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28. Job 3:13-19, A Reverie of Escape
13 "Now I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest
14 with kings and counselors of the earth
who rebuild ruins for themselves,
15 or with princes who have gold,
who fill their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?
17 There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
18 There the prisoners are at ease together;
they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
19 The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are free from their masters.
I call this section Job’s reverie of escape because it functions as a sort of daydream or even fantasy as Job fulminates on the ash heap. Those in deep pain need a way of escape, a form of mental break from the feeing of constant and unremitting pain. In this case, Job continues the thought behind his questions in verses 11-12, imagining what it would have been like had he never been born. We join him in his fantasy, and have to “go with it,” because our first thought might be that if we were never born we would have no conscious existence, and certainly no conscious existence in some kind of shadowy realm with kings and counselors of the earth. But Job is master of the narrative and the poetry, and he now imagines a calm, peaceful life with small and great alike in a place he never names but is not an unpleasant one.
Many scholars have emphasized the “social leveling” of Job’s Sheol-like vision in this passage, or his division of this world into two categories of “small” and “great,” with no oppression of the former by the latter, but that seems to be going too far. Job is not interested in setting up an alternative social structure; rather, it is as if his mind is wandering from room to room of the “museum” or “gallery” of this new and strange place, seeing both noted worthies and inconspicuous people from the deep past. It is a place he would love to go.
Had he expired at birth (literally “from the womb die” in 3:11), he would have been transported to another realm. The verbs of 3:13 capture the new reality—it would be filled with rest and peace. Note the sounds of the first three verbs: shakab, shaqat, yashan. The sound of “sh. . .” comes from each, as if Job is “shushing” his mind and that of the reader, to still the turbulence that has overtaken him. The fourth verb in verse 13 is the hypnagogic nuach, best translated “to rest.” Though we can distinguish the four verbs by finding four different English expressions to capture them, such as “lie down” and “have rest” and “sleep” and “rest,” they all occupy the same emotional space—Job is longing for what he doesn’t now have. He so wishes that the torment of his soul would subside. But, as the Wicked Witch of the West told Dorothy and her companions, “Why, my little party is just beginning. . .” Job’s ‘little party’ is just beginning.
So powerful is the notion of rest and escape for Job in 3:13 that he also plays with vocabulary of rest and sleep in two other verses in Job 3, mixing and matching and adding a few new terms. In 3:17-18 he talks about the place of his imagination as one where the “wicked cease (chadal) their troubling (rogez),”and the weary are “at rest” (nuach again). The prisoners “are at ease” (another “sh” verb—shaan). In the final verse of the chapter, verse 26, Job has fully returned from his reverie, and has recognized the numbing reality of his situation: he has no ease (yet a fifth “sh” verb—shalah), nor is he quiet (shaqat, as in v 13), nor does he rest (nuach, as in vv 13 and 17), but trouble (rogez, as in v 17) comes. He has used seven words to get at this most delicious concept of rest: shakab, shaqat, yashan, shaan, shalah, nuach, rogez. We feel that we sometimes could use a little of that rest, too!