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25. Job 3:5, May the Day Perish, Part II
5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
Job continues his conjuring ways in this verse. He wants to turn back the clock so that “his day,” or the day of his birth, might become darkness, might disappear, might be obliterated. He also continues the rhythmic speech, now with three clauses of three Hebrew words each. Though we can translate all the words in the first two clauses, they are unique in both their phrasing and meaning in the Bible. I will argue below that they function to reverse the meaning of some beloved Biblical passages, turning clear and powerful theological concepts on their head. The last phrase is opaque.
A serviceable translation of the verse is, “Let darkness and the shadow of death buy it back; let a cloud settle upon it; let the heat (?) of the day terrify it.” Let’s begin with the last phrase first, since its meaning is unclear. We don’t know what the hapax kimrir means. Some suggestions are: “all that makes it black/darkness/an eclipse/gloom.” We are probably in the realm of darkness, since that is the tone of the entire verse—with two words for darkness in the first clause and the word “cloud” (suggesting obstruction of light) in the second clause. But we are operating completely on context or, appropriately, “in the dark.”
The first two phrases draw our interest. Two of the four “darkness” words in 3:3-6 are in the first clause: the familiar choshek (from 3:4) and the new tsalmaveth. Tsalmaveth is literally “the shadow of death,” and is usually understood to be a more profound, gloomy and penetrating darkness than “mere” choshek. It is a wonderfully pictorial word, suggesting both death (maveth) and darkness/shadow (tsel) in its three syllables. Tsalmaveth only appears eighteen times in the Bible, but Job has more than half of them. Its most famous occurrence in the Bible is in Psalm 23:4, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (tsalmaveth), I fear no evil, for thou art with me.” The most fearsome tsalmavath is not a fearful thing for the Psalmist, because God is with him.
Job may be “in dialogue” with that famous Psalm or the sentiment it expresses, yet he comes up with the conclusion opposite from the Psalm. Rather than the tsalmaveth being something perilous through which God guides the believer, in Job 3 it becomes the partner most desired by the sufferer. He would like the choshek and tsalmaveth to “redeem” or “buy back” that day. The verb gaal (105x), translated as “redeem” or “buy back,” is a verb of immense power and importance in Israelite life. Its noun form is goel, a “redeemer,” or one who “acts as a kinsman” either to avenge a wrong when a member of one’s extended family has been slighted or to buy back property that has fallen out of the family’s hands. Job uses it in the famous verse Job 19:25, when he says that he knows that his Redeemer (goel) lives. Its meaning is perhaps made most visual in Leviticus 25, where rules for “redeeming” historic family land are given in the context of a discussion of the Jubilee (every fiftieth year). Even though a family member may, through poverty or other reasons, sell off the family patrimony, it may be bought back at any time in that fifty-year span by the redeemer/kinsman. The verb gaal appearsthree times in two verses (Leviticus 25:25, 26) to show the centrality of that person, and that concept, for Israel.
In Job 3 we have darkness and tsalmaveth redeeming Job’s day. The translation is easy enough and the meaning seems to be that these forces of darkness will actually “save” Job by obliterating him. The force most feared and from which God saves the believer in Psalm 23 will actually “save” Job by making “his day” perish or disappear. Job turns to the tsalmaveth, and not away from it, in his dire need, .
The other clause is, “let the cloud settle upon it.” Here the thought is familiar. Though the form of the word for cloud (ananah) is unique in the Bible, it is clearly derived from the 87x-appearing anan, “cloud.” Job wants this cloud to “settle upon” the day. The verb for “settling upon” is the common shakan,often translated “to dwell.” Its most powerful theological use is in describing God’s “dwelling” among the people. The verb even appears twice in Numbers 35:34 to highlight the concept, “Do not defile the land which you inhabit, in whose midst I dwell (shakan is verb), for I, the Lord, dwell (shakan again) among the children of Israel.” But the combination of “dwell” and “cloud” is particularly potent for ancient Israel. When the Tabernacle’s construction was completed, and the finely-woven garments of the high priest were sewed, all was now ready for God’s entry into the Tabernacle. Exodus 40 describes the scene. The divine “cloud” (anan) covered the Tabernacle, settling over it with an impenetrable thickness. Language of “covering” (kasah) appears in Exodus 40:34. The glory of the Lord “filled” (male is verb) the Tabernacle. Most striking for our purposes, however, is that the third of a triad of verbs describing God’s occupation of that space is shakan. Moses isn’t able to enter the Tabernacle because the “cloud” (anan) of God’s glory “settled/rested” (shakan) upon it (40:35). Israel was safe, once the cloud of God settled on the Tabernacle. Job wants a more malign cloud, however to settle over “his day.”
He winds up these extraordinary two verses the way he began, by appealing to the little word yom, “day.” All in a day’s work.