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46. Job 5:12-16, The Nature of God Upon Whom One Should Call, Essay Two

12 He frustrates the devices of the crafty,
    so that their hands achieve no success.
13 He takes the wise in their own craftiness;
    and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.
14 They meet with darkness in the daytime,
    and grope at noonday as in the night.
15 But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth,
    from the hand of the mighty.
16 So the poor have hope,
    and injustice shuts its mouth.

 

So far so good. Eliphaz is clear and has given us thoughts that echo common Israelite beliefs. But when he gets to 5:12-14, he says some things that the wisdom tradition won’t welcome. God not only lifts some people up, but God also brings down some people. So far so good. But, three categories of those whom God frustrates in verses 12-14 are the crafty (arum), the wise (chakam) and the cunning/wily (pathal). The text makes most sense if Eliphaz isn’t clearly differentiating the three categories of people just listed. That is, he doesn’t say..’Hmm, the wise are good, the crafty are sometimes good and the cunning are always bad. . .’  He just seems to use three familiar terms from the familiar wisdom tradition, without comment about their similarities or differences, because the focus is on God’s action and not their differences from each other.  Because God is in the reversal business, “God breaks the thoughts of the arum so that their hands can’t do ‘sound wisdom’ (tushiyyah). God then “catches the chakamin in their own arum, and the counsel of the pathal isthrown headlong/hastens away.” A similar fate awaits the crafty, wise and cunning, even if it is described in slightly different words. 

 

Eliphaz here posits the reversal of fortune for three types of people whom he doesn’t differentiate. First, we have a reversal for wise people (chakam), who are caught in their “craftiness” (arom, related to the category of arum people in 5:12). This statement is controversial, and it won’t be affirmed by the more established wisdom tradition. The whole purpose of becoming wise, in the Book of Proverbs, is so that one doesn't experience the reversal of fortunes. Proverbs even uses the word tushiyyah, just used by Eliphaz in 5:12, to describe what the wise can do. God “treasures up” (tsaphan) sound wisdom (tushiyyah) for the upright (yashar); God is a shield to those who walk in integrity (tom)” (Proverbs 2:7). We immediately recognize these two words as those that described Job’s moral condition in Job 1:1, yashar, tam/tom. Job is the perfect exemplar of the tradition as taught in Proverbs. Thus, the thing that Job gets as a result of this must be “sound wisdom” (tushiyyah). When Eliphaz suggests that God overturns “sound wisdom,” he is running counter to the tradition. To be fair, Job 5:12 talks about God’s doing this for the arum (often translated as “crafty” or “prudent”), but his throwing together there three terms from the wisdom tradition, two of which are certainly positive and one probably neutral, won’t find much support from that tradition.

 

Second, we consider now the arum. As we just saw, it is unquestionable that the chakam are good and that their condition isn’t changed by God in the Book of Proverbs. But the arum, also, are good. Whereas the chakam are seemingly omnipresent in Proverbs, the arum appear eight times, and in each case the arum is a positive figure. Arum is best translated as “sensible” or “prudent.” For Proverbs the arum is an exemplary figure because of his/her caution in acting; the fool, on the other hand, just speaks before s/he thinks and thereby gets the self into trouble. “The arum conceals knowledge, but the heart of the fool proclaims its own foolishness” (Proverbs 12:23).  Or, “every arum acts with knowledge but the fool reveals/lays open folly” (Proverbs 13:15).  For Proverbs, then, the prudent (arum) will also face no massive reversal in life.  

 

Most translators take these realities and end up rendering arum/chakam in Job 5:12-13 as “so-called wise” or “so-called prudent,” as if Eliphaz is speaking like they were wise or prudent in their own eyes. But we can’t grant him that, especially since the term “in one’s own eyes” is nowhere present or hinted at in the text of Job.

 

The third group that face reversal for Eliphaz in his 5:12-13 catalogue are the “cunning” (pathal). In giving a name to this group, Eliphaz may have chosen the wrong word, though he is not far off from the word he wants: pethi, “the simple.” The pethi appear 15 times in Proverbs.  When we realize that pethi only appears 19x in the Bible, we see it is also a special term for the wisdom tradition. In contrast, the word used here by Eliphaz is pathal, which only appears four times besides Job 5:13, two of which repeat each other (Psalm 18:26; II Samuel 22:27). It seems to be an autoantomym. That is, of its five appearances, sometimes it may mean “perverse” or “twisted” or “cunning” and sometimes it might mean its opposite— “astute” (the Psalms/II Sam references just given). It never appears again in the wisdom literature.

