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50. Job 6:5-7, A Digression
5 Does the wild ass bray over its grass,
or the ox low over its fodder?
6 Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt,
or is there any flavor in the juice of mallows?
7 My appetite refuses to touch them;
they are like food that is loathsome to me.
Now that Job has spoken with clarity and power, it seems like we are due for a rabbit trail, a diversion from the argument. Right on cue, Job delivers. It isn’t as if verse 5 is unclear, but we will now be taken on a tangent that really adds nothing to the argument. Job’s point in verses 5-6 will be that animals don’t complain if they are well-fed. If everything goes well, animals don’t scream. Job is screaming; ergo, things aren’t going well. In addition, in verse 6 animals/humans want some savor with their food; simple or bland fare is not enough. But Job gets a little lost in his vocabulary along the way. He isn’t as entertaining as Eliphaz when using five words for lion in 4:10-11, but he does challenge us and show us our relative ignorance as we read on.
Verse 5 may be rendered, “Does the wild ass (pere) bray/cry out in distress when it has grass? Does the ox (shor) low/groan over its fodder?” I gave the Hebrew words for the animals because they are familiar, but not the most common, words for “ass/donkey” or “ox” in the Bible. The most memorable use of pere (10x) for example is in describing Ishmael: he will be a “wild ass (pere) of a man” (Genesis 16:12). We don’t know if that means he will be uncontrollable (a bad thing) or free/unrestrained (possibly a good thing). The verbs are difficult in verse 5, but understandable. Nahaq (“to bray/cry out”) only appears here and Job 30:7. Here it is meant to be a negative “crying out.” The next verb is frequently rendered “low” in English (gaah; it only occurs elsewhere in I Samuel 6:12), but “low” describes a favorable or contented sound made by oxen or cows (“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus. . .). In the context of 6:5, however, it has to be a negative cry. Both the “bray” (nahaq) and the “low” (gaah) of verse 5 have to be cries of complaint in order for the verse to make sense. The point is that animals don’t complain if they have adequate food. Job is crying out…therefore he doesn’t have adequate “food.” The word for fodder (belil) closes our verse, another rare word but whose meaning is clear enough. So, we have gone from crystalline clarity to clarity with rare words from verse 5.
Verse 6 sends us for a loop, however. The thought changes slightly. Now Job doesn’t want to talk just about the noises animals make but the contents of their food. We can see a classic rabbit trail, pioneered by Eliphaz, now being pursued. It consists of a digression and opaque words. Animals don’t complain if food is good (v 5). Now Job says, “Can flavorless food be eaten without salt?” Only problem is, the word rendered “flavorless food” (taphel) isn’t really “flavorless food.” It only appears six other times in the Bible, four of which are in Ezekiel 13, where the prophet plays on the idea of whitewashed (taphel) walls. I suppose it isn’t a huge stretch to go from whitewashed walls to bland food, but that is the stretch you have to make if you want to make sense out of the first part of Job 6:6.
If we think we are comfortable with the notion of food not only being sufficient (v 5) but also flavorless (v 6), we relax. But then the last phrase of v 6 is opaque. We often don’t even know what the English means. The Revised Standard Version, a staple for many people for many years, rendered it as “Is there any taste in the slime of the purslane?” Huh? Online articles will tell us that the purslane is the Portulaca oleracea, a word that would delight strict followers of Carl Linnaeus but not too many others. But many others have intrepidly entered into the translation fray. Following up on a rabbinic hint that what really is being mentioned is the “white of the egg,” many translations have chosen that option. Yet, a third popular way to render it is the “juice of the mallow,” another concept that won’t ring with great familiarity to English readers. Seow splits the difference and calls it the “slime of the mallow.” Finally, a translation touting itself as a “literal” reading gives, “Is there sense in the drivel of dreams?” “Drivel”. . .hmm. . .I am starting to like that word.
We are delighted and depressed all at once. Job’s mind (and body) has temporarily has left us, but we think we see his footprints ending right about here. . . To summarize, we have the following argument: animals don’t complain if they have good food. Good food includes food with salt/taste. But then, who knows what the end of verse 6 says? Just as unclarity didn’t slow Eliphaz down for a second, so Job plows on. This section ends with verse 7, “My soul refuses to touch (what?; there is no object in the Hebrew, but that hasn’t deterred translators from finding one), they are XXX my food.” We know a few of the words in verse 7—such as the familiar “touch” (naga), and the idea the verse might be suggesting is that Job has no patience for unsalted/tasteless food, but this is hardly revelatory or relevant. I also don’t also like to touch slimy eggs, so I feel a bit of a kinship with Job—if that is what he is talking about. But probably not. We are also nonplussed by the last phrase. Usually it is rendered, “they are loathsome food,” but the word translated “loathsome” (devay) doesn’t mean that. Devay only appears one other time in Scripture (Psalm 41:3), where it is usually translated as “languishing” or “on one’s sickbed.” Let’s hold our nose and go with a translation suggested by Clines: “I refuse to touch them; they are no better than rotten food.”
If we look at the first section of Job’s speech (6:1-7) as the declaration of clarity (his anger is extreme; the arrows of God are ripping apart), we have our money’s worth. These ideas are so fraught with meaning that they carry the entire seven verses. So, Job is at liberty to “wander,” to examine a few things from nature, just as Eliphaz did, but in ways that don’t particularly advance the argument. But we will never forget Job’s anger—or the arrows of God.