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291. Job 30:3 Continuing a (Vague) Attack on the Mockers
It only gets worse from here, from the perspective of clarity. Verses 3-8 bring us into a nearly impenetrable thicket of meaning and translation problems. But we must trod the pathless waste, tearing our garments, lacerating our skin and, often, having really very little to show for our efforts.
In the NASB, Job 30:3 reads:
3 “From want and famine they are gaunt
Who gnaw the dry ground by night in waste and desolation,
A literal reading of verse 3 is:
“In want and hunger is their desolation/gauntness/barrenness; gnawing the dryness, yesterday desolation and waste.”
This verse certainly won’t win the Nobel Prize for Clarity either on first or subsequent readings. We think it must have to do with what has immediately preceded it because good literature usually tries to establish or assume meaning between consecutive thoughts. So, we must still be talking about the sons of people whom Job would have disdained to hire as guards of his flocks. They may be close to death (verse 2); verse 3 then must further describe their bad condition.
If this is what is happening, it does so with rare words. Words translated as “want” and “hunger “and “desolation” and “gnawing” and “yesterday” and “waste” each appear five or fewer times in the Bible. That is, six of the eight Hebrew words in the verse are so rare as to give us problems establishing a proper range of meaning for them. The other two words, rendered “dryness” (16x) and “desolation” (also 16x) help provide some context, but they even make things more confusing. For example, the phrase rendered “gnawing the dryness” above has also been rendered “fleeing to the wilderness” or “roaming the parched land” or “clawing in the desert sand.”
Thus, the major problem is joined right away— Who (and what) are we talking about? Where are they? What is their problem? What are they doing? We thought Job might be talking about the people who are mocking him, but you would think these people would be mocking him in the town square or similar places in order to maximize the effectiveness of their attacks, but here we have desperate people seemingly fleeing to (the translation of “gnawing” is also very difficult) dry spaces (which some interpret as “deserts”). But why would they be mocking Job in places where there is no food, water and people? As just mentioned, it seems that if you want to multiply your effectiveness, you mock Job where people actually are and that you don’t want to starve to death. Hmm. . . Maybe these guys are really dumb, as well as being mockers, but Job doesn’t probe their mental acuity.
We think there must be a continuity with verse 2, where worthless people are seemingly breathing out their last, but why such people would choose to dash off while in extremiis and head to places even less hospitable than the town square is really problematic. And then, there are translation problems with the simple word emes, rendered “yesterday” above. Let’s assume for unfathomable reasons that the desperate, near-death mockers of Job are actually fleeing to where people aren’t so that they can continue their tirades. But what does “yesterday desolate and waste” mean? Well, three of the other four appearances of emes are in Genesis, and they all are best rendered “last night” (Genesis 19;34, 31:29, 42)— a time either of meeting with someone or God’s appearing to someone. But “last night” doesn’t work in Job 30:3. Nor, frankly, does any translation. Some have tried to ‘save' Job 30:3 or find meaning in it by saying that people are fleeing to the desert by night or gnawing the ground by night, but then we have to deal with the question of why they might be doing that and what is the relationship of their unusual fleeing (or gnawing, depending on how you render the verb araq, a Job-specific verb that only appears elsewhere in 30:17) to waste and desolation.
When people spew invective, they often just blurt out incoherent thoughts, perhaps just pent-up anger against unspecified foes. That is my best guess as to what Job is doing here. He uses words of vitriol, which tumble out one after another, to strike out against shadowy opponents. Usually when people do this the gracious thing to do is “ignore” the outburst in hopes that the speaker will settle down and actually begin to speak thoughts that make sense. Unfortunately for Job, the incoherence just keeps growing. We can hardly wait to get to verse 4.