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236. Job 24: Introduction and Job 24:1

 

Job 24 is a curious chapter. Its words are placed in Job’s mouth, though many scholars think that the final seven or so verses (24:18-24 or 25) don’t “fit” very well with Job’s other words, either those uttered in the first part of Job 24 or elsewhere. It also seems curious because Job has just spent a good deal of time in Chapter 21 dealing with the subject of Chapter 24—the life cycle and (generally happy) fate of the wicked. In Job 24 he seems to open up that subject again as if never having considered it. 


But a closer look at the flow of 24:1-17 shows that it isn’t simply concerned here with the comfortable life of the wicked. Rather, Job now focuses on the effect of the wicked’s action on the poor and vulnerable in the society. Perhaps because of Job’s “preferential option for the poor” here, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez focused on this chapter in his short book on Job (On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent). Job may also be emphasizing the wicked’s ill-treatment of the poor here because he ultimately wants to contrast it with his just treatment of the vulnerable in his peroration, Job 29-31.  

 

In order to understand the transition from the terror felt by Job at the end of Job 23 to the new subject of Job 24, we need to take care with the difficult opening verse of Job 24. It is hard to translate and, at first, difficult to understand but my claim is that once we see it as a further reflection on Job’s frustration in 23:3 we are on a smooth path. Let me illustrate.

 

Job’s frustration in Job 23 centers on the issue of God’s absence. God simply isn’t present to hear his case. He doesn’t know where God is or why God is silent, but God just isn’t there. To turn the title of one book of Francis Schaefer, the popular Evangelical thinker of the 1970s, on its head, Job believes that God is not there and that God is silent. This is the context for Job 24:1. We will have to massage the translation through several iterations. Literally, the first part says,

 

     “Why are times not hidden from the Almighty?”  

 

The verb is the common tsaphan (31x, “to store up/hide/lay up”), and the preposition “mem” (normally rendered “from”) stands before “the Almighty.”   

 

If you think about what was just given for a second, you see that it makes little if any sense. The words are all sturdy English words, but their combination yields no meaning. Thus, the translation massaging begins.  

 

     “Why are times not laid up by the Almighty?” 

 

Two subtle changes have been made: 1) a change away from the concept of treasure or storage and toward the idea of laying up or planning/appointing; and 2) a change away from the “from” and towards a “by” meaning for “mem.” Thus, the translation of 24:1 accepted by many scholars, myself included, is 

 

        "Why aren’t times appointed/set by the Almighty?”

 

Yet, still the thought isn’t fully clear. The next step is to emphasize that the general word “times” (eth) actually means “set times” or “special times” (as in Genesis 18:10) and, in the context of Job’s frustration in 23:3, “set judicial times.” Thus, the emerging consensus of scholars is that 24:1 expresses Job’s frustration that God doesn’t have regular or set times appointed/planned for holding judicial inquiries. Older English commentators talk about God’s not “holding an assize,” with “assize” being an old French legal term taken into English as the common law tradition was developing in the 14th century, and referring to, as the OED tells us, “A sitting or session of a consultative or legislative body” or “The decree or edict made at such a sitting.”  

 

The second part of verse 1 is potentially muddled, but can be rescued by rendering it, “Why do those who know him not see his (judgment) day?” The muddled character of the verse is reflected in the uncertainty of the first phrase: “those who know him.” The textual tradition agrees that the verb yada (“to know”) is in view, though there is unclarity as to whether it is a “they know” or “those who know him.” A second muddled feature of the phrase is that only those who “know” God, whoever they really are, seem to be concerned about judgment day, whereas the concept of a divine judgment day will affect all. But we got the gold, so to speak, in the first part of the verse. That is enough.

 

Job skillfully uses this longing and lament of verse 1 as a way to transition from his frustration at God’s not hearing his case to frustration at God’s general judicial inactivity. Because God is silent and distant, the wicked can run roughshod over the poor, exploiting them, taking their garments in pledge, letting them go naked and exposed to the elements, making them work for peanuts, and generally making their lives miserable. That, then, will be the focus of Job 24:2-17. The thoughts are full of energy and sharpness, and we are prepared to hear them now because Job has made the transition from his own case to the cases of others.