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342. Job 33:19-22, God’s Second Method of Communicating with People


Let’s look at some of Elihu’s words. His description of the second means God uses to communicate with people begins in a promising fashion (v 19):


    “Or/and he corrects/chastens with pain upon his bed; and the strife in his bones is permanent."


Elihu uses a favorite Joban verb yakach (“corrects/chastens/rebuke”) to describe what God hopes to accomplish through pains on the bed. Its first appearance, on Eliphaz’s lips in 5:17, was in the final section of Eliphaz’s brilliant opening speech where he joyfully described the discipline or chastisement of God. Chastisement is purposive; it leads one to restored fortunes. That is Eliphaz’s approach. Though the verb yakach has a broader scope of meaning in Job than “correct/chastise/discipline” (see my explanation of its varied use in Job 13), that word cluster seems appropriate to capture its meaning here. God’s purpose in bringing pain on the bed is correction or discipline. It is only meant to be a penultimate word in life.   


We have the phrase “pain upon his bed” in English and we just nod and ignore it, but in Hebrew it has a euphonious ring to it. One has mashkob upon mishkab. Even in describing pain, or perhaps especially when describing pain, the speakers in Job don’t lose their literary touch. Once the clarity of the second means of divine communication has been stated, Elihu is free to descend into some unclarity. The second clause has both a Qere/Kethib for the first word, but probably should be read as rib or “contention/strife.” The “strife” in the bones then is ethan (13x/2x Job). Ethan normally means “perennial, ever-flowing” (to describe a stream); Job used it once previously in 12:19 in an unusual way, and somewhat obscure way, to talk about “long-established” people, though Seow takes ethan in that verse in a completely different way (“temple-servants”). More joy for the translator. I will stay with the traditional translation of something that is permanent or never-ending. Thus, Job’s pain continues without ceasing. One might justify Elihu’s unclarity here in describing the pain in the bones as an actual reflection of the life of the one wracked with pain. The first thing that happens, after the pain sets in, is that the mind becomes clouded or distracted. Perhaps the “distraction” in the words of the verse reflects the inability of the pain-wracked person even to utter a clear thought about his pain.


Verse 20 completes the meaning started in verse 19:


    “So that his life detests bread and his soul succulent/dainty food.”


The verb rendered “detest” is a hapax, zaham. Biblical Hebrew has many other ways of expressing loathing (shaqats, taab, gaal, sane, for example), but Elihu lands on this unique one. People for ages have so translated the verb zaham but, interestingly, one of the first translations of the Hebrew Bible, into Greek (the Septuagint) has for Job 33:20, “He isn’t able to receive (προσδέξασθαι) the nourishment of food.” Either the Greek was deliberately trying to tone down the vehemence of the verb or, more probably, it didn’t really know what zaham meant.


There is no verb in the second part of the verse; we just have the soul and food and taavah (21x). Taavah derives from the verb avah, which means “to desire” or “to crave.” Thus, the noun form is a craving/desire but here it seems to function as an adjective, modifying “food,” and thus would be “desirable” food. You can run through synonyms in English for “desirable” and get “succulent” or “dainty” and you will run into translators that render the phrase that way. We ought not to lose the point, however. Elihu’s major point was in verse 19, where a person is chastened upon the bed. Bones ache; food brings no pleasure. He is describing the world of the suffering person well.


Verse 21 continues with a description of the suffering person.  Again, the language is tortured. Literally we have:


    “His flesh is eaten away, from being seen, and the bones not (previously?) seen stick out/corrode."


Most render the first clause that "his flesh is eaten away" (the common verb kalah) or "disintegrates so that it can no longer be seen,” but the second clause is a bit of a mystery. The last three Hebrew words are “his bones” and “are not seen.” Then, we have a word with different Qere/Kethib that can be rendered in more ways that one can imagine. If we just look at the three letters sh-ph-iy, we have the notion of barrenness, though some take the word as suggesting a hill. Hills protrude. Thus, bones protrude. The “corrosion”-type translation comes from emending the verb so that it says shaphah, which suggests something that is “rubbed away.” The idea seems to be that as the flesh disintegrates, from emaciation and lack of food (since he detests his food), he is nothing but a sack of bones. Note the similar universe of thought shared with the author of Psalm 22: “I see all my bones” (v 17). 


The sad truth of those wasting away through cancer is that they often become unrecognizable through emaciation. Former President Ulysses S Grant, who sported a robust physique of 185 pounds before his throat cancer first became evident in June 1884, ended up weighing under 100 pounds when he died thirteen months later. I think the strained language of these verses reflects the extreme dislocations of skin and bones that Job feels. Elihu’s description, though hard to translate, may be the most true to Job’s actual pain as any in the entire book.


Verse 22 completes the description of the pains coursing through Job’s body.  But here Elihu returns to familiar themes:


    “His soul approaches the pit, and his life to the destroyers.”


Though the concept of the soul approaching the pit (shachath) is not meant to be comforting, we as readers are strangely comforted by its appearance, since it brings us back to Elihu’s favorite term in the second half of Job 33. We know that though the pit may be near, it will not engulf. But let’s give it its due. Previously when shachath appeared (v 18), it was in the context of a person’s soul not going to the pit; here the danger is reversed. As with most of the other verses in this section, the difficulty is with the second clause of the verse. The traditional reading of the memithim was in connection with the Angel of Death or angels who bring death (see II Samuel 24:16). Yet, the word is in a plural form, and is derived from the verb “to die,” and so many contemporary translators read it is “those who inflict death/executioners.” But this has dissatisfied yet others, who want the idea to be parallel to the notion of a pit—hence they have seen it as diseases or pangs that have the power to terminate life.  


The overall picture drawn by Elihu is clear, and the strained language may be an effective literary means for capturing the excruciating pains of the sufferer. We readers suffer too, not simply because we can imagine Job’s torment, but because we suffer with words. We ought never to lose sight of the fact, however, that pain is conceived by Elihu to be a means of God’s communication with people (33:14).  But Elihu will now turn to how God actually might speak to a person in this kind of pain.  

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