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282. Job 29:11-17, Administering Justice

 

11 “For when the ear heard, it called me blessed,

And when the eye saw, it gave witness of me,

12 Because I delivered the poor who cried for help,

And the orphan who had no helper.

13 The blessing of the one ready to perish came upon me,

And I made the widow’s heart sing for joy.

14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;

My justice was like a robe and a turban.

15 I was eyes to the blind

And feet to the lame.

16 I was a father to the needy,

And I investigated the case which I did not know.

17 I broke the jaws of the wicked

And snatched the prey from his teeth.

    

The basic reason why people were awed at Job or withdrew from his presence was because he seemed perfectly to be able to balance mercy and firmness in rendering judgments.  He protected and delivered vulnerable people (vv 12-16) but he didn’t give any quarter to the unrighteous (v 17). He sagely perceived that he might have been the only one standing between the poor or widow or disabled and their complete humiliation at the hands of more powerful people in an indifferent society. But he also knew that administering justice means that sometimes you have to “break the fangs” of the unrighteous, not only to show them that there is a penalty for their depredations but also to send a signal to the “unrighteous-in-training” that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.

 

Of these seven verses, one is a general one (v 11), five describe Job’s judgments on the vulnerable people in the society (vv 12-16) and one presents Job judging the unrighteous (v 17). We should note that some of the verses, especially verse 13b, seem calculated directly to rebut Eliphaz’s charge of Job’s injustice in 22:5-9. What is unintentionally amusing in this section, continuing into the next (see, especially, vv 21-22), is that the rest of the people gathering around apparently don’t say a word, either before, during or after the proceedings. As we have seen, when Job shows up they fall silent. They don’t interrupt Job when he is making judgments. Then, as verses 21-22 tells us, people didn’t speak after Job had rendered judgment. So much for developing an ancient theory of collaborative justice! This was a one-man show, the Job show, and no one else volunteered a word, before during or after the proceedings.  If I were Job, I would be a little uneasy at this, though Job remembers the silence and this time with fondness. We have no idea if this is actually representative of the deference accorded to Job but, in his great distress, it is his way both of diminishing, and probably exacerbating, his present pain.

 

The general statement, verse 11, doesn’t require extensive comment:

 

    “When the ear heard, it blessed me; when the eyes saw, they testified on my behalf.”

 

Some commentators have remarked that Job 29 presents an interesting study in body parts. We had steps and feet in verse 6, tongues and palates in verses 9-10, and now we have ears and eyes in verse 11. The opening two words (ears, hear) are two of the three words of Job 28:22, where death and Abaddon are described with the words: “with ears heard report.” Here we just have “ears hear” and “eyes see”—the ears and eyes of onlookers are intended. Two unexpected verbs, however, follow. The ears “blessed” (ashar, 16x), the rarer verb for “bless” (barak appears much more frequently). Then when the eyes see, they do the equivalent of blessing, but what would the appropriate verb be?  Do the eyes blink twice?  Do they stare vigorously? Eyes by themselves really can’t easily do much to show approval or disapproval, and so Job says that the eyes “bore witness/admonished/gave testimony” (ud, 44x). It isn’t a fully clear or clean concept, but it is meant to suggest that the surrounding crowd gave visible signs of approbation as Job entered the public square to do his work.

 

Several categories of people were blessed by Job’s judgments (vv 12-16), including the poor, the fatherless, those who had no help, the widow, the blind, the lame and the needy, though it isn’t clear if and how the poor and needy differ (ani/ebyon). Most interesting is the little phrase, “the cause of one I didn’t know I searched out” (chaqar, v 16), indicating that Job used the same diligence that God used in setting out wisdom (28:27, chaqar) in pursuing justice for people he didn’t even know. He was the master at dispensing impartial justice. 


Let’s look more closely at the language of deliverance and the categories of those helped by Job in verses 12-16. The common verb for “deliver” is natsal (213x), but in verse 12 Job uses another common verb, palat (95x), to express his deliverance of the poor (ani, v 12). Normally palat means “to escape,” such as its repeated (5x) use in the Sodom narrative to express angelic urging and human hesitation to flee from the doomed place (Genesis 19:17ff).  A similar verb, malat, can mean deliver/save (II Samuel 19:9), where God is said to have “saved” (malat) people from their enemies.


In this case Job saved/delivered the ani (“poor”; 77x) when they cried (shava, 21x). Though Job uses ani on five occasions, it is a word much more common in the Psalms (30x), and often it appears in hendiadys with ebyon (“needy”). Job will use the latter term in verse 16, where the euphoniously pleasant ab anoki ebyon (“I was a father to the needy”) appears. Job is said to have delivered the poor either “from crying out” or “when they cried out.” The verb shava appears 21x, but eight of them are in Job. He is the master of “crying out.”  Most memorable non-Joban uses are in Jonah 2:2, where Jonah “cried out” from the belly of the big fish, and Habakkuk 1:2, where the prophet complains, “How long, O Lord, will I cry out (shava) and you will not hear?”  

 

The second category of people that Job delivered were the “fatherless” (yathom, 42x/7x Job), a category often connected with “oppressed” (dak) or “weak” (dal) or “widows” (almanah, see Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18 and elsewhere).  We will get to the widows in the next verse. Just as Job split the categories of ani/ebyon, so he also splits the common pair of yathom/almanah. But Job aided another category in verse 12, which he only refers to as “one who has no helper” (ezer). We don’t know, actually, if the one without help is meant to be an additional category or just a phrase modifying the “fatherless.” Job’s role here is strikingly similar to that of the ideal king in Psalm 72:12,

 

    “For he delivers (natsal) the needy (ebyon) when he cries (shava) and the poor (ani) and one who        has no helper (ezer).”

 

One even wonders for a moment if these words of Job, spoken in his defense against God in Job 29, were somehow taken up and transmuted in the tradition to become God’s words to describe the ideal monarch. We could just hear Job fuming if he realized this is what happened, ‘God even took my words and used them to describe an ideal king, but God would have nothing to do with my situation!’