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233. Job 23:8-12, Looking for God—in all the Right Places

 

8 “Behold, I go forward but He is not there,

And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;

9 When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him;

He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.

10 But He knows the way I take;

WhenHe has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.

11 My foot has held fast to His path;

I have kept His way and not turned aside.

12 I have not departed from the command of His lips;

I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.

 

Before he can appear before God, however, Job faces a problem, a problem whose magnitude only seems to dawns on him here. If he will “escape” or find vindication in his lawsuit, he has to find the judge. But that is how the nightmare begins in Job 23. Perhaps triggered by the little word sham (“there”) in verse 7, Job realizes that this quest for God is also a spatial one. There is no regional courthouse where the judge regularly holds hours or keeps his chambers. So, he has to go looking for God.

 

In language as endearing as it is hopeless, Job reports on that unsuccessful quest in verses 8-9.  If we imagine his map of Palestine is viewed by a person standing at its west, on the coast, and looking eastward, then the language of verses 8-9 immediately makes sense. S/he looks “before” or “in front of” him/her (qedem), which means s/he looks to the east. S/he looks “after” or “behind” him/her (achor), which means the west, but God is  absent from both places. The verb bin, “to understand/perceive” appears once again, but this time it stresses Job’s lackof perception of God.  


 

 

So, there are two more directions to check out (v 9).  Job looks to the “left hand” (semol),which means the north, and then the “right hand” (yamin), or the south, but still God isn’t there. He chooses interesting words in verse 9 to describe either the directions or God’s absence.  He talks about the “left hand side when he works” or “in his working.” The phrase is unusual, but may reflect the tradition which says that God shines forth from Mount Zion, in the remotest parts of the north (Psalm 48:3). The power and working of God may come from the north, even though there are also ample Biblical traditions emphasizing God’s coming from “Teman and Mount Paran” (Habakkuk 3:3), leading the people from the south. Many scholars, uncomfortable with the phrase “In his working,” simply ignore it.  

 

Job can’t see (chazah) God when he turns north, and when he turns to the south, he can’t see (raah) God there either. The verb for turning is not the typical shub, but rather is ataph (16x), which only appears here with the meaning of “turn,” if indeed that is the way to render it here. Normally it means “to be faint or feeble” (Genesis 30:42; Psalm 107:5) though in a few instances it means “to cover’ (Psalm 65:15; 73:6).  The other verb meaning “to be faint” is ayeph, which is identical to ataph except for the middle letter.  Perhaps Job is subtly hinting at the weariness he feels as he looks south—thus, all four directions—and no God.


At first Job’s inability to find God doesn’t deter him. Verse 10 states that despite not finding God,

 

     “He (God) knows the way with me/the way I take; after testing me, I shall emerge like gold.”

 

It is a statement of stunning confidence. It is almost as if Job is saying, ‘Despite the fact that I can’t find God, it is no matter. God, wherever God actually is, knows my situation (the rare phrase derek immadi, literally “the way with me”). Job’s meaning is that God will test him, to be sure (using bachan, 29x, which has already appeared in 7:18 to describe God’s “testing” people every moment, and 12:11, to describe Job’s ear “testing” words), but he will come out like gold. Like so many verbs or concepts of despair, sighing, and judgment, so the verb bachan is disproportionately used in Job (5x). Its most relevant parallel is 7:18, just mentioned, where Job plaintively speaks about God’s testing of humans, “Whom you test (bachan) every moment.”  

 

Here, however God will test Job, and Job will emerge like gold. One scholar, after diligent search, has come up with a metallurgical use of the common verb yatsa (to go out, emerge) in the Ancient Near East, but the sense of our text is clear even without that fascinating find. Job’s reference to “gold” here might not be adventitious; recall Eliphaz’s fascination with “gold” and “dust” and “Ophir” in 22:24-25. In that passage he believed Job would consider God as his treasure or his “gold;” here it is Job, in contrast, emerging as “gold.” Job is confident that God knows (the common yada) his way; earlier in the chapter Job was confident that he knew (yada) the way God would answer. Knowledge seems to abound, even as God is strangely absent.

 

Again, in verses 11-12, we have unique ways of expressing common concepts. Rather than saying that Job follows the divine way, or keeps to God’s path, we have “My foot has seized/held fast (achaz, 68x) to his steps.” The word for “steps” is the rare ashshur (9x), which elsewhere refers to human steps or goings (e.g., Psalm 40:2; 44:18), and never to the divine “steps.” Yet that is what Job has “seized.” The only other place where ashshur is used with regel (“foot”) is in Psalm 40:2, but there we have God “establishing” (the familiar kun) one’s steps; here we Job’s foot “seizing/gripping” the steps.  

 

Verse 11b expresses a parallel thought:

 

     “I have kept (the common shamar) his way (the common derek) and have not turned aside.”

 

We might have expected the verb sur to capture the “turning aside” here, but instead it is the common verb natah, “to bend, incline.” His choice of natah is suggestive; its opposite is “to go straight.” By not turning aside, Job has gone straight. That, really, is what Job is saying that he has done. He has done what the wisdom tradition requires of faithful people—to go along a straight path.


Verse 12 simply reinforces the thought of verse 11, though once again we have to struggle harder than we might like to come up with meaning. Perhaps the same grammatical device as in verse 7 is also evident here (the dropping of a prefixed “mem”) so that the first clause should then read,

 

     “From the commandments of his lips I have not departed.”  

 

If we don’t add the “mem,” we are left in a situation where we still have to translate it the same way. The phrase “commandment of his lips” is unique in the Bible. Again, rather than using sur to describe a possible departure or turning from the divine commandment, he picks another verb, this time mush (20x).  But, as Clines notes, mush is elsewhere used to describe the simple concept of departing or leaving or removing something (mountains are removed in Isaiah 54:10; divine kindness won’t leave people also in Isaiah 54:10); here the verb mush uniquely emphasizes Job’s obedience to God—i.e., Job has not departed from that obedience.  


The second half of verse 12 creates more difficulties. Let’s begin with a literal reading and then retreat to various scholarly attempts to deal with the literal words.

 

     “From my/more than my commandment have I treasured the words of his mouth.”

 

The concept of treasuring God’s commandments is common in the Bible. Its comparative use (i.e., treasuring them more than something else) is present in Psalm 19:11-12, where the law of God is more desirable than gold. But if we have “I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my commandment,” we are nonplussed.  What might “Job’s commandment” be?

 

It is because of this difficulty that scholars have tended to read the choq (commandment) in one of its other meanings, such as “portion” or “allotment.” That is, the word choq became, perhaps through its use in Ps 119 and elsewhere, one of the common words used to describe the law of God. But its earlier usage appears a bit more fluid. Genesis 47:22, for example, talks about an “allotment” (choq) from Pharaoh.  The same usage appears in Proverbs 30:8. Thus, some have decided that this verse means “I have treasured the word of his mouth more than what is necessary/my allotment/my necessary food.” The thought would then be similar to one expressed by the Psalmist when he says, “Your lovingkindness is better than life.”  

 

The difficulty translating this verses has led to other creative solutions. The earliest translation of the Bible was into Greek, and that version (the Septuagint) here had “in my bosom,” taking the choq to be cheq (37x). Thus, Clines and others read this section of verse 12 as, “in my heart I have treasured the words of his mouth.”  


This little journey into a rather insignificant thought illustrates how difficult it is to come up with clarity in reading Job. I rather prefer a more conservative alternative—keeping the sense of choq as “law” or “statute.” The meaning would then be that Job has not departed from the words of God’s lips; he has treasured the words of God more than any law or commandment that would be valuable to him. It is his most precious possession.