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220. Job 21:22-26, Giving Some Nuance to the Idea of Judgment

 

22 “Can anyone teach God knowledge,

In that He judges those on high?

23 One dies in his full strength,

Being wholly at ease and satisfied;

24 His sides are filled out with fat,

And the marrow of his bones is moist,

25 While another dies with a bitter soul,

Never even tasting anythinggood.

26 Together they lie down in the dust,

And worms cover them.

 

Job pauses in his mind. He has been pretty dogmatic in this chapter, repeatedly asserting the blessedness and easy life of the wicked. Yet, perhaps it isn’t so. It isn’t his prerogative to judge; he doesn’t have all the evidence to make definitive discriminations about the wicked. These verses, thus, soften Job’s rather dogmatic stance of the earlier verses in two ways. First, they recognize, as if there were any doubt on the question, that God doesn’t really need instruction to run the universe (v 22); then they soften Job’s earlier words by suggesting that the end of the wicked (and perhaps all people) is more varied than earlier said.

 

Job urged God to visit rapid judgment on the wicked so that “he would know” (v 19), i.e., that the wicked would truly learn that there is a moral governor of the world. But now, in verse 22, Job returns to the theme of knowledge but this time in a more humble way. As he thinks of the complexity of the world, and realizes that God is the one responsible for it, he asks, “Who will teach God knowledge (daath, from the verb “to know”)? So much of life is a quest for knowledge, but so much lies hidden from us. Job’s question in verse 22 is meant to suggest that no human really can teach God how to run the universe. After all, as the text goes on to say, “He (God) judges the exalted ones/ones on high.” Bildad will later say that the stars aren’t clean in God’s sight (25:5); Eliphaz has earlier said that God even charges the angel with folly (4:18). Job agrees with his companions on this point—that God is the only one who has enough knowledge to be able to apportion appropriate judgment on the creatures.

 

With this (newfound) humility, Job then returns to consider the conditions of those in the world, and he comes up with a slightly different picture than earlier in the chapter. We don’t at first know if he is contemplating the fate of all in the next four verses (vv 23-26) or is simply continuing his reflections on the wicked but the impression I receive is since Job was changing the terms of the discussion in verse 22 to include judgment on the heavenly creatures, then verses 23-26 probably also consider more than just the wicked. I conclude that in verses 23-26 he is dealing with the judgment on all humans.

 

When Job then returns to the subject of judgment in these verses, fueled by the realization that God is the one who judges, he finds two categories of people, and they are not the “upright” and the “wicked.” In what we will call “Category A” he finds those who “die in full strength (literally, “in the bone of his perfection”); wholly at ease and in quiet” (v 23).  It is a unique and most powerful description to describe the complete satisfaction of some who die.

 

Of interest are the sounds of the two adjectives at the end of verse 23  shalanan and shalev.  We can almost “hear” the peaceful strain of shalom behind them. The first, shalanan, is a hapax, but it obviously is derived from shaanan (10x, “to be at ease”; Job uses it in 12:5), which is itself rooted in the three letters sh-a-n, which means “to be at ease” (Job 3:18) or be at rest (e.g., Proverbs 1:33; Jer 30:10). The word shalev (8x) is particularly memorable in Job because of his earlier reference to his condition as “being at ease” (before God shattered him, 16:12), and Zophar’s use of it to describe how the wicked has no ease (20:20). Shalev is related to the verb shalah, “to be at rest,” which appeared in Job 3:26 and 12:6. When we read the final words of 21:23 aloud, we have, kullo shalanan veshalev, “completely at rest and ease.” The repeated “sh” sounds give us the feeling of peace and quiet.

 

This first group of people are further described in verse 24, but the imagery is unclear. Perhaps as befits earlier passages in Job, one clear statement gives the speaker the privilege of then speaking unclearly. We are immediately brought into unclarity by the first word, atin, a hapax.  Since his atin will be said to be “full of milk” (the common cheleb), we don’t have an unlimited number of things that might be in view. Thus, translators have rendered it “sides” or “breasts” or even “pails” or “buckets.” Seow, following an earlier Jewish commentator, gives us the unusual translation of “testicles,” though Hebrew has other words for those male parts. Clines lists ten different translation possibilities that scholars have chosen; we are left to marvel at the ingenuity.  If we don’t know what is filled with milk, we are little better off in the second part of verse 24:

 

      “and the marrow (moach, another hapax) of his bones is moist (the passive of the common                 verb to “drink”).

 

I suppose that verse 24 simply reinforces the peace and ease theme of verse 23, though it does so in a way that is obscure for us.   

 

He then turns to another group of people in verses 25-26 (the Hebrew construction of zeh…zeh..or “this one/this one” helps us sort out our groups). We may call them “Category B.” This category of people is not so fortunate as the ones who enjoyed shalanan and shalev. In contrast, they die “in the soul of bitterness” (rather than, as one might expect, “in the bitterness of soul”). They don’t “eat with prosperity” (using the common word tob, literally “good,”that recurs in this chapter—see, for example, verses 13 and 16). 

 

But their condition is only described in one verse, as verse 26 then summarizes the results for the two categories of people. “They together (the common yachad) lie in the dust, and the worms cover them.” Job is fond of using the phrase “to lie” (shakab) to describe death (see 3:13; 14:12).  Now we know that both categories of people face the same fate. This fate, however, seems to be irrespective of moral performance in life.  Maybe Job is changing his tune a bit?  We will have to read on. . .