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58. Returning to Job 6:24-27
After that long excursus on the law of negligence, we are ready to read and understand Job 6:24. It may be rendered: “Teach me and I will be silent; make me understand how I have been negligent.” The two verbs (yarah and bin or “teach” and “make understand”) are derived from the language of Israelite teaching traditions, whether reflected in Deuteronomy or Proverbs or the wisdom-oriented Psalms. The verb for “teach” (yarah) occurs 81x, nine of which are in Job and twelve of which are in the Psalms. The noun form of yarah is torah, the Law that must be “taught” to the people. God “instructs” sinners in the way (Psalm 25:8, 12). The Psalmist implores God to “teach me your way” (27:11), and God gives the comforting statement, “I will instruct and teach you (sakal and yarah) in the way you should go (Psalm 32:8).
Job wants to understand (bin, 169x, 23 of which are in Job and 33 in Proverbs; Psalm 119 uses the verb 10x) how he has erred. Shegah, which we have already discussed, appears here and in Job 19:4 in the same way. The latter says, “If I have truly erred (shagah), my error lodges with me.” In this latter instance (meshugah, a hapax) is used for error/negligence. The modern Yiddish word “Meshuggah” or “crazy person” is derived from it.
By speaking this way, Job is clearly saying that he is unaware of any “presumptuous” or intentional sin he has committed. Because he is super-conscious of his children’s faults (1:5), we infer that he is scrupulous also about his own. He isn’t aware of any particular sin needing forgiveness in this case. He wants his friends to point that out to him. That’s what friends are for. As we will see, they won’t be shy in trying to help Job out in this regard. Finally, Job says that he will be silent (charash) if they teach him. We have already seen the verb charash in 1:14, 4:8, there translated as “plow.” Obviously we are in the realm of silence here. Job’s willingness to be silent if they teach him leaves unsaid the opposite thought—if you can’t teach me, shut up! But they will keep trying to teach Job, again and again.
After this sentence of rare clarity, we expect Job to descend into various levels of obscurity, and we are not disappointed. A defensible way of translating 6:25 is, “How violent/malicious/forcible are upright words. But what do your reproaches amount to?” Job is contrasting words that might teach him in verse 24 with the actual words of his friends in verse 25. If their words were upright (yashar, the same word repeatedly used to describe Job’s moral position in life), they would be marats, a 4x-appearing word that elsewhere can refer to a “violent” curse (I Kings 2:8) or “painful” destruction (Micah 2:10) or, in its other Job appearance (16:3), as words that have “provoked” or “emboldened” the friends’ response. We might then be inclined to render the first clause of verse 25 as “Upright words are provocative/violent indeed,” meaning that when the truth is clearly and even bluntly spoken, the words can appear “forcible” or “violent.”
What Job may be doing is contrasting two kinds of “violent” or “forcible’ words—those that are powerful and those of his friends that have no effect or, in the words of the rest of the verse, those that amount to nothing. In reading the verse this way, it becomes uncertain simply from the tone and force/violence of the words whether they actually are upright or not. Job is willing to endure the violent words, but, in fact “what do your reproaches amount to?” The implication is that they amount to nothing.
The verb “reproach” (yakach) appears three times in four words in 6: 25-26 and its meaning is much less clear than one would like. Its normal English rendering is with words we scarcely use anymore, such as “adjudge” or “reprove” or “reproach,” which add to its mystery and imprecision. It can also mean “to prove” or “to complain” or “to appoint” or “to decide.” Its basic meaning has to do with proof and judgment based on that proof. So, a fair rendering of the three times in four words that it appears here might be, “What do your words prove/amount to?” (v 25) “Reproving words (words trying to prove something—in this case prove me wrong) do you intend?” (v 26).
