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43. Job 5:5-7, Fading Further From Reality
5 The hungry eat their harvest,
and they take it even out of the thorns;
and the thirsty pant after their wealth.
6 For misery does not come from the earth,
nor does trouble sprout from the ground;
7 but human beings are born to trouble
just as sparks fly upward.
Once again Eliphaz slipps farther and farther from reality. Or, to use my earlier image, our cell-phone reception of what he says is getting more and more choppy, but he just continues with the judgment theme. If in 5:3 and 5:4 he gave us something laughable and relatively unclear, now in verse 5 he gives us something nearly incomprehensible. We are having so much fun with cursing and crushing, however, that we just have to continue on that theme. Literally, we have: “Whose harvest the hungry eat, and takes it out of the thorns, and the schemer/robber tramples upon/pants for/swallows up the possessions.” Eliphaz is fading rapidly, though he will recover his footing in 5:8. But, in the meantime, we face hard sledding in trying to understand his words.
What does it mean that “his harvest the hungry eat?” Once you are crushed in the gate it would seem that you wouldn’t mind someone else eating your harvest—at least it wouldn’t go to waste. But this statement is obviously meant as some kind of judgment. We have no idea what is going on. Then, things get worse. “He takes it from the thorns” or, if we want to give full force to the el in the passage, “He takes it to from the thorns.” Yes, you read that correctly. The word for “thorn” is the rare tsen (only elsewhere in Proverbs 22:5, where it is parallel to pach, a “snare” or “trap”).
Hmm. . .”to from the thorns”? That is what the text says. Perhaps whoever is doing the taking (of what? the harvest?) is indecisive about it. ‘Hmm,’ he says, ‘Let me take it to the thorns; no, let me take it from the thorns.’ The blur of his activity then becomes taking it to from the thorns. Makes no sense, of course, but gives us an occasion to chuckle.
But, come to think of it, what are the thorns doing there? Have they grown up in the space of time between the sons being crushed in the gate and people coming upon their estates to eat their harvest? Fast-growing thorns. Maybe they are the Joban equivalent of Jonah’s “gourd tree” that grew up overnight. Perhaps the judgment on the generation of the robbers/those who take is that they are indecisive about whether they are taking something to or from the thorns. Hmm. . .that makes sense since we know robbers are often a muddled-headed bunch. So, other than the subject, the dual use of prepositions and the object of the preposition, which is the entire thought, we understand everything about this clause (“he takes it to/from the thorns).”
We have now descended into full and grand opacity. As mentioned, the word for “thorns” is tsen, which only appears one other time in the Bible (Proverbs 22:5). We have an interesting wordplay in the last part of the verse, where tsammim appears in parallelism with tsen. Only problem is that we don’t know what tsammim means either. Its only other appearance is also in Job (18:9, Bildad’s speech), where it seems to be a trap or snare. But maybe it is also a robber/schemer. Who really knows? So that we don’t lose the picture, now almost completely comical, that Eliphaz is drawing, we have children of cursed fools being crushed at the gate. Then, we have someone eating their harvest, but somehow thorns enter. Did they grow up around the crops while the sons were being crushed? The Bible leaves us with so many unanswered questions. Many people are waiting to ask God about the fate of the unsaved when they get to heaven; I would be satisfied with knowing the particulars of those who get their food to/from the thorns.
The last clause of verse 5 is equally opaque. The verb is sha’aph, a 14x-appearing verb that can mean “trample” or “swallow up” (Amos 8:4) or “pant after” (Amos 2:7) or “sniff” (Jeremiah 2:24). It occurs two other times in Job, though the translations of it in 7:2 and 36:20 seem to favor more of a “panting after” rendering. So, snares or robbers pant after goods. The final word, chayil (224x), is very common and usually means “army” or “wealth.” So someone at the end of the verse is panting after wealth. . .probably panting because they are can’t decide on whether to take it from or to the thorns! One has to admit; this would make even the most hardy person start to pant.
