(to return to Table of Contents, click here)
209. Job 20:15-17, Poison in the Mouth and Stomach, Essay II
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.
The reference to the gall or poison of asps was apparently quite pleasing to Zophar, since he will use it again in verse 16. Sometimes you want to get all the mileage out of a useful image that you can. But before he gets there, he talks about other problems that the wicked person has once the poisonous substance apparently dissolves in the stomach/bowels (meeh, 32x, is usually translated “bowels,” though just when we don’t use the term much anymore in English). Verse 15 describes those problems.
“He swallowed riches and vomited them; God has disgorged them from his belly."
The language is arresting. The verbs for swallowing (bala, 49x) and vomiting (qo, 8x), though paired here and seemingly naturally paired, only appear together here in the Scriptures. If there is another verb that appears with qo it is the nondescript akal (“to eat”; Proverbs 23:8) or saba (“to be satisfied”; Proverbs 25:16). Four appearances of qo are in Leviticus 18 and 20, where the author solemnly speaks of the way the land will “spew out” (older English spelling is ‘spue’) its inhabitants for disobedience. The Bible’s most memorable use of the verb, however, is in Jonah 2:10, where the great fish vomits Jonah onto dry land. The Jonah connection with Zophar’s speech is not far-fetched. God commanded the great fish to do so; here we have God causing the disgorgement of the contents of the wicked person’s belly.
We are told that the crime of the wicked person was to swallow “riches” (the common chayil). In verse 19 we are told that the wicked person oppressed and forsook the poor (using the same verb for “forsake” as describing the poison lozenge that the wicked will not forsake/let go of in verse 13). These riches will be disgorged from his belly. Though the phrase “disgorgement of profits” is a well-understood phrase in the common law legal tradition, we have to struggle a bit to get to “disgorge” for a translation of yarash in verse 15. Yarash is the usual verb to describe inheriting land or possessions. Its first several appearances in Genesis are best rendered in a noun form—in this instance Abram’s “heir” (Genesis 15:4, 7). But, the flip side of the concept of inheritance is dispossession. Somebody who receives land almost always either has to buy someone else off of the land or move them off. So, yarash also took on the meaning of “driving out” (Exodus 34:24) or “destroying” (Exodus 15:9). But the use of the verb may be no accident here: God will, as it were, cause the wicked to be dispossessed of all things he considered valuable. We have the third term for “belly” or “insides” in two verses (meeh and qereb in v 14, beten in v 15). Zophar may just getting warmed up on repeated terms; perhaps he has developed the ambition to exceed Bildad’s six words for net. . .
Now that Zophar has taken us through swallowing and vomiting, we return to the poison of asps. Yet, the words are slightly different in verse 16. Literally, we have,
“He shall suck the head of asps; the viper’s tongue shall slay him.”
What the wicked person is doing, no doubt unbeknownst to him, is actually sucking down (the familiar yanaq) the asp’s poison. It isn’t as if the food is healthy at first and then turns to poison in his stomach. But here he is sucking the “head” (rosh) of the asp, a particularly potent image, making vivid the gruesome and grisly picture of the wicked’s (unknowingly but willingly) stuffing down the ugly poisonous head which will lead to his doom. The wicked may scream at the righteous, ‘I’ve got you now!’ But the righteous can respond, ‘Well, you are just sucking cobra head!’ When I consider all the vivid biblical pictures and stories that were the subject of Renaissance artists, I don’t believe I have ever seen a person sucking a cobra’s head.
The second half of the verse simply parallels the first. We have another snake mentioned, this time the epheh (3x), which might be a viper or cobra or might be something else. In fact, it isn’t certain whether we should try to identify these snakes or just imagine poisonous snakes doing their job. Whereas the wicked person calmly put the poison under his tongue, now it is the tongue of the snake that will slay (the common harag) him. The wicked simply can’t win.
We are ready for what happens next. Will the wicked die immediately? Will he thrash around, foaming at the mouth, realize his wicked ways and then repent? No. We will move in verse 17 to the wicked’s not looking on rivers—which isn’t the thing you might have expected.
Verse 17 is, charitably speaking, weird. Let’s try a literal rendering, and then see what the two leading English commentators do with it.
“He shall not look upon channels; the streams of the rivers are (flowing) with honey and cream.”
I needed to add a present participle to try to make the words add up. Clines renders the verse,
“He will enjoy no streams of oil; torrents flow with honey and cream.”
Seow has, “Let him not see tributaries of a river, streams of honey and cream.”
Let’s take one brief stab at meaning before moving to where the verse no doubt wants to take us—to a verbal game. Perhaps verse 17 is talking about a sign of wealth (honey and cream) that will no longer be within the purview of the wicked person. He has swallowed wealth, but his life will no longer be characterized by “looking on the river” because of the inner workings of the poison of the snakes.
Ok, now that we have attempted seriousness, let’s move to what I think is really happening here. Zophar has had his two clear thoughts, both about sweetness of food that eventually released its poison; now he is free to descend into unclarity. The difficulty of maintaining clarity for long stretches is extreme; just ask (or listen to) anyone who is required to put a few thought together in writing or speech. None of Zophar's predecessors maintained clarity. Why should we expect Zophar to be any different?
But if clarity is not at stake in verse 17, what is? I think he is playing a verbal game with Eliphaz and Bildad. Recall that Eliphaz had five words for lion in 4:10-11, words that ended up taking him away from his point in 4:8. Bildad topped that with six words for snares or traps in 18:8-10, though we ended up wondering how a noose could be dangerous for the wicked when his foot is caught or how he might fall into a covered trap when he is seemingly stuck in place. Again, smiles.
But Zophar tops them both in this passage in a subtle way. He introduces two terms for snake (pethen; epheh) and then in verse 17 gives us three words for flowing bodies of water (pelaggah, nahar, nachal), when one was all he needed to confuse us. But if we look closely, we see that he has also given us three words for the insides of a person, where the poison does its work (meeh, qereb, beten; he will possibly give us another in v 23). Eliphaz and Bildad might have had five and six words, respectively, but Zophar now has eight. But, the big question in the poker game of words, is whether two sets of three of a kind, plus a pair, beats five or six of a kind? That will no doubt give the friends something to argue about as they are returning home. . .