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281. Job 29:7-10, Job’s Respect in the Community
7 “When I went out to the gate of the city,
When I took my seat in the square,
8 The young men saw me and hid themselves,
And the old men arose and stood.
9 The princes stopped talking
And put their hands on their mouths;
10 The voice of the nobles was hushed,
And their tongue stuck to their palate.
Perhaps with the thought of his steps being rinsed with curds and with oil flowing in and around him, Job then naturally thinks of his reception in the public places of his past. Like Edward Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory, Job was no doubt a “gentleman from sole to crown,” who succeeded in “fluttering pulses” when he walked. Job 29:7-10 give us a more subdued picture than Robinson’s, but they powerfully tell of Job’s influence in the public square.
Verse 7 begins with the fifth consecutive biy or ka (one each in vv 3-7). Once again, as in verse 4, the thought is hard to translate literally, but it is quite clear. The verse wants to say that when Job went out to his seat in the market place/town square. . .he was highly respected (verse 8 completes the thought). But it literally runs,
“When I went out the gate upon the town. . .”
I think we want Job to say “When I went out from my gate/door to the town. . .”, but we can’t get that meaning easily from the actual Hebrew words. First, as many scholars have pointed out, houses had “doors” and not “gates” in the Ancient Israel. Second, it appears that this gate is “upon/above” (al) the town. Third, the word for “town” is unusual (qereth, 5x). There are other more common ways of saying “town” in Biblical Hebrew. All kinds of weird pictures rush into our minds, as if Job had a “city pied-à-terre” lodged over the town gate, in which he stayed for the weekends to catch the action of the nearby town. He would appear from the gate of this tower, which overlooked the city. Funny. But totally unrealistic.
So, let’s just leave it with a translator’s conundrum and say that verse 7a has Job emerging from his house and showing up in town. When he does so, seeking to “establish” (kun) his “seat” (mosab) in the broad space (rechob) or, as we might say, take up his customary place in the public square, then we have in verse 8:
“The young men (naar) saw me and hid (chaba); the elders rose (qum) and stood (amad)."
All of these actions are common and easy to render in English. We are only surprised by one verb—chaba (“to hide,” 33x/5x Job). We will see it again two verses later, where the elders or rulers “hide” their words, but normally the concept of hiding is expressed in Biblical Hebrew through kachad, sathar, taman, tsaphan. Yet, on second thought, chaba may be entirely appropriate here, emphasizing as it does in some of its other appearances a kind of diligent effort to conceal people (see I Samuel 19:2; I Kings 18:4). The picture created is vivid. Using the same word as in verse 5 to describe the people that surrounded Job at home, the author has the “young men” (naar is the singular) withdrawing at Job’s appearance, and the elders rising. Two common verbs are used to describe the action of the elders—they rise (qum) and remain on their feet (amad). One has the impression that someone has called out the ancient equivalent of “Oyez!” and all must stand until the Chief Justice (in this case Job) gives people the nod that they may be seated. The only unusual word in this verse is yashish (4x, all in Job) to describe the elders. Literally they are the “aged ones.” The more common way of saying it would have been to use zaqen, the appointed elders of a community. What is going on with the twofold reaction to Job? The young/lads are perhaps overwhelmed at Job’s presence, afraid that if they stay around Job will quickly expose their fraudulent claims to mastery or knowledge; the “aged” stay around but show Job signs of regard. They stand, and keep standing. Both groups of people and their actions are important.
Verse 9 continues the thought of the preceding verse. Now the “aged” of the previous verse are called the “princes” (sar is singular). They refrained (atsar, 46x) from talking, and they placed their hands on their mouths (v 9). Whereas one might look at the “hands on the mouth” gesture as a sign of amazement (such as in Job 21:5), we probably ought to see it hear as an exaggerated way of saying that no one spoke until Job had spoken. They were speechless, not out of amazement or terror, but out of respect and deference. Capturing this restraint of the princes is the verb atsar, which in other places is used to describe God’s “restraining” the wombs of women from becoming pregnant (Genesis 16:2; 20:18) or God’s withholding or turning aside the effects of a plague (Numbers 16:50; 25:8). Proverbs 30:32 urges those who have been foolish or devising evil things to put their hands on their mouths. Here, however, the hands on mouth gesture is more of a sign of reverence and restraint. The princes/aged knew that until Job spoke they really had nothing to say.
