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

 

5 “Behold, as wild donkeys in the wilderness

They go forth seeking food in their activity,

As bread for theirchildren in the desert.

6 They harvest their fodder in the field

And glean the vineyard of the wicked.

7 They spend the night naked, without clothing,

And have no covering against the cold.

8 They are wet with the mountain rains

And hug the rock for want of a shelter.

9 Others snatch the orphan from the breast,

And against the poor they take a pledge.

10 They cause the poorto go about naked without clothing,

And they take away the sheaves from the hungry.

11 Within the walls they produce oil;

They tread wine presses but thirst.

12 From the city men groan,

And the souls of the wounded cry out;

Yet God does not pay attention to folly.

 

For the first time in the Book of Job we have an extended reflection on Job’s concern for the poor and needy (as we just saw, the two words in Hebrew are anav/ebyon). As we will see in Job 29-31, Job’s concern for the needy was a major focus of his pre-disaster life, but one wonders if his new situation of personal loss and vulnerability has made him even more acutely aware of the vulnerability that weakness and penury bring. The language of this section, though sometimes repetitive and obscure, is full of unique expressions of grief and pain. Grief teaches us its own nuances and expressions.

 

One thing that has gradually crept up on us in the passage is the threefold use of words for animals. At first it was the donkey (chamor) or the ox (shor) of vulnerable people that were taken, but in verse 5 we meet the poor who themselves are compared to animals (pere—wild asses). We are told that in the wilderness (the common midbar) they go out in their work. Literally verse 5a says,

 

     “Lo wild asses in the wilderness—they go out in their work.”

 

It is both an arresting and confusing image. Let’s begin with confusion. It is confusing because we don’t know what the comparison to wild asses is meant to communicate. The word pere only occurs 10x in the Bible, four of which are in Job. Usually the haunt of the pere/wild ass in the desert (Jeremiah 2:24). We don’t know if it lives there because it has been forcibly been excluded from human society or that it simply finds its natural location in the wilderness. Only in one other place is it likened to a person (Genesis 16:12, where Ishmael will be called a pere of a man), but scholars don’t agree on whether the comparison to Ishmael is meant to be positive or negative—i.e., does it emphasize the “unconstrained freedom” of life in the wilderness or the alienation and social rejection that life in the wilderness might suggest?  It is confusing here also because these wild asses seem to live in the wilderness in Job 24:5 but they soon move to more domesticated haunts in 24:6. 

 

In 24:5 the poor are thus likened to animals, but as animals working diligently in the normal sphere of their lives. But the image is nevertheless arresting because of the subtle dehumanization that is going on. The poor are, literally, “bent” from the “way” (v 4) by others; they have no place to go but to the byways and the wilderness. They are like animals.  


In the wilderness they diligently search for food (v 5, shachar, 12x/3x in Job). This verb is unexpected because in most of its other appearances it stresses a person’s diligent search for God, for good or for wisdom. “O God you are my God, I shall seek you earnestly/diligently (shachar),” Psalm 63:1. Wisdom gives a warning to those who seek her too late: “They will diligently seek me (shachar) but will not find me” (Proverbs 1:28). The one verse that expresses a thought almost identical to Job 24:6 has young lions (kephir, a word used by Elihpaz in his “catalogue of lions” in 4:10-11) roaring after their prey (tereph, which also appears in Job 24:6), seeking (the common baqash) their food from God (Psalm 104:11). Job’s use of shachar for their activities may subtly suggest a “re-humanization” or ennoblement of their quest. Thus, though Job evinces a sympathy and understanding for the anav/ebyon, we are not sure if we should feel sad for them in their possible dehumanization or praise them for their grit and determination in the wilderness. Or maybe both.

 

The rest of verse 5 is straightforward.  Though many translations have the wild asses seeking “their food” or “scavenging,” the word for this scavenging is tereph, prey.  Its verb form means to “tear” or “rend,” like a wild beast does to its prey. The wilderness, the arabah, yields “bread” (lechem) for them.   


By verse 6 the anav/ebyon seemingly have abandoned the wilderness, because they are now said to be "in the field.” The thought of the verse also isn’t crystal clear—one of the six words is a hapax; one only occurs two other places.  

 

            “They cut his fodder in a field; and they glean/despoil the vineyard of the wicked." 

 

Most scholars think that Job is now describing the oppressed condition of the poor in relation to the (presumably rich) wicked. The poor are now in the field, reaping (qatsar, 49x, appearing first in Leviticus and used in the phrase qatsar qetser, ‘reap the harvest’—Leviticus 23:10, 22, etc) the fields of the wicked. But we don’t know if what is in view is a relationship like master/servant where the servant dutifully cuts a crop or some other arrangement. The word belil, 3x, is usually translated “fodder,” though Clines and others say that this doesn’t seem appropriate (to whom?) and thus slightly emend the text to say that they are “reaping a field not their own.” I’ll stick with the MT here; there is nothing inherently unclear to me about cutting fodder, though cutting ‘grain’ might have been clearer.

 

But we don’t know if they are doing this under oppressive conditions, if they are being forced to do it, or if they are simply looking for food.  We also don’t know how to render the hapax verb laqash  in the second clause. The BDB tells us that laqash is the denominative verb of leqesh, the “spring crop” or the “latter growth.” Therefore the verb has something to do with “taking the second/latter crop.” This is what the poor people do to the vineyard of the wicked (rasha).  We don’t know, however, if Job considers this to be a subservient or predacious act. That is, are the poor meekly gleaning the vineyard, preparing for a wine crop, or are the poor despoiling whatever is left of the grain crop, thereby stealing from the wicked?

 

As we have previously seen, when images are suggestive but ambivalent (i.e., can be taken contrary ways), people end up either taking one of the two interpretive paths or, more likely, forgetting the passage altogether.  I have never seen any of the verses from Job 24:5-12 on anyone’s “memorization list.” People might tolerate ambiguity for quite some time, but in the end most long for some semblance of clarity.