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301. Job 30:16-23, Job’s Psychic and Physical Pain
16 “And now my soul is poured out within me;
Days of affliction have seized me.
17 At night it pierces my bones within me,
And my gnawing pains take no rest.
18 By a great force my garment is distorted;
It binds me about as the collar of my coat.
19 He has cast me into the mire,
And I have become like dust and ashes.
20 I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me;
I stand up, and You turn Your attention against me.
21 You have become cruel to me;
With the might of Your hand You persecute me.
22 You lift me up to the wind and cause me to ride;
And You dissolve me in a storm.
23 For I know that You will bring me to death
And to the house of meeting for all living.
Though Job purports to tell in this chapter of the effect of the mockers on him, he really changes his focus in these verses to his struggle with God. Job is never so eloquent, or seemingly so hopeless, as when he speaks about how God has undermined his life. The actual description of Job’s misery, especially in verses 16-17, reminds me of the way President Ulysses S Grant described the racking pain of his throat cancer in that fateful but most productive last year of his life (June 1884-July 1885). He couldn’t sleep at night; he was tired during the day. So painful was his throat that he didn’t even drink water sometimes for two days. Doctors’ could at best stanch some of the pain through a powerful mix of drugs, but the march of cancer was as relentless as Grant’s own march on Vicksburg more than twenty years earlier.
We are now back to the Job of Job 7, 12-13, 16, 19. The emotion, the vitriol, the physical and spiritual pain, the abject hopelessness, all of this bursts forth in these eight verses for our enjoyment and education. Our section begins with the same word (“and now,” atah) as in verses 1, 8. It prefaces a distinct, and most memorable, part of Job’s speech. Though there are some translation difficulties in this section, they pale in comparison with the problems of 30:3-8 and the previous section. Verse 16 says:
“And now my soul is poured out upon me; days of affliction seize me.”
The image of a soul being poured out has been rendered by some of the translations as “my life ebbs/seeps away,” but we ought not to lose the “pouring out/shedding” meaning of the verb shaphak (115x). It often means to “shed” blood in war (I Samuel 25:31) or in the sacrificial ritual (Leviticus 4:7, 18) or to pour out things like water (I Samuel 7:6) on the ground. Perhaps because of the clarity of those pictures, the notion of pouring out of the soul makes immediate sense, even though it is a spiritual or intellectual movement. The nearest parallel to the thought in 30:16 is in Psalm 42. The Psalmist there, too, is overwhelmed by the sadness of the present. His tears have been his bread both day and night. He has his own collection of mockers who ask, “Where is your God?” In this condition, he says,
“I recall these things and I pour out my soul upon myself” (42:5).
The Psalmist uses the same three words as in Job 30:16: shaphak (pour out), nephesh (soul), al (upon). But Job adds a few words to this, as he points to the days of affliction (oni, 36x/6x Job) that have seized him. Many want to translate the achaz (68x) as “lay hold of/take hold of” but I think it is more accurate, even if a bit more shocking, to render it as “seize.” The verb is best rendered this way in Judges 16:21, where the Philistines “seized” Samson, as well as many other places.
Pouring out the soul was the means for kindling memory for the author of Psalm 42. It also did so for Job in the rest of the passage. Verse 17 reads:
“In the night my bones are pierced on me; there is gnawing and no rest.”
The language is difficult but potent. As in other places (e.g., Job 7:3) Job points to the terrors of the night that oppress him. Night is often the worst time for those who suffer bodily pain. In addition, many who suffer numbing pain do so because the pain or the cancer has lodged in the bones. Sometimes the pain a person feels is not cancerous but is direct bone on bone contact because the cushioning effect of cartilage has eroded. I have rendered the verb nagar (6x) here as “pierced” because that is the dominant way of reading it, but in fact the verb really means “to gouge out” or “carve out.” Just as the “seizing” (achaz) of the previous verse found its best parallel in Judges 16:21 of the Samson story, so the “carving out” of Job’s bones in 30:17 finds its closest parallel in the “gouging out” of Samson’s eyes by the Philistines in that same verse (Judges 16:21). Perhaps Job, or the author, has wittingly or unwittingly presented Job as a Samson-like figure here, but Samson shorn, powerless, at the mercy of the taunters and mockers (as Job was in Job 30).
If this is the case, this sheds new light on the yether, or cords/bowstring of verse 11. As mentioned above, yether is often understood in that verse as a bowstring already in place that was then snapped by God, leading to vulnerability and pain. But if we see this language now in connection with the Samson story, where the yether were “fresh (i.e., unstrung) bowstrings,” the more natural image is that bowstrings confine, rather than release from confinement. This would, of course, lead to the image not making much sense, other than as a signal to the reader that after 30:11 the Samson story may lie in the background of the besieged and pain-racked Job.
This racking pain is described by the rare verb araq, best rendered “gnawing.” We have just seen the verb in 30:3 to describe the “gnawing” of the mockers, when Job was descending into his literary fog, but now he redeems himself by talking about the gnawing on his body. It is a potent image for the effect of unremitting pain in the bones. The result is simply stated at the end: “And there is no rest” (the familiar shakab). Job is now speaking of the subject he knows best—his terrifying and relentless pain.