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280. Job 29:4-7, Job’s Unforgettably Wonderful Past Days
He can’t forget those glorious earlier days, and so he continues by using more temporal clauses in verses 4-6 to describe their luster. Verse 4 presents one or two translation difficulties, even though the meaning is clear. My translation is:
“As I was in the days of my autumn, when the intimacy of God was upon my tent.”
Two translation difficulties are in the precise rendering of the word choreph (which I rendered “autumn”) and sod (“intimacy”). As Clines and others have remarked, the meaning of the verse is clear; the only difficulty is actually figuring out how to get to the proper meaning. We know that Job is longing for the “good old days,” when things were different. We are pretty sure that these are not the days of his youth, which many consider their “good old days,” since the actions Job performed in these “good old days,” narrated in the rest of the chapter, included acts that only a mature adult could perform (adjudicating disputes, for example). So, the days Job longs for are what we might call the days of his prime or full productivity. Choreph (7x) is elsewhere contrasted with “summer” (Genesis 8:22; Psalm 74:17; Zechariah 14:8), but it seems to suggest a harvest or autumn time in its sole other appearance in wisdom literature (Proverbs 20:4). But how can the autumn or winter of one’s years be considered one’s “prime?” Perhaps the thought is that just after the harvest, when the barns are bursting, when all the hard work is completed, one can then enjoy the fruit of one’s toil. The choreph in 29:4, then, may point to this time—after harvest, when life may be at its peak.
At this time the sod of God was upon Job’s tent. Sod appears 21x and usually describes an intimate gathering, a council, a company or assembly of people. It can be the gathering/council either of merrymakers or of evildoers. But it is also used for the secret counsel of God (Amos 3:7) where the divine wisdom is revealed (Jeremiah 23:18, 22). Perhaps arising out of this “secret counsel” of God idea is the notion of the relationship that then develops with God: a “sweet fellowship” (sod, Psalm 55:15 (Hebrew)). Perhaps it is best to try to translate the sod as both counsel and intimacy in 29:4. Job so longs for those days of his prime, when he had special intimacy with God, receiving the wisdom of divine counsel and sharing it with the people. It was a most glorious time for Job.
I noted above that a temporal clause began both verses 3 and 4. If we look more closely at 29:3-7, however, we see that each verse begins either with a biy (“when”, vv 3, 5, 6, 7) or a kasher (also “when,” v 4). Such repetition of temporal clauses gives these verses a sort of breathlessness or continuous flow, as if the thoughts rushing over Job’s mind had to spill out of his lips in one flowing thought. It is as if he didn’t want to let any thought “drop” by bringing it to a complete closure or stop lest he lose his train of thought and the vivid memory of those days.
Once we realize this grammatical feature about verses 3-7, we might read them as one continuous thought, with the following ideas tumbling out over each other. Job was consumed with longing for past days: days when God watched over him, the divine light was with him through darkness, when he was in his prime and had sweet intimacy with God, when his children surrounded him, and when his life dripped with prosperity and grace. Family, faith, wealth—all these accompanied him in the choreph of his life.
Verse 5 continues the thought of verse 4:
“When the Almighty was with me; surrounding me were my young ones.”
This is the second time in four verses that Job has expressed as a past thought what one might hope was still a present reality for him: the divine presence. He talked about how God “watched” over him in verse 2; now we have, literally, “in again/when still the Almighty with me.” Why does Job twice mention God’s presence with him in the past? We look in vain in the rest of Job 29 and Job 30, his recitation of current realities, for a confident declaration of God’s presence with him in the present. I think that one of the tensions as Elihu begins to speak in Job 32 and then God enters finally in Job 38 is whether Job feels (or wants) this God still to be “with him.”
But now Job is awash in pleasant memories of the past. God’s presence was accompanied by a quiver-full of “young ones” (naar) surrounding him. It is interesting that he doesn’t say “sons” or “sons and daughters.” The scope of the very common word naar (usually rendered “young men”) possibly includes both daughters and even servants or others in the home. We don’t know how broadly Job is casting his mental net at this point. The following verse, stressing his prosperity, encourages us to give a broad reading to naar. Surrounding him were the indicia of wealth, including sons, daughters, attendants—young people of various kinds.
Rarely does Job or any Biblical writer rise to the eloquent heights of verse 6. It is just one verse, like a prominent peak jutting out of a flat landscape, but perhaps for that reason it is all the more arresting. Job’s memory of this day included, literally:
“When my steps were rinsed with cream and the rock poured out in me channels of oil.”
Two quick points of vocabulary or grammar catch our attention. First we have the pleasantly alliterative tsur tsuq (“rock poured out”) in the middle of the verse. Most versions translate the word following tsur tsuq “for me,” as above. But it really is “in me,” the same word Job used in the previous verse to talk about God’s being “with him” (immadi). Rocks normally don’t shed anything, except little chips that cut one’s hands. But here it is pouring out not just water, which gushed forth from the rock Moses struck in the wilderness (Numbers 20:11), but oil.
Each clause invites brief consideration. More than one-third of the 72 biblical appearances of the verb rachats (“to wash/rinse”) are in Leviticus, that book most concerned with keeping things “clean” and “pure” so that the ritual and sacrificial demands of the Holy God are met. There is the washing of the altar, the sacrifices, the hands of the priests (see especially its 4x appearance in Exodus 40 for this purpose). Everything was rinsed. And, for good reason. Life in the wilderness was not only not a picnic, but was no doubt accompanied by dust, dirt, grime, awful smells, blood and guts galore and other signs that the endeavor they were on was also a most earthy one. The only other place where rachats appears in Job is in a desperate context: even if Job scrubbed/washed (rachats) his hands with soap/snow, God would just dip him again into filth (9:30). Here, however, we have God figuratively washing Job’s path.
The substance used for washing Job’s steps is chemah (10x), variously translated as “cream/curds/butter.” It was a coagulated milk product that no doubt could be magically transformed by skillful cooks into a rich accompaniment for meals. When King David had to flee Jerusalem after Absalom’s rebellion, he took up residence in Mahanaim, a town that earlier had received its naming (“camp”) from Jacob when fleeing his brother Esau (Genesis 32:2). At this place people brought their beloved and troubled king tokens of affection and necessary supplies. II Samuel 17:28-29 gives a list of 14 items brought to David in his need. Though the list would make for a wonderful Hebrew vocabulary quiz, we note that some of the last four items are especially important for quick restoration of waning powers: honey, chemah, sheep, and cheese from kine. Thus, we may safely say that chemah included both a restorative and enriching dimension. David’s footsteps bathed in chemah might be likened to Croesus of Lydia covering himself with his gold. The word for footsteps is the hapax halik, but there is no doubt it derives from halak, “to walk.”
I have already briefly noted that “rock poured out” is a rendering of the pleasant-sounding tsur tsuq. When water gushed from the rock in the Wilderness (Numbers 20:11), the verb used to describe it was the common yatsa, “to come out.” But here it is the rare tsuq (3x). We saw it just a moment ago in Job 28:2, where copper was mentioned as being smelted/poured out from rock. Its only other appearance is in Isaiah 26:16, where it is used figuratively to describe praying: one “pours out” a prayer. The rock poured out streams/channels (peleg, 10x) of oil (the common shemen). But, as noted above, this ‘pouring out’ is immadi, or "in/with me"--i.e., Job. We might create a picture in our mind’s eye of such an event. ‘Here comes Job!,’ someone shouted. Then, rather than a red carpet rolled out there would be cream rinsing the way in front of Job, over which streams of oil would flow, and then there would be Job! It made his way easy and his life rich.