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287. Job 29:24-25, Finishing the Chapter on a Confusing Note
24 “I smiled on them when they did not believe,
And the light of my face they did not cast down.
25 I chose a way for them and sat as chief,
And dwelt as a king among the troops,
As one who comforted the mourners.
By the end of verse 23 we really have all that we need to know about Job’s judicial method, the silence of the crowds and the eagerness with which the litigants awaited his judgments. No more needs to be said. Perhaps that is one reason why Job lapses into near incomprehensibility in the last two verses of Job 29. Because of the clarity of Job 29:1-23, we have been lulled into thinking that the Book of Job is accessible to mere mortals, pouring out its wisdom on us like the dew falling from heaven. But now the author pulls rank on us, showing us that we are simple interpreters, often groping in the darkness, fully at the mercy of the author to make things clear.
The reason I say this is that 29:24 immediately introduces massive ambiguities, ambiguities that lead down different and perhaps mutually incompatible roads and which, in the end, add little to what has been powerfully described earlier in Job 29. Yet, we have the text here and our job is to try to make sense of it. The problem begins with the first word. It is the fairly common verb sachaq (36x, “to laugh/mock/smile at”), but we don’t know if Job is laughing or mocking or simply smiling. We also don’t know if the sentence should begin with a declarative thought or with a conditional thought (“if”). Thus, right out of the gate we have four or six translation possibilities for the first term: “I laughed” or “I mocked” or “If I laughed…” or “If I mocked..” (perhaps two more if we want to differentiate “smile” from “laugh”).
An abundance of translation possibilities isn’t an unusual scenario. Meaning often arises not with the study of individual words but with words as we see them put to work. So, let’s put the first four-word clause together: “sachaq at/to them and they did not aman.” Ok, the focus now shifts to the verb aman (108x), which has a wonderfully wide range of meanings, including to “trust/believe” (Abram aman the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” Genesis 15:6) or “to be faithful,” or “to confirm,” or “to support” or a few other things. I gave the quotation from Genesis 15 because this “believe/trust” translation is the most prevalent and perhaps most appropriate to translate Job 29:24.
So, now that we see the range of meanings for the first clause, we see we might have one (or none) of the following: “I laughed at them, and they didn’t believe it” (whatever that might mean) or “If I laughed at them, they wouldn’t have believed it” or “I mocked them and they didn’t trust/believe it” (i.e., they “rejected” Job’s words in some way) or “If I mocked them, they would not have trusted” (i.e., maybe they would have abandoned their faith in the judicial process had Job mocked them). Or, we could replace any of the just-given alternatives with “smile” Here are a few of different versions:
New International Version: “When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it…”
English Standard Version: “I smiled at them when they had no confidence..”
New American Standard: “I smiled on them when they did not believe…”
KJV: “If I laughed on them, they believed it not…” (same with 1917 Jewish trs)
KJ2000V: “If I mocked them, they believed it not…”
Recognizing this fact, Clines states that “the meaning of this verse is much disputed.” Yet, I should quickly add that a kind of “consensus” about translating this phrase seems to be emerging, captured by Clines’ rendering: “When I smiled at them, they would not believe it” (i.e., they are dumbfounded, but delighted, at the results of their cases). I think, however, one could translate it, “I mocked them and they couldn’t believe it. . .” Perhaps Job was just mocking them in jest, to see if they had some strength of will to continue after the victory. But you see very quickly that language this imprecise can lead to multiple credible translation options, where one “makes up” a supposed background to fit one’s translation.
Thus, I scratch my head and say, without much conviction, ‘Ok, I guess we could go with Job’s concluding the judicial process with a smile, and this smile serving to bolster their confidence perhaps because the judgment was unexpected, but what does that really do?’ Not much.
Then, things gets worse. The last four words of verse 24 are,
“and the light of my face they didn’t cause to fall.”
Huh? All four words are simple and common Hebrew words. One translation has “the light of my countenance they cast not down,” whatever that might mean. Does this mean that in the first half of the verse Job smiles at them when they lacked confidence, and then, in the second part, they received this smile as it was intended (i.e., they didn’t “cast it down”)? Clines makes it more elegant by rendering the second clause, “And they didn’t disregard my good favor.”
I can see how one might look at verse 24 as Job’s final act in disposing the case: he smiled, and they received the smile as intended. It is kind of strange, however, to introduce the notion of gentle smiling or laughing (much less mocking) into Job’s speech at this time, not just because nothing we know about Israelite judicial procedure would include smiles as one of the elements, but also because the verb sachaq appears just two verses later (30:1) and almost certainly has to be rendered “mock” there. No doubt there may be levels of subtlety happening here, but everything before verse 23 was straightforward to and clear.