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260. Job 27:13-23, God’s Judgment on The Wicked, Introduction

 

13 “This is the portion of a wicked man from God,

And the inheritance which tyrants receive from the Almighty.

14 Though his sons are many, they are destined for the sword;

And his descendants will not be satisfied with bread.

15 His survivors will be buried because of the plague,

And their widows will not be able to weep.

16 Though he piles up silver like dust

And prepares garments as plentiful as the clay,

17 He may prepare it, but the just will wear it

And the innocent will divide the silver.

18 He has built his house like the spider’s web,

Or as a hut which the watchman has made.

19 He lies down rich, but never again;

He opens his eyes, and it is no longer.

20 Terrors overtake him like a flood;

A tempest steals him away in the night.

21 The east wind carries him away, and he is gone,

For it whirls him away from his place.

22 For it will hurl at him without sparing;

He will surely try to flee from its power.

23 Men will clap their hands at him

And will hiss him from his place.”

 

The words are attributed to Job but fit much better with Zophar’s earlier speeches (Job 11 and 20). For example, verses 16-17 speak of the riches gathered by the wicked and how they will be lost to the innocent. This is entirely consistent with Zophar’s thought in 20:15 where he says that the wicked swallow down riches, only to disgorge them. Other examples could be given.

 

My approach, unique among Job commentators as far as I can tell, is to see these words as spoken both by Job and Zophar. Zophar may have a text before him, so that he won’t blow his last speech and Job, figuratively speaking, is looking over his shoulder and reading along with Zophar. Zophar utters these words with seriousness befitting his earlier speeches, but Job speaks these words in a tone of mockery. Job’s mockery arises from the fact that he is still “processing” his view regarding the judgment of God on the wicked, and the friends have certainly given him no reason to revert to the rather simplistic theology reflected in 27:13-23. Job has made his case, even though he hasn’t officially signed the complaint (that will happen in Job 31); there would be no reason for him, in the middle of a legal battle, to throw in the towel and admit the truth of what he has been questioning especially in the last ten or so chapters.  


That is, thought the traditional attribution of Job 27 is to Job, it really makes no sense, from a legal perspective, for Job to utter them. Why would a person making a claim, a claim that he has spent considerable effort to formulate and refine, simply capitulate and abandon the claim even before he hears a word from God? Yet I am inclined to try to honor the attribution to Job. That is what has led me to see the “two voices theory” with both Job and Zophar speaking the same words here. Job’s mocking tone, biting and sarcastic as it is, is “louder.” Hence the attribution.

 

This passage explores a hackneyed theme in the mouths of the friends: the certainty of judgment on the wicked. Each of the friends not only believes it but has said it. Zophar’s previous speech, in fact, was much more graphic than 27:13-23. You will recall that though Eliphaz was enamored of lions and Bildad with various kinds of traps into which the wicked would fall, Zophar waxed eloquent on the poison of asps and the tongue of vipers in Job 20. Here, in contrast, we have rather run-of-the-mill judgments that are in store for the wicked: his children will face the sword (v 14); pestilence will sweep away his estate (v 15); his wealth will disappear (vv 16-17). Terrors will overcome him (v 20). We even chuckle, in the midst of the pain, when we have the “return of the moths” in verse 18; Eliphaz had referred to them rather unsuccessfully in 4:19, and Zophar won’t do much better here. The NRSV doesn't even mention the word or idea of insects/moths in verse 18; the NASB just refers to "spiders," with a footnote saying "Heb. moth." Let's just keep the word "moth," and see it as one of the longest-standing jokes in the Book of Job. 

 

Before expositing the text in more detail, we might be well served by comparing the kind of punishment envisioned here and in the sacred texts of another world religion: Buddhism. Many Westerners have the kumbaya notion that Buddhism is simply about meditation and learning how to achieve Enlightenment. Underneath an impressive and inviting facade of that religion, however, lurks an interesting philosophy of judgment.  Though much too complex to present simply here, I simply would like to quote a few lines, attributed to the Buddha himself, from Sutta 130 (the “Devaduta Sutta) of the Pali Canon’s Majjhima Nikaya, the so-called “Middle Length Discourses.”  

 

Buddha is teaching some monks about the reality of Hell. Because everything, seemingly, in Buddhism is a four-fold or five-fold or even thirty-seven-fold (the so-called “Wings of Awakening”) process, we could assume that the punishments in Hell are also enumerated with like precision  And the Devaduta Sutta does that for us.  We have:

 

    “The hell-wardens torture (the evil-doer) with what’s called a five-fold 

    imprisonment. They drive a red-hot iron stake through one hand, they drive

    a red-hot iron stake through the other hand, they drive a red-hot iron stake

    through one foot, they drive a red-hot iron stake through the other foot, they drive a red-hot iron       stake through the middle of the chest. Then he feels

    painful, racking, piercing feelings, yet he does not die as long as his evil

    kamma (i.e., karma) is not exhausted.”

 

This delightful picture is then complemented by axes that slice up the wicked person.  Following that, the wicked is harnessed to a chariot that is driven back and forth over burning, blazing and glowing ground. You think the punishment has ended?  No way. The hell-wardens then take the wicked up a high mountain of embers that is also burning, blazing and glowing, holding him head first and then plunging him into the red-hot copper cauldron that also is burning, blazing and glowing.  

 

Well, the punishments go on and on. We not only see, by the repeated use of language, why the Pali Canon is 70 good-sized volumes in length, but that the punishments awaiting the wicked conceived in the Book of Job are mild compared to the Buddhist Scriptures. Many other places, including the Jataka Tales as well as other Suttas, speak of the torments of hell in like graphic language. It is a real verbal feast, helping the student of Pali or Sanskrit or Chinese (depending on which canon you read)  to develop a rich vocabulary of extreme pain. One has to admit that it really puts the Bible to shame in extent and severity of the description of punishment. In Christianity, however, this is all done because God loves the creatures so much; at least Buddhism has the honesty to admit it is because people deserve it.