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216. Job 21:10-13, Continuing With The Good Life of the Wicked

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.


Once we know that their children are healthy and that prosperity is assured, what more need be said about the wicked? In verses 11-13, Job tells us that they don’t just survive:  they flourish. Their lives are full of joy; music, dance, timbrel and harp accompany them. Their days are spent in prosperity and they go down in peace to the grave. Who wouldn’t want to be wicked, if Job’s description of them is on target?


Because he has just spoken about the birthing habits of the animals, that is, the bull (shor) and cow (parah), Job continues in verse 11 with the children of the wicked being compared to a flock (tson). This “flock” of their children will be sent out (the familiar shalach),and they will revel in dancing. The verb for “dance” here is the rather rare raqad (9x); usually we have the multi-meaning verb chul (e.g., Psalm 150:4) to describe dancing. Though raqad is rare, nearly all of its appearances are in most memorable contexts. The Preacher assures us that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance (raqad; Ecclesiastes 3:4). When David was celebrating a signal military victory, he danced (raqad) before the Lord with all his might, exposing himself in the process (I Chronicles 15:29). In this case it is the “little ones” (the word avil appears only here and Job 19:18) who do these things. We have “offspring” and “little ones,” using rare Hebrew words, but Job avoids the easy and familiar terms “sons” and “daughters.”


In any case, it is party time for the children of the wicked. Verse 12 tells us that they “raise the tambourine and harp” (toph, kinnor); they “rejoice at the sound of the pipes” (ugab). The appearance of toph and kinnor together is not unprecedented; both Psalm 149:3 and Isaiah 5:12 mention this pair of instruments. In Psalm 149 they are used to aid in praise of God; dance is also mentioned there, but chul is used. In Isaiah 5:12, however, we have frivolous partying of the people, partying that will soon lead to judgment. In Is 5:12 the instruments include not simply the toph and kinnor, but also the nebel (strings) and the chalil (flute), though I would be hard-pressed to describe any of these with reasonable precision. Some scholars are not so chary. In addition, Job adds the rare ugab, usually translated “pipes,” mentioned elsewhere only in Genesis 4:21; Psalm 150:4 and Job 30:31. While others might want to climb Mount Ararat for traces of Noah’s Ark, I would be quite pleased if someone could dig up an ancient ugab. One of the special features of Seow’s commentary on Job 1-21 is his use of artwork over the centuries to illustrate passages in Job. On page 871 he reproduces a 14th century illustration from the National Library in Paris to show an artist’s depiction of the action of this verse. Who would have thought that people over the centuries would have read and thought about this verse, much less depicted it in art? Amazing.  


In my division of the chapter, verse 13 closes off a mini-section. It isn’t, however, an easy verse either to translate or to interpret.  The translation difficulties are two: how to translate the balah (or kalah) in the first part and how to translate the rega in the second. As Clines tells us, most scholars accept the reading of kalah (the qere, or “spoken” text) for the first verb, yielding the meaning, “They spend/exhaust their days in good/prosperity” (the familiar tob). Kalah can have a meaning of bringing things to conclusion (see its use at the end of the creation narrative in Genesis 2:2), but, as Seow wisely observes, it can also mean simply the passing of days. It, like the verb atheq in verse 7, may place more emphasis on the process of living than simply the “growing old” or the final product of life. So, I would tend to render verse 13a as “they spend their days surrounded by goodness.”


The second translation difficulty leads to our interpretive difficulty with the verse. Normally the word rega, with the prefix be, means “in an instant.” For example, returning to the thought world of Psalm 73, we see that the wicked will eventually be destroyed, but destroyed “as in an instant” (keraga). God’s anger is only for a moment (rega), but the divine mercy is for life (Psalm 30:5). Yet it appears a bit anomalous to say that they wicked will be celebrating with dancing and instruments, yukking it up, and then, all of a sudden, they plunge to the grave. We weren’t expecting that. We were expecting a statement like ‘they live to good old age and die in fullness of years’ or something similar. But here we have them perishing “in a moment/instant.” 


Scholars have “solved” this in two ways:  by retranslating rega as “in tranquility,” though they have to emend the text to get there (both Clines and Seow do this), or by saying that the sudden death of the wicked, taking rega as it is always rendered, is a sudden but blissful death, in which they suffer no pain. But if we give one last look at the actual words of verse 13b, we see that they literally say, “in an instant Sheol they sink/bend.”  I prefer to leave the verse in some confusion and let the wicked keep partying.  

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