Verse 10 completes the thought, continuing with the reaction of the elders to Job. After all, the naar have gone into hiding; the aged/princes are the only ones still standing there. Now the aged/princes are called the “nobles” (nagid, 44x), a common enough word to describe everything from nobles to chief officers to governors to leaders to rulers to chiefs. It’s fascinating to see how language develops so many words that often aren’t easily distinguishable in meaning.
More important than their name, perhaps, is the verb attached to them. Like the naar of verse 8, the nagid, too, go into a kind of hiding (chaba again), but this time the “voice of the nobles went into hiding.” In other words, people swallow/hide their words when Job arrived. Not only did they stand and keep standing, but they didn’t utter a word. Not even a ‘Hey, man, good to see you!’ or ‘How are the wife and kids, Job?’
We are told a second time in verse 10 that the nobles were silent, but this time it is in a more biblically familiar way: “Their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth.” The roof of the mouth is the chek, 18x/7x Job. Chek is often used with words like “sweet” or “discern” to emphasize the particular function of a mouth or palate—to discern taste. Job himself has asked, “Does not the ear test words and the palate (chek) taste food?“ (12:11; similar is 34:3). But this thought quickly morphed into a more spiritual reading of palates and tasting. “How sweet are your words to my palate (chek), yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103). When one thinks of love, thoughts of palates and taste arise. The author of the Song of Solomon used the word 3x: “His fruit was sweet to my taste” (chek, 2:3); “His mouth (chek) is full of sweetness (5:16)”; “And your palate/mouth (chek) is like the best wine” (7:9). We can see lips locking as we read these verses, a far more delightful thought in many instances than the lugubrious world of Job.
Most familiar, however is the appearance of the same combination of three words in Job 29:10 (lashon (“tongue”), chek (“palate”) and dabaq (“cleave”)) in Psalm 137:6. In that verse the exiles in Babylon are in grief, pining away and wondering how they can sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. A tremendous resolve then overcomes them. They will not forget their land or their God. They say,
“Let my tongue (lashon) cling (dabaq) to the roof of my mouth (chek),
if I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy” (Psalm 137:6).
Tongues clinging to palates in Psalm 137 means that a people would remain silent, unable or unwilling to speak. The elders or princes or aged or nobles of Job 29 felt this way. The exiles in Babylon vowed never to feel this way.
Finally, we should say a word about “cling/cleave” (dabaq; 54x/6x Job). Though it can simply describe something that is stuck to or adheres to something else (like one’s sword to one’s hand—II Samuel 23:10), its more frequent meaning is either to overtake someone or to be attached/hold fast to something. Normally when one “clings” (dabaq) to something in the Bible it is to principles, to another person or to God. Its debut appearance is probably its most familiar. The creation of Eve for Adam meant that “a man should leave his mother and be joined/cleave (dabaq) to his wife” (Genesis 2:24). But often overlooked is the “clingiest” book in the Bible (apart from the Psalms): Deuteronomy (uses dabaq 7x). Note the highly charged language of Deuteronomy 10:20, where the believers are to “serve” (abad) God and “cling” (dabaq) to God. Typical also is the long and sonorous Deut 11:22,
“If you will diligently observe (shamar) this entire commandment that I am commanding you,
loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and holding fast (dabaq) to him. . ."
Other examples could be given. But let’s return to Job, striding into the town square, his path washed by cream and gallons of oil gushing out of rocks. He shows up, the young withdraw and the old stand and fall silent. Why? The next passage tells us that it is because of the quality of Job’s judgments.