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292. Job 30:4, The Attack Continues
The NASB of verse 4 is:
4 Who pluck mallow by the bushes,
And whose food is the root of the broom shrub.
A more literal rendering of verse 4 is:
“(these people who) pluck saltwort/mallow upon/atop the bushes and the roots of the broom tree/juniper are their food/keep them warm.”
I decided to give some alternative translations along the way, just to show how desperate we are as interpreters to come up with the basic words, much less establish meaning. We must still be describing this desperate, despicable (from Job’s perspective) group of mockers who, for inexplicable reasons, are gaunt and living in dry or desert places. It would seem that such a description would be more appropriate for Job, but the words specifically point to “they” as facing these problems.
Let’s begin, then, with their next activity. The verb qataph only appears 5x but at least in the other four appearances it is translated nearly identically: to "pluck off/cut down." Bildad uses it in 8:12, the verse where Bildad begins his long descent into obscurity (8:12-18). I will argue below that Job’s sharing here of three words with Bildad’s obscure passage of 8:12-18 (qataph, al, shoresh) means that Job’s probable design here is to compete with Bildad for the “obscurity prize.” We often think that poetry or prose must make sense in order for it to be considered great. But the subtle truth of the matter, as consideration of Job’s words in 30:3-8 shows, is that once you have already established your greatness through some riveting stories or eloquent poetry (as Job has through Job 3, 14 and other places), you can descend into full obscurity and still be considered “great.” That may be the sad truth about much intellectual life: present a thought or two of riveting clarity and utility, and then people will try to see all your subsequent words, no matter how full of gibberish, as evidence of genius.
For example, I once had a law professor who was considered the most significant judge in Oregon’s history. His opinions, though sometimes difficult to understand, were widely recognized as not simply setting Oregon law on a new foundation but giving a new method of reading state constitutions for all 50 states. Brilliant insights launched him. But by the time I sat in his classroom after his retirement, while he was still very much in control of all his mental faculties, almost every sentence coming out of his mouth was obscure. I know because I would frequently stop him (the rest of the students either were cowed or bored) and try to walk him through either the grammar or the historical references he was making. He would quickly retreat into a fog, especially as I tried to show him that his historical points really needed further exploration/clarification in order to stand. But he could do this because he already had established his undisputed reputation for “greatness.”
This is what I see happening to Job in 30:3-8. His reputation as one of the finest poets in human history, skillfully exploring intellectual and moral conundrums with sensitivity and insight, was firmly established with the first few utterances from his mouth. Now, he has the luxury of messing with us intellectually. Almost all interpreters are too cowed by Job’s greatness actually to say, ‘You aren’t making sense here Job’ and then saying it again when he continues to descend into the inky abyss of unclarity. They try to “save him” by changing the meaning of words, attributing the problem to ourselves as interpreters, etc. I am not as inclined to do that.
With that as my methodological salvo, then, let’s try to get clear on the words of verse 4. I am almost convinced from the outset that Job won’t make sense, and a close study of his words convinces me that this is a correct approach. We can then relax and have fun.
Back to the mockers. So, now, in their emaciated and desperate straits, the mockers “pluck/cut down” the malluch, a hapax. But all is not lost; the three consonants of the word are the same as those for “salt:” hence the translation of “saltwort.” Why they do this isn’t made clear. The Wikipedia article on saltwort defines it as:
“a plant of the goosefoot family, which typically grows in salt marshes. It is rich in alkali and its
ashes were formerly used in soap-making.”
Ah, maybe our pathetic mockers became suddenly aware of their dirtiness in the midst of their extreme privation (after all, they now were living in the desert/dry places), and decided they needed a bath. Sounds reasonable. You wonder, however, if the mocking was still flowing from their mouths as they harvested the plant they would soon make into bars of soap or whether they were so excited at the prospect of becoming clean that they momentarily stopped mocking Job. These questions are certainly very important to solve for the economy of salvation and the fate of the world.
