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285. Job 29:18-20, When All Was Going Well. . .
18 “Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest,
And I shall multiply my days as the sand.
19 My root is spread out to the waters,
And dew lies all night on my branch.
20 My glory is ever new with me,
And my bow is renewed in my hand.
Job’s tone changes, though not dramatically, in these three verses. After laying out his method of dispensing justice before a hushed group of admiring onlookers, he turns in these verses to thoughts of his “retirement” or the end of all his work. He imagined a glorious future, with an ever-widening circle of influence. Each phrase makes sense, but the total picture brings some confusion. In verse 18, he probably likens himself to a long-lived bird (the phoenix, though this is disputed), yet in verse 19 he is more like a bush or shrub with tentacular and ever-spreading roots. Finally in verse 20 he is back to being a person, though the final phrase “bow (the noun) ever new in my hand” needs some reflection as to how that is significant.
He begins not with the dramatic miy-yitten of earlier passages (“Would that/oh that”) but with a simple vaomar (“And I said”). There follows the equally unexpected, “with my nest I will expire.” We might have expected the preposition for “in,” and that is how it is almost universally translated, but it really is “with”—suggesting not just a spatial location for Job’s final days but a connection with others—his “nest” (qen; 13x) Though qen is usually used to describe the dwelling place of birds, it also is the word used for the “rooms” of the ark (Genesis 6:14) as well as a seemingly inaccessible and even impregnable dwelling place for people (Obadiah 4; Habakkuk 2:9). Job’s only other use of it describes the dwelling place of eagles (39:27).
Note again an oblique but interesting connection between Job 29 and the Balaam narrative (I mentioned in my exposition of 27:1 and 29:1 above the “taking up again one’s proverbial discourse” in both Job and Balaam). Balaam takes up his proverbial discourse again and says to “the Kenite (qeni)”: “Enduring is your dwelling place and, though your nest (qen) be in the rock. . .” (Numbers 24:21). Qen may also have appeared here because of the euphony with the name “Kenite,” qeni.
So, “nests” as human dwelling places are attested before Job expresses his longing to spend the rest of his days in his “nest.” But then Job’s second clause confuses us. Literally it says, “and I will multiply my days as the sand” (chol, 23x). Though chol often stands metaphorically for something that is numerous or expansive, it usually appears in connection with the phrases such as multiplication of descendants as the sand of the sea (Genesis 22:17; 32:12) or the multitudes of people that confront one (Joshua 11:4). Job 29:18 is the only place where one’s days are multiplied like sand. Psalm 78:27 connects the ideas of birds and sand in describing God’s gracious provision for the people of Israel in the wilderness: “He rained on them meat like the dust and birds (oph) as the sand (chol) of the seas.”
Perhaps because of the awkwardness perceived in putting both halves of verse 18 together and because the Jewish tradition itself changed the pointing of chol to become chul (“phoneix”), many scholars have decided that chol here ought to mean “phoenix,”—that long-lived mythical bird from antiquity. That usage, however, isn’t otherwise attested in the Bible. Job would then be uttering parallel thoughts to express his desire for a long life. I’ll punt on this one, realizing that there are both good reasons for maintaining a reading of “sand” as well as “phoenix.”
Maybe Job even realized that he created an awkward situation for his readers in verse 18, and so he likens himself to a bush in the next verse. His roots (shoresh, 33x/9x Job) opened up (patach, 145x) either “to/like/by” the waters. Talk of “roots” is common in Job, and the word is used by Job, Bildad, the narrator (28:9) and Elihu. The image of roots spreading out is not unfamiliar. It triggers the memory of Psalm 1:3, where the righteous person is like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth its fruit in due season. It is even more reminiscent of Jeremiah 17:8, where the person who trusts God is blessed:
“For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out its roots (shoresh) by the river. . .and its foliage shall be luxuriant.”
Job’s roots would likewise be deep and his foliage luxuriant, though he doesn’t say it as eloquently as Jeremiah. Job just says, “And dew (tal) will lodge (lun is verb) in my branch (qetsir). Qetsir is usually a “harvest” but it can occasionally, as here, mean “branch.” Though we may hear echoes of the Psalms or Jeremiah in Job’s statement in verse 19, the stronger echo is to the book of Job itself. Job here may be “answering” Bildad’s allegations about the dire straits of the wicked in Job 18. Bildad said two things relevant to our consideration here: that the homes of the wicked are upended (vv 14-15) and that his roots shall dry up (v 16). The precise words of 18:16 should be noted:
“His roots (shoresh, as in 29:18) shall dry up (yabash) from underneath, and from above his
branch (qatsir, same word as in 29:18) shall wither/be cut down (namal).”
The roots of the wicked dry up, but Job’s will flourish. Instead of withering and drying up, his branches will be covered with fresh dew. Instead of rebutting Bildad’s words with a, “I disagree!,” Job gently adopts Bildad’s words and uses images of luxuriance rather than desiccation to describe himself. And note that he does so in an anticipatory fashion. That is, he is supposedly thinking these thoughts about luxuriance before his disaster, before Bildad says the opposite, but its placement in the narrative of Job makes it seem like it is a response to Bildad. In any case, he is completely distancing himself from Bildad’s picture of the unrighteous person.
Job ends this brief section with a verse (v 20) that doesn’t ring hollow but isn’t as riveting/memorable as the previous two. The opening phrase, “My glory is new with me,” sounds like a dim echo of the bold declaration of Psalm 103:5 that God renews the Psalmist’s days like the eagle's. The second clause, “My bow is renewed in my hand,” really has no other biblical echo but probably suggests his hope for the fruitfulness of his family. This, too, would be a “response” to Bildad’s words in 8:17-19, where the wicked person perishes, with no offspring or descendant among the people.
What drives the unusual images of verse 20, however, is the alliteration of the two verbs: chadash (“to make new,” 53x) and chalaph (“to exchange/refresh,” 28x). As we have often seen in Job, meaning may inhere more in the sound than in the denotation of the words. Chadash is a rather straightforward verb and is used to describe common things: a new court, a new cart for the ark of the Lord. When Samson was bound by the Philistines in Judges 15:13 and 16:11, he was bound with “new” ropes. Chalaph is a bit more complex; often it has to do with changing or exchanging things (like wages or garments), but Job uses it specifically in 14:7 in the sense of renewing or sprouting again. That is probably the meaning here. Job expresses his great hope that his bow (generally it is the quiver, rather than the bow, that contains the children/the heritage—see Psalm 127:5), might “sprout.”