Now that Eliphaz has completely lost us, he doesn’t do what many normal people would do. Stop. No, he continues, boldly. We can safely say that no one has been here before. He actually makes a clear statement in verse 6, indicating that we are temporarily back in our cell-phone coverage area. After the carnage of a cursed fool and the dishonor of his sons’ getting crushed in the gate, we have a general principal about human life: “For affliction doesn’t come from the dust; and trouble doesn’t sprout from the earth” (v 6). There may be a word play happening between aven ("affliction)
and evil (fool) of vv 2-3, but there is also a neat parallelism in verse 6. We are back in firm ground with two types of distress, aven and amal, both of which we have seen before.
But we hasten on to verse 7, because verses 6-7 are to be read as one sentence: “Because affliction doesn’t come from the dust, and trouble doesn’t sprout from the ground, but humans are born to trouble. . .” I hold off on the last four words of verse 7, potentially the most interesting, because we leave cell phone range again. But let’s pause on what we have. Eliphaz is positing that the troubles and afflictions of life are something that don’t just “spring” on us from outside, but are something “born” in us. If we were to use a visual image—troubles are not something that come from below, but from above. But how far above? That is the interesting question. His statement seems to suggest that the troubles humans experience are of our own making (“humans are born to trouble”). Of course Job would heartily disagree, and he will do so beginning in Chapter 6. Job would say that the cause of his troubles was in God, not in the nature of being human. Eliphaz seems to suggest that troubles come just by virtue of being human.
Then, we have the last four words of verse 7. Long has been the tradition translating them “as the sparks fly upward.” The translation emphasizes the inevitability and inescapability of human trouble. Sparks upward fly; that is the way nature is. Humans are born full of troubles. That is what the world teaches. You can’t blame “the ground.” And, Eliphaz implies though doesn’t suggest that you can’t blame God. Shakespeare would have concurred: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
The words are, literally, “And the sons of Resheph become great/are exalted (by) flying.” Contemporary scholars will tell you that Resheph is now understood as a Canaanite deity and therefore is probably meant here, rather than taking the word apart and rendering it “sparks.” This Canaanite divinity was known particularly as the bringer of plagues. But we don’t know what “and the sons of Resheph are exalted flying” means. Sparks flying upward wasn’t a bad guess—for the twentieth century and before, and it fit into the theme of verses 6-7 by emphasizing the inevitability of troubles in life, but we now have a sneaking suspicion that something different is in mind in the last four words. But, as with much of Eliphaz’s speech, we aren’t sure. Taking the image of a plague’s being dispersed by the wind (an ancient theory), we might render it, “and the plague bearers also just keep flying higher” (i.e., to wreak their havoc on humans, who are born to trouble). Seow tries to give it some sense by rendering it, “And the offspring of pestilence soar,” which is rather similar to what I propose, though both of us will leave the building before you ask us what it means.
We don’t get a lot of meaning from Eliphaz’s words in 5:1-7. But we sure have had a wonderful ride trying to get to meaning. Yet, on a serious note, the difficulty we have with trying to understand these words of Elihpaz is one of the reasons why people abandon their reading of the Book of Job. Most people have the not unreasonable expectation that when you pick up a classic book to read that it should make sense. Of course, all serious readers also know that sometimes you have to work at getting to clarity, since ancient texts assume a different world and use unfamiliar images. Sometimes, also, the language borders on opaque. But the normal reader enters into the study of a classic text having signed an unspoken and unwritten covenant. The terms of this covenant are: ‘I will study very hard and you will yield meaning.’ But when the text refuses to hold up its end of the bargain, as I have illustrated more than once with Eliphaz’s speech, then people do one of two things. They either skip over the difficult or obscure parts or they stop reading. Most readers will give the text two or three times to make no sense before abandoning it. Therefore we now see, and Eliphaz helps us see it, why people give up studying the Book of Job, even though the theme arising out in Job 1-2 is among the most fascinating and persistent themes in human life.