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24. Job 3:4, May the Day Perish, Part I

4 Let that day be darkness!
    May God above not seek it,
    or light shine on it.

 

Job wants the day of his birth and the night of his conception to “perish.”  Verses 4-7 explain that thought in more detail. The three four-word phrases of verse 4 are, “Let that day be darkness”; “Let God not search it from above;” and “Let not the light shine on it.” The first phrase introduces the first of four words Job uses in verses 4-6 for “darkness.” As he puts together the language of his curse, perhaps modeled on the curses of other ancient people of whom we have few records, a major ingredient is the “darkness.” We can imagine the witches of Hamlet stirring their brew; Job is stirring a literary brew with “darkness” as the chief ingredient.

 

The four words for darkness in this passage are choshek (vv 4, 5), tsalmaveth (v 5), kimrir (v 5) and ophel (v 6). Each will call for brief mention but the point here is to appreciate the cumulative intensity of these words. The author plunges us into his darkness. My first inclination is not to try to tease out differences among these various words by saying, for example, that one means “inky darkness” while another might only mean “darkness.” It is enough if we feel the cumulative weight of the dark.


When we look at the meaning of verse 4, we see that the first phrase gives us an important clue. Job wants the “day” of his birth to become choshek, “darkness.” He wants to drape it in crepe rather than in the festive bunting of celebration. As indicated above, we don’t really know what the second clause, “let not God search it out from above” means. The verb darash (164x) is a very common verb for “seek” or “search out,” but interestingly enough, it is usually used for people’s “searching out” God rather than God “searching out” something. The classic example is Deuteronomy 4:29, “you will find (God) when you search (darash) for God with your whole heart.” Another is Isaiah 55:6, “Seek the Lord (darash) while he may be found..” It appears more than 30x in II Chronicles, mostly describing people seeking God. Sometimes God is the subject of darash, but in these cases it is in the context of judgment, “God will ‘search out’ or ‘require’ something of people” (e.g., Genesis 9:5). That sense of darash seemsout of place in Job 3:4.

 

When God “searches” something out elsewhere, by investigating it or trying to figure out more information about it, a different verb is used. The most memorable verses are Jerermiah 17:10, “I the Lord search the heart” (verb is chaqar, 27x) or the Psalmist’s ringing “Search me, O God” (chaqar again, Psalm 139:23). We don’t really know what Job means when he wishes that God would not “search it out from above.” We suppose it expresses Job’s wish that not only will the day be plunged into darkness but that God will ignore it too, but the language still startles us.  

 

Finally, verse 4 concludes with “My no light shine upon it.” When other Scriptures ask God to have the divine light shine on something we sometimes have “Lift up (the common nasa) the light (the common or) of your face (the common paneh) upon us” (Psalm 4:7) or, in the Aaronic benediction, “Lift up (nasa again) your countenance (paneh again; Numbers 6:26).  Yapha (8x), the verb in Job 3:4 for “shine,” is used more than once for God’s “shining forth.” God “shines forth” (a) out of Zion, the perfection of beauty (Psalm 50:2).  God is urged to “shine forth” (yapha) to help the people (Psalm 80:1; 84:1). The other five appearances are all in Job. Job will neatly twist the glorious meaning of yapha in 10:3, where Job accuses God of looking favorably on or shining forth (yapha) on the schemes of the wicked. As we will see many times, there seems to be no useful word of great theological import in the tradition whose meaning Job can’t turn upside down!

 

Job 3:4 is the only place in the Bible where a light shines forth (yapha) that doesn’t appear to be be derived from God’s shining activity. The light seems simply to be the light of day, though we are destabilized enough in our understanding of language even by Job 3:4 as to be uncertain. The word for “light” is the hapax narah, but it is close enough to the typical term for “lamp” (ner) to be easily understood. Given the author’s penchant for alliterative phrases, we kind of wonder why he doesn’t choose the verb nagah for“shine” here. He uses the verb in 18:5 and 22:28, and it would have yielded the nice alliterative couplet nagah ner or nagah narah.  So, the word choices in the second and third clauses of 3:4 are not necessarily incorrect grammatically, but they are somewhat unexpected. In summarizing 3:4, we see one clear thought—“let that day be darkness,” and two thoughts that are easy enough to translate but don’t give us a clear meaning. We may be in the realm of incantatory phrases as well as a little darkness of our own.