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296. Job 30:9-15, Back to the Present
9 “And now I have become their taunt,
I have even become a byword to them.
10 They abhor me and stand aloof from me,
And they do not refrain from spitting at my face.
11 “Because He has loosed His bowstring and afflicted me,
They have cast off the bridle before me.
12 “On the right hand their brood arises;
They thrust aside my feet and build up against me their ways of destruction.
13 They break up my path,
They profit from my destruction;
No one restrains them.
14 As through a wide breach they come,
Amid the tempest they roll on.
15 “Terrors are turned against me;
They pursue my honor as the wind,
And my prosperity has passed away like a cloud.
The biggest question for Job (and us as readers) in this passage is whether Job can regain his credibility that he has just lost as an author. I have amply illustrated how he, in the previous eight verses, lost that credibility as a witness/author because of his probably cribbing from the equivalent of a middle-school composition lying around to attack a shadowy group of mockers with imprecise words. In this passage he returns to his present distress, and so we have hope that because he is examining his personal experience and not just spewing invective against uncertain foes, he can rectify the literary shortcomings of the previous eight verses. In general, Job regains his credibility in this section, though he still makes several head-scratching observations.
Verse 9 assumes that the mockers, who spent a good deal of time trying to set up shop between bushes and in wadis in verses 1-8, are close enough so that they can sing a taunting song that reaches Job’s ears. Apparently they are now back where Job is or else their song has become so catchy and familiar that it is spreading without their presence. The point of verse 9, however, is that Job becomes a target of musical mockery.
It begins with Job 30’s special “transition word,” atah (vv 1, 9, 16), “and now.”
“And now I have become their song; and I am a byword for them.”
The language is straightforward, even though the verbal reach of the two significant nouns (neginah; millah) is not obvious at first. The first, neginah (13x), is usually rendered “taunt” here (though my preliminary translation is “song”), and I will conclude below that this is the best translation for it, but its basic meaning according to the BDB is “music” or “tune.” It is one of about five terms that frequently appear in the superscriptions of individual Psalms to give directions on how to sing a Psalm. For example, “To the Choirmaster, according to/with the neginah,” begins Psalms 4, 6, 54, 55, 61. The NRSV translates it in these Psalms as “with stringed instruments,” while the NASB is the almost identical “on stringed instruments.”
We don’t know enough to posit a history of this term. We don’t know, that is, whether it originally was a general term for music but then became taken over by the music guild to describe a particular style of music, or whether it evolved from the Temple setting. Though it can point to a neutral “song” on occasion (Psalm 77:6), in two other places it definitely means “taunting song.” When the Psalmist ruefully observes that “he is the song (neginah) of the drunkards” (Psalm 69:12), and when the author of Lamentations says, echoing Job’s language in Job 30:1, 9, that “I have become a joke/derision (sachaq) to all my people, and their neginah all the day” (Lamentations 3:14), we see its derisive or taunting meaning.
That meaning makes most sense in Job 30:9. Job now is the butt of jokes, the subject of their mocking songs. The second phrase says that he has become a millah to them. We have previously seen that this word, though appearing 38x, is really “owned” by Job (34x), and it can mean everything from the neutral “word” to the depreciatory “byword.” To keep the parallelism with mocking song in the first part, we render it “byword” here.
The word “byword” has an interesting journey in the English language. Originally it meant something similar to “proverb,” so that Chaucer, in the late 14th century, could use the word “byword” in Troilus and Cressida, with the proverb then following: “rootless: green things must fall away” (IV, 769-70). But by the time that Miles Coverdale translated the Bible in 1535, the more negative meaning of “byword” arose. He rendered Deuteronomy 28:37 as follows (I have modernized the spelling):
“Thou shalt go to waste, and become a byword, and a laughingstock among all the nations."
Thus, when we say today that Job has become a “byword,” we think of it as not simply an object of a proverbial statement but, most likely, an object of scorn or derision. That rendering fits the context of 30:9 nicely.