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317. Job 31:18-20, Job’s Treatment of the Vulnerable (Continuing)

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,


As indicated, verse 17 continued the thought of verse 16. Yet, verse 18 is unexpected. It doesn’t bring down a possible curse on Job but is a further explanation of how he had treated the fatherless and widows. Like the explanatory verses 11 and 12, so verse 18 explains his past conduct towards these groups:


    “Because from my youth he grew up with me as a father; and from my mother’s womb I was

    her guide.”


Job is saying that his care both for the fatherless and widows is long-standing. The phrase “grew up with me” captures the verb gadal, “to become big/grow up.”Job didn’t just adopt the action of gracious deliverer once he had become a socially prominent person. He didn’t just set up the “Job Helps the Unfortunate Foundation” when public scrutiny turned to him in his prosperity.  

We really aren’t able, however, to evaluate his statement. Is it just hyperbole or does it reflect actual practice from his youth? The Psalmist can use similar language: “I have leaned on you since my birth; you took me from my mother’s womb” (Psalm 71:6). Or, even using a stronger verb, “I was hurled on you from birth; from the womb of my mother you have been my God” (Psalm 22:10). These statements are meant to show undying devotion and unswerving loyalty. There may be more than a grain of truth in them but for those of us who have spent time reflecting on a long life, we see we are not nearly so virtuous. Or, if we have been steadily virtuous, it came at quite a price.


Job now turns to three more “if” statements in verses 19-21, though we would be hard-pressed to recognize three distinct experiences or groups of people in these verses. His oaths are becoming more fervent and less tied to any literary form. First he returns to the poor, though he calls them the ebyon, rather than dal, in verse 19.


    “If I have seen one who is perishing for lack of clothing, with no covering for the poor person..."


Though this verse is similar to Job’s thoughts in verse 16 about providing “delight/pleasure” for the poor, he comes at it here through the medium of clothing. There is rather more than we would have expected about nakedness and clothing in Job. It began with Eliphaz’s allegation in 22:6 that Job had taken pledges of clothing from the vulnerable, stripping them for no reason. This activity was condemned in Israel’s oldest law code (Exodus 22:26-27) where we have the following provision:


    “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for 

     it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall the person sleep?

     And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”  


Job then had, as we recall, a curious and difficult to interpret reference to nakedness in 24:7. I see it as part of his description of how the wicked mistreat the poor.  


    “They lie all night naked, without clothing, and have no covering in the cold.”


No doubt this most basic provision of the law, and the implications of its violation, deeply impressed Job. Thus, it’s not unexpected that he turns to this subject in 31:19.  

But, verse 19 begins with an “if. . .”  An “if” implies a “then” or a continuation of the “if” thought. Job continues the “if” thought in arresting and potentially confusing words in verse 20. First, a literal rendering:


    “If his loins have not blessed me; and from the fleece of sheep he kept warm.”


The meaning of these several verses relating to Job’s treatment of the poor seems to be as follows: Job has not only not neglected the poor, but he brought them pleasure or delight. If he saw one of them without clothing, perhaps because the unfortunate person has pledged his garment and it wasn’t returned to him, Job clothed him with such abundance (“fleece of the sheep”) that the poor person blessed Job from the bottom of his heart (“loins” blessing me). Job’s focus on “delight” for the poor leads to the poor’s responding with full-throated blessing of Job.

The phrase “his loins blessed me” (the two Hebrew words are the common verb barak and the rare noun chalats) is unique in the Bible. Of the ten appearances of chalats, three of them are in Job. The other two are placed in God’s mouth, when he commands Job to “gird up your loins” and face God (38:3; 40:7). Chalats appears three times in context where the future of the people is promised (i.e., “sons” come “out of the loins;” Genesis 35:11; I Kings 8:19; II Chronicles 6:9). The other references are simply to a part of the body.  As I suggest above, the best translation of this phrase is “bless me from the bottom of their heart.”  


Blessing will come to Job from the poor because, in another very unusual phrase, “from the shaving/mowing (gez, 4x) of the sheep (the common kebes) they warm themselves” (chamam, 13x). No doubt the “shaving” (gez, from the 15x-appearing verb gazaz, “to shear/mow”) points to the result of the shaving—or the downy fleece that would keep the poor person warm. The verb chamam is well distributed throughout the Bible, ranging from the sun’s rising and “becoming warm/hot” (Exodus 16:21) to the decision to give David a bed-mate to “keep him warm” (I Kings 1:2) to the Psalmist’s heart “burning” within him (Psalm 39:3) when he ponders his distress.   

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