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55. Job 6:18-20, Unreliability in Business Dealings

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.


What next appears to happen (vv 18-20) is that Job keeps discussing the theme of treachery, but now he changes images and social locations, from seasonal appearance and disappearance of water to the movement of goods in trade. We are plunged immediately into obscurity because the second word of both verse 18 and verse 19 is identical, orach, but probably shouldn’t be translated in either place in its normal sense: “path.” Our translation of these verses is probably as torturous and unsatisfying as the trading route was for the merchants of Tema and Sheba in verses 18-19. Verse 18 may be rendered, “Twisting along are the paths/caravans of their way, they rise up/climb into chaos and perish/are lost.” Since verse 19 is of a piece with this, it can be rendered, “The caravans of Tema looked around, the travelers of Sheba wait/hope for it/them.”  


What can we make of this? Several possible meanings come to mind. One suggestionmight be to continue with the image of friends as an unfaithful or treacherous stream, but then look at the caravans of verses 18-19 as travelers from afar who are looking for streams to refresh themselves but are disappointed. This might be consistent with the language of verse 20, that they had hoped (for water?) but were confounded. The only problem is that the first verb of verse 20 is “ashamed” (bush) and it isn’t immediately clear why shame should attend an unsuccessful search for water.

But, we might read it in another way. The friends might have changed from being the unfaithful brook to becoming the traders of Tema. After all, the only friend who has spoken so far is Eliphaz, and he is a Temanite. In addition, verse 18 begins with a verb in the 3rd person plural, suggesting that the “they” of the previous verses (the friends) ought to be the same “they” as here. Thus, the point might be that Eliphaz and his fellow Temanites are traveling and are confused or confounded or shamed. The problem with this is that the concept of shame and treachery don’t seem to fit well together.


If we take verse 18 as describing the trading missions of Temanite and Sheban merchants, we see that they have come a long distance over winding paths (the verb for “twist/wind” is the rare laphath, once used for Samson “grasping” or “twisting his hands around” the pillars of the temple before yanking them out of place, Judges 16:29).  But then they go up into the bohu, the same word used in Genesis 1:2 to describe the “chaos” before God’s creative activity. This is quite a stunning but memorable way to describe the desert or wilderness between Tema/Sheba and the location of the (treacherous) brooks. The “trackless waste” of Psalm 107:4 is a yeshimon, though it becomes a bohu by the end of the Psalm (107:40). The howling waste of Deuteronomy 32:10 is a bohu. Job seems to like the word; he uses it again in 12:24 and 26:7. Expecting water, these seasoned traders go up to this bohu and then abad, “they perish.”  All because of no water in the seasonal wadis?  Don’t they bring some along?  Wouldn’t that be the more prudent course, especially when you have a valuable haul of goods in tow? They can’t be novices at this, you know.  


So, Job is not only conceptually fuzzy here, but when some sense might be extracted from his words our reaction is a nonplussed, “Huh?” These caravans “look” (the common nabat) in verse 19, but we only assume they are looking for water, the treacherous waters of the friends. No object is specified. Nor is the second half of the verse particularly clear: the travelers “hope for them” or “wait for it.”  Start guessing. . .


After blowing the simile pretty badly, Job concludes on the traders with verse 20, “They (we assume the Temanite and Sheban traders) are ashamed because it (subject unspecified) trusted; they came upon it and were confused/confounded.” I think the last words were secretly written to apply to all translators of this passage—who come upon the passage and are confounded. Those who are inclined to try to make sense of the passage assume that the “ashamed” is really “disappointed” (just about the only place that bush would be so translated in its 113 appearances), but we really shouldn’t start going down that road just to save the writer.   


I thought the traders were thirsty; now they are ashamed. Maybe they were ashamed because for the second (or more) time in a month they forgot the water bottles. ‘Ahmed, you dummy!  Did you forget the water again? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ It literally says, “they are/were ashamed because he/it trusted.” Huh?  Well, getting back to Ahmed, maybe all are ashamed because the leader trusted Ahmed to bring the water bottles. Job’s granular knowledge of the inner conversations and feelings in the Temanite and Sheban caravans is nothing less than inspiring. I think any modern doctrine of the inspiration of Scriptures would have to begin from Job’s knowledge of the shame and misplaced trust of the Temanite caravans. That might be the title of a dissertation: “Shame and Misplaced Trust Among Second-First Millennium BCE Temanite Caravan Traders.” I am sure that generous funding from multiple sources would be forthcoming for such a work.

Back to the text. After someone became ashamed because someone trusted we conclude with “they come upon it and are confounded/nonplussed/confused/ashamed.” We so wish we knew what it is that they came upon. “It” is awfully nonspecific. If it really means, “They came upon the dried up watercourses which symbolize the treacherous friends of Job,” the author might have helped us out a little bit here. But just as God’s ways in Chapters 38-41 were not Job’s ways, so the ways of writing here seem not to be ways that we can understand.  


If I were Eliphaz at this moment, I might be tempted to break in and say, ‘Hmm, Job.. .are you insulting me? Because before I get angry I want to make sure that you really are trashing me.  I don’t want to waste my energy with a friend if I am mistaken.’


Let’s close this so-called exposition with a word on the final verb: chapher. Its linguistic range includes humiliation, shame, perplexity and confusion. If we go with the meaning of “shame” for a second, we then would see the verse ringed or surrounded by “shame” (bush/chapher). Everyone would be ashamed. But we don’t know to whom this points. We assume it is those unlucky, and perhaps careless-planning, caravan leaders. But if the “it” they come upon are the dried-up watercourses, I would be mad rather than ashamed. Or, if it were summertime, I would be saying to myself, ‘What did you expect, moron?’


Though we have had more fun with these verses than we probably should be permitted to have, the basic point should be clear. Job is accusing his friends of treachery. The imagery at first is relatively clear, but then it descends into obscurity. But Job is suffering; perhaps also it is hard emotionally for him to make the allegation of treachery against his friends. Perhaps the feeling of shame that surrounds verse 20 includes Job’s sense of shame at having to accuse his friends of this kind of incivility. Perhaps these words against the friends are another example of his “wild” words, if that is a decent translation of luwa (v 3).  


Attitudes haven’t completely hardened yet. Job just wants to be “cut off”; he hasn’t developed the contours of his case against God. The friends may be “treacherous,” but that word is uttered with all kinds of obscure references and possible qualifications. Job’s case, as well as the impact of these terrible events on friendship, is still taking shape or is indeterminate. But if we look at Job 6:1-20 from the perspective of the creative process, we are comforted; that process always begins with a world of conflicting thoughts, thoughts that may get refined over time.  We can only hope. . . Oh, by the way, the Book of Job just suffered the loss of another few million readers in this passage, since it is so obscure.

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