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239. Job 24:7-9, The Vulnerability of the Poor
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.
By the time we get to verses 7-8, however, it seems that the vulnerability, rather than the ambiguous position of the poor is stressed. Verse 7 says,
“They spend the night in nakedness, without clothing; and they have no
covering in the cold (qarah).”
We saw earlier that one of the bad acts of the wicked was to take the garments of people in pledge and apparently not return them in the evening as required by the law. Though the concept of garments taken in pledge is not explicitly mentioned in this passage, we get the impression that the poor’s nakedness is probably because they have had to turn over their garment (after the wicked has taken their ass/ox—chamor/shor) in pledge, a garment that isn’t returned.
Verse 7 is a very sad verse. It says the same thing three times, but each of the three times brings tears to our eyes. They are naked; they are without clothing; they have no covering in the cold (qarah). The image of cold in verse 7 is far different from the images of the chilled bamboo mat in the Chinese poetry of medieval author Li Qingzhao, for example, where restlessness on a cold autumn night and sleeping on a cold surface inspires her to rise and seek her absent beloved by casting out in her exquisite boat onto the river. The chill felt by Job’s poor is not the chill of poetic inspiration but the chill of extreme vulnerability. We almost hear an echo here of Proverbs 25:20, where singing songs to a heavy heart is likened to taking a garment in cold (qarah) weather.
After some faltering images in verses 5-6, Job may have now found a groove. Verse 8 should be read in tandem with verse 7, for it shows the sad result of living in nakedness, with one’s garment either lost or pledged. More literally than literarily we have:
“They become wet with the sudden and powerful showers (zerem) of the mountains; and for lack of shelter/refuge (machaseh) they hug a rock.”
The word for the sudden shower is zerem (9x), related to the verb zaram, whose two appearances emphasize the flood-like nature of the rains. Speaking of the transience of humans, the Psalmist says, “You sweep them away as in a flood” (zaram; 90:5). Zerem can appear with other terms for rain, as in Isaiah 4:6, where one seeks a protection “from the storm (zerem) and the rain (matar)," but to be noted in Isaiah 4:6 and 25:4, as well as our passage in Job. is the connection between zerem and machaseh, or “storm” and “refuge.” It is of course a natural connection—you seek out a refuge in the storms.
But in the case of Job’s poor, they are without shelter, and so they “huddle around/hug/take refuge in/cling to” the rock. The verb here is the 13x-appearing chabaq. Its three first appearances, in Genesis, all are in contexts of meeting a person—one hugs them (e.g., Genesis 33:4). Two of its three appearances in Ecclesiastes are in that most famous song about times to do and to refrain from certain activities. There is a time to “embrace” (chabaq) and a time to “refrain from/be far from (rachaq) embracing” (chabaq; Ecclesiastes 3:5). Thus, we are on good grounds for keeping the translation “hug the rock” here. It is both accurate and powerfully plaintive. In their nakedness and exposure, drenched by the gushing waters of the mountain storm, they seek some kind of refuge, some kind of relief. The only relief they find is in the comfort of an inert object—hugging the stone. These two verses alone (Job 24:7-8) make the whole passage worth it.
But there is more. The miserable life of the anav (ani in 24:9) and ebyon continues in verses 9-12. No subject is given for the verb (31x, “to seize/steal/pluck”), a verb which we have already seen in 20:19 and 24:2. We are just told that “they” steal the fatherless “from the breast.” No doubt the wicked are performing this action. In this one instance Job would agree with Zophar. Zophar had said that the wicked “steal” or “seize” (gazal) a house that they didn’t build. Yet, for Zophar, their rejoicing is short; judgment impends. Not so, apparently, for Job. We just have the most vulnerable people exposed to further depredations, while God seemingly does nothing.
We have seen the idea of stealing/seizing (gazal); we have also seen repeated mention of the poor pledging (chabal) garments, making them subject to oppression by the wicked (22:6; 24:3). The concepts of gazal and chabal are linked in verse 9, where the poor are both ripped away while they are mere sucklings and where they give pledges of their goods. The literal wording of 24:9 is suggestive:
“they (the wicked) take a pledge (chabal) upon the poor,”
as if we can almost see the garment upon the person being peeled off and handed over to the wicked. Vulnerability means that you give away, seemingly willingly, everything you have, even that which you considered a necessity for your life. Why, Job thinks, is God so silent when the most vulnerable are repeatedly exposed to the most humiliating treatment—even specific violations of the law? If God doesn’t rise to defend the law, who will?
Many scholars see a textual problem in verse 9 which centers on the preposition al, which I translated “upon” the poor (i.e., the garment upon their body). They feel that the sentence doesn’t make much sense as it is, and so, to keep the parallelism, they substitute an ul for the al. Ul means “to give suck,” though its noun form means a child. Thus, we would have two parallel thoughts, with the fatherless being ripped away from the breast, and the puling infant being taken as pledge. It would even be worse than just stripping clothes off the back.