In any case, they gather the saltwort which apparently is aley-siach, or “upon the bushes.” The word siach for “bush” is rare (4x), but at least its anchor appearance is in the creation narrative of Genesis 2:5, where it is called a “bush” or “shrub” of the field. Thus, its meaning is pretty secure. But we have to ask, what is the saltwort doing on top of the bush? You would think it would grow on the ground. Naturally, scholars have tried to “save” our tender saltwort by saying things like “from bushes,” so that these mockers pick the mallow/saltwort “from the bushes,” even though one would be hard-pressed to say that saltwort grows as a “bush" or on a bush. Too bad we couldn’t have a scholarly roundtable on when a plant becomes a bush or when “upon/atop” can become “from.”
Well, if we aren’t completely confused both by what the mockers are doing in the first clause of verse 4, as well as why they are doing it, things get more confusing in the second part of the verse. Literally we have; “And roots broom tree/juniper for bread/to keep warm.” Let’s begin with the most difficult issue, the last word. It is either a noun, lechem, with the third person plural suffix (mem, “for their bread”) added or a verb (chamam, 13x, "to become warm") prefixed by the sign of the infinitive (le). It has almost universally been rendered in the former way, “for their bread,” so that these pitiful people are now reduced to eating the roots of the juniper tree (so hungry are they), but now Clines has decided to take it as the verb, so that he renders the phrase, “and the roots of the broom tree to warm themselves.” So, the big issue is whether these unnamed mockers are hungry, and thus are filling out a diet that wouldn’t have been recognized even in antiquity as healthy, or they are cold, possibly because of frigid desert nights, and want a little warmth.
I stick with the “food” image, primarily because it gives the verse a parallelism that otherwise would be absent. But what does it mean to say that the roots of the broom tree were their food? We only run into this tree (rethem) in two other passages: I Kings 19 and Psalm 120:4. Elijah plopped himself down under it and expressed his desire to die (I Kings 19:4, 5), though God told him to rise and eat. But, did Elijah eat the roots of the broom tree? No way. When he looked up, in his distress, he noticed that there was, lo and behold, a cake baked and waiting for him, as well as a cruse of water. But God didn’t make him start gnawing on the roots of the broom tree/juniper, as the mockers seemingly have to do in Job 30:4. No wonder. Maybe the mockers were godless mockers. Even though no word of “hypocrisy” (one of Job’s favorite words—chaneph—goes unused here) appears here, we can posit that these mockers were probably hypocrites, not deserving of God’s, much less Job’s attention. So, rather than miraculously supplying them with baked cakes and cruses of water, God leaves them to forage on their own. What miserable, pitiable, godless people! Oh my, Job must feel so good clobbering these nameless, faceless people as they struggle for survival in the desert.
Thus, these pathetic mockers are reduced to taking from the tops of the saltwort and the roots of the broom tree to find food. Of course, all of this makes no sense. That is why I advance the thesis that what Job is really doing here, by using three words from Bildad’s incoherent rant in 8:12-18 (the three words are the verb qataph in 8:12, the preposition al and the noun shoresh, both in 8:17) is really saying to Bildad, ‘Say, Bildad, you think you can be obscure? I can top you!’ So, what Job 30:3-8 does for the serious reader of Job is confront us with the issue that deliberate obfuscation may be going on here, and not just in one place but in several. There may, in fact, be a “competition in unclarity” going on, with us as the hapless victims of their efforts. The reason I suggest this thesis is that there seems no other credible way to explain Job’s rather sudden departure from clarity. The only problem for Job in pursuing this kind of literary method (which I think is intentional) is that nearly all the sympathy we conjured up for Job through his brilliant and beautiful narrative of Job 29 is now quickly disappearing. What started as our sympathetic joining with Job in his sudden reversal has now become our impatience with Job’s playing verbal games just like the friends.