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215. Job 21:7-13, The Prosperity of the Wicked

 

7 “Why do the wicked still live,

Continue on, also become very powerful?

8 Their descendants are established with them in their sight,

And their offspring before their eyes,

9 Their houses are safe from fear,

And the rod of God is not on them.

10 His ox mates without fail;

His cow calves and does not abort.

11 They send forth their little ones like the flock,

And their children skip about.

12 They sing to the timbrel and harp

And rejoice at the sound of the flute.

13 They spend their days in prosperity,

And suddenly they go down to Sheol.        

            

Now that the three friends have all weighed in on the fate of the wicked (Job 15; 18; 20), it’s Job turn to do the same. Perhaps not surprisingly given his experience, he is full of questions and contrarian observations rather than simple affirmations of the tradition and its beliefs. Though he has hinted at his approach here already in 9:22-24, where he briefly said that God “destroys both the innocent and the wicked” and “where the earth is given into the hand of the wicked,” he now devotes full attention to that subject.  

 

He does so through a question (v 7) and then a series of observations about the life of the wicked (vv 8-13). What might seem strange at first is not that Job takes his contrarian position here but that he seemingly knows who the wicked are. Maybe they wore signs on themselves in antiquity, pointing to the fact of their despicable conduct and oppressing ways. More likely, Job is simply adopting the categories of the discussion and then turning the discussion on its head.

 

He poses a question which is harder to translate than one might imagine:

 

     “Why do the wicked live, move along (in life) and become strong?”  

 

The translation difficulty is in the second verb, atheq (9x), which elsewhere points to a physical movement of a person or object. Abraham “moved” (atheq) from Shechem to Bethel (Genesis 12:8).  Job has already used the verb three times, much more than his share, and each time it talks about God moving mountains or rocks, or the natural process of erosion (9:5; 14:18; 18:4). Thus, it is more accurate to render atheq here as “to move along in life” rather than, as many translations have it, “grow old.” The problem with the latter translation is that it gives the impression that verse 7 is describing the entire life course of the wicked person, whereas the point is that the wicked is alive (chayah) and becomes strong (gabar chayil are the two Hebrew words). The focus is on the strength and not the longevity of the wicked. Seow’s use of “advance” in his translation is similar to what I suggest here.

 

Rather than the wicked writhing in pain all their days, as Eliphaz suggested, or swallowing poison and being skewered by arrows, as Zophar opined, Job asks why they become and remain strong.  This question functions as a sort of “headline” for this section; Job will now probe in a more granular way how the wicked actually live pretty comfortable lives. 

 

Verses 8-9 are clear and uncompromising, even though the text provides certain interesting challenges.  

 

        “Their seed is established before them and with them, and their offspring are before their                 eyes. Freedom from fear is in their houses and the rod of God does not rest on them.” 

 

The point is crystalline. Not only aren’t their offspring cut off, which Bildad was pretty sure was going to happen (18:19), but the wicked actually flourish and have offspring.  The verb translated “established” is the familiar kun, which generally means “to prepare” or “to establish” or “to be firm.” It is a word connoting solidity if not permanence. Job’s use of it in 21:8 is a direct challenge not just to Bildad but to the three friends, all of whom emphasized the precarious state of the wicked. There are two prepositions that follow the first verb in verse 8, when one preposition would have been sufficient to express meaning. Literally we have “before them” (spatial sense) and “with them.” In the closest biblical parallel to this thought we have “seed established before them” in Psalm 102:28. Perhaps the seemingly superfluous addition of “with them” in 21:8 is to emphasize, through prepositions, the same point as the verb: the families of the wicked are strong and solid. In the second half of the verse appears the fairly rare word tseetsa (“offspring”, 11x, 4x in Job).

 

My translation of the first half of verse 9 is a little looser than the literal words. “Their houses are peaceful/safe, without fear.” The controlling word is the familiar shalom which, though it has several shades of different meanings in the Bible, here seems to be the most familiar shade—“peace.” Because the “rod” (of divine discipline) is not on them, they live unscathed lives. A similar thought is explored in Psalm 73:4-5, where the author says, about the wicked, 


        “There are no pangs at their death, and their body is sound; they don't experience the trouble         of other people, neither are they plagued like others.”

 

The difference between Psalm 73 and Job’s words here, however, is that the Psalmist suggests that the wicked (rasha, same word as in Job 21) will eventually get their just desserts. The Psalmist goes into the sanctuary of God, where he then perceives their end (73:18). They will be “hurled down to utter ruin” (73:19). Take that, wicked!

 

Job’s statement that the wicked don’t experience the “rod” (shebet, 190x, usually translated as “tribe”) of God is remarkable given his own experience with God’s “rod.”  One of Job’s request, in his vain quest for a mediator, was that God would remove the divine rod (shebet) from him (9:34). The wicked face no such hand of discipline.

 

Job then turns to the wicked’s prosperity and good fortune.  Though the meaning of verse 10 is clear, the verbs to get us there are not. That is, verse 10 obviously speaks of safe births of their bulls and cows; yet three of the four verbs to describe the safe birth process never are connected with the birth process elsewhere in the Bible. The bulls “conceive,” but the verb abar (very common) means “to pass through.” They don’t “fail,” but gaal (10x) means “to be loathsome, abhor, defile, reject.” Likewise the cows “calve,” but palat (25x) means “to escape,” though it can also mean “to deliver.” One might say that cows “deliver” (i.e., bear young), but that stretches the meaning of the verb. Finally, they don’t “lose” their calves; in this case the verb shakal (23x), which means “to be bereaved,” actually seems to be used properly.  

 

Of course, scholars and committees of Bible translators give us seamless and fluent translations here, because that is their job. But even though we know what verse 10 is supposed to say, we wonder why Job just couldn’t have picked the normal verbs for conceiving and giving birth. They are all over the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps this is another little reminder, lest we get to confident in our exegetical powers, that the meaning of the text, like God for Job, will always be slightly beyond our grasp.