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56. Job 6:21-23, Useless Demands on Job

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 is not yet halfway done his speech in response to Eliphaz. Our linguistic and meaning world has been destabilized, much like Job’s physical and emotional world. If the author is trying to make the reader suffer a bit, he is succeeding. Yet, there is enough clarity to keep us going and point us in the direction of meaning. We are awed even as we, too, struggle. Perhaps the author is trying to get the message across to us that if we were as committed to understanding the text as Job is to understanding his distress, we both might get somewhere. . .


Before asking his friends to be his teachers to interpret his distress (6:24), Job will mingle his hurt with an attempt at amateur psychology to understand his situation. These three verses play an important transition role for Job. He has asked God to cut him off; he has attacked the friends’ uselessness and even treachery. Now he will interpret his friends’ situation and then ask a series of questions that sometimes appear rhetorical and sometimes deadly serious.

He begins in verse 21 with both unclarity and clarity. A serviceable translation of the verse is, “For now you have become not/to him; You see a terror and you are afraid.” The last clause, consisting of three Hebrew words, is especially vivid, picking up on the “t” sound and the similarity in form of the verbs “see” and “fear” in Hebrew. There are nine syllables, and four of them begin with “t”…tiru chathath vattirau. It is almost as if Job is clucking his tongue at his friends, perhaps saying something with the sound (“t”) as well as the meaning. “Cluck, cluck…you are afraid…” expressing his disappointment at or disapproval of the friends. The thing that they see is his chathath, the (hapax) noun form of a familiar verb chathath (51x), “to be shattered/dismayed.”  This clause might be translated, “You see shattering/distress and you are afraid.” The refrain at the end of Deuteronomy and beginning of Joshua is “Do not tremble, nor be dismayed” (chathath; Deut 31:8 ; Jos 1:9); the friends, according to Job, are now doing just that.


Job’s point has psychological acuity. We know people who have faced or are facing great distress. Sometimes we are able to comfort them, either with words or our mere presence. Sometimes we avoid them, not knowing what to say. Sometimes, as with Job’s friends here, we add words of interpretation as a help. After all, Job had invited the words by his first speech in Chapter 3. But interpretive words are dangerous; they may be said wrongly or heard in a way not intended. The one who wants to interpret another’s distress through words is often afraid—afraid of saying the wrong words, afraid that an invisible agent of contagion might be unleashed through the encounter.  Job has interpreted Eliphaz’s response as fear-based. Perhaps Eliphaz is just a foreign person skilled at cursing (cf 3:8), who is trying to keep a curse from himself at bay as he speaks to Job. Eliphaz then would be offering words of comfort as an apotropaic device. . .


We are less fortunate in trying to understand the first four words of verse 22. The Hebrew textual tradition is also confused, with the “written” text saying “Thus you are not/nothing” and the “spoken” text being “Thus you are to him/to them.” Translators are all over the map: “For now you are nothing” or “For now you are not” (i.e., you have become the streams that have dried up of vv 15-17) or “For now you are become His” or “Surely you have become like it” (the wadi). Or, “You have become nothing” (in my estimation).  Or, “You have come to nought” (i.e., become totally useless and unprofitable). The difference in sound between “lo” (“not”) and “lu” (“to him/them”) is almost imperceptible. Perhaps Job was deliberately ambiguous here, making his friends want to pay especially close attention to the next three words about their fear.  


Our mini-section closes with four staccato-like questions in verses 22-23 whose point seems to be, ‘I never really asked for your help. . .’ or ‘You came of your own accord, so why are you giving me such grief?’  Verses 22-23 may be rendered,


     “Did I say, ‘Give to me?’ or ‘Bribe me with a present?’ Or 'Deliver me from the hand of distress?’ or      ‘Redeem me from the hand of oppressors?’


The questions also may not simply refer to the present situation but to the history of Job’s relationship with the friends. ‘Have I ever asked you. . .? might be the tone.  


The second question has occasioned some comment. The verb shachad (usually translated “to offer a bribe/give a present”) only appears one other time in the Bible, but its noun form, shochad,  appears 23x. It appears most disproportionally in Proverbs (4x), which leads to to the question of the relationship of “bribes” or “gifts” and wisdom. And, of course, it forces the question of how to characterize a gift to secure one’s advantage. In our day a bribe is something given to an official to secure a promise of favorable action in the future.  But the line between bribes, gifts, gratuities and other payments is a fine and hazy one, none more so than in antiquity.


Proverbs reflects this haziness. The word shochad can be used to describe a payment to extricate oneself from repercussions for an adulterous relationship that is discovered. Jealousy will take over, no doubt (Proverbs 6:34), and a “gift/bribe” will be ignored (Proverbs 6:35).  But a shochad may seemingly an unalloyed good, to be used wisely in making one’s way in the world. For example, Proverbs 17:8 says, “A bribe/present (shochad) is (like) a precious stone in the eyes of its possessor; wherever he turns, he prospers.” That is, rather than the payment being considered something negative, it enables one to prosper (sakal is a wisdom tradition word both for success and for becoming prudent).  Careful use of one’s “gifts,” then, can vault one into stratospheres of success. 


Job’s words in 6:22 seem to reflect this view of the world. Job hasn’t really asked them to lade him with gifts or buy influence with him. He hasn’t ever requested help from them. Why do they think they are in a position to give him aid now that he has fallen so low? Interesting words used in these questions are the verb malat, (“to deliver”), padah (“to redeem”), and koach (“strength or possessions”).  A disproportionate share of the first are in Job (10/95).  Padah appears infrequently in Job (two other places), but is on Eliphaz’s lips in 5:20, where Eliphaz confidently spoke of God’s future redemption. Job may wryly be saying, ‘You speak of redemption. Have I ever really asked you about that?’  Finally, koach, though frequent in the Bible (125x), has already appeared three times in Job 6, where Job was musing on his lack of strength. He isn’t really looking for the friends’s “strength” in his situation.

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