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212. Job 20:24-29, Final Words of Judgment
24 “He may flee from the iron weapon,
But the bronze bow will pierce him.
25 It is drawn forth and comes out of his back,
Even the glittering point from his gall.
Terrors come upon him,
26 Complete darkness is held in reserve for his treasures,
And unfanned fire will devour him;
It will consume the survivor in his tent.
27 The heavens will reveal his iniquity,
And the earth will rise up against him.
28 The increase of his house will depart;
His possessions will flow away in the day of His anger.
29 This is the wicked man’s portion from God,
Even the heritage decreed to him by God.”
Now, at last, we return to an image that we can actually can picture in our mind. In these final six verses we are in the realm of iron and of weapons that will pierce the body. The first clause is clear enough, even though many render it conditionally rather than declaratively: “If/though he flee from the iron weapon.” Most, however, translate it, “He will/may flee from the iron weapon.” The word for weapon is nesheq (10x), which twice appears in the unusual list of “garments, weapons, and spices” in I Kings 10:25 and II Chronicles 9:24, but it appears by itself in its other appearances.
So, now we have the wicked person fleeing either on an empty stomach or a stomach that is full of the divine wrath, but he can’t seem to outrun the weapons—because in the second half of verse 24 we have “the brass bow will pierce him.” Now Zophar is getting interesting again. Swallowing poison, with asps in the stomach, has finally received its fitting antiphonal image of violence when the bow (no doubt meaning the arrow) pierces him. The verb for pierce may be related to the ch-l/ch-l-l root, which we saw above, since is chalaph (28x; root is ch-l-ph), which itself has a frightfully large range of meanings for such few appearances (violate, change, vanish, sweep into, sprout anew, renew, pass by, and, (drum roll), pierce). The Book of Job reflects the wide variety of ways to use chalaph: it meant “sprout anew” in 14:7 and “pass by” in 4:15; 9:11, 26; 11:10.
There is no question, however, that an image of violence is in view in 20:24. Another example of chalaph’s use in a piercing or violent context is in Judges 5:26, where the brains of Sisera are splattered all over the place because Deborah “shattered and pierced (chalaph) his temple.” She did the deed, however, not with arrows but with a mallet and peg. Similar result, however. . .
Verse 25 continues the theme of piercing by talking about how the wicked person tries to rip the arrows from his body—which doctors today tell us may not be a healthy practice. The opening verb is shalaph, neatly rhyming with the chalaph of verse 24. Shalaph, (25x, “to draw out”) is hard to render here because it is used elsewhere to describe weapons that are drawn from a scabbard/pouch before a battle, but here it is combined with another verb for “going out” (the common yatsa) so that a serviceable translation can be:
“He draws/yanks and it comes out of his back.”
The picture isn’t really clear because we have the person apparently trying to reach behind himself to take out the arrow. Perhaps it has entered from the back and hasn’t gone all the way through. Seow takes the action impersonally, i.e., “Let a shaft come out through his back.” I think the desperation of the wicked is better captured by my rendering. The word for “back” is more difficult than it needs to be; it is the hapax gevah, which is no doubt the same as the 7x-appearing gev or the even more frequent gab (“back”). The wicked apparently has been shot in the back and not the front. Was he running away from something? Caught unawares?
Zophar doesn’t tell, but he then closes the verse with two really unforgettable phrases.
“The gleaming (point) departs from/comes out of his gall; terrors are upon him.”
Many interpreters connect the last phrase with the first phrase of verse 26, “All darkness is laid upon his treasures/is in store for him.” But before we get there we need to pause for a second more on the dilemma of the wicked. We already had poison injure his inward parts; now the arrows are doing the same. The arrow seems to penetrate through him, with the gleaming point piercing the gall. We get the impression that the arrow gets lodged in the body, however, with the wicked trying desperately to extract it by reaching around behind him. Yet it could be that the arrow passes nearly complete through him, wounding him severely. The result is the same, though the anguish is intensified if we see in our mind’s eye the wicked vainly trying to extract an arrow that has pierced his vitals from the back and stays lodged within him. Seow’s unquestionable literary elegance in translation (“Let a shaft come out through his back, A blade through his gall. Let there come upon him terrors.”) sometimes can make more pretty what is no doubt a hopeless and devastating scene.
