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199. Job 19:23-24, Making Job's Words Permanent

We may further subdivide this section from Job 19:23-30 into:


19:23-24, Making Job's Words Permanent

19:25-27, I Know My Redeemer Lives

19:28-30, Judgment on Friends


As with any legal case, from antiquity to the present, someone somewhere will be concerned about whether the deliberations were recorded. Since the sophisticated recording equipment of the present wasn’t available 2500 or more years ago, Job expresses an earnest wish for other ‘recording equipment.’ In these verses Job asks for permanent preservation of his words. It isn’t clear whether Job is going from less to ever-more-permanent forms of recording in these verses (i.e., from writing in a book to engraving on a rock), or that he just is speaking about making his words permanent.  Let’s begin with a translation of verses 23-24:


            “Oh that my words were written down; Oh that they were carved in a book.  

            With a stylus of iron and lead—sliced/cut forever into the rock!”  


This is a stunning verbal display, even though the precise technology envisioned in the second part isn’t clear. Job begins with a familiar phrase rendered “Oh that” in almost all translations—miy-yitten, literally, “who will give?” Previously Job had used the phrase when expressing an emphatic thought that serves as an abrupt transition from what has gone before. “Oh that (miy-yitten) I would have my request” (that God would finish him off; Job 6:8). . .” Or, “Oh that (miy-yitten) you would hide me in Sheol” (14:13). . .   


Here the thought is no less emphatic and contrastive. Job has spoken about God’s oppression and the friends’ neglect, but now he wants to change the subject. It is as if he is saying, ‘Enough of that! Let’s get this case going!’ The only difference in the miy-yitten of 19:23 is that it is followed by the enclitic particle epho, “then” or “now.” Perhaps we are inclined just to ignore it in translation, but I see it as emphasizing Job’s attempt finally to get beyond the recitation of injuries suffered and move towards his definitive statement of his case. “Right Now!” is the force of it. Epho appears twice in a likewise emotionally-fraught context where Isaac and Esau are discussing the betrayal by Jacob and Rebekah (Genesis 27:33, 37). The latter usage is most pertinent; “What more, now really (epho), can I do for you, my son?” is Isaac’s plaintive question.  


Job therefore wants to change the narrative. And, indeed, he does. When we get to the Third Cycle of speeches (Job 21-27), we will find Job no less impassioned but emphasizing different things. He is no longer meticulously assembling and caressing his legal case as much as he is criticizing the divine governance of the world. But that will have to wait for later. Here Job expresses his desire for his words to be permanently recorded.   


The movement of the verbs in verses 23-24 is fascinating. At first Job talks about his words being written (kathab), then about them being inscribed or carved (chaqaq) in a book or official register (sepher). Finally he wants them dug/carved (chatsab) in a rock forever. The contrast between verse 23 and verse 24 is the medium of preservation—from an official record book, preserved presumably in a place approximating the state archives, to a rock in which the words are inscribed with an “iron and lead” pen. The verbs chaqaq, “to carve,” and chatsab,“to hew/inscribe” are near synonyms, though the former comes from the political sphere (where decrees are inscribed) and the latter from the extractive industries of mining or surface digging (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:11; 8:9).  


The stylus (et, 4x) made of iron and lead has occasioned some discussion because it is hard to see how a lead instrument would add much in the way of permanence to iron.  But that is a mere quibble. By the alliterative and euphonious verbs chaqaq (19x) and chatsab (25x). Job puts two of the most permanent methods of preservation known to him at the time before us and hopes that his words will be thus maintained. Jeremiah 17:1 gives us the most memorable use of the word et in the Bible, “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen (et barzel, as in Job 19:24), with the point of a diamond it is engraved” (using charash, taken from the realm of plowing in agriculture, another alliterative synonym for chaqaq/chatsab). It’s fascinating to think that in twenty-first century life the most permanent instrument of preservation we now have is a wispy thing—the Cloud. Not then.  


More than two millennia after Job uttered these verses, we can affirm that he got his wish! His words were written in a book/manuscript that has come down to us. We don’t know if anyone was ever moved to carve his words on stone. We think of Behistun and Rosetta and other famous stones and realize that they tell stories, but not stories as extensive as Job’s. Perhaps we ought therefore to be grateful that his words were merely “written.”

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