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290. Job 30:1-8, Job’s Attack on the Mockers

 

1 “But now those younger than I mock me,

Whose fathers I disdained to put with the dogs of my flock.

2 Indeed, what good was the strength of their hands to me?

Vigor had perished from them.

3 From want and famine they are gaunt

Who gnaw the dry ground by night in waste and desolation,

4 Who pluck mallow by the bushes,

And whose food is the root of the broom shrub.

5 They are driven from the community;

They shout against them as against a thief,

6 So that they dwell in dreadful valleys,

In holes of the earth and of the rocks.

7 Among the bushes they cry out;

Under the nettles they are gathered together.

8 Fools, even those without a name,

They were scourged from the land.

 

Job 30:1 speaks with sad and poignant clarity, though it presents a not insignificant interpretive issue. The verb directly after the temporal reference (“And/but now”) is sachaq (“to smile/laugh/mock,” 36x/9x Job), which we just met two verses previously. We had difficulty rendering it in 29:24 because of the problem understanding whether Job was mocking people, smiling at the people or laughing at them. And, as is often the case with smiles or laughs or even mocking, once you decide whether it is a smile, laugh or mock you still have to decide what that facial gesture means. Unfortunately, these facial gestures don’t carry their own interpretation with them (i.e., a smile doesn’t invariably mean someone is pleased; mocking doesn’t unerringly point to derision).  Hence our problem in 29:24.


But in 30:1 we have a third person plural use of sachaq—now we have “they” who either smile, laugh, or mock. Most interpreters take the sachaq 29:24 as “smile” but render it in 30:1 as “mock,” though there is no reason why we can’t experiment with the same or different readings of sachaq in each place. Context suggests that “mock” in a derisive way is most appropriate for 30:1, and I will leave it at that.

 

The mockery hits Job very strongly. It strikes him no doubt like the feeling that a person might have who has always had the crowd “with him/her” but then determines that the crowd actually is laughing at, rather than with him/her. There is a sense of disbelief, and then a realization of a new reality. So Job spends verse 1 recounting this new reality that he faces.

 

Job frames his reaction to the strange sound of mockery in his ears in terms of social status. People who mock him now are the sons of those Job whom Job wouldn’t have even put with dogs who watched his flocks. The implication is that since the fathers occupied a low social status, lower even than watching flocks with dogs, the sons would be equally disadvantaged. But if we look at Job’s metaphor more closely, we see that it both “works” and “doesn’t work.” It works because it effectively emphasizes not only the social distance between him and the mockers but also a distance that quickly disappeared when we realize that Job is now the target of attacks of lesser-statused people. Job, thus, is now a very low status person, lower even than society’s dregs.  


Yet, strangely, the metaphor doesn’t completely work. Even though Job wouldn’t have hired the mockers’ fathers to be with the watchdogs over the flock, the position of watching flocks isn’t like that of the Indian sudras (Untouchables), some of whom stayed up all night collecting nightsoil (i.e., human feces) from the cesspools, buckets and outhouses of the wealthy. Watching flocks was something done by the future King David or other people of prominence in ancient Hebrew society. The most famous Psalm (23) has God likened to a shepherd. Job 30:1 is trying to get us to  suppose that placement with the “dogs” (keleb, 32x) of the flocks lowers the person who does this to “dog-like” status, a pretty low status in ancient Israel (“Should this dead dog curse my lord,”  II Samuel 16:9, et al).  Yet, placement with a dog of the flock is not the same as saying that the person was a dog.  


Thus, the image of verse 1 is meant to suggest that the fathers of the ones mocking Job now wouldn’t have been able to secure work as watchers of the flocks, along with the dogs, but it is far from clear that this is a dishonored position. Calling a person a dog was an insult in ancient Israel, but it is far less certain that employment with the dogs of a flock was so bad.  

 

Thus, even the clear verse 1 sounds a bit of a discordant note. It gets worse from here. Verse 2 literally says,

 

    “What to me is the strength of their hands? Upon him perishes strength.”

 

We have difficulty both with one word and with the overall meaning.  Let’s begin with that word—kelach (2x), the last word of the verse, generally rendered vigor or rugged strength. It only appears elsewhere in Job 5:26, where Eliphaz had talked about the righteous going to their grave “in kelach,” which most interpret to mean “in full age” or “with full vigor.” There is enough similarity between the last word of the verse (kelach) and the second word of the verse (koach, “strength, vigor”) to suggest that what is at work here is both euphony and similar meaning.  

 

But if we can generally affirm the just-provided translation, we still have to ask what it means. Is Job just trying to say that these people have been worthless all along, and that they therefore continue to be worthless? If this is what he is saying, it seems he is suffering inordinate pain at the hands of worthless people. You would think he could just ignore it, like many people of very high status just ignore the grimaces or mocking gestures of people they despise.  

 

Job seems to be torn. On the one hand these “mockers” were the type of people he redeemed or saved in his judicial role (see 29:16).  But now, on the other hand, he is saying, ‘Well, how could they really profit or help me?’ Job seems to want to have it both ways—he wants to receive the praise of the “little people” he has helped but then, when the tables are turned, he can say, “Well, they are just little people.” Their strength doesn’t help Job.  

 

The final clause of verse 2 is puzzling. Other translations have it: “men in whom ripe age is perished” or “whose vigor has gone from/left them.” It seems that Job is now pointing to these mockers as people who themselves are on the brink of death. But where does that come from? Someone might argue that those who are in a vulnerable position (i.e., Job) tend to see vulnerability all around them, much like many older people, whose strength has waned, now consider the society to be “falling apart” or “in decline.” Job’s world is collapsing; it must needs be, then, that the entire world is collapsing. And certainly the world of the mockers is collapsing. After all, their strength is waning, and “perishing” (the common verb abad) has come upon them. What began with a heart-rending and impressive cry when Job began it twenty words ago has now turned into a vague and unconvincing attack on the mockers.