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372. Job 36:18-21, Meaninglessness, An Introduction


18 “Beware that wrath does not entice you to scoffing;

And do not let the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.

19 Will your riches keep you from distress,

Or all the forces of your strength?

20 Do not long for the night,

When people vanish in their place.

21 Be careful, do not turn to evil,

For you have preferred this to affliction.


Just after Job uttered his most famous words in 19:25, “For I know that my Redeemer lives,” he descended into unclarity. He talked about his skin being destroyed and from his flesh seeing God. As we were scratching our heads on what he might mean, he then switched gears to the incomprehensible, “If you say, ‘How we will persecute him!” In other words, after his most extreme expression of energy and clarity, Job retreated to obscurity for about the next 50 words. Perhaps he was mentally exhausted and could only blurt out a few unconnected thoughts. I see Elihu doing the same thing here. He has given Job a most valuable interpretive handle for his life; now his work is done. He may or may not be mentally spent, but he really has few more things to add to what he has said. 


One way to look at Elihu’s speeches is to see the first 30 or so verses as Elihu focusing on himself, the last 30 or so verses (36:22-37:24) as Elihu focusing on God, and the intervening 90 or so verses as Elihu addressing the friends and Job. Thus, we are just about at the point where Elihu will gradually change the focus of his attention to the coming of God; these four confusing verses (36:18-21) stand as the buffer between Elihu’s revealing words about Job and those about God.  


With this in mind, let’s try our hand at a literal translation of these verses, one by one, beginning with 36:18:


    “Because wrath lest he allure you in sufficiency/one blow/mockery and a large ransom not bend

     you away from (it).”


Literal translations of some of the verses leave us depleted and somewhat chagrined. We know Elihu can speak with clarity when he wants to do so. But the text just stands there, both inviting and repelling.  It might be salutary to see what a few leading translations do with this:


    NRSV: “Beware that wrath does not entice you into scoffing,

        and do not let the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.”


    NIV: “Be careful that no one entices you by riches; do not let a large bribe

    turn you aside.”


    NASV:  “Beware that wrath does not entice you to scoffing; And do not let

    the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.”


    Jewish: “For beware of wrath, lest thou be led away by thy sufficiency; Neither

    let the greatness of the ransom turn thee aside.”


There seems to be agreement on the translation of the second phrase—we just have no idea what it means. The word for “ransom” (kopher, 17x) has appeared once in Job (33:24) where Elihu confused us and all interpreters by talking about finding a ransom. We conclude that kopher in 33:24 probably doesn’t refer to a monetary amount but perhaps an attitude towards life, but we have no idea what that attitude might be. Likewise we don’t know if kopher is to be taken literally here. Ransoms typically buy a person back from captivity. But no one is offering Job money in his distress. Granted, everyone seems to have a solution for Job’s problems, but we are hard-pressed to call that a “ransom.”


So, the word kopher seems to be opaque in 36:18. We note it isn’t just a ransom; it is a “great/large” ransom. Huh?  And the verb associated with the ransom is among the most polysemic in Biblical Hebrew. Natah may mean to “stretch out/pitch” (a tent, a hand), to “let down” (a jar); to spread something out, to extend (kindness) to bend or turn aside (from a road), to distort or pervert (justice), among other things. Thus, if we were to connect a polysemic verb like natah with an unclear concept like “big ransom,” what do you think we get?  Right. . .gibberish. We might have several ways of rendering the latter clause of verse 18, all of which make no sense.

And, just to be clear, the latter clause of verse 18 is the clearer of the two clauses in that verse. The first clause has no word for “beware,” though the translators are near-unanimous in translating kiy (“when” or “because”) as “beware.” The next word, chemah (“wrath/anger”) is also ignored by most translators, because they can’t imagine why it should appear.  So, they find a substitute word for it or just ignore it.  And example is Clines:  “Beware that it doesn’t draw you into mockery. . .” Where has the anger gone?


I don’t want to belabor the verse, and so I will conclude by saying that the noun after the verb “He allures you/takes you away” (that most important verb suth, which we saw in v 16), is unclear. Clines goes through four approaches to the word sepheq, which only appears here and in Job 20:22. Most translate sepheq there as “sufficiency,” for not very good reasons, but the word derives from the verb saphaq (10x) which means to “clap/smite/strike.” Thus, we have two suggestions:  sufficiency and a blow. Great.  But that isn’t enough, and so others have suggested that it really means “mockery,” following the august BDB dictionary. But this gives us quite different possibilities.  Thus, the sum of unclarity + unclarity= opaqueness.  I will stick with my literal rendering, scratch my head and say, “Thanks, at least, for verses 15-17.”

But then, the obscurity continues. Just as one might enter into a dark tunnel, expecting to meet light just around the bend but, in reality, continuing to twist and turn in impenetrable inkiness, so we do that here. Verse 19 says, literally,


    “Will your riches/cry for help be arrayed/arranged?  Not in distress or all the forces of strength.”


