange to my wife.”
Is he speaking about an actual stench emanating from his mouth or, more generally, the strangeness or repulsiveness of his whole being to his wife? Whereas the first makes for a more vivid picture, the latter is even more sad.
The second half is no more pellucid. Normally it is rendered,
“I am repulsive to the sons of my body.”
We don’t know what the last phrase means, since Job seems to have lost his sons in Chapter 1. Some scholars suggest that he has a brood of offspring in addition, but that not only is literary cheating but also would blunt the force of the entire Job narrative. If Job “only” lost half of his family, the tragedy would be great, but he could also “rebuild. . .” Ridiculous suggestion, really. So, we don’t know who these “sons of his womb” are. More important, the verb rendered “repulsive” isn’t really “repulsive/loathsome.” If chanan is translated this way, it would be the only place where it is so rendered in the Bible. As mentioned above, it is almost always “to beg" or "ask for mercy" or "beseech" or "pray" or "show favor" or "be gracious." Because he has just been “begging” for servants to hear him with chanan, why not continue the theme of begging here? Job would then be estranged from his wife, and he continues to beg (for recognition/help) to the “sons of his womb.”
The picture created by taking chanan in the usual way (as plead or beseech) in verse 17 is particularly poignant. As I said in When Leaving God is a Good Choice,
“I think Job is laying out a most pitiable thought: Because he is rejected by all the living people in his world, he must repair to the realm of the dead. Nothing is more pathetic than to imagine a broken man, Job, fallen from such great heights, pouring out his soul to his deceased children, as if they can hear and help him.”
Other groups of people reject Job in verses 18-19. Young children (avil, 2x) reject him. Later he will lament that the sons of people whom he would have disdained to put with dogs of his flock are making sport of him (30:1); 19:18 shares that same world. Job rises, and they, literally “speak with me/speak against me.” We don’t know if they are speaking with him and deriding him or if the speaking is speaking behind his back, ridiculing him while he is not looking or hearing. Verse 19 is more of the same, but that verse uses the unusual phrase “men of my counsel” to describe those who abhor (taab) him. Again, a Psalm, this time 55:12-14, gives us a distant echo of the passage. Verse 13 has “But it is you, a man (different word from Job 19:19), my equal, my companion, my acquaintance (same word as Job 19:13, 14). . .” This kind of person will betray the Psalmist. Job has chosen different words but his reality is identical.
Verse 19 closes with an unusual and plangent phrase,
“And this one—I loved (him/her), they have turned against me.”
Translators often try to put the entire thought in the plural, since the verb, “to turn” is obviously in the plural, but the singular zeh, along with the verb “I loved” suggests to me that for a split-second Job has entertained the thought that some special unnamed or particular friend, whom he loved, has now, with the rest of the crowd, turned against him. It adds a layer of mystery, as well as melancholy, to this verse.
The enigmatic verse 20 concludes this section. Many scholars spend a huge amount of time trying to parse and solve it problems. Clines, remarkably, devotes nearly 2000 words in his philological notes alone to the language of this verse and the attempts of other scholars to make sense of it; he will use another like amount of words to solve the meaning problems and suggest his own analysis. As with many verses in Job, a translation must be tentative, and meaning even more so, yet a thread of meaning can be extracted.
“My bones cleave with/to my skin and my flesh; and I have escaped with the
skin of my teeth."
The verse is jarring because it speaks of Job’s physical anguish, but the previous seven verses spoke about his psychic and emotional distance from his relatives, servants and intimate friends. The words in verse 20 are also jarring because the idea of escape or deliverance (malat, 95x/11x in Job) is seemingly introduced for the first time, and we had no reason to believe that Job has been thinking of escape or feeling that he faces any imminent personal danger from attack. Unless, that is, Job is secretly terrified by all of Bildad’s nets! We have an inkling that the final words are some kind of proverb, though it isn’t elsewhere repeated in the Bible. Maybe there is a bit of unintended humor going on—it almost all other places in Job where a proverb is introduced, we sink into near meaninglessness (e.g. 5:7; 8:11); this would then be a “join the club” verse.
We see some verbal parallels to other verses of extreme desperation in the Bible. The closest is to the language of Psalm 102:5, “Because of the voice of my sighing, my bones (etsem, as in Job 19:20) cling (dabaq, as in Job 19:20) to my skin” (basar, as in Job 19:20). Some commentators have remarked that normally a healthy person does want his/her bones to cling to skin—nothing worse than having bones floating around internally without tethers or order. But here we get the picture that Job is mere “skin and bones” as we say. The picture in Job 19, and Psalm 102, is one of unremitting bleakness. Psalm 22:17 also gives a heartrending assessment of despair, “I number (saphar, frequent in Job) all my bones (etsem); they look and stare at me.”
One simple way to explain the meaning of 19:20 is to see it as a summary of 19:6-19. God’s attack on Job in verse 6-12 is reflected in the first part of Job 19:20 because Job is physically exhausted and weak. Then, the psychic toll of abandonment by friends and family might be captured in the second part of Job 19:20, where Job feels that he is barely alive. Job 19:20 would then be Job’s way of saying that he feels at wits end, defeated and psychologically depleted. It isn’t a bad way to try to capture the feelings not simply of Job 19 but of earlier chapters, too.