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370. Job 36:16, The Key, Essay One

16 “Then indeed, He enticed you from the mouth of distress,
Instead of it, a broad place with no constraint;
And that which was set on your table was full of fatness.


How, then, is God trying to communicate to Job through his affliction, an affliction that itself becomes the means of deliverance? Verse 16 tells us. Let’s begin with a more literal and then move to a more literary translation:


    “And certainly has he lured you from the mouth of distress—a wide space, no constraint under it,        and he has placed (on) your table the fullness of fatness.” 


There is no preposition in the Hebrew before the word for “wide space” (rachab), but the phrase is universally rendered as “to a wide space,” so that the full clause is “from distress/the mouth of distress to a broad place.” That is the movement envisioned in verse 16. The preposition “under it” at the end of the first clause (the common tachath) can also mean “instead of it,” and so the meaning of the phrase is that the wide space into which God is luring Job is not a place of constraint or limitation. That is why I use the word “freedom” to describe it. It is a wide space, with no constraint in it. 


Care also must be taken in reading the two verbs of the sentence. The first is suth (18x), which has already appeared in 2:3 to describe the Satan’s effort to “incite” (suth) God against Job. Various versions translate the suth there as “incite” or “move” or “urge” or “persuade.” The range of meanings of suth in the Bible is not narrow but still is somewhat confined. It can mean “entice/incite” (Deuteronomy 13:6) or “persuade” (II Chronicles 18:2) or “move/provoke” (I Samuel 24:1; II Chronicles 21:1; Job 2:3) or “stir up” (I Kings 21:25). Clines translates it “he has removed” you even though he says that the literal meaning is “he has enticed you.”


I want to stay with the literal meaning but broaden it slightly. I see the suth here and in verse 18 occupying the “entice/allure/lure/draw out/woo” field of meaning. Elihu is pointing to a God who is more gentle than rough, more alluring than punishing, more interested in communication than judgment. So, the rendering of the first phrase is important for me: “He (God) has drawn you/allured you out of the mouth of distress to a broad place..”  The second verb, nachah (8x) carries with it a sense of movement (downward) or a sense of rest. Isaiah 30:15 captures its latter meaning, “In repentance/returning and rest (nachah) you will be saved.” This will inform my final rendering of the second clause, given below.  


Little needs to be said about the unusual phrase: “the mouth of distress.” Both words, mouth (peh) and distress (tsar) are common, though the latter can also point to an adversary and not simply to distress. But pain or distress or straitened circumstances makes the best sense here.  


Elihu takes care to emphasize that the wide place, the rachab, is a place lo mutsaq or “without restraint/constraint.” Mutsaq is a rare noun (3x), rendered in its other two appearances as “frozen” (Job 37:10) or “in anguish” (Isaiah 9:1), but it derives from the 11x-appearing verb tsuq, which generally is translated “to oppress, to distress/straiten, to constrain.” Elihu has himself used the verb in 32:18 where he talks about the spirit within him which compels or forces or constrains him to speak. Thus, if there is no mutsaq there is no restraint or constraint. The wide place Elihu mentions as Job’s destination is a place without the straitened circumstances suggested by the tsar (adversary/distress) in the first clause. It is a place of freedom, a place without all the debilitating and cloying realities of the painful and seemingly irreversible present.


The second clause of verse 16 reinforces that idea but does so with a suggestive image full of biblical resonances. Literally we have,


     “And he rested (on) your table the fullness of fatness.”


Other renderings are similar:  “What is set on your table is full of richness” or “and your table was weighed down with an abundance of fatness (deshen is word for “fatness”).”  


Thus we have two images or pictures in verse 16: one of freedom from constraint and one of abundance of fat or rich things. This second picture finds its biblical resonance in the Psalms. After a most moving prayer of longing, the Psalmist says (63:5), 


    “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast (deshen),

    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips."


Psalm 65:10-11 also uses the word deshen and also connects it with the idea of abundance. Speaking of the divine blessings, he says:


    “You water its furrows abundantly. . .

    softening it with showers. . .

    You crown the year with your bounty;

    your wagon tracks overflow with richness (deshen).”

That the latter passage or the thought behind it might have been on our author’s mind is suggested by the use of the rare verb raaph (5x; to drip/trickle) just a few verses later (36:28), a verb that appears twice in Psalm 65 (vv 11, 12).  

But an even more powerful Psalmic echo is of Psalm 23. When Elihu talks about putting or resting or setting a table (shulchan, 71x), we can’t help but hear one of the most familiar verses of the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 23:5):


    "You prepared (arak) a table (shulchan) in the presence of my adversaries (tsarar)."


In fact, there might be a triple resonance in Job 36 of Psalm 23. First is the reference to table/shulchan. Second is the similarity of words for “distress” (tsar) and “enemies/adversaries” (tsarar, Psalm 23:5). They really are the same word, with just another “r” being added at the end. But a final resonance is in the unusual presence of the same verb, arak, in both chapters. It means to set up (for battle formation) or arrange. God “arranges” the table in front of the enemies. Elihu will go on to use the verb arak in an unclear fashion in 36:19. Perhaps its powerful presence in Psalm 23 made it stick in his mind and urged him to use it, even if we conclude, as we will below, that Job 36:19 makes little sense.


Elihu has pulled out all his verbal stops in 36:16. Certainly God uses adversity to get a message across (36:15), but the message is twofold: 1) God wants to beckon or lure Job from his distress into a broad place of freedom; 2) God wants to put fatness/abundance on Job’s table in that place of freedom. Elihu has given Job a way of reframing his distress in language with deep biblical resonance. “Luring,” “freedom,” “abundance”—those words still ring in our minds more than 2000 years after they were spoken.  What would happen, we ask ourselves, if Job were to try to reformulate or reframe his distress in these terms? Elihu has given him an interpretive method to view the terrible things that have come his way.

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