Again, we have some meaning in the last three words (of seven), even though one of the words is a hapax (maamats, “forces”). But we can deduce what it means because it is derived from amets, a familiar word meaning “to be strong. . .” Again, just because we might be able to translate the words doesn’t mean we know what it means. One thing we don’t know, for example, is whether the phrase that I translate “Not in distress” goes with the first or the second clause.  Some translations now suggest one continuous thought.  Representative is the NIV:


    “Would your wealth or even all your mighty efforts sustain you so you

    would not be in distress?”


But then, some translators pick up on a word we don’t use in English anymore to render the verse:


    “Will thy riches avail, that are without stint, or all the forces of thy strength?”


To be “without stint” means that they are endless. But that can’t be right because, as we have seen, Job has lost all his riches. Some might suggest that Elihu’s words are backward looking, and that the sense might be, “Can’t you see that your riches were of no avail. . .”?  But the text doesn’t say that. So we don’t know either how to render the lo betsar (literally, “not in distress”) or how it connects with the first or last clauses.  


Problematic also are the translations of the first verb (arak, 77x) and the first noun (shua, 2x). Arak means to draw up troops in battle array or to arrange or put something, such as furniture, in order. I don’t think that it elsewhere means “avail.” Recognizing this difficulty, Clines keeps it in the military world, translating it as “defend,” and the sentence as:  “Will your wealth defend you from distress?” We might be willing to go with Clines except that no meaning results—because Job has lost all his wealth.  


Then, there is the word shua, which everyone seemingly has agreed to render as “riches” even though the root of the word is “cry out.” It is interesting that in his extensive notes on the words of this passage, Clines says that shua has three possible meanings, but the only problem is that only one may relate to “riches.” They are “cry out, noble/eminent, deliverance,” though he sees the second as equivalent to “wealth.”  We are in a world of pure guesswork, groping our way in a dark building we have not previously visited, not knowing if there are false floors and pools of quicksand around us or whether we can walk through unscathed.   


Job has lost his wealth, so it doesn’t make much sense to talk about Job’s riches possibly availing here.  Arak doesn’t mean “avail” and shua probably doesn’t mean “riches.”  We don’t know with what to connect the “without distress.” At least we can render the last phrase, “all the forces of strength” but we don’t know to what it refers.  The sentence may mean something like “Will your cry for help, even when not in distress, be set before (God)—as well as all the resources of your strength?” But we are clueless. I have coined a phrase for verses such as verses 18 and 19: MAKES NO SENES.


The darkness continues and even deepens in verse 20.  We try to squint through it, wondering if the images we think we see are really images in the darkened room or just projections of our mind.   


A literal rendering of verse 20 is:


    “Don’t desire the night; to lift up/take away the people instead of them/in their place."


Hm. . . Where does this come from and what can it possibly mean? We know that Job has expressed a strong desire for darkness (10:21-22), the place where he will find comfort. Could Elihu be responding to him in this verse? “Don’t desire the night” is clearly expressed in Hebrew. The verb rendered “desire” is sha’aph (14x), which can be rendered “trample” or “swallow up” or “pant after” or even “sniff” (Jeremiah 2:24). But “pant after/long for/desire” seems to fit here best. Yet, even if we so translate it, we don’t know what it means. Job really isn’t desiring the night; instead, he longs for the darkness, having used five different words to describe the various manifestations of darkness.  


The second clause of verse 20 can be taken in a number of ways. Though the common verb alah almost always means “to go up,” there are two or three appearances of it in the hiphil with a meaning of “cut off,” and so scholars choose that meaning here. So we have peoples/nations (ammim) being cut off “instead of them” (tachettam). Most have rendered that word “in their place,” thus yielding the opaque, “Desire not the night, when peoples are cut off in their place/where they stand.” Hmm. . .  All the destructions Job faced in Job 1 were during the daytime. So, we not only have translation difficulties, but even if we can agree on what the words “say,” we have no idea of what they “mean.”  My sad conclusion is, MAKES NO SENES.


We wake up in great optimism, hoping that the Scriptures, God’s word to us, will speak a word of comfort or instruction. Then we run into verse 21. A literal rendering is:


    “Take heed, do not turn to trouble/wickedness; because you have chosen this rather than/more

     than affliction.”


We start to question our own sanity. Maybe the goal of life, we are beginning to think, is to speak in riddles or incomprehensible phrases and then stare at people like they are the problem.   

The words “don’t turn to iniquity/wickedness” are clear enough, and they are consistent with other thoughts in Job, but have no real force or meaning here. And the second clause—forget it. How can one choose “this” (wickedness?) more than “affliction.”  I didn’t know that one had a choice, that these were two opposite alternatives or that it would make sense to anyone who reads it. Clines tries to “rescue” it by rendering the last clause, “for that is why you are being tested by affliction.” Other suggested renderings of the last clause are:


    Which you seem to prefer to affliction” OR

    Because of this you will be tried by more than affliction” OR

    For this thou hast chosen rather than affliction.”  


Each suggested translation takes us down different roads, all leading nowhere.  MAKES NO SENES. That is the conclusion of these four verses; Elihu is fumbling in darkness and making nothing clear. If we already didn’t love him so much, we would think he was crazy.

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