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303. Job 17:20-21, Returning to Familiar Ground

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.


Now that Job is treading on known ground, he continues with a familiar thought in verse 20:


    “I cry out to you but you don’t answer me”


The language of cry and response is too familiar in the Bible to need reference. Here, however, Job uses a not-too-common word for “cry” (shava, 21x/8x Job). Earlier he said that he cried (shava) for help but there was no “judgment” (19:12). Perhaps in dialogue or response to this assertion of Job, the Psalmist said (18:6):


    “In my distress I called on (common verb qara) the Lord, and cried (shava) to God."


What did God do in that instance (Psalm 18)? God figuratively moved heaven and earth in the next few verses of Psalm 18 to respond to the cry of his afflicted one. Lest we miss the point (that if you shava to God you are heard), the Psalmist closes the Psalm with reference to the enemies of the Psalmist. They, too, “cried (shava), but there was none to save; even to the Lord, but he didn’t answer (anah, same verb as in Job 30:20) them” (18:41). Take that, Job!


But Job is convinced that when he cries out, God doesn’t answer (anah). It may or may not be noteworthy that the neighboring verb to “answer” (anah) in the Hebrew Bible is also spelled anah, meaning “to be in distress.” Job has, in fact, used the verb in that sense in 30:11, where God has loosed Job’s “cord/bowstring” and “afflicted him/put him in distress.” Though the concepts of “answering” and “afflicting” are seemingly quite far from each other, they are as near in Job’s mind as the two adjacent dictionary entries.


We are momentarily confused but intrigued by the second clause of verse 20:


    “I stand up and you look at me.”


Hmm. . . What could this mean? The verb “to stand” is crystal clear, but to “look at” is the reflexive form of the verb bin, a quintessential wisdom tradition word (169x) that means “to be wise, to consider closely, to regard with care, to be discerning.” It was used to describe the “discreet” character of Joseph in Genesis 41:33, 39. It appears with other “wisdom-like” words in Deuteronomy 1:13, where people of “wisdom, understanding (bin) and knowledge” are to be selected to guide the tribes of Israel.  So, what might it mean that God has not answered Job, but “looks at” or “considers” him closely? 


I think it describes God’s maddening (to Job) sense of distance, lack of concern, immobility with respect to Job’s need. God may be sagely looking at Job, but that is all that is happening. God does nothing but patiently and wisely regard Job as Job falls deeper and deeper into oblivion. Will you lend a hand, God??

This interpretation then helps bring verse 21 into focus.  Literally, we have: 


    “You have turned cruel to me; and with the bones of your hand you hate me.”


The strange expression “bones of your hand,” which probably should be rendered, “the strength/might” of your hand, shouldn’t obscure the wrenching sadness and unique power of this verse. Job last three Hebrew words (translated with my last 10 English words) explore an even more subtle dimension of loss than before, perhaps comparable to our words “from the depth of your being you hate me.”


The first two words of the verse are “turn cruel.” The verb for “turn” (haphak, 94x/12x Job) is a common verb, and sometimes even has the violent connotation of “overturn” or “overthrow” (see, e.g., Job 28:9), which leaves us uncertain whether to see here a kind of gradual turning of God against Job or a more violent and catastrophic turning.  But the word “cruel” (akzar, 4x) captures our attention. It only appears in poetic context, either to describe a venomous poison (Deuteronomy 32:33), a fierce power (Job 41:10) or, as here, cruelty (see also Lamentations 4:3).  


The Lamentations reference is jarring, and perhaps most helpful in understanding its meaning in Job 30:21. After lamenting how the gold has become dim (Lamentations 4:1) and how the most precious things of Zion have become like earthen pitchers (Lamentations 4:2), the author further laments in verse 3 that even though jackals nourish their young,


    “the daughter of my people has become cruel (akzar), like ostriches in the wilderness."


The threefold picture in Lamentations 3 is devaluation of gold, ignoring of children, becoming cruel. That is what it is like when God gives the people over to a foreign marauder. That, too, is Job’s felt reality; God has devalued him, ignored him, turned cruel to him. The rest of the verse says that the strength/might of God’s hand has “hated” (satam, 6x) Job. Satam has a fairly narrow range of meanings, from “bear a grudge/hate” (Psalm 55:3) to “harass” (Genesis 49:23). Other dictionaries have defined it as “cherish animosity,” a nice contradiction in terms that is hard to forget. The verb sounds perilously close to the name of the creature who had permission to oppress Job (the Satan). Earlier, using the same rare verb, Job had said that God had torn him “in his wrath and hated (satam) me” (16:9).  Note that other words may change, but the hatred of God seemingly endures forever. . .

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