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39. Another Rabbit Trail in Job 4:19-21
Eliphaz’s wording of the comparison in verse 19 is classic rabbit trail. Rather than just saying, “If God puts no trust in angels, how much less would he trust you, you little man!”. . .he says, “How much less those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before/by the moth” (v 19). Huh? I think we might have accepted the first clause, and perhaps the second, but what does it mean that humans are “crushed before/by the moth?” I think a lot of imaginative movie scenarios might be spawned by this reference—can’t you just see people walking along, oblivious, and then a bunch of moths descending on them to crush them? Or, if it is “crushed before the moth,” perhaps we will have a moth convention, with people walking by and suddenly they are crushed by some third force right in front of the moths! Can you imagine? Moths aren’t the type of creature you usually associate with nature’s crushing capacity. . . Plagued by these problems, most versions, and scholars, translate the final phrase of verse 19 as “crushed like a moth,” but no amount of grammatical feinting can make lihpne, which always elsewhere is translated as “before/in front of,” to mean “like.” Seow decides that the word for “moth” needs to be altered by adding a letter so that it can mean “maker.” Yet, I will stick with the text and the humor probably unintentionally generated by it.
Things get even more “out there” as we turn to the rest of the chapter (vv 20-21). Now the humans, who supposedly just were crushed by moths (or before moths, the translation is uncertain) are “broken in pieces” from morning to evening. The verb for “broken” (kathath, 17x) can also be rendered “shattered” or “smashed,” and can refer to everything from crushed testicles (priests can’t have them, Leviticus 22:24) to smashing enemies (Deuteronomy 1:44). So, the picture we now get is of humans, who started out not being “pure” before God now experiencing the excruciating pain of being smashed from morning until evening. I think we are supposed to take this seriously, but we can’t help but smile. Pretty imaginative, Eliphaz. The remainder of verse 20 is opaque; literally it says, “without placing forever they perish.” Many have tried to render this as “with no one regarding it” (Seow, for example, has “without anyone noticing”) and that may be correct, though Eliphaz could have said that clearly if he wanted to, I suppose.
Now that people are suffering under the onslaught of the moths, and being crushed with language used to describe testicle crushing all day and night, we conclude the chapter with another image. Their “tent cord” (yether, though this also may be translated as “remnant” or even “excellence”) is plucked up. It is placed in the form of a question. Eliphaz asks, “Isn’t their tent peg plucked up in them?” Huh? I would be scratching my head now, too, if I were Job. That is one of the reasons why Seow has decided to translate it, “whatever is left,” though Clines agrees with the tradition, and with the approach taken here, and renders it “tent peg.”
Perhaps one of the reasons Job will be so angry at his friends, beginning in Chapter 6, is that he can’t often can’t understand what they are saying. But, to be fair to the friends, Job will also pursue his share of rabbit trails, beginning in Chapter 6. Well, these people, who are mortals, less than angels, not pure before God, are obviously going to be crushed before the moths; they are shattered/smashed from morning to evening, and no one even notices it. We aren’t told whether the phrase “from morning to evening” means “suddenly” or “continually,” though I lean towards the latter. Then, to make things worse, their tent cords are pulled up “within them,” whatever that means. It is not a glorious day for mere humans.
Eliphaz mercifully ends his description of the message of the vision with three Hebrew words: “They die and not in/with wisdom.” Now that may be the clearest and most insightful thing Eliphaz says regarding the vision. People die in their foolishness, without wisdom. Who can gainsay that?