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325. Job 31:38-40, One Last Thought, With a Focus on Thorns and Thistles


38 “If my land cries out against me,

And its furrows weep together;

39 If I have eaten its fruit without money,

Or have caused its owners to lose their lives,

40 Let briars grow instead of wheat,

And stinkweed instead of barley.”

The words of Job are ended.


The hectic pace of litigation means that sometimes you think of some very good arguments after the papers are filed. Then, you can just hope that there will be a chance to present your new thought at oral argument or possible appeal proceedings.  Perhaps you even send a clerk over to the courthouse with the additional argument and an affidavit stating that you are still “before the deadline” in filing this addendum. The unintended humor of 31:38-40 is that it presents Job as this kind of harried litigant.  While most scholars try to “clean up” the order of these verses by placing verses 38-40b before verse 35, I prefer to keep the verses as we have received them, and then smile.


Our smile disappears, however, when we realize what Job is doing here. He is both cleaning up the three-fold oath of verses 29-34 that was left hanging, and he is adding another two more im (“if”) clauses, concluding with a “then” of verse 40. Though we can fairly easily count the number of “if’s” in Job 31 (fifteen), we really don’t know how many oaths of clearance are here. It seems that verses 38-39 present oaths ten and eleven, but I won’t go to the mat on that one.


To review: Job has spoken in general about deceit and turning from the way (vv 5-8), about adultery (vv 9-12), about proper treatment of servants (vv 13-15), about considerateness towards three or four groups of vulnerable people (vv 16-23), about confidence in wealth (vv 24-25) or idolatry (vv 26-28), and finally about three kinds of activities that he has or hasn’t performed (vv 29-34). This might add up to nine oaths, though the “oath/punishment” for numbers seven-nine isn’t expressed until verse 40.  


Now he turns to the yield of his ground, the crops planted, and finishes by talking about possible injustice he has performed in dealing either with the ground or with those who need to get their fair share of the produce from the ground. Just as verse 33 might contain a reference to Genesis 3 by referring to Job’s not having covered his sin “like Adam,” so the opening words of verse 38 might hint at the Cain/Abel story of Genesis 4. It says, 


    “If the land/ground (the common adamah) has cried out (zaaq, 72x) upon me. . .”


Note the language of Genesis 4:10 where God says that the blood of Abel is “crying out” (the functionally identical verb tsaaq) “from the ground” (adamah). Thus, Job’s words in verse 38 aren’t randomly chosen. He is contemplating a severe abuse of the land, an abuse that would lead it to cry out in pain and objection like the blood of Abel.


Because Job is skillful at poetic parallelism, the second half of verse 38 is added: “And together the furrows (telem, 5x) weep” (the common bakah). Job therefore has in mind a curse upon himself if he has abused the land. This suggestive thought isn’t developed here; we might have wished to see a more complete exposition of what an ancient person in Israel would have considered “abuse of the land” so that it “cries out” to God.


Verse 39 then becomes a bit more specific and refers to Job’s actual stealing of someone else’s crop. The language is difficult. Literally, we have:


    “If I have eaten/consumed her strength without silver; and I have blown/made breathe out the            spirit of the lords.”


Job is here speaking of deriving unjust gain from his crops. The first clause says it clearly—deriving benefits without payment, but the second clause is problematic. It is made problematic because the verb for “breathe out” is naphach (12x), which first gloriously appeared in Genesis 2:7 where God “breathed” the breath of life “into” the first humans. It is in the hiphil/causative form here. The only other place where the causative (hiphil) of this verb appears is in Malachi 1:13 where it suggests a “disdainful sniff” rather than a simple “breathing into.”  

But what might it mean that Job didn’t cause disdainful sniffs in lords?  We don’t know who the “lords” are—perhaps they are contracting partners with Job in his agricultural ventures—and we don’t know why the difficult verb naphach is used. Perhaps we should just take the picture that the verb suggests—one of breathing—and play with that for a second. Job has not made the other lords “get out of breath,” which may mean to abuse, oppress or otherwise take advantage of them. Of course the language is in an “if” clause—Job doesn’t really imagine that he has done these things.


If Job has done either of these things, either abusing the land or deriving unjust profits through oppressing others, then verse 40 finally gives us the desired punishment. It is unexpected. Rather than other parts of his body being disfigured or further emotional pains coming upon him, Job asks that the fields would simply not yield:


    “Then let thistles (choach, 12x/2x Job) grow instead of wheat (chittah, 30x/only time in Job); and

    and instead of barley (seorah, 34x, only time in Job) let there grow weeds/stinkweeds (boshah)"


Though Job seems to retreat from the bleaker world of bodily and emotional trauma to damage suffered by nature, he really is speaking here of a more extreme punishment.  Job’s words are tantamount to saying that Job would want to be completely eradicated, with worthless weeds covering land of no value. If he has been untrue in any of these several categories (beginning with verse 29), he wants the land (and he himself) to be rendered completely worthless. He would be obliterated. No traces. Just weeds and thistles. No memorial plaque. Nothing to remind the world that Job once lived here. So confident and bold is Job.


No wonder the final three words of the chapter are simply, “The words of Job are ended.” Hebrew inverts things by placing the verb first: “Ended words Job.” He has said everything.  


Before turning to Elihu’s long rumination in the next section of Job, I want to end with a word about thorns and thistles. These are the things Job would like to have grow up in verse 40 if he has been untrue in many ways described in verses 29-34, 38-39. Adding to the despair felt by Job, and many of his faithful readers, is the despair felt, but usually unexpressed, by translators as they try to render with precision the words before them. Words that have always bedeviled me are those relating to various kinds of thorns that covered the ground. I wish I knew what they were, but all we can do is unhelpfully translate them as something like “briers” or “thistles” or “thorns” or “undergrowth” or something equally unsatisfying.


So, a few of the Hebrew words we have for these pesky growths are:  


  1. choach (12x; 31:40); 

  2. boshah (hapax, 31:40, derived from verb baash, “to stink”); 

  3. qots (the first word for thorns we run into in Geesisn 3:18;

  4. dardar (the companion word with qots in Genesis 3:18); 

  5. naatsuts (2x in Isaiah)

  6. tsen (2x, including Job 5:5, though this is probably the same word as tsanin)

  7. shamir  (11x, usually translated “briars”)’

  8. qimmashon (a hapax, which probably is the same as qimmos)

  9. sek (a hapax); 

  10. sarab (a hapax from Ezekiel 2:6).

  11. sillon (2x, also in Ezekiel 2:6).        


There may be other Hebrew words to describe the thorns or thistles. If one doesn’t feel some despair as a translator when confronted by this, one really isn’t trying that hard.

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