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318. Job 31:21-23, Job’s Treatment of the Vulnerable (Conclusion)
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.
Job’s next activity relates again to the yathom but points to what Job didn’t do to them rather than how he provided for their pleasure. Verse 21 states, literally:
“If my hand waved back and forth (nuph) over the fatherless when I saw my help/helpers in the gate. . .”
As is widely known, the “gate” (shaar) is the location where justice was dispensed in Job’s world. We have already seen how Job went out to the gates (shaar) of the town to render justice (29:7). Though Job presented himself as an unassailable judge in that passage, before whom everyone either stood or kept silent, we learn here that he wasn’t a man without helpers. The chief judge, especially, needs helpers—other judges, an army of clerks to sort out the paperwork and arrange his schedule and the public in general who have agreed to go along with decisions and support this concept of justice. Job could have seen his army of helpers (the common word ezrah), become emboldened at his authority, and simply “waved his hand back and forth” over the fatherless. The verb behind this action is the common nuph (37x). Nuph is especially beloved of Leviticus (11x) where it refers to the action of the priest in the wave offering. It can also refer to lifting up or wielding an implement (Deuteronomy 27:5; Joshua 8:31). But sometimes, as here, it means to “wave the hand with authority” (see, esp Isaiah 19:16, where the Lord raises (nuph) a hand (yad) against the Egyptians). In a word, it means here “to pull rank.”
When Job was operating within the scope and physical location of his authority, he was untouchable. He could have lifted his hand against the hordes of defenseless and vulnerable suppliants and dismissed their cases—or worse. But in this verse Job tells us that he didn’t lift his hand that way against the fatherless; he didn’t use the sources of his help against them.
Nearly everything beginning with 31:16 was placed in a series of conditional clauses (the word im appears at the beginning of vv 16, 19, 20, 21). Yet, we just have one punishment envisioned, in verse 22. Thus, Job’s oath-formula, if it ever existed, has completely broken down by now. We have had the following oaths/punishments, with the various categories of people or actions contemplated in parentheses:
Oath/Punishment 1, 31:5-6 (deceit)
Oath/Punishment 2, 31:7-8 (turning from the way)
Oath/Punishment 3, 31:9-12, with punishment for wife in verse 10 (adultery)
Oath/Punishment 4, 31:13-15, with punishment implied in verse 14 (servants)
Oath/Punishment 5, 31:16-23, with punishment in verse 22 (the poor/vulnerable)
Now, in verse 22, the other shoe drops. If Job has acted improperly in his treatment of vulnerable people, then he wishes that the punishment envisioned in verse 22 would come upon him. Verse 22 says, literally,
“(Then) may the side of my shoulder fall; and may my arm be broken from its reed/cane/stalk."
The language is metaphorical but the idea is clear. He is wishing further bodily disfigurement on himself if he has neglected to serve the poor, fatherless, or widow with justice and fairness. His oath is similar to that expressed by the author of Psalm 137:5-6,
“If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand also “forget” (its skill); let my tongue cleave to my
palate if I do not remember you; if I do not raise Jerusalem upon the head of my joys.”
The same three words in Ps 137 —tongues cleaving to palates— have just appeared in Job 29:10 to describe the reaction of the multitude when Judge Job arrived for work.
Though we know that Job is asking here for a bodily punishment, we aren’t precisely sure what is in view. The words are difficult. Job wishes that the kataph from his shikmah would “fall” (the common naphal). Kataph (67x) often refers to the “shoulder” or “shoulder piece” of the priest’s ephod/official garment (Exodus 28:7; 39:4 and several times in those chapters). It can refer to the “side” of a central object or building (Exodus 27:14, 15; I Kings 7, several times) or the “slope” (Numbers 34:11; Joshua 15:8, 10) of a hill. We would be willing to render it “shoulder” in Job 31:22 were it not for the following word: shikmah, a hapax that must be derived from the common noun for shoulder— shekem.
Thus we have a “side” that is falling from “the shoulder.” Just as the image of the right hand “forgetting” its skill, usually translated as “wither,” is suggestive rather than precise, so the image here of sides falling from shoulders suggests some kind of painful and debilitating dislocation of the upper arm from the shoulder blade.
Job isn’t finished. In the second part of the verse he wishes that his “arm” (the rare ezroa, but obviously the same as zeroa) might be “shattered” (shabar) from its qaneh. The picture is surprisingly alluring. A qaneh (62x) is usually a “branch” or a “reed” or “stalk.” It is not difficult to imagine an emaciated person’s arm looking something like a blighted stalk standing in the naked field. If the first part of the verse talked about the dislocation of shoulder from its blade (upper arm), this part may speak of the shattering of the arm (lower arm) from whatever holds it in place. While the image isn’t crystal clear, we have the picture of the strong and useful part of a man (the arm) being completely mangled. Job wishes that punishment on himself, a punishment of inutility and humiliation, if he has been untrue to his service to the poor, widow, fatherless and perishing.
Rather than turning immediately to his next oath/punishment, Job tells us in verse 23 that there is something even more fearful for him than separated shoulders and shattered arms: God. Yet, rather than just saying something like the New Testament author of Hebrew said ( “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” 10:31), he says, literally, in verse 23:
“Destruction from God is a fear/terror to me; and I am not able to endure his magnificence."
The words again are difficult, but the thought seems to be that if Job had neglected his duties to vulnerable groups, he would be violating God’s law and thus opening himself to “destruction/calamity” (ed, 24x/6x Job) from God. Or, at least, a possibility of calamity or destruction would be a terror (pachad, 49x/10x Job) to him. Job uses both words, ed and pachad, more than his proportionate share. Bildad was the first to use ed in 18:12, which may have triggered Job’s interest in the word, and he quickly followed with five usages of it in Job 21; 30; 31. As his own despair deepens, the word ed increases in frequency for Job. We don’t know if the arm falling from the socket is the “terror” that Job envisions or if it only is a downpayment on a larger terror.
The same can be said about pachad. Ever since Job “feared a great fear” (3:25, both the noun and verb form of pachad appear here), dread or fear or terror, all of which can translate pachad, has been a major subject of the Book of Job, though pachad often appears in the mouths of Job’s companions (4:14; 15:21; 22:10) or God (39:16, 22) rather than Job.
Neglecting the vulnerable people would cause fear/terror for Job. The next clause is, literally, “his magnificence I am not able,” which Clines has translated pleonastically as “I would not have been able to endure the fear of him,” taking the word seeth (14x, derived from the common nasa, “to lift up”) as parallel with the pachad of the first clause rather than seeing it as pointing to a different concept, such as the divine authority, dignity or magnificence. Job is calling down bodily disfigurement and calamity on himself from God if he neglected the little people.