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36. Job 4:12-16, A Vision in the Night, Essay One
12 “Now a word came stealing to me,
my ear received the whisper of it.
13 Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
14 dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
15 A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled.
16 It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
We are starting to think that Eliphaz was wandering too far off point for our tastes. Indeed, I would argue that one reason why western readers rarely get through the book of Job, even when they start it with some eagerness, is that they/we don’t know how to handle digressions and (perhaps intentionally) obscure speech. We let them “distract” us; we lose interest; we stop studying Job. It happens all the time. Yet Eliphaz returns with vigor and focus in this passage, telling us a riveting story of a night vision he had and the principle that he learned from this vision. We might profitably break up this section into two parts: the vision (vv 12-16) and the message of the vision (vv 17-21) or “A Vision in the Night,” Parts I and II.
Commentators are often dismissive of Eliphaz’s vision, as if he is trying to “pull rank” on Job by referring to a hazy memory of a nighttime event. Because many commentators are already inclined to devalue the friends, it isn’t hard to underestimate the vision. But when we try to look at it as a description of a religious experience, we are stunned. Though Rudolf Otto, in his 1917 classic Das Heilige (translated into English as The Idea of the Holy) doesn’t use this passage to illustrate his classic statement of the numinous in religious experience, which he called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, he could have done so.
Eliphaz describes with awe-inspiring and powerful detail a nighttime vision that informs what he will say in verses 17-21. Each verse in verses 12-16 has its memorable word that anchors the verse. In verse 12 it is ganab, “to steal.” Verse 13 has tardemah, or “deep sleep.” Verse 14’s special contribution is a twofold use of pachad, fear or dread, a word that we have already seen doubled in 3:25. Verse 15 adds the rare verb samar to describe the creepy horripilation, or standing up of one’s hairs, due to fear. Finally, verse 16 takes the common verb amad, “to stand,” and uses it to describe the spirit’s not moving from before his eyes. The sum of these special words, combined with the picture described, makes us want timorously to reach for our blankey.
Eliphaz begins by talking about a word that came to him. Usually the word is described as “secretly brought” to him, though the text uses ganab, “to steal,” in the passive voice. A word stole in on him or, literally, was “stolen unto me.” Ganab (40x) is the common term for “stealing,” most easily remembered in the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:15). Some kind of nocturnal word “stole in” on him, and his ear “received the whisper of it.” The word translated “whisper” is shemets, which only elsewhere occurs in Job (26:14, to describe a “faint” or “little” word). So, the picture we get from Eliphaz is that a word, as evanescent as it is faint, drifted by him, came to him, in a whisper. He had to have all his senses heightened to pick up the message. Heightened feeling or sensation is often mentioned in descriptions of unforgettable religious experiences. Eliphaz had that. We don’t know if he “conjured” this voice or if it came unbidden. We have no idea—but he may be one of the experts in cursing or conjuring that Job wanted to call on in Job 3. Yet we can tell that it is something important that he is now sharing with Job.
Eliphaz gives more details of this special night vision in verse 13. The faint whisper came “in thoughts from visions” in the night. The word translated “thoughts” is the rare saiph, only elsewhere occurring in Job 20:2 and I Kings 18:21. The latter use is memorable. Before engaging in a contest with the priests of Baal, Elijah loudly asked, “How long will you go limping between two opinions (saiph)?” The word may come from the noun seippah, a “bough,” or “divided branch.” This kind of multi-pronged thought came to Eliphaz through a vision, a chizzayon, derived from the usual verb for “to have a vision,” chazah. Some scholars try to emphasize that different forms of divine revelation come from “dreams” compared to “visions,” but I will remain mum on that one. All we know is that Eliphaz both sees and feels something—something that will be hair-raising.
This thing came upon him when “deep sleep” falls on people. Again, the word for deep sleep (tardemah) adds a note of eerie mysteriousness to the encounter. We have darkness; we have a whisper stealing in; we have thoughts; we have a vision. When the rest of the world is in deep sleep, Eliphaz sits bolt upright. While the rest of the world is like Adam who, in his tardemah (Genesis 2:21) was completely unconscious while God performed divine surgery on him to produce the woman, Eliphaz was awake. Our best experiences of life sometimes happen when the rest of the world is sleeping.