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267. Job 28:4, Remote Locations

4 “He sinks a shaft far from habitation,
Forgotten by the foot;
They hang and swing to and fro far from men.


If the first three verses emphasized the material searched for and the diligence of the search, the next several stress the remoteness of the places that miners go for their metals.  Anyone’s guess as to a proper translation of verse 4 is probably good—so different are the translations proposed by scholars and versions alike. Clines, our sure-footed guide, spends more than 1000 words going  through the various translation problems and suggestions. For me the meaning boils down to the three unusual appearances of the little Hebrew preposition “mem” (“from”). I noted that it was absent where one would have expected it in verse 2; now, as if to make up for the omission, the author uses it thrice here. It stresses the “from-ness” or “away from-ness” of the search of the miners.


They are far away from three, mostly unclear, things:  a) the “foreigner/sojourner”; b) from the "foot"; 

and c) from “men/humans.” With this as background we might tentatively render verse 4 as:


       “He (the miner) breaks open a river away from the sojourner; forgotten places

       from the foot; from men they hang/languish and go back and forth.”


Not the most pellucid rendering, I know.  Almost all translators render the nachal, the object of “break open” as a “shaft,” so that the miner breaks open a shaft underneath the ground, but the word is always translated “brook/river” elsewhere. I think it points to the fact that as the miner goes deeper into the earth, he splits rocks, digs dirt and then finds himself suddenly up to his knees in water. Why, then, is it a river or brook “away from the sojourner”? No clue, though I don’t agree with those who say that the sojourner/foreigner is doing the digging, as if in view here is conscript labor of outsiders to do the dirty work. I think the reference to sojourners might suggest that just as the these people were the most vulnerable people in ancient societies/especially Israel, living on the margins, so the digging work is even more remote than their residences. It is a stretch, but it is the best I can do.

The other two clauses are just as difficult. The second clause just echoes the first, with “far from the foot” again probably stressing the remoteness of the task. The notion of “hanging” and “going back and forth” has also elicited a lot of comment. Many translations have miners hanging and swinging back and forth on ropes, sort of like underground Tarzans. But there is no word for “rope” here, and the verb rendered “hang” (dalal, 9x) is a difficult verb, never elsewhere rendered “hang,” but usually translated as “be in anguish” (Isaiah 38:14) or “be thin/empty” (Isaiah 19:6) or “fade” (Isaiah 17:4) or “be brought low” (Judges 6:6; Psalm 79:8; 116:6). The verb for “going to and fro” is the familiar nua, seen first in the Cain and Abel story to describe the wandering or vagabond status of the murderer Cain, but we really shouldn’t import the notion of “going back and forth” here as “swinging from ropes.” Too much of a stretch. So, what do they do? Well, if we see the emphasis on the “mem” (“from”), we just see that they are “away from people” when they do these things. I take the going to and fro as their moving back and forth from a society of humans only to return to the innermost depths of the earth. What to do with the dalal? The translation that fits nearly half of its appearances is “languish” or “be low.”  Why not see that here?  They “languish” away from the society of men, to which they then go back, before returning to their work.  

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