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208. Job 20:12-23, The Poisonous Bite of Asps and Cobras, and More


12 “Though evil is sweet in his mouth

   Andhe hides it under his tongue,

13 Thoughhe desires it and will not let it go,

   But holds it in his mouth,

14 Yet his food in his stomach is changed

   To the venom of cobras within him.

15 He swallows riches,

   But will vomit them up;

   God will expel them from his belly.

16 He sucks the poison of cobras;

   The viper’s tongue slays him.

17 He does not look at the streams,

   The rivers flowing with honey and curds.

18 He returns what he has attained

   And cannot swallow it;

   As to the riches of his trading,

   He cannot even enjoy them.

19 For he has oppressed andforsaken the poor;

   He has seized a house which he has not built.

20 Because he knew no quiet within him,

   He does not retain anything he desires.

21 Nothing remains for him to devour,

   Therefore his prosperity does not endure.

22 In the fullness of his plenty he will be cramped;

   The hand of everyone who suffers will come againsthim.

23 When he fills his belly,

   Godwill send His fierce anger on him


Let's begin first with and overview of this section and then focus on poison in the mouth and stomach, with special attention on verses 12-14.


We begin with questions about how to divide this section; many versions see a break after verse 19. Zophar’s words come at us like a torrent; it is hard to discern sometimes between the waves. I tend to subdivide this section into verses 12-17 and 18-23. The first describes the poisonous effect of evil on the perpetrator, while the second, continuing the theme of consuming poison, speaks of the ultimate misery of the wicked.  This essay will only treat the first three verses; the next will interpret 20:15-17. A final one will discuss 20:18-23.

This section begins in a promising fashion, by likening the wicked’s life to ingestion of slow-release poison, poison that is sweet in the mouth but ends up doing its harmful work in the belly. Zophar is at his literary best here, both in clarity and imagination.  We should see verses 12-14 as one extended sentence:


            “Though evil tastes sweet in his mouth, and is hidden under his tongue;

            though he spare/keep it, and not abandon it, and it sticks in the middle of his                                       palate; yet his food (such as it is) will turn in his bowels/stomach; the bitterness

            of asps is within him.”


The image isn’t perfect. We have no reference to swallowing the sweet-tasting poison, though the last verse certainly implies that it is doing its baleful work in the stomach. Perhaps realizing that he hasn’t told us that the poison actually is swallowed (v 13 gives us the impression that it sticks to his palate), he twice uses the word for swallow (bala) in verses 15, 18. It is almost as if Zophar is saying to himself, ‘Oops, forgot to say that he swallowed the poison. Let me give the next section a double dose of ‘swallowing!’ But the only way for it to become the venom or bitterness of asps in the stomach is if he actually swallows the poison. We don’t know if this poison melts in your mouth, like a modern throat lozenge, or is a viscous substance that is difficult to swallow because it wants to stick to the palate. We are asking too many unnecessary questions. Let’s get to the actual words.


The Scriptures teach that the sweet taste you have in your mouth might either be poison or the Word of God. The Psalmist, for example, can rhapsodize, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103). The words for “sweet” are different; Psalm 119 uses the hapax malats, while Job 20:12 uses the verb mathoq (5x). Though a few of mathoq’s appearances are memorable, Proverbs 9:17 is most similar and tells us that “stolen water is sweet (mathoq); and secret bread (lechem) is pleasant.” Interestingly, both Proverbs 9:17 and Job 20:12-14 have the same words for “sweet” and “bread” (lechem is word usually rendered "food" in 20:14). Zophar may gently be dialoguing with Proverbs 9 here, but focusing more on the eventual effects of this sweet stolen bread.


What gives Zophar’s image in 20:12-14 its potency is that we can actually see a person taking the evil, as if it were a substance, and tucking it under his tongue. Like a person who chaws tobacco, tamping that plug back into the cheek so that it might slowly release its delectable nicotine, so the wicked seems to do that with evil. But here he seems to maximize its taste by putting it under his tongue.  


Rather than swallow the evil, verse 13 tells us, using unexpected verbs, that the evil person just keeps it in his mouth. I guess the taste is so pleasant that there is no desire to swallow it. The three verbs describing what he does with the poison under the tongue are chamal, azab, mana.  The normal translations of these verbs are, in order, “to spare or have compassion” (chamal), “to forsake” (azab), and to “restrain” (mana).  Zophar had loads of simpler ways of saying that the wicked just keeps it in his mouth, but he chose these three verbs.  


Nine of the 41 appearances of chamal are in that matched pair of books that are most concerned with pity where there is no pity (Jeremiah/Lamentations). I Samuel 15 has three references to “sparing/having pity,” since the point of that passage is whether one should spare or kill the captive king Agag. But in Job 20, the only way to read the verb chamal is to see it as “not swallowing” or “keeping” the poison lozenge lodged under the tongue.  


Azab appears only to be minimally out of place in Job 20:12. It appears 211x and has a broader range of meanings than chamal, but generally means “to leave” or “to abandon.” Its most memorable appearance is its first, in Genesis 2:24, where the principle was laid out that the woman “leaves” (azab) her family to join with her husband. So, the wicked person of Job 20:13 “has pity” on the poison and “leaves” it under the tongue. He mana (29x, “withholds/holds back/restrains”) it in that position. Honor may be held back (Numbers 24:11); people can be restrained from shedding blood (I Samuel 25:26). Zophar uses three useful and interesting verbs to tell us that the wicked person doesn’t swallow the poison under the tongue. He is just enjoying its sweet juices. 


But then, in verse 14, things change. We assume that he swallows this palate-pleasing sweet-tasting, slow-release poison in verse 14. Or, better said, that s/he has already swallowed it. We can read verse 14 two ways, either that the food “turns into bitterness (merorah, 4x, three of which are in Job) in his stomach, with asps in the inward parts” or that the food “turns in his stomach; the venom/bitterness of asps is within him.”  Most choose the latter, but the result is the same; we have the stomach hard at work digesting this sweet-tasting substance. Unfortunately, however, it is like the gall of asps or the venom of these asps (Job uses the 6x-appearing noun pethen, usually rendered “asp” or “cobra” in vv 14, 16, but we really don’t know what kind of snake this is).  An interesting and no doubt irrelevant connection between the venom of asps here and spears penetrating the body later in the speech (vv 25-26) is the interesting remark by Pliny in his Natural History (11.53) that the Scythians were accustomed to using the venom of serpents to slather on the tips of spears, the better to run through their enemies. Perhaps Zophar had run into a wandering Scythian bard, hymning the brutality of his people. . .

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