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214. Job 21:1-6, Introductory Words
Then Job answered,
2 “Listen carefully to my speech,
And let this be your way ofconsolation.
3 “Bear with me that I may speak;
Then after I have spoken, you may mock.
4 “As for me, is my complaint to man?
And why should I not be impatient?
5 “Look at me, and be astonished,
And put yourhand over yourmouth.
6 “Even when I remember, I am disturbed,
And horror takes hold of my flesh.
Though the chapter resists easy division, and every scholar seemingly divides it differently from every other, we might divide it as follows:
Job 21:1-6, Introductory Words
Job 21:7-13, The Prosperity of the Wicked
Job 21:14-21, The Arrogance of the Wicked
Job 21:22-26, Giving Some Nuance to the Idea of Judgment
Job 21:27-34, No Judgment for the Wicked
Job’s actual argument, beginning in verse 7, is clearer than these introductory words. He explores many emotions in the first few verses, but the major point is that the friends will no longer be useful to him, if they ever were, as interpretive guides. As he has often said previously, he knows that an audience with God will be the only thing that will resolve his complaints. What he doesn’t know, and what will be apparent as the book develops, is that this audience will be unlike anything that he has imagined. But that is all in the future as Job replies to the overcharged rhetoric of his friends in Job 21.
What comes across through the Hebrew text of verses 2-6 is the intense earnestness of Job’s words. He begins with a familiar double-use of the verb “hear” to stress Job’s desire that the listeners pay diligent attention to him. They are to hear his “words” (millah), using the word to describe “words” that is almost exclusively owned by Job (34/38 appearances). But then the second part of verse 2 is unclear: “let this be your consolation” (tanchum, 5x). The meaning could either be that their listening would be a consolation/comfort to Job (i.e., he doesn’t have to listen to them jabbering away anymore) or that it would be a consolation to them (i.e., they would learn something by listening). No huge issues ride on the interpretation, but it does illustrate once again the slippery nature of words in the Book of Job.
Verse 3 is barely better. A literal reading is,
“Lift me up/raise me (the common nasa) and I will speak, and after I speak you shall mock.”
Most scholars render the first phrase as “permit me,” “bear with me” or, using nineteenth century English, “suffer me…” Clines, however, points out that the verb nasa would uniquely be used this way in the Bible; normally if it is translated “bear” or “suffer” it is followed by a word like “reproach.” That is perhaps why Seow translates the opening phrase as, “Lift me up, that I may speak.” Emphatic in the verse is the word “I,” which is sandwiched by the “lift up” and “speak.” Now it is Job’s turn really to hold forth. Once he has spoken, they can mock on (laag, 19x, also used in this sense in 9:23). That one word (laag) captures Job’s current approach to the friends; they are just lobbing little mockery bombs his way, with nothing positive to say. I interpret verse 3 as reiterating the thought of verse 2—“listen to my words” and “lift me up” are synonymous expressions.
Job ultimately doesn’t care about the mockery of the friends, and verse 4 tells us why.
“As for I myself (again the emphasized anokiy, as in v 3), is my complaint really to a human?”
This half-verse bristles with uncertainties. First, we don’t know if it is a question or statement, though most render it as a question. The point would be that Job doesn’t care if his friends continue to mock him because, ultimately, his complaint is not with humans but with God. But there is also the problem of how to render the preposition le here (“to/for/against”). We often think that little words like prepositions, articles and particles should be the easiest things to translate but, in fact, they are the most difficult. Sometimes they indicate tone of voice, irony, humor, disbelief, without any noun or verb to capture the concept. So, here we don’t know if Job’s complaint is “to humans” (i.e., he wants to garner additional sympathy) or “against humans” (i.e., they are unsympathetic and he wants to complain about that). I think the best sense is that Job, having realized the worthlessness of his friends to resolve his complaint, is simply asking, “Is my complaint really against you?” He realizes he is playing for much higher stakes than simply approval or a shared understanding with the friends.
The second half of verse 4 is also difficult. Most versions render it “Or why should I not be impatient?” or variations of that. But we run into a problem with how best to translate the verb qatsar (49x). It’s most basic meaning is to “cut” or “reap” (generally, to "reap" a harvest). So, when Job asks, literally, “Why shouldn’t my spirit be cut?” is he saying, “Why shouldn’t I be impatient (with you guys)? or is he saying “Why shouldn’t I be cramped in spirit?” (Clines so renders it, emphasizing that the spirit of Job is “cut”). Interesting conundrums all, no doubt, but I think the difficulty in translation reflects Job’s gradual sense of upset, an upset that may lead to his not speaking clearly. Horror, indeed, is gripping him (v 6).
So, he asks his friends to “turn to him and be astonished/appalled” (shamem, 86x). We can hear faint echoes of divine words in Scripture—“turn to me and be saved” (Isaiah 45:22), but with the opposite conclusion. His companions should be appalled at Job’s condition; they should “lay their hands on their mouth” (v 5). Shamem appears frequently in Job (16:8; 17:8; 18:20). From Job’s perspective, there is so much to be appalled about. The phrase, “lay hands on mouth” is a familiar biblical phrase. We see it, for example, in Proverbs 30:32, Judges 18:19; Micah 7:16, but its most similar usage is in Job 40:4 where Job, after hearing half of the dramatic divine speech from Job 38-41, puts his hand on his mouth. It is an almost universal sign of a person’s drawing back into the self, either in shame, fear or incomprehension. Even though Job has serious doubts about his friends’ ability to understand or support him, he still wants their astonishment.
We don’t know if verse 6 belongs to the introduction or to the next section of Job’s speech, but I will treat it here. If friends should be appalled looking at Job’s condition, the emotion he feels upon considering the path he is about to enter is terror and trembling. Words of horror pile up in verse 6. He recalls or thinks or remembers (the common zakar), but then he is dismayed (bahal, 37x). In fact, “dismay” to render bahal is a bit mild. The verb is used thrice in Psalm 6 to describe the almost indescribable horror and fear felt by the Psalmist in his sickness and weakness on his bed at night. Job recalls his situation and is struck anew with this kind of horror.
Lest we have any doubts about this translation, the second part of verse 6 confirms it. Using the word pallatsuth, derived from the hapax verb palats (“shudder/shuddering”, found in Job 9:6), Job says that “shuddering” seizes his flesh. He uses the familiar verb for “seize” (achaz, 68x), the same verb he used in describing God’s merciless “seizing” him by the neck and breaking him (16:12). Job may be shuddering or feeling extreme terror for a number of reasons, but one might be that he knows he will now be approaching God on a different basis than his earlier complaints. Earlier he complained about his pain, about the disproportion between his suffering and his sin, about the way the friends were treating him. But he has not yet uttered a sustained attack on God’s moral governance of the world (though he mentioned it in 9:22-24). He will do that here and thus will now enter uncharted territory in what he will say. That may be reason enough for him to be trembling in his sandals as he speaks.