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244. Job 24:21-25, Fading Further

21 “He wrongs the barren woman
And does no good for the widow.
22 But He drags off the valiant by His power;
He rises, but no one has assurance of life.
23 He provides them with security, and they are supported;
And His eyes are on their ways.
24 They are exalted a little while, then they are gone;
Moreover, they are brought low and like everything gathered up;
Even like the heads of grain they are cut off.
25 Now if it is not so, who can prove me a liar,
And make my speech worthless?”

 

Perhaps realizing that he has lost his reader by the end of verse 20, Job now switches back to the predacious and oppressive conduct of the wicked (vv 21-23).  One way to render verse 21 is:

 

    “He devours the barren woman so that she doesn’t bear a child; and the widow doesn't see              good."

 

Again, we have two translation problems, both relatively minor. The first is how to render the verb ra’ah, which I translate “devour.” It literally means to “graze a flock” and was first used in the Bible to describe Abel’s work in Genesis 4:2.  But to “graze” the barren woman doesn’t seem to make much sense, and grazing or pasturing animals is never held out to be a bad activity. So, we have to come up with a better word. The NASB used the word “wrong.”The NRSV has “harm,” but I don’t believe that is vicious enough. Thus, my rendering—the wicked person “devours” the barren woman. 

We realize, in the second part, there is no preposition before “widow,” but most people render this phrase, “he doesn’t do good to the widow.” Favoring the majority rendering is the realization that the verb for “to be/do good” (yatab) is in the causative or hiphil.  Therefore, it may very well be best to render it as “doesn’t do good/doesn’t cause good to come.” The absence of a preposition le or biy before “widow” really is immaterial; Job seems to have no fixed rules about how to use prepositions. So, since oppression by the wicked is in view, let’s go with the majority.  

 

Instead of parceling out his wickedness equally to fatherless and widow in verse 21, here he focuses just on women. The first phrase is arresting because we immediately see a contrast with Psalm 113:9, where God “gives the barren woman a home” (same relatively rare word for “barren” appears—aqar). A sign of the messianic age will be that the barren woman (aqar) will shout for joy (Isaiah 54:1). Here, however, the barren woman will have no child. But is that the wicked’s doing? Does he violently rip up the bellies of pregnant women? That is not even hinted at here, though it has been practiced at times in the annals of human cruelty. We don’t know how he actually “devours” the barren woman, though we would like to know this. This verse seems to be a rather pale reflection of Job’s earlier indictment of the wicked in verses 3-5.

If we thought that verse 21 was hard, verse 22 is worse.  Here we have problems both of accurate translation and of meaning.  

 

    “He drags/draws away the mighty in his strength; he rises but doesn’t not have trust in his life."”

 

Hmm. . .Where is a good kabbalist when you need him/her? The verb for “drag/draw” is mashak (36x), which has a fairly narrow range of meanings—drag/draw/prolong/defer. Its basic meaning is to pull something up (passing traders “dragged/drew” Joseph up out of the pit in Genesis 37:28). So we can imagine how the wicked might “drag away” or “pull away” the strength from the mighty. This, then, would be an indication of the rather sudden versatility of the wicked. Up until now he has been devouring the barren or oppressing the fatherless, but now his ambitions open up an entirely new world—the mighty. Perhaps emboldened by the ease of his conquest of weaker sorts, the wicked ambitiously decides to raise his sights. Here his target is the “mighty” (abbir, 17x), which usually means “valiant” or “stouthearted,” but also can refer to animals or even angels at times. But here it seems that the wicked are now assaulting and dragging away mighty people. Why “dragging?” Who knows, but it makes for a delightful image if you let your mind wander.

