(to return to Table of Contents, click here)
29. Job 3:14-19, Whom Would Job Find When He Gets There?
After luxuriating in Job’s vocabulary of rest, we turn in verse 14 to the people he finds in this new realm. He would run into kings and counselors (v 14) and princes of the earth (v 15). This seemingly haphazard threefold categorization is precisely mirrored twice in Ezra (7:28; 8:25), an overlap that gives one pause, though I don’t exactly know what to do with it. We get both a stable but, at the same time, a destabilized picture of this new realm. Almost all translations give you a “stable” picture. That is to say, the usual translation of verses 14-15 is “with kings and counselors of the earth who rebuilt ruins for themselves, or with princes who have gold, who fill their houses with silver.”
The last phrase is uncontroversial—these leaders amass gold and silver. Problematic is the rendering of verse 14. These kings and counselors banah chorbah lo. It literally says, “build ruins for him.” But translators, wanting to make things neat, say to themselves, “build” must mean “re-build” for why would kings of the earth be envied if they just “built” ruins? And, what might it mean to “build” ruins? Therefore, it must mean “rebuilt” ruined cities. The lo at the end usually means “for him” but we are mostly satisfied with translating it “for themselves.”
We don’t have loads of records from antiquity where kings of the earth notched their belts because they happily rebuilt ruins. They mostly wanted to be known either for destroying things and leaving them untouched, in order to create ruins for the world to see, or to build things from scratch. And the word for “ruins” here (chorbah) is really “devastation” or “ruins.” We see it in the unforgettable warnings of God about “laying waste cities” (chorbah) and “destroying sanctuaries” (Leviticus 26:33, 35). If, however, the author wanted to say “restore” ruins, he might just have continued with Ezra, this time 9:9, where the language of amad (to stand/make stand) chorbah appears.
So, I just see Job’s method here as another example of destabilizing language, which began with the strange use of barak in Job 1. Kings and counselors are admired, because they built ruins and amassed gold. Huh? Precisely.
Many scholars see verse 16 as an interruption in Job’s peaceful rumination, an abruptly jarring intrusion that perhaps is misplaced and ought to be moved to a location after the questions of verse 12. But if we look at 3:13-19 as Job’s tour through the realm of the dead, we might see verse 16 as a break in the tour, as he goes from one room to another. In Exhibit Hall A he saw the kings and counselors of the earth; now before entering Exhibit Hall B (vv 17-19), he returns to the entrance hall and gathers his strength (v 16). When he, as it were, returns to this entrance hall, he recalls the thoughts upon first entering this realm, thoughts captured in the questions of verses 11-12.
So, he renews his questions of verses 11-12 with another, similar, question in verse 16. He asks about why he wasn’t just hidden (taman) as a stillborn child (the interesting word is, literally, a “fallen” child). The notion of “hiding” a “stillborn” child receives a powerful, but unintended, modern interpretation in Alfonso Cuaron’s memorable 2018 movie Roma, where the housekeeper bears a stillborn child. That child is briefly given to the housekeeper on her bed, to gently caress, before being whisked away and “hidden” in wrappings and then discarded. It is a slightly ghoulish scene, and Job’s words are no less ghoulish.
But then, in verses 17-19, Job returns in his thoughts to the realm of death. In my words above, he enters “Exhibition Hall B.” What does he see? As we have already mentioned above, in verse 17 he finds another scene of “rest.” More specifically, the wicked cease from their troubling (rogez); the weary find rest (nuach). As is often the case in Job 3, 3:17 uses literary parallelism: “The wicked cease from troubling” seems to mean the same thing as “the weary find rest there.” Yet, the parallelism doesn’t fully work because the second verb, nuach, is intransitive; it takes no object. So, it has to front- load the subject, creating the unusual phrase yegiey koach or “the weary of strength”—who find rest. Of course we can find a suitable English way to express the idea—“those lacking in strength” or “the weary,” but our translations conceal the struggle the author faced because he wanted to use the very serviceable verb nuach again.
We continue in our tour of Exhibition Hall B. We see prisoners at ease (shaan) together (yachad). Verse 18 ends with the suggestive, “They do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.” Note that it isn’t that they hear it and choose to disobey it. It is as if the sound of the taskmaster doesn’t echo in this realm. Perhaps it is a realm drenched in silence. There is nothing more comforting to a prisoner than silence—no one can be yelling at you if all is silence. The word translated “taskmaster” is noges, from the 23x-appearing verb nagas (“to oppress” or “drive”), made most memorable through its five appearances in Exodus 3-5 to describe the oppressive Egyptian taskmasters of the Hebrew people.
There is no sound in Job’s imagined realm. No one hears the voice of the taskmaster. Thus, everyone can be at ease. Shaan (usually rendered “to be at ease”) only appears four other times in the Bible. Twice, in Jeremiah 30:10 and 46:27, it is used coordinately with shaqat, a verb which we see both in Job 3:13 and 26.
As if to emphasize his freedom in this new place, Job concludes his reverie with verse 19, “The small and great and there; and the servant is free meadonav.” The usual translation of the preposition “mem” at the beginning of the untranslated word is “from.” Thus we would have, the servant is free from his master. It would thus reflect the idea of verse 18. Prisoners don’t hear their taskmasters; slaves are free from masters. Everyone is ‘chilling’ in this new realm. But what if the took the “mem” in the other way it can be read—as a comparative? Then, our translation would be “There the servant is freer than his master.” It would be just like Job to drop that kind of nugget at the end of the section.