Their reproving words, words of proof and judgment, amount to nothing, even though they consider the words of a despairing person to be nothing but wind (v 26). Thus, verse 26 takes us into the realm of the comparative power of words. We might translate verse 26 as follows, “Do you intend your words to prove/judge (me wrong), with the words of a desperate one (i.e., Job; the word is from the infrequently-appearing verb yaash, meaning “to despair”) being nothing but wind?” Though Job is veering off into obscurity here, in my judgment, the flow of the thought seems to be: ‘violent or forcible words may be true; but yours are rather punchless; yet even though your argument proves nothing, you consider the speech of a desperate person (me) to be nothing but wind.’ It provokes the difficult but important question, “How do you really determine which words have merit?” The tone doesn’t do it, even though violent words may be upright. But now, Job is unconvinced by the friends.
He then concludes this mini-section with a gratuitous insult, an insult that shows that Job is not simply the receiver of insults from friends here. We might render verse 27 as, “You cast lots over orphans and you dig pits for/barter away your friends.” We have no idea what this means, but its language is so alluring that it just makes us keep reading and wonder what Job is up to here. I suppose if Eliphaz could talk about the wicked as being crushed by or before the moths (4:19), or their sons as crushed in the gate of the town (5:4), Job could do him one better by alleging that Elihpaz (and the friends?) spend their time casting lots over orphans, supposedly to figure out which one might be best for them to adopt/purchase/enslave. Perhaps, as one commentator has suggested, they would be casting lots for rights to the child of an insolvent debtor.
It isn’t obvious that casting of lots is in view in the first clause of verse 27, even though the language of something “falling upon” an object is similarly expressed in another casting of lots passage (I Samuel 14:42), where Saul used that method to determine who had violated his command not to eat food until evening. But not everyone sees this verse as referring to lot-casting. For example, if one takes the first word, aph (which in some versions is put with verse 26 rather than verse 27), not as the interjection but as the noun for “nose” or “anger,” then one might render it, “you cause anger to fall on the fatherless,” whose obscurity would be immediately evident. The KJV and those following it rendered the common verb naphal (the lot “falls”) as “overwhelm"; thus they read this statement as Job’s accusation against the friends that they “overwhelm” the fatherless. Finally, some look at the word for “orphan” (yathom) and see a word very similar to the important word tam (“perfect/blameless”) in Job, thus bringing this into a kind of allegation that may touch Job, “You even overwhelm/oppress/the perfect. . .” (referring to himself).
Most translators are moving in the direction of “casting lots” for the first half of verse 27. We don’t know what it refers to or whether it is indeed a spiritual practice to discern God’s will that Job envisions. He has descended into his obscurity, and part of us has to just wait for him to climb out. Finally, the last clause can be taken two ways. The verb is karah, a 17x-appearing verb that normally means “to dig.” Jeremiah speaks about people who “dig a pit” for others (karah, Jeremiah 18:20, 22), while Proverbs warns that those who dig a pit (karah) will fall into it (Proverbs 26:27). But its other appearance in Job (41:6) suggests a meaning like “haggle over” or “barter with” traders. It would be really nice if the two images in verse 27 were clear ones like casting lots for orphans and digging pits for friends, but I am afraid that things may be more complex than that. And, even if what is at stake is casting lots and digging pits, we don’t know what that means.
It could be that these were just legendary or traditional ways of denigrating another person. But we are clueless as to meaning. We don’t have Eliphaz’s diary where he talks about the delight he derived from digging out a pit and watching his friend fall into it. We don’t have Zophar’s ledger book where he duly recorded the cost involved in casting a lot for an orphan or how often he did it. Thus, we just have an airy allegation, one that makes us smile and want to invent various Sitze im Leben, as the old German form critics would have it, where these nefarious activities would have happened. We can even imagine the dying echoes of allegations being hurled back and forth: 'You will be crushed by the moth, guy! And your kids will be crushed in the gate (oops, the wind got them first).’ In response, ‘Well, buddy, I have good evidence for your having cast lots illegally for orphans and dug pits for your friends.’ The joys of Job. . .