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41. Job 5:3, The Life and Death of the Fool, According to Eliphaz

3 I have seen fools taking root,
    but suddenly I cursed their dwelling.


The 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and Eliphaz would have concurred with this assessment, especially as it relates to the fool. Eliphaz describes the life of such a fool, again with ever-more obscure words, in 5:3-5. We are starting to smoke out his verbal modus operandi: start with relative clarity and then quickly descend into delicious obscurity, usually ending with references to strange ways that people die.  Moths won’t crush the fool here, but there will be other crushing activity. 


Verse 3 begins our long path to obscurity. “I have seen the fool (evil, as in 5:2) taking root (or being uprooted), and/but I cursed the his domain immediately.” We feel that reality is gradually leaving us as we look at these words. The verb sharish can both mean to take root or be uprooted. Though only appearing 8x, three of them are in Job (also 31:8, 12) and in both those other instances it is best rendered “uproot.” Its other five appearances are best rendered “take root.” So, we can go either way here, though it makes more sense to see fools first taking root before they are destroyed.  


But since destruction and strange ways of dying are clearly on Eliphaz’ mind in this passage, the real focus is on the second half of the sentence. The dominant rendering is “I cursed their habitation immediately.” This translation makes tolerable sense of the Hebrew words, though the meaning is anything but clear. The verb naqab (25x, translated “curse”) also can be “designate” or “pierce,” but since Job has used it in 3:8 as “curse,” it is probably best to see Eliphaz as rendering it this way. Its two other appearances in the wisdom literature (Proverbs 11:26; 24:24) are best translated “curse.” Several translators and scholars try to soften the blow of this seemingly strange statement by saying things like, “I saw his habitation cursed” or “his house was cursed,” as if all Eliphaz did was show up on the scene and found the lands of the fool accursed. Seow also follows this approach, “I noted his sudden habitation,” but that leaves us no better than “cursing.” The verb’s most natural rendering is “I cursed,” and I find no convincing reason to abandon that translation.  


The word for “habitation” really means “pasture” or “domain” or “abode of shepherds.” It is a rather strange way to describe a person’s residence. There are other, much simpler, ways for Biblical Hebrew to give us that idea (like using the word for “house”). By using it Eliphaz is saying that even though the fool took root (or was uprooted), Eliphaz then cursed the fool’s lands immediately. The word translated “immediately” is pithom, which emphasizes the suddenness of something.  Usually pithom comes before the verb is modifies but it can, as here, come after it. So, the grammar and word choice isn’t particularly felicitous here, but the meaning is tolerably clear.  


But what is Eliphaz doing by suddenly cursing the “domain” of the fool?  Does he do this as a practice, that is, is he a part-time curser and part-time wisdom teacher and part-time manager of extensive estates someplace in “the East”? If he is moonlighting as a curser, perhaps Job’s use of the verb naqab in 3:8 when he called on those skillful in cursing to rouse Leviathan is really directed at Eliphaz. Perhaps Job felt that Eliphaz would be his curser-in-chief or co-curser in helping him bury the day in which he was born. One could imagine various scenarios where it might be helpful to have a skilled and effective curser as a friend.  


Eliphaz, then, seems to go around cursing the domain/habitations/pasture lands of fools. Does this refer to the fool’s house or, as the Internal Revenue Code calls it, one’s “principal place of business?” Or is the whole shebang cursed, though the concept of  “shebang” never made it into the any ancient or modern code? Why does he go around cursing the fool’s habitation? And why is it a sudden cursing?  Does Eliphaz see that something is strangely amiss with the way the fool runs his business that leads him to a curse? Or, does he just curse because he likes to create havoc? Is God involved at all in the cursing process? If I were a fool, I would hate to see someone like Eliphaz show up in my neighborhood.  If I weren’t sure whether or not I was a fool, I would still not want to see him. Perhaps Eliphaz also carried with him the power of designating people. ‘You, sir, are a fool.  Cursed be your domain!’ Eliphaz’ statement in verse 3 makes us want to be brought into the secret life of a curser from antiquity. It also makes us smile despite ourselves, because we see the nonsensical nature of the verse.

 But, as you see, the down side of Eliphaz’s out-of-the blue reference to cursing a pasture or domain is that it tends to distract our attention from the fact that we are reading the Book of Job. We are having our own reverie of sorts (as Job did in 3:13-19) imagining how he chooses a particular fool, since there probably are several to choose from, whether he gives a fool a chance to repent before he curses, whether the curse itself carries with it a certain sense of doom, and how frequently he indulges in this “cursing” activity. I guess I wouldn’t like him as a friend or, if he was a friend, I would take special care to keep on his good side and not do anything foolish.