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42. Job 5:4, Further Details on the Fool’s Destruction
4 Their children are far from safety,
they are crushed in the gate,
and there is no one to deliver them.
Things are bad enough for the fool, what with Eliphaz’s curse and all. But now we see that the effects follow to the next generation. We don’t really get clarity, however, whether it is his foolishness or the effects of the curse that kills the fool and leads to the destruction of his children. It would have been nice had Eliphaz been crystal clear on this rather vital point. The unanswered question is why the children of the evil (fools) are far from safety. I am beginning to think that one of the reasons Job will erupt in anger in Chapter 6 is the maddening unclarity of Eliphaz.
We might translate verse 4 as follows, “His sons are far from salvation/safety; They are crushed in the gate (some say ‘by the tempest’), and there is no deliverance.” Bleakness continues to the next generation. Later prophets will rebel against the common adage, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” as recorded in Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2. Eliphaz seems to be a proponent of this later-rejected theory, though he doesn’t state the proverb as if it is an iron-clad rule or that the death of the children follows ineluctably from the bad acts of the parents. After all, he was the one who cursed the father’s “domain," and the sons perish in the gates. We have to admit, however, that the popular proverbial expression is much more eloquent than Eliphaz’s words here.
This isn’t the place to discuss in detail where this common adage, just cited, might have come from or how popular it became. Some have posited its origin in a reading of the divine words in the Ten Commandments, that God would visit the sin of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generation—of those who hated God (Exodus 20:4). That Eliphaz seems to be a proponent of some version of this adage brings up the possibility that it may have been a debated proposition in the wisdom schools/tradition. The heavy emphasis on training the sons/children properly in Proverbs makes most sense if there is a fear that faulty training will bring multi-generational disaster in its wake.
Recall here that we are discussing the fool, the evil in Hebrew. Though there are several ways to describe this “foolish” person in the the wisdom literature, the most common is kasal/kesil. A fool can also be a nabal, and may practice ivveleth (“folly”). Yet of the 25 appearances of evil in the Bible, about 70% of them are in Proverbs. Most prominent is its use in Proverbs 1:7, the superscription of the Book of Proverbs: “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge but fools (evil) despise instruction/correction/discipline (musar).” A few verses later in Job 5 Eliphaz will encourage Job to see his current experience as the “discipline” (musar) of God (5:17). Eliphaz coats his ideas, then, in familiar wisdom terminology even if, as we have seen, he often likes to take them in his own direction.
The word that captures attention in verse 4 is “crushed” (daka). Eliphaz teaches that the children of the fool who has been cursed by him will be crushed in the gate. Some scholars slightly change the word for gate (shaar) to “tempest” (saar), with the result that Eliphaz would be pointing a finger more directly at Job. ‘Your kids died in the tempest because of your foolishness.’ It’s an inviting possibility, but it assumes that at this point Eliphaz’s perspective on Job has hardened into one of unremitting opposition. You don’t tell your interlocutor that his kids have died because of his foolishness and then hold out hope for him a few verses later. You would probably have blown your credibility by that time.
So, I stay with the text as written: the children of the cursed foolish guy are crushed in the gate. We have no idea what this means. The verb daka (crush) only appears 18x in the Bible, but we have just seen it in a few verses ago in Eliphaz’ speech (4:19)—the famous “crushed before/by the moths” verse. Now we have more crushing taking place. Sons are crushed in the gates. There is a humorous and serious reading of the crushing scene in 5:4, neither of which really means much. The humorous one is that the sons get caught in the maelstrom and bustle of trade and judicial affairs that happen at the town gate and are stomped to death. The serious reading is that they will be brought to justice (the city gates) and be “crushed” (i.e., lose everything). We don’t know, but Eliphaz seems to have a thing for things being crushed (recall, he also uses the synonym kathath in 4:20).
Perhaps he has too many lions on the brain; recall he used five different words to describe them in 4:10-11, seeming to be most fascinated by the way that the teeth of young lions are broken (nata, 4:11). It doesn’t take too many examples of seeing lions crush their prey (or see their teeth broken) to make this concept central in your image of what ultimate judgment looks like.
But all is not lost. Job himself was probably touched by Eliphaz’s repeated use of the word daka and the concept of crushing because it would soon become central to him in describing his desire for what God would do to him. He says, “Oh that it would please God to crush (daka) me” (6:9). To the friends he said, “How long will you vex my soul and crush (daka) me with words?” (19:2). “Crushing” is definitely on people’s brains in Job.