The middle phrase of verse 25 makes us stop for a moment. Baraq is the word usually translated as “glittering” or “gleaming” point of the arrow, but it is the word for a “lightning flash.” Our author uses it felicitously, capturing its speed of movement and devastation. Whereas there was a desperate attempt to extract the arrow by the verb shalaph (“draw out/yank out”), here we simply have the glittering point “walking” (common verb halak) from his innermost parts/gall. Sometimes the simple and common verb halak appears in the most desperate situations in Job (recall, for example, how Job said in lament that God prevails against humans forever, and “he walks” in 14:20).
Well, after getting pierced, what can one expect? Terrors or dread (emah, 17x) are upon him. Elsewhere that word appears in conjunction with pachad (“great fear”) in Exodus 15:16, when the Egyptians saw that they wouldn’t be able to outrun the thundering waters of the Red Sea. Verse 26 then may reflect the actual experience of the wicked person, pierced as he is by the arrows, suffering loss of blood, wooziness and faintness. We have terror (v 25) and then darkness (the familiar choshek in v 26) closing in on him. Yet Zophar tries to show his literary hand in verse 26, mostly unsuccessfully. It says, literally, “All darkness is hidden for his treasures” or “All darkness is laid up for his treasures” or “Every sort of darkness in store (the verb taman, “to conceal/hide”) for him” (Seow).
But then, with an almost Miltonian twist of words (referring to Milton’s unforgettable image of “darkness visible” in Paradise Lost 1.63), Zophar speaks of a fire in the darkness. “A fire not fanned/blown shall consume him” is how verse 26b reads. The verb for “blow” or “fan” is naphach (12x), which shares the same root letters with several words having to do with breath or breathing. So, this is a fire not fed by fuel or “breath” that will consume him. Now we are liking Zophar a bit more. He is at his best when he describes things in most gruesome detail. When he just speaks in general terms about oppressing the poor, however, we yawn.
Verses 27-29 act as a mini-peroration to Zophar’s speech. If we take the literary form of Job seriously, these are the last words that Zophar will utter, so he might as well say something memorable! Yet, I will advance an alternative theory of reading Job 27 below that may not remove Zophar completely from the picture. In any case, verse 27 now takes us to the heavens, and is connected with verse 28 by the use of the same verb at the beginning of both verses (the common galah, “to reveal”). Thus we have a two-fold “filling” in verses 22-23 that is matched by a two-fold “revealing” in verses 27-28.
In verse 27 the “heavens reveal (galah) his iniquity/sin (avon).” Each word is common and straightforward. Then, to match it, we have “The earth will rise up to/against him.” Though the verb “to rise” is the simple qum, it takes the author seven letters to express the “rising” of the earth in verse 27. It is almost as if the earth, creaking with age, had trouble “rising” to the occasion. If the wicked person thinks that just because he has an arrow sticking in his gall he is in trouble, he is mistaken. That isn’t even the worst of his problem. All the forces of heaven and earth are also arrayed against him.
Verse 28a is difficult: literally, we have “the increase of his house shall reveal,” though most scholars have taken yebul (normally, the “yield” of a crop) to be derived from the root n-b-l, which has to do with a torrent or flood, primarily because 28b also has an image of flooding—“Torrents (nagar, 10x) on the day of his wrath” (v 28b). Thus, the entire verses would read, “A river sweeps away his house; torrents in the day of (the divine) anger.” The translation isn’t clean, but it really makes little difference, as the wicked person really is uber-screwed.
Verse 29 closes Zophar's speech with a fitting air of finality. “This is the portion (cheleq, 67x) of the evil person from God.” It is the “inheritance” (nachalah) that is appointed from God. The words for “portion” and “inheritance are deeply rooted in the people and experience of Israel. Zophar, for all his wandering in ghoulish images, will come back to a theological center in the last verse. If we have any doubts on that, Zophar’s last word is el, God, who will indeed have the last word in the wicked person’s life.