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316. Job 31:16-23, Oaths Five-Seven: Denying, Ignoring or Attacking Vulnerable People

 

16 “If I have kept the poor from their desire,

Or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,

17 Or have eaten my morsel alone,

And the orphan has not shared it

18 (But from my youth he grew up with me as with a father,

And from infancy I guided her),

19 If I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,

Or that the needy had no covering,

20 If his loins have not thanked me,

And if he has not been warmed with the fleece of my sheep,

21 If I have lifted up my hand against the orphan,

Because I saw I had support in the gate,

22 Let my shoulder fall from the socket,

And my arm be broken off at the elbow.

23 For calamity from God is a terror to me,

And because of His majesty I can do nothing.

 

Any system of numbering the oaths breaks down here, as there appear to be four (possibly overlapping) groups of people to whom Job refers but only one punishment that is envisioned (verse 22). Yet those three or four groups (poor, widows, those without clothing, orphan) share a common vulnerability, a vulnerability Job says he never exploited. This is particularly important since Eliphaz had argued that Job ignored these people. More specifically, Eliphaz had said:

 

    “You have not given water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld (mana) bread

     from the hungry” (22:7).

 

Job begins this section by an explicit reference to Eliphaz’s allegation:

 

    “If I have withheld (mana) any desired thing from the poor. . .” (31:16).  

 

The verb mana (29x/4x Job/5x Proverbs) has a narrow linguistic range. Sometimes it refers to God’s restraining a person from shedding blood (I Samuel 25:26, 34), but its most familiar appearance outside the wisdom literature is in Psalm 84:11, where the Psalmist triumphantly proclaims:

 

     “No good thing does the Lord withhold (mana) from those who walk uprightly.”

 

Proverbs uses the term in the form of exhortation: “Don’t withhold (mana) discipline from the child” (23:13) or short statement: “The people will curse the one who withholds (mana) grain” (11:26).  

 

More interesting, however, is Job’s use of the idea of “any desired thing” (chephets) in 31:16. Eliphaz had just accused him of withholding water and bread from vulnerable people. Rather than just rebutting that allegation, Job argues, on the contrary, that he has actually done the opposite. He not only has given them water, but he hasn’t withheld chephets (39x, “delight/pleasure”). The noun is derived from the common verb (75x) chaphets, which means “to delight” or “to favor” someone. 

 

The most memorable usage for me of chephets is in the description of Solomon’s treatment of the Queen of Sheba when she visited. In both the Kings and Chronicler’s accounts, Solomon:

 

    “Gave to the queen of Sheba every desire (chephets) that she expressed” (I Kings 10:13;

     II Chronicles 9:12).

 

When Eliphaz had earlier criticized Job for withholding the necessities of life from poor people, he had also used the word chephets, but this time in a theological sense. “Does God,” he inquired, “take any chephets (delight/pleasure) in your righteousness?  Is it a gain to God that your ways are blameless?” (22:3). The implication of Eliphaz’s statement is that Job’s life and even Job himself provided no “pleasure” to God. Job turned the concept around and says that he didn’t deny any pleasure from the poor. He is mum about whether he provides delight to God. But his point in 31:16 is that wasn’t in the business of supplying just the basics of life for the poor; he provided for their “desire” or “pleasure.”  

 

The category of people that received “delight” from Job  in verse 16 were the dal (“poor,” 49x). Of the 49 appearances of dal in the Bible, more than 20 of them are in Job or Proverbs (6x Job/15x Proverbs). Though we have seen oni or ebyon many times to describe impoverished people, dal may be even more familiar in the wisdom literature. Proverbs, for example, exhorts the reader to be gracious to the dal (26:8) or not to rob the dal (22:22). Though Job often pursues his unique linguistic path, he sticks here to three familiar terms from the wisdom and legal traditions of Israel:  dal, yathom (“fatherless,” 29:12; 31:17, 21 in Job’s peroration alone), and almanah (“widow” 55x; 31:16; 29:13). The pair of “widow” and “fatherless” often appears together in the Bible (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 68:15; Jeremiah 22:3, etc).  

 

Recall that verse 16 begins with an “if”: “If I have denied the poor their pleasure. . .” is the way it starts.  The “if” is then distributed to the second half of verse 16, “Or if I have made the eyes of the widow fail. . .” (kalah). Kalah is a common verb (more than 200 appearances) that first appeared when God “completed” (kalah) the work of creation (Genesis 2:1, 2). The notion of “completing” is not far from “finishing” something (Genesis 6:16—the ark) or “using up” something (Genesis 21:15—the water in a skin) or “coming to an end” (Genesis 41:53—the years of famine in Egypt). Thus, if kalah is placed in the Piel (intensive, as here), it is “make (her) come to an end” or “make to fail/use up.” 

 

It isn’t immediately clear precisely what “eyes fail” means, but then we see the identical expression in Psalm 119:123, “My eyes fail from (seeking?  waiting for?) your salvation and for your righteous word.” In that context the “eyes-failing” author then pleads for God to teach him (119:124) or give him understanding (119:125). Note the same phrase in Psalm 119:82, also connected with the Psalmist’s desperation. Thus, the phrase “eyes fail” has to do with coming to the end of one’s own resources, leading either to despair or death. Job will be taking a solemn oath here that he has not let widows reach this point of abject desperation. He has affirmed the opposite just two chapters previously: “I made the widow’s heart sing for joy” (29:13).  

 

Job 31:17 simply repeats the thought of verse 16:

 

    “(or if) I have eaten a morsel by myself and that the fatherless (yathom) didn’t eat of it,"

 

Though some may see Job’s reference to “morsels” (path; 15x; “fragment, bit, morsel”) as downplaying his former elevated status and luxurious meals by understatement (‘Yes, we ate a few morsels here and there’), I tend to see Job saying here that even if he ate the slightest snack or small meal, he would share it with the fatherless. We got the impression from the brief language of Job 1:1-4 that sumptuous daily repasts celebrated only by the family were the order of the day, but Job’s brief comment here leads us to see him differently. He not only spent his time sacrificing for his children lest they sinned, but making sure that the poor experienced delight, the widows received hope and the fatherless were fed. Job was accused by Eliphaz of mistreating both the fatherless and the widow in 22:9; he denies it in 29:12-13. Here he takes an oath to that effect.