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53. Job 6:14-23, The Treachery of So-called Friends

 

14 “Those who withhold kindness from a friend

    forsake the fear of the Almighty.

15 My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed,

    like freshets that pass away,

16 that run dark with ice,

    turbid with melting snow.

17 In time of heat they disappear;

    when it is hot, they vanish from their place.

18 The caravans turn aside from their course;

    they go up into the waste, and perish.

19 The caravans of Tema look,

    the travelers of Sheba hope.

20 They are disappointed because they were confident;

    they come there and are confounded.

21 Such you have now become to me;

    you see my calamity, and are afraid.

22 Have I said, ‘Make me a gift’?

    Or, ‘From your wealth offer a bribe for me’?

23 Or, ‘Save me from an opponent’s hand’?

    Or, ‘Ransom me from the hand of oppressors’?

 

Job now turns from God, and his plea that God crush him, to his friends. He doesn’t seem to be particular disappointed that God has not honored his request, but he will not address God again until the middle of Chapter 7. In the meantime, he has a lot to say to his three friends, even though only one has spoken so far. Job here addresses them in the second person plural, as if all are implicated in Eliphaz’s words. Who knows? Maybe they were nodding their approval or gave Eliphaz the ancient equivalent of a ‘high five’ when he finished speaking. 

 

Added to the potentially confusing literary method already discussed will be the confusion occasioned by a conflict that now arises among the friends. Conflict raises the emotional temperature of an encounter. As we know from our own experience, heightened conflict often leads to statements that are not only regretted later but often don’t make the most sense when they are uttered. True to form, many of Job’s lines in this section don’t make sense, or they make sense only through speculative conjectures. When you add this to the uncertainties in how to read some of Eliphaz’s words (i.e., is his screed against the “fool” in 5:1ff supposed to include Job, too?), we can understand how the conflict intensity level quickly reaches what psychologists call “Stage 5” (with the five levels of conflict intensity being: 1) differences; 2) misunderstandings; 3) disagreements; 4) discord; and 5) polarization). Job’s basic contention in this passage is that the friends have betrayed him. What might have begun as a seemingly sympathetic sitting together in 2:11-14 has now devolved not simply into misunderstanding, but also into discord and polarization.

 

In analyzing the friends’ interaction with Job, we need to entertain the notion that Job may be just as responsible for the rise of the emotional temperature as the friends. However satisfying it might be to pin all the blame on the “intransigence” or “deafness” of the friends, the text won’t bear that out. Job knows not only how to retaliate but how to deliver a pre-emptive strike against them.

 

Presaging the difficulty of understanding the passage is the proverb-like 6:14. We ought not to forget that Job is part of a wisdom tradition, and that tradition luxuriated in pithy sentences that might be interpreted in many ways, much like jewels held up to the light from different angles not only seemingly change their shape but also their color. Here are four ways of reading 6:14, 

 

  1. “To one who is fading/despairing, mercy should be shown even if he (i.e., Job) forsakes the fear of the Almighty.”

  2. “To one who is fading/afflicted, kindness should be shown, but he (i.e., Eliphaz) has forsaken the fear of the Almighty.”

  3. “To one who is fading/melting, kindness should be shown or else he might forsake the fear of Almighty.”

  4. “Those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty.”

 

Individual proverbs often eliminate connecting or explanatory particles, allowing the reader to suggest various ways of relating two parts of a sentence. In addition, in this case, the meaning of a few words is up for grabs. Finally, there is no verb in the first part, leading to our adding of the word “be shown.” The literal rendering of the first three words is “To a melter, from his friend, lovingkindness.”  Now I hope you see what we are up against, and this is one half of one verse of 1068 verses in Job.

 

Let’s begin with the first word, lamas. The “le” is a preposition “to” or “for,” and the mas is a hapax, thus making our life more challenging at the outset. But all is not lost.  It probably is related to/derived from the verb masas, a 21x-appearing verb meaning to “lose heart” or “melt” or “dissolve” or “fade.” That Job calls himself “One who melts” or “one who loses heart” here may be significant in helping us understand Job’s final words in 42:6, where Job is using either maas or masas, whatever each may mean in that context.

 

So, even though there might be a variety of ways of translating mas here (i.e., one who is despairing, melting away, losing heart), the point is relatively clear. Job is referring to himself. In my mind it is reasonable to render “From his friend lovingkindness” as “lovingkindness (be shown) from/by a friend.” The meaning of the first part of the pithy proverb then would be that friends ought to support others in need. Don’t ditch or dump on your suffering friends. The NRSV translation of the first phrase, given above, has little support in the text, even though a few other translations concur with it.  

 

The second half of 6:14 gives the translator nightmares. Each English translator has to make a decision on how to render the little “waw” (Hebrew letter, often translated “and”) that connects the two parts of the sentence. Literally we have, “and fear of the Almighty he forsakes.” But that gets us nowhere; hence the variety of translations. My preferred solution is the ‘Yogi Berra’ solution, where he famously said that when one comes to a fork in the road one ought to take it. That means that when several translation possibilities exist, then take them all. A resulting translation might be: “Where forsaking God is at stake, friends ought to show some compassion to a despairing person." This translation then wouldn’t say who is in danger of forsaking God; it would simply point to the necessity of friendship in dire straits. 

 

There is one other note on this verse, a note that increases the translation torture level. In recent days some scholars have decided to take the chesed (almost always translated as “lovingkindness” or “mercy” in Scripture) in the way it is translated in a few wisdom contexts: “reproach” (Proverbs 14:34; 25:10). The meaning of the first part then might be, “Reproach (has been shown) from a friend to a sufferer. . .” I am still not ready to go down that translation path; I will stick to the traditional translation of chased. The proverb is about showing kindness to a friend in need, whatever circumstances surround that need.