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241. Job 24:13-17, Doing Deeds in Darkness

 

13 “Others have been with those who rebel against the light;

They do not want to know its ways

Nor abide in its paths.

14 The murderer arises at dawn;

He kills the poor and the needy,

And at night he is as a thief.

15 The eye of the adulterer waits for the twilight,

Saying, ‘No eye will see me.’

And he disguises his face.

16 In the dark they dig into houses,

They shut themselves up by day;

They do not know the light.

17 For the morning is the same to him as thick darkness,

For he is familiar with the terrors of thick darkness.      

 

Job begins to lose some focus in these verses, a focus which runs the risk of being completely skewed in verses 18-25, though the general thought here is clear. He steps back from the experience of the poor to focus again on the depredations of the wicked.  But whereas the activities earlier in the chapter were all performed, seemingly, in the daytime, now we shift to the cover of darkness. Three activities are mentioned:  murder, adultery and robbery. On further reflection, these activities aren’t particularly predicated of “the wicked.” The most we can say is that these things are done by those who “rebel against the light” (v 13).  We thus can see how we are starting to lose our connection with the clear, though sad, reality of verses 1-12.

 

Verse 13 starts us down our path to unclarity.  Literally, we have, 

 

      “They/these are in rebellion of/against the light; they do not regard his/its way;                

      and they do not return into his/its paths.”

 

So, we are immediately brought into images of light and darkness and away from wilderness, harvest fields, and cities. We have references to light (or) here and in verse 14; we have twilight (or dawn, depending on how you read the word) in verse 15; then we have darkness in verses 16 and 17, ending with two uses of the beloved Joban word tsalmaveth, the shadow of death.  The connection to the preceding section, especially verse 12, might be more in spelling than in ideas. Men cried “from the city” (ir); then we turned in verse 13 to “light” (or), a similar-looking word in Hebrew.

 

We don’t really know in verse 13 whether those who rebel against the light are the wicked of earlier in the chapter, though a betting person would probably put his or her money on it. We also don’t know if the way (derek) and path (netiyb) is “its way/path” or “his way/path.” That is, we don’t really know whether those in rebellion against the light don’t know “His” (i.e., God’s) way or don’t know “its” (i.e., light’s) way.  Perhaps it amounts to about the same thing, but Job could have helped us out a bit more. 

 

In verse 14 we get to two of the three types of people who do bad things: the murderer and the thief. We don’t know if the wicked of earlier in the chapter are wicked by day and murderers/thieves by night, nor who these people actually are, but it makes for interesting reading.  

 

We are confused immediately in verse 14 because it literally says,

 

     “At the light rises the murderer, to kill the poor and needy.”

 

We naturally assume that the murderer is thus an early riser and rather than giving God the glory, he starts his murdering ways. But this doesn’t fit well with the theme of doing bad deeds in darkness. Nonplussed by the problem, some older commentators fudged by saying things like, ‘it is at daybreak, when it is still dark…’ or ‘most people sleep most soundly just before dawn, when these acts take place.’ You have to laugh—trying to save the text when sometimes you just have to admit that the text is digging its own hole (we will get to digging in verse 16).

 

So, they rebel against the light (v 13); they know not the light (v 16); they dig through houses in the dark (v 16). They seem to know the terrors of the shadow of death (darkness), but the first time we meet them is when they apparently are doing their bad stuff in the daytime. This is very troubling, of course, to those of us who want to know when these guys who rebel against the light by committing their murders actually do their violent acts. We would like to know this because then we could better know when to pay for security guards or at least lock ourselves safely in our homes—though that may not bring security because these bad people are good diggers (v 16). Maybe we just can’t escape them. Job 24 may not be a remedy for a paranoid person.

 

Even though Job wants to be taken seriously, no doubt, we start to chuckle. Verse 14 gives us the impression that the murderer really does his work in the daytime, but then, “in the night he becomes as a thief.” Ah, he takes off his blood-stained garments of murder and becomes a thief. This guy is really busy, especially if he is also the wicked person who has time to oppress all the poor around him. When does he sleep?