But then, if the first part of the verse is nearly opaque, the second part is completely so. Clines, as frequently, stretches meaning to come up with, “Even when they are prosperous, they can have no assurance of life.” Clines has taken the simple verb qum (“rise”) in the metaphorical sense of “rise in riches,” though I don’t see the warrant for that. I think what Job is suggesting is that even though the wicked seemingly extends his field of conquest, by dragging off the mighty, this new conquest doesn’t satisfy or calm lingering doubts about himself. He realizes more than ever that life is unstable and they can’t continue forever. So, he rises up (maybe like the murderer, who also “rises up” to do his work in verse 14 ) and then realizes his vulnerability. He has “no trust (the common aman) in his life.” All of this, I admit, is a stretch, but that is what Job gives us.  One might, however, just have Job laughing at us when he might point out that the real “meaning” of verses 20-22 is just in setting two relatively unusual but similar-sounding verbs near each other—mathaq (to be sweet, v 20) and mashak (to drag/draw, v 22). Meaning may simply be in the sound.

 

But before we can go down that route, Job has one more verse of judgment, verse 23.  Yet it isn’t a vicious judgment, and one might even debate whether judgment is in view at all. Again, the first part is nearly untranslatable, though meaning can be gleaned from the second part. Though we can translate the second part, it has, we think, little meaning. (Any wonder, now, why this passage isn’t a Vacation Bible School favorite?).  Verse 23:

 

    “He gives to him for security and he relies on it; and his eyes are on their ways.”

 

Ok. Now the subject seems to change. Rather than the wicked acting, it appears that God is the actor, though if I wrote a junior high composition like this, jumping around with uncertain subjects, it certainly would have been returned with an “F” grade. The meaning seems to be that the life of the wicked is precarious indeed. He realizes that he can’t “trust” his own life. Now that fear is exacerbated a bit when he realizes that God, and not his friend, is giving him security, on which he rests, but that God’s eyes are on all his ways. When God’s eyes are on your ways, look out—you probably are getting ready for a judgment.  

 

This interpretation then can prepare the way for verse 24, where Job confirms what we have been suggesting: that the wicked only enjoys this type of life, attacking the vulnerable and dragging off the mighty, for a short time. Verse 24a is one of Job’s clearest utterances in this passage:  “They are exalted for a little while, and they are not” or “they are gone.”  

 

Perhaps Job should have stopped there (or any of two or three other places in this section), because the second half of verse 24 is opaque:

 

     “and they are brought low according to all they shut.”

 

Will you run that by me again, Job? He had been on a micro-mini-roll by saying that their exaltation (verb is rum) is brief, but now he wrecks it.   Clines, ever the creative translator, has them “shriveling like mallows,” while other translations have “gathered up like all others” or “taken out of the way as all other” or “shrivel up like everything else.” Lots of uncertainty rests not on the 2x-appearing verb makak (“to be low/humiliated”) but on the 7x-appearing verb qaphats, which is best rendered “shut” in five of its other appearances (including Job 5:16) with an outlier in Song of Solomon 2:8. I think the translation “shrivel” is derived from the concept of “shutting.” If you shut, you contract, and if you contract something, it shrivels. Drivel, I think. So, even though Job closes verse 24 with a good thought (“they are cut off like the heads of grain”), he has lost most of his readers by now.  

 

Job ends with a whimper, and this entire mini-section (vv 18-24) so far is not up to the usual Joban standards. But, if we follow my theory, that Job is wrestling with or even rearranging his doctrinal furniture, then the unclarities, mixed metaphors and rare words are explicable. Perhaps trying to mask all of these faults, Job concludes with a more-bold-than-we-would expect verse 25:

 

    “If this be not, who will prove me a liar?  Or who will make my speech of little worth?”

 

Job ends with a triumphant note. Clines doesn’t give this verse to Zophar (as he did vv 18-24), and I think it makes perfect sense in Job’s mouth. Job is confident in his case; he is confident that God ‘owes’ him a hearing.  He still retains confidence in the traditional doctrine of judgment on the wicked, though his faltering language in verses 18-24 might be an indication that this belief is likewise on the brink of crumbling.