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67. Job Emboldened in 7:12-15
Job begins his complaint in verse 12. And the complaint so powerfully explodes out of Job’s mouth that we can hear and feel the cynicism and mockery thousands of years later. Literally, we have:
“The sea am I, or perhaps Tannin (a deep sea monster)? Is that why you set a guard over me?”
We first met the great sea monster (tannin) in Genesis 1:21, where God created a whole host of them on the fourth day. In Genesis 1 they are seemingly pleasant creatures, easily tamed and peacefully occupying the great deeps. Yet, the twenty-five or so other appearances of tannin in the Bible confirm what we know from other ancient mythologies: that primeval sea creatures of various names had to be tamed, watched, and controlled so that the orderly forces of creation could triumph.
Job’s complaint reflects that mythological world view. But note the bitter irony of Job’s statement in verse 12. We have Job, puny little Job. Does he pose such a threat to God, a threat comparable to that of the mythological Tannin, that God must, as it were, confine him to the imprisonment of bodily infirmity and tremendous psychological loss? ‘Oh my (we can now hear Job’s mocking tone), I must be a quite dangerous figure, God, that you have to watch me so carefully.’ Job chooses the word mishmar, derived from the common verb shamar (“to watch/keep”) to express the idea of his “prison” or “confinement.” The Biblical idea of “prison” or “jail” is often expressed by common verbs transformed into nouns by adding the consonant “m” to the beginning of the word (such as masger or mattara) but also by words describing the shape (sahar for “roundness”) or from a verb meaning “to confine” (kele, from kala, another tHebrew verb for “restrain”).
Though the tone of verse 12 is one of sneering mockery, one ought not to miss the underlying truth to which it points. In fact, this commentary, and the shorter book When Leaving God is a Good Choice: Re-reading the Book of Job, argue that Job is going to provide a considerable challenge to God and to religious faith as the book unfolds. He will be a danger to God and religious faith. God may already be aware of that. Thus, we might look at Job as a kind of modern political prisoner, who knows the ruling regime’s vulnerabilities and has no difficulty pointing them out (often with the approval but often ineffectual support of the international community), but a prisoner who is “high-profile” enough so that the ruler can’t just kill him without losing his own grip on power or his own credibility. God has created, or authorized, the situation in which Job finds himself; now God, too, has to wait to see how it unfolds and is holding Job under lock and key in the meantime.
With his bold and searing words of 7:12 to begin his complaint, we realize that Job is now on a roll. The next three verses (7:13-15) ought to be read as one long statement. A somewhat pleonastic translation is:
“If I were to say, my couch will provide comfort for me, or my bed will satisfy my complaint, then you (God) shatter me with dreams and terrify me with visions, to such an extent so that my soul would (gladly) choose hanging or death rather than this collection of bones.”
These verses describe with psychological profundity the hopeless feeling of those who suffer deeply and chronically. There is a growing sense in the West that our medical science, though perhaps being responsible in large measure for longer life expectancies than ever before, is woefully inadequate in dealing with the issue that stalks an increasingly large segment of the population: chronic pain. Surgery or emergency medicine can often relieve life-threatening situations or acute pain, but our medical system often isn’t as successful in helping people manage the quality of their lives from the perspective of pain management. The mysterious monster of pain still has us in its grip, and the modes we use to try to tame this tannin of the spirit often bring us into the worlds of addiction and fuzzy minds.
Thus, in verses 13-15 Job brings us into his own horror house of confinement. He wants to lie down on his “bed” or “couch.” The second word, "couch," is mishkab, another of those nouns formed by adding an “m” to a common verb (shakab, “to lie down”), but the first word is the rarer eres, whose first two appearances in Deuteronomy 3:11 describe an ancient equivalent of a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” bed, one nine cubits in length and four in width. Kareem, Wilt and their partners could all have easily fit on it. The other appearances of the word give us the impression that eres can describe anything from a simple bed to something belonging in an ancient Cabinet of Curiosities.
We ought not to lose the flow of Job’s words in these verses. If Job felt that lying down would bring comfort (nacham is a common verb describing “comfort”) or would, literally, “lift up the complaint (siach, the same word we have just seen in 7:11),” he would just lie down and let pleasant sleep fall on him. Yet this doesn’t work. Instead of words for peace or comfort following him, we have a vocabulary of terror in verse 14. Interestingly, the two words for “dreams” and “visions” are the same words used in tandem in Joel 2:28 in a more optimistic context. There, in the glorious future time, “Your young men shall see visions and your old men dream dreams,” a sentiment picked up in the first instance of Apostolic preaching in Acts 2.
Dreams and visions are often positive things in the Scriptures. Two of the other three uses of chizzayon (“vision”) in Job are positive, with the third (20:8) being neutral. Eliphaz has a dramatic vision in the night (4:13) where God revealed a most potent truth to him. Elihu almost repeats Job’s and Eliphaz’s thoughