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227. Job 22:15-20, Finishing Eliphaz’s Words on God’s Being Truly in Charge
15 “Will you keep to the ancient path
Which wicked men have trod,
16 Who were snatched away before their time,
Whose foundations were washed away by a river?
17 They said to God, ‘Depart from us!’
And ‘What can the Almighty do to them?’
18 Yet He filled their houses with good things;
But the counsel of the wicked is far from me.
19 The righteous see and are glad,
And the innocent mock them,
20 Saying, ‘Truly our adversaries are cut off,
And their abundance the fire has consumed.’
It is a passage like this that makes people put down (and never again pick up) the Book of Job. After mischaracterizing Job’s theology in verses 12-14, Eliphaz decides he will pose a question to Job in verses 15-16. The language is rare and even rough, but the sense is clear enough:
“Will you preserve the old path, which evil people have trodden, people
who were snatched away/shriveled up before their time, whose foundations
were swept away like a river?”
Perhaps impressed by his own eloquence in verses 12-14, Eliphaz now tries to use more complicated language than he should in verses 15-16, and he ends up tying himself in verbal knots. Yet, his question is whether Job really wants to persist in his obviously erroneous beliefs. The “evil people” of verse 15 are not people (either ish or adam) who are rasha, (the common word for “evil” in Job) but rather math (21x, “males”) who are avon (a common word for sin or iniquity). In this case the old path is an evil one, but the most resonant verse in the Bible describing the old path mentions its goodness (Jeremiah 6:16):
“Thus saith the Lord, stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths
where is the good way, and walk in them, and you will find rest for your souls.”
With this inauspicious start to his question, Eliphaz then continues, using a verb that only appears one other time in the Bible (qamat, Job 16:8) to ask his question. Does Job want to pursue the (bad) old path like sinful males who were qamat? Job used the word qamat in Job 16 to describe what God had done to him—shriveled him up. We should probably see it used in the same way here. Job used the word to describe what he felt God has done to him; Eliphaz uses it to talk about the general fate of the wicked.
They were “snatched away/shriveled up” “before their time,” even though the latter phrase really means, “and (there was) no time.” We get the impression from Eliphaz’s imprecision that these wicked males on the bad old path were shriveled up before their time. It is a common theme in the Bible that the evil meet an early death (Psalm 55:23; 102:24); only Eliphaz says it much more clumsily here. Eliphaz wants to know if Job will continue on his path towards destruction.
These sinful males who are shriveled up “and there is no time” are finally described in verse 16 with these words: “a stream poured out (is) their foundation.” Of course we can “rescue” Eliphaz with a translation whose words make sense, such as “whose foundation was poured out as a stream” or “whose foundations were swept away as a flood” (Clines). The verb for “pour out” is yatsaq (51x), which either means to pour something out (like sacrificial blood, Leviticus 9:9) or to “cast” molten objects (I Kings 7:24). Job uses the term in both ways in 11:15; 37:18; 38:38; 41:23.
But the various ways to translate yatsaq create a meaning problem for us. If we render it as “pour out” then we have these evil men’s foundation being poured out like a river. Thus, some kind of motion is implied, even though the idea of foundation emphasizes fixedness. If we take it as “cast,” then we have a foundation “cast” as a river, though we usually think of a river as flowing. Thus, we don’t know if the wicked are snatched away and poured out; or shriveled up and cast or the other combinations of these verbs. I suppose ultimately it makes little difference, but it might be nice to know if we are to envision the wicked more like frozen blocks of stone or like shriveled creatures flowing helplessly along a river. Images lose their potency when they are too difficult to pin down, and we definitely have that here. It is about here that even the most intrepid readers of the Book of Job lay it down. It just becomes too difficult, too much of a meaning stretch. Better check on the news or how your stocks are doing. . .
If verses 15-16 created headaches for us, let me introduce you to verses 17-18 which even Clines, who is skillfully able to find meaning almost everywhere, says, “These verses sit awkwardly here.” Here are Eliphaz’s words:
“Who say to God, ‘Depart from us and what can the Almighty do to them/us?
But he filled their houses with good, and the counsel of the wicked is far from me.”
To use terminology from American jazz, this seems to be Eliphaz’s “riff” on Job’s words in 21:14-16. Job said there that the wicked defiantly tell God to leave them alone (using the same words as here); they felt they were beyond the divine reach. They were untouchable. In Chapter 22, Eliphaz also ascribes that feeling to the wicked. Eliphaz adds in 22:18 that despite the evil’s rejection of God, God filled their houses with good things. He closes his “riff” in 22:18 with the same words Job used in 21:16, “But the counsel of the wicked is far from me.”
