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237. Job 24:2-4, The Conduct of the Wicked

 

2 “Some remove the landmarks;

They seize and devour flocks.

3 They drive away the donkeys of the orphans;

They take the widow’s ox for a pledge.

4 They push the needy aside from the road;

The poor of the land are made to hide themselves altogether.

We might best outline the rest of this chapter as follows:

 

Job 24:2-4, The Conduct of the Wicked

Job 24:5-12, The Life of the Poor

Job 24:13-17, Doing Deeds in Darkness

Job 24:18-25, Judgment on the Wicked

 

After lamenting the lack of divinely-appointed assizes, Job gives reasons why such sessions would be most welcome. Why?  Because the wicked oppress the poor and vulnerable, and that situation needs to be rectified. In Job 21 he had emphasized the comfortable and even joyous life of the wicked, but here his focus is on the effect of the wicked’s conduct on vulnerable people in society.  

 

We start with property crimes and then move to crimes against the person. Though the word “wicked” doesn’t appear in verse 2, almost all readers agree that they are in view. But the scope of the first verb, and even what verb it is derived from, are unclear.  Some scholars see the form yasiygu as derived from the common verb nasag (50x, to overtake, attain), while some see it as a hiphil form of the verb sug (14x, turn back, move away). It makes more sense in this verse if it is the latter, though the BDB, last generation’s authoritative Biblical Hebrew dictionary, says it is from nasag. Without too much of a stretch, nasag can also mean “to move away.” If we keep this translation, we have a rather straightforward reading (v 2a):

 

            “The wicked remove/move away landmarks (gebulah).”

 

Landmarks marked the property lines between two people. Removing it, as one commentator said, “was equivalent to violent appropriation of the property of another.” Deuteronomy 19:14, using the same verbal combination (nasag/sug and gebulah) is best rendered,“You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker (gebul), which was set up by your ancestors to mark the inheritance you shall receive. . .” The same combination of the verb and noun also appears in Deuteronomy 27:17 and Proverbs 22:28. 

 

But this isn’t all. In verse 2b we have:

 

     “The wicked (again just called “they”) seize flocks and feed them."

 

The seizing is described with gazal (31x), which we saw previously in 20:19 on Zophar’s lips, and is a word emphasizing a violent taking of people or property. What isn’t clear from this part of the verse is whether the wicked not only seize flocks that aren’t theirs but actually flaunt them, by feeding them in a public fashion after stealing them, or whether the verb “feed them” is just used to emphasize the completeness of taking possession. In any case, in the space of one verse Job emphasizes the predacious character of the wicked.

 

After having committed two acts of monumental predation, the wicked now zoom in on the most vulnerable: the fatherless (yathom) and the widow (almanah). Though two animals are in view here, the donkey (chamor) and ox (shor), many scholars see this as shorthand for saying that the wicked take away the most valuable possession of the most vulnerable people. When Samuel helped the Israelite people set up the institution of kingship, he gave a long speech declaring that this idea didn’t originate with him (since he only reluctantly went along with their request). One indication of his innocence was that he had taken neither shor nor chamor from the people (I Samuel 12:3). So serious was the offense of oppressing widow and fatherless, in the mind of the most ancient Israelite law code, that it was vehemently condemned in Exodus 22:22-24,

 

            “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them….my

            wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall

            become widows and your children orphans."  

 

Rather than violently stealing the donkey, the wicked “lead/drive them away” (nahag, 31x), which pretty much leads to the same result as a more violent taking. Perhaps the verb nahag was used to make it euphonious with nasag. The treatment of the widow is more subtle. The wicked “take (the widow's ox) as pledge” (chabal)." Eliphaz had accused Job of “taking pledges (chabal) of your brother for nothing” (22:6), even though he brought forward no evidence to support his allegation. The verbs gazal and chabal, appearing in verses 2-3, will make a joint appearance again six verses later, where Job will say, “They seize (gazal) the fatherless (yathom) from the breast and take a pledge (chabal) of the poor.” We are beginning to get the impression that Job’s impassioned words might be formulaic, consisting of categories (fatherless/widow), objects (various kinds of animals), and verbs (gazal/chabal/nasag).  

 

Though formulaic statements are adopted precisely because they seem to effective in many contexts, they tend to lose a bit of their punch when they are exposed. It is reminiscent of a legal case I had years ago as a defense litigator, where the pro se, but legally-trained, plaintiff argued that some action of our client not only caused him financial loss but also led to severe emotional distress. He had a nice catalogue of nouns and verbs to describe his physical complaints, something like ‘vomiting, retching, shortness of breath, dizziness’ and several other things you don’t want either to happen to you or even to your opponents. Suspecting potential duplicity, I decided to spend an hour going through other complaints that this plaintiff had submitted over the previous several years against other defendants in our county. I not only discovered that he was a serial plaintiff, but that the nature of his emotional distress, whether someone had allegedly taken a few dollars from him or had interfered with his freedom of contract, was always the same, even to the ‘vomiting, retching, shortness of breath,’ etc. When we responded to his complaint, we made mention that his “patterned complaints” made his case much less plausible in this instance. If everything causes shortness of breath and retching, then nothing causes it. The judge agreed, dismissed the case and even slapped the guy with paying our client’s attorney fees. Chagrined, the defendant paid the fee and then moved to a new state so he, presumably, could continue his ways. 

 

Well, that is a long, and perhaps humorous, digression on Job’s potential “patterned complaint” here. In fact, verses 2, 3 and 9 repeat much of each other’s content, as do verses 7 and 10.  Yet Job continues his assault on the wicked in verse 4:

 

       "They bend/turn (natah) the needy from the way (derek); the poor of the earth hide themselves          together.”

 

The initial verb and one of the nouns are suggestive. We just saw the verb natah and noun derek in 23:11, where Job said that “His way (derek) have I kept and not turned aside” (natah). Turning the poor out of the way might have both a spiritual and economic dimension. The “way” is often the path of God, the approved method for living the covenantal life. But it can also simply refer to a road, so that the wicked may be forcing the poor off the common highways of life, making them seek out byways and back-roads even to move from place to place.  If the latter meaning were in view, we would hear an echo of it in Judges 5:6,

 

            “In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways

            ceased, and travelers walked through byways.”

 

That this may be in Job’s mind is suggested by the last phrase of verse 4, “And the poor of the earth hide themselves together.” Rather than using one of the common verbs for “hide,” such as kachad, sathar, or saphan, Job uses chaba. We first encounter chaba through its double appearance in Genesis 3, where the first couple “hid” from God. Thus, the verb can carry with it the notion of shameful hiding, a sense that probably is present in 24:4. Job’s patterned elements seem to interweave with original thought, creating an alluring and memorable tapestry of the wicked’s oppression of the poor. As for the poor, two words are used: anav and ebyon.  Both are well represented throughout the Scripture though ebyon appears 6x and anav only here in Job.