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54. Job 6:15-17, The Uselessness of Friends

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.


Now that Job has given us a somewhat ambiguous proverb, he plunges in to a nine-verse description of friends. A more detailed outline of this section on the uselessness, or unreliability, of friends, might have verses 15-17 be their uselessness illustrated through seasonal waters; verses 18-20 as their unreliability in business dealings; and verses 21-23 as their useless demands on Job.  I have made it look neater than it actually is, as the following words will show.


In verse 15 Job dives quickly into one of his only clear thoughts in the next nine verses: the treachery of his friends. Verse 15 literally reads, “My brothers have behaved deceitfully or treacherously like a brook, like the channels/streams of the brook they pass away.” Again, there is no unanimity on precise meaning, especially of how to render the last word of the verse, the verb abar (literally “to pass over” or “go over”). We are probably to understand the “streams” or “channels” here (aphiq) as tributaries of a large brook or small river/seasonal wadi (nachal). However we render things precisely, the central idea ought not to be overlooked. Job’s “brothers” (the most intimate word he ever uses to describe them) have “betrayed/acted deceitfully” (bagad, with no object following it).  


Bagad is a frequently-appearing verb (48x) that appears only here in the Book of Job. Its most disproportionate usages are in Isaiah (11x) and Proverbs (9x). Life doesn’t go well for the treacherous person in Proverbs. He lives in violence (13:2), but he will eventually be caught (11:6). We are surprised both that bagad appears so quickly in the conversation in Job and that it appears directly after the word “my brothers,” a somewhat endearing term to describe people who aren’t your direct relatives. Are we to take both words seriously?  Would these words then be profitably interpreted in the light of another proverb (“faithful are the wounds of a friend,” Proverbs 27:6) or are these words a declaration of incompatibility of friend and friend? Again there is ambiguity, though beginning your address to your friends by accusing them of treachery seems a bit strong if it isn’t to be taken seriously.


Though everything isn’t crystal clear in verse 15, it seems that Job is pointing out that the friends’ “treachery” is illustrated through the seasonal appearance and disappearance of wadis or rivulets in the Transjordanian deserts. These rivulets “pass away” or “vanish” (abar) though some translations, including the NRSV, have “overflow.”There is a world of difference between something that is so full that it overflows and something that vanishes/passes away, but even Clines and Seow disagree on the translation, with the former going for “overflow” and the latter going for “pass away.” I am firmly with Seow on this one. Rivulets flow and ebb, and finally they disappear. Job’s “brothers” are that treacherous. Everyone who has lived in that Transjordanian climate would have known immediately what was meant. 


Once this clear point is made, Job is free to descend into incomprehensibility. So he does. Picking up on the theme of unfaithful streams or brooks from verse 15, he now seems to turn to the seasonal nature of the friends’ treachery, though he only speaks of the warm weather, the time in which they “vanish” or “are consumed” (v 17). One just can’t rely on them—even though we are hard pressed to see this as deceitful action. Let’s look at verses 16-17 more closely.


Verse 16 reads, “Which are dark because of the ice, upon it hides the snow.” If you say, “What?” you wouldn’t be alone. “Black by reason of ice” seems to suggest that the waters under the ice on the surface become brackish or dark in the winter time, a phenomenon that some say has been observed in the northern Transjordanian winters. Whether this argues for a “north Syrian” or “northeast Palestine” location for the Book of Job, rather than the “southeast Edom” location, which doesn’t apparently get ice in the winters, isn’t easy to say. But if one were to hang one’s argument for writing location of the Book of Job on the difficulty of 6:16, one wouldn’t have many followers.


The first verb of 6:16, qadar (to become dark/black), has already appeared in Job 5:11, where Eliphaz used it to describe one of the groups whom God favors in the world:  “the low” and “the mourners” (qadar). Qadar only appears 17x in the Bible, and its appearances are divided between “mourning” and “becoming black.” Perhaps the connection lay in garment color of mourners. In Job 6:16, however, qadar is always translated by “dark” or by similar words suggestive of thickness (turgid, cold, choked).  Perhaps what really is happening in the first clause of 6:16 is an alliteration without an attempt at clear meaning. We have qadar qerach (“dark” and “Ice” or “frost,” 7x), creating a nice “crackling” sound as you read it: q-d-r q-r-ch. If we take seriously that sometimes meaning may inhere in soundrather than denotation of words, we may have our “meaning”. . .cr. . .a. . .c. . .k. . . Thus, we can try to translate it, “black because of its ice,” which meaning isn’t crystal clear or we can just say. . .”cr. . .a. . .c. . .k.”


The second half of 6:16 is likewise opaque. Literally we have, “Upon it the snow hides itself.” If this has to do with snow that is piling on ice, which runs over blackened water, we would generally think that snow becomes visible on ice and not hides itself on ice. After all, it just tends to sit there until it melts or gets blown away. But here we have the verb alam, a moderate-frequency verb (28x) whose meaning is almost always crystalline: “to hide” or “to vanish.” It appears twice more in Job, the more memorable of which is 42:3, where God asks Job, “Who is this who hides (alam) counsel without knowledge?” Alam appears four times in the Psalms in contexts of desperate pleading.  Two examples are: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off, and hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1) or, “Do not hide yourself (alam) from my supplication" (55:1).  We have to confess that we don’t know what it means that snow “hides” on the apparently darkened ice.  We have to confess we don’t know what darkened ice means. Job has us where he wants us. Totally confused. 


The images change in 6:17 to those of heat, though we don’t know the meaning of all the words. “In the time when XXX, they are destroyed/cease to flow; in its heat they vanish/are extinguished from their place.” The image of extinguishment is captured both in the verb in the second clause of this verse (daak, 9x) as well as the previous verse (alam). Normally the verb daak appears in contexts where lights are extinguished, as is the case of its other three appearances in Job (18:5, 6; 21:17), but here their “heat” (chom, 14x) is extinguished. We probably are on good grounds for taking the second clause as pointing to the streams drying up in the hot season, though why the verb for putting out a light is used, and why the word “heat” is used to describe the streams is mystifying. The verb “extinguish” (daak) kind of sounds like the favorite verb in the conversation so far (daka, “to crush”), and maybe the author is again just playing “alliteration” with us.    


If the second half of the verse is somewhat understandable, the same can’t be said for the first three words. The hapax zarab is usually translated as “to scorch” or “burn,” leaving the meaning as “in the scorched/burnt/dry season.” But we don’t have any idea what it really means, though the following verb, tsamath (15x) almost always means “to destroy” or “cut off.” Though there is no direct literary connection, in some ways I see this obscurity as a response to Eliphaz’ similarly-expressed obscurity in 5:2-3. In those verses a fool takes root, but his “habitation” is “cursed” and his children “crushed.” In 6:17 their “places” are “destroyed” and they “vanish.” If deep can call to deep at the sound of the waters (cf Psalm 42:7), why can’t obscurity call to obscurity here to express judgment on friends?