We should probably read these last words either as a snide remark of Eliphaz to Job or as a confession of Eliphaz that this seemingly alluring path of evil isn't his path. If the former, it is almost as if Eliphaz is saying, ‘Oh Job, you spoke very nicely about the wicked’s unconcern with God (Job 21); I agree with you. You also said that your way was far removed from theirs (Job 21). Yeah, right! You are one with them in believing that God is distant, covered in clouds so that he can’t see the world. You say that ‘the counsel of the wicked is far from me.’ Right. Instead, you really are the one who gives the wicked their counsel!’ (He then probably chuckles at his cleverness, while we are left wondering if we have come to a useful reading).
Well, Eliphaz never goes as far as actually to say what I attributed to him in the previous paragraph. After all, I was trying to capture the “tone” of his last words in verse 18. He believes that Job is a wicked person, having oppressed widows, withheld bread from people, taken their garments in pledge for no reason, etc. Job really can’t get away with claiming that the way of the wicked is far from him.
Yet Eliphaz needs to speak with some subtlety in verses 17-18 because of where he eventually wants to end up in verses 21-30. In those verses, he will hold out an olive branch to Job by expressing his hope that Job will reform his language and conduct and be delivered by God. Thus, the real purpose of verses 12-20 might be to soften some of Eliphaz’s harsh judgment of Job from verses 6-11 so that his holding out of hope to Job in verses 21-30 has a tone of reality to it. Yet he may have let slip a rather mocking “the counsel of the wicked is far from me” in verse 18. He can’t fully hide his disdain of Job. If, however, Eliphaz attributes this statement to himself, then the mocking tone is absent, and Eliphaz is just trying to distance himself from these wicked people, whoever they are.
There is one translation problem in verse 17 that ought not to go unnoticed. The last clause of verse 17 is, literally, “What shall the Almighty do to/for them?” We would have expected, "What shall the Almighty do to us?" It might be possible to maintain that reading if we think that Eliphaz has changed from direct to indirect speech in the words. Then we would have an amazingly complex two verses, where Eliphaz attributed words to the wicked, then withdrew to give his own comment. Then, he would resume in verse 18 with his words about the wicked, before ending with a mocking imitation of Job at the end of verse 18 or a serious statement of his own belief about the wicked. No wonder Clines (and others) believe that verses 17-18 sit “awkwardly” here.
The idea of God’s filling people with good things is a familiar concept in the Bible. Psalm 103 is so powerful because of its skillful use of that concept (especially in vv 1-5). Yet this idea, true as it may be, lacks the same potency when put on Eliphaz’s lips in 22:18.
We sometimes feel that some of the speeches of Job may be likened to a plane circling a landing field and being unable to land either because of bad weather or impaired condition of the landing field. That impression is especially evident in the words of Job 22:12-20. Now that he has erroneously attributed to Job a belief in a distant God (vv 12-14), of keeping to the (bad) old way of people who seemingly died before their time, he then characterizes the evil by quoting Job from the previous chapter, and then throwing in a thought that is elsewhere present in the Bible (God fills their houses with good things) before finally mocking Job.
But finally, in verses 19-20, Eliphaz seems to shift gears again, now speaking about the righteous, who haven’t played much of a role in his speech so far. Using the verb for “see,” which has been one of the stable features of this speech (vv 11, 12, 14, 19), Eliphaz then says,
“The righteous saw it and rejoiced; and the innocent scorn them. (They say),
‘Surely their adversary is hidden, and the fire consumes their abundance.”
The translation of the third phrase is controverted. Though the verb kachad (32x) almost always means “to hide,” it can be used to mean “wipe out/destroy” (Psalm 83:4). Eliphaz’s use of the verb in 4:7 is also probably best read that way. So, I will alter my translation to reflect that fact. But then the hapax qim appears, which I rendered as “adversary.” We think it must be derived from the common verb qum, which means “to stand up,” and therefore those who “stand up” (in opposition) must be adversaries. That is how the thinking process goes.
But an increasing number of scholars read it in parallelism with the “abundance” of the following clause so that it means “possessions” or “wealth.” A slight emendation of the Hebrew text will get you there. Even if we go with “possessions,” the word translated “abundance” is really not “abundance.” It is the rather common term “remnant” (yether), which also is translated “excellence.” It probably is better to render the last phrase, “and the fire eats up their leftovers.”
Once we struggle just with getting the words straight, we should ask what these verses mean. Eliphaz is now referring to the experience of the righteous, whom he hasn’t previously referred to his in his speech, who somehow see “it,” though the “it” isn’t specified, and then laugh “them” to scorn. We assume that the target of laughter is the wicked; we assume that the reason the righteous laugh is that the wicked finally receive judgment, though Eliphaz isn’t as graphic as Zophar (Job 20) in describing the judgment on the wicked. Other passages in Scripture, such as Psalm 58:11, speak of the righteous rejoicing over the destruction of the wicked, so Eliphaz isn’t unique in this reference, even if he isn’t very convincing. Well, perhaps Eliphaz is a bit ashamed to talk about gloating over the fate of the wicked, or the pains suffered by the wicked, because he is preparing his final words of hope for Job. These last two verses (vv 19-20) prepare him for that. Yet, we have to admit, he has tied himself in significant verbal knots in verses 12-20.