 

But then we move to the adulterer (naaph, 31x; it appears 4x in the same verse—Leviticus 20:10). Verse 15 can either be translated that he waits for the “dawn” or the “twilight,” since the word nesheph (12x) is almost always translated as “twilight,” except when it appeared previously in Job (7:4), where we had to translate it as “dawn.” Maybe Job is just messing with us, but I will go with “twilight” here, so that we definitely have the adulterer acting at night. This fits nicely with the rest of verse 15, since he says, “No eye will see me,” a comment that makes most sense if he is acting under the cover of darkness. Verse 15 closes with a difficult phrase that seems to mean that he covers his face with a disguise. Literally we have, “and he places a hidden face.” I suppose he is doubly protected now—wearing a mask and working under cover of darkness.  The adulterer takes care to make sure he is not discovered.  

 

We know for sure that the thief acts at night; we think the adulterer does; the murderer, though, rises with the light to do his work. But then verse 16 seems to take us back to the work of the robber or burglar, since we can imagine them “digging” their way into houses, but we aren’t sure.  Perhaps because the preceding verse just talked about adulterers, maybe theyare the ones who dig through houses.  It would really be helpful to know whom we should imagine digging through houses.  

 

To make things more difficult, the verb for “dig” here (chathar, 8x) appears in the singular. The opening words of verse 16 are, literally, “In the darkness he digs houses.”  Many translations have “they dig,” and the Book of Job can mess with us grammatically in every way, but I will stay with “he digs.” We don’t know really if it is the robbers who dig or the adulterers who dig; presumably the murderers have done their work. Though the verb chathar is rare, it is somewhat unforgettable in its Jonah 1:13 appearance. There the sailors, upon realizing how precarious their lives are with a disobedient Jonah, row towards shore. The verb for “rowing” there is chathar. We can imagine them digging into the water with all their might to escape their impending fate. Job hasn’t used the verb chathar here with like clarity or vividness.  

 

The second clause of verse 16 is somewhat opaque; they “seal themselves (chatham, 27x) by day.”  The natural reading of the phrase is probably the correct one—they “seal themselves off” (i.e., don’t show their faces) in the day, but the verb chatham really means to “affix one’s seal on” something.  It can also refer to the document thus “sealed.” Even though there are lots of easier ways to say “stay home” in Biblical Hebrew, I think Job chose the verb for affixing a seal here because the verb sounds almost the same as “dig.”  We have chathar/chatham.  These thieves (or adulterers) even work in an alliterative way.  

 

Verse 17 is meant to act as a summative verse for the evening work of these three groups of bad guys, but it sounds an uncertain trumpet.  Literally, we have:

 

            “Because together the morning for them is the shadow of death;

            because he recognizes the terrors of the shadow of death.”

 

Though the language is rough, I think the meaning is pellucid—once the morning hits it is like the “shadow of death”—i.e., not something they want to deal with. Daytime scares them, revealing the shadow of death. We might only slightly tongue-in-cheek render the “shadow of death” as “kiss of death”—i.e., something that terminates an activity. Once the morning comes, they just have to wait until evening to continue their depredations unless, of course, they are the same people as the wicked in verses 5-12, whose day job is to oppress the poor. We just don’t know. We do know, however, that Job loves the portmanteau word tsalmaveth (“shadow of death”) more than other Biblical authors. 10/18 of its appearances are in the Book of Job.  One might even look at its frequent appearance in Job coupled with its sole appearance in that most beloved of Psalms (23) as an antiphonal chant between these two books/chapters.  For Job it is the bleakness of the tsalmaveth to which he wants to return (3:5; 10:21) and which even crooks flee (24:17); for the Psalmist, however, even the tsalmaveth is no challenge to the God who leads his people like a shepherd. God effortlessly overcomes it.