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284. Job 29:16-17, Continuing on Job’s Judgments
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.
What is most interesting, stated in verse 16, is that the people to whom he dispensed justice were people whom Job really didn’t know. Rather than just passing judgment on kin or those familiar to him, he tells us that he was “father to the poor” (three consecutive words beginning with the Hebrew letter aleph, but transliterated as ab, anoki, ebyon) and,
“the case (rib) of the one I didn’t know I searched out (chaqar).”
When Job prepared his own case, he called it his mishpat; now that he is judging another he uses the traditional term for a controversy or case: rib (61x). Though rib has this specific meaning in a judicial context, it can also be used generically for “strife” (Genesis 13:7) or a quarrel” (Exodus 17:7). More fascinating from a theological standpoint is the appearance here of chaqar (“to search out”; 27x/5x Job). I have already commented on the verb, especially in the exposition of Job 28:27, but a few thoughts are worth reiterating. Chaqar is a memorable and strong term to describe the process of diligent search. God might search out the heavens and earth (Jeremiah 31:37), probe the heart of humans (Jeremiah 17:10; Psalm 139:1), and even search out the very structure of the universe when placing divine wisdom as its foundational principle (Job 28:27), but humans also are also capable of diligent search through chaqar. Chaqar appears in a quasi-judicial context when the elders of a city are to search diligently for the one who has committed a crime (Deuteronomy 13:14). In Job 29:16 we have Job using that same kind of diligence to pursue the case of one he didn’t know.
Liberation theologians, such as Gustavo Gutierrez, love this aspect of Job’s life. Gutierrez stresses how Job exercised the “preferential option for the poor” in his judgments, especially as laid out here and in Job 24.
Important as his work was for the most vulnerable in the society, Job also was fiercely committed, as he tells us in verse 17, to punish aggressively the unrighteous. Verse 17 contains only six Hebrew words, but they are densely packed and neatly arranged. The verse begins and nearly ends with verbs beginning with the same letter (shin). They are common but powerful verbs. Job “shattered” (shabar) something at the beginning, and then he “sent out/tore out” (shalak) something else at the end. The rare word methallioth (“the jaws/fangs”, 3x), as the thing shattered, can elsewhere be associated with human (Proverbs 30:14) or animal (Joel 1:6) jaws. But the appearance of tereph (“prey,” 23x, from taraph, “to tear one’s prey”) at the end cinches the case that Job characterizes the unrighteous people here as akin to animals. We have:
“I shattered the jaws of the evil/unrighteous (avval, 5x); and I plucked the prey from his teeth."
The interesting picture created is that the unrighteous, like animals, take the vulnerable in their mouths as prey, ready to devour them, but that Job intervened at a crucial instant to break the jaws and deliver the victims. Perhaps the vividness of this picture became fodder for the Psalmist (or vice versa) in a verse never quoted by anyone (Psalm 58:6):
“O God, break their teeth in their mouth, the fangs of the young lion, break out O Lord."
The verbs in Psalm 58:6 differ from Job’s verbs in 29:17. In Psalm 58 we have haras (43x, “break”) and nathats (42x, “shatter, yank down, break out”). Yet the nouns are the same—the teeth of Psalm 58:6 (shen) are the same as in Job 29:17; more remarkable, the rare methallioth of Job 29:17 has probably been shortened/corrupted into the hapax maltaah in Psalm 58. What the Psalmist can only pray for is something Job has already done. Job is not to be understood simply as a doting and doddering old man who easily handed out candy to the least fortunate. He also stood up to the avval (wicked/unjust), busting their jaws and prying them open to release the vulnerable or weak ones from their merciless maws.