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340. Job 33:12-18, The First Way God Speaks To Humans, Essay Two

17 That He may turn man aside from his conduct,
And keep man from pride;
18 He keeps back his soul from the pit,
And his life from passing over into Sheol.


The purpose of God’s giving this instruction is stated clearly in verse 17:


    “To turn humans from their doings/purposes/plans and hide pride from a human.”

Again, the meaning seems clear even if the words are somewhat unexpected. Humans devise things; many devise things on their beds at night. Instead of this, God gives them dreams and the visions. These visions open the ears but seal the message from God to humans. The visions serve to encourage people to turn away (the common sur) from their “deed/work/plan” (the common maaseh). Though other words could be used to capture these “plans” of humans, it seems that God turns away people from evil plans or schemes or plots through the nocturnal dreams.  


Again, the phrase “hide (the common kasah, also “conceal/cover”) pride” is unusual. Some have suggested that a similar verb, rendered “cut off” lies behind the text, but I think the meaning is clear enough as it is. Just as sin is “covered” (kasah) through sacrificial offerings in Scripture, so pride is “covered” (kasah) through the experience of nighttime dreams and visions.


Verse 18 gives us the result of this:


    “That he might draw back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing with the sword."


We have the first of an incredible five appearances in this chapter of the noun “pit” (shachath, 23x, see also 33:22, 24, 28, 30); its repeated mention suggests that it is, in Elihu's mind, the biggest danger to avoid. Perhaps he used it so much because Job had twice used the word previously in despair. Job feels that God would be cruel to him, dipping him in the “pit” (shachath) so that his clothes abhor him (9:31). Later, Job says that if he calls the “pit” (shachath) his father, he has no hope (17:14). Elihu uses the word repeatedly in Job 33 perhaps to convince Job that he has no danger of falling into the pit. This is dependent, however on if Job is able to reimagine or reinterpret his experience of suffering.


Once again, confusion stalks the ranks of translators in rendering the final phrase of verse 18. The traditional translation, which satisfies me, is to read the somewhat rare word shelach at the end of the verse as “sword.” The noun would then be derived from the common verb shalach, which means “to send/send out.” The sword/missile, then is something “sent out” in one’s defense or that is “sent out” against one. Elihu assures that one of the purpose of these visions is not simply to draw back a person from his evil intentions and to seal discipline on him, but also to keep him from premature death.   


Other scholars, who seem to have a stronger point here than in previous verses, render the last phrase as the NRSV has it: passing over the river (of death) or the NASB’s "passing over into Sheol.” In the Hebrew Scriptures one usually passes through/over (abar) a land or body of water. Hence, they change the word for “weapon” here to “river.” Tough recognize the force of the argument that abar often points to passing over water, I also see that “pit” and “death” are parallel concepts. Thus, the deliverance Elihu has in view isn’t crystal clear to us, though it is meant to be comforting to Job.


Such are the benefits of this first of two methods of divine communication. Elihu draws on the experience of Elihpaz, but now applies that experience to Job’s case. It is almost as if he really is asking Job a question:  ‘Have you considered that the dreams you say terrify you at night (7:14) might really be gifts of God, to uncover your ear to hear the divine instruction?’  It really is a very good question.   

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