 

The word Eliphaz really seems to means in 5:13 is pethi, “the simple.” But Proverbs specifically contrasts the arum and the pethi. “A prudent person (arum) sees/foresees evil and hides the self, but the simple (pethi) just pass by it and suffer punishment” (Proverbs 22:3). There is hope for the pethi in Proverbs that they will mature into chakam or arum, but if left in their current situation, they are as vulnerable as the kesil, “the fool.”  

 

Now that Eliphaz has mixed up his categories from Proverbs, he blithely continues with a clear and pretty eloquent statement: “By day they meet with darkness; and they grope around at noonday as in the night” (v 14). The verb for “meet” is pagash (14x) but the word for “grope” (mashash) is rather rare (9x).  Four of its appearances are in the Genesis, two of which are where the blind Isaac “gropes” around for his son to see if it is truly Esau (Genesis 27:12, 22) and two of which are applied to Laban as he “gropes” around Jacob’s tent trying to find evidence of Rachel’s or Jacob’s thievery (Gen 31:34, 37).  One other appearance in Job is in 12:25, on Job’s lips. Perhaps this is another word that Eliphaz kindly gives to Job to describe his world. In Job 12, Job sings the power of God in a very orthodox fashion. God pours contempt on princes (12:21). In language picking up both the groping and the darkness (choshek) of 5:14, the princes “grope” (mashash) in the dark (choshek) without light. . .” (12:25).

 

Eliphaz talks about the reversal of fortune as a way of encouraging Job, but his mixing of categories that need to be kept separate in the wisdom tradition no doubt will anger Job. So even though he doesn’t criticize or blame Job like Bildad, and especially  Zophar, will later blame Job for his predicament, he shows himself to Job as one who isn’t thinking properly or clearly about this problem.  

 

Thus, when Eliphaz rounds off this section of his speech on an optimistic note in verses 15-16, Job can’t feel the same optimism. It is like celebrating good news from a doctor who has fundamentally misdiagnosed your disease. So Eliphaz continues with good news in these final two verses of the section. Rather than drawing on the wisdom tradition for insight (he has already messed up categories from that source), he decides to use a thought that is beautifully expressed in a Psalm. Verse 15 is clear though inelegantly said. Following the word order of verse 15, we have: “But he saves from the sword from their mouth, and from the hand of the strong. . .the poor.”  Or, “he saves the poor (ebyon) from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the strong." His conclusion follows in verse 16, “So, the poor (dal) have hope and injustice shuts her mouth.” Though the word dal is unquestionably “the poor” and is meant to be in apposition to the ebyon of the previous verse, David Clines inexplicably translates dal as “crushed.” Perhaps he has been reading Eliphaz too long!

 

Eliphaz’s words of hope here closely follow the flow of ideas in Psalm 107, one of Israel’s great historical Psalms. The concluding verses of that Psalm also give a narrative of reversal. God pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in a trackless waste (107:40; the language is almost identical to Job’s in Job 12:25). But God also puts the needy/poor (ebyon, on Eliphaz’s lips in 5:15) in an inaccessibly high position (sagab, the same relatively rare verb used by Eliphaz just a few verses previously, 5:11, to speak of divine reversal of life). Then the Psalmist says “The upright see it and are glad; and all iniquity stops its mouth” (107:42). The phrase “injustice/iniquity stops its mouth” in the Psalm is identical to the phrase in Eliphaz’s mouth in 5:16. “There is hope for the poor, and iniquity stops its mouth.” The verb for “shut” or “stop” here is the rare qaphats; outside of Job 5 and Psalm 107 it only appears 5x, and only once with the meaning of “shut” or “stop” (Isaiah 52:15). Eliphaz needs to appeal to a Psalm of deliverance and reversal to talk to Job because the traditional wisdom literature (i.e., Proverbs) isn’t a tradition that has a broad vocabulary of reversal of fortune. Eliphaz has purchased optimism here at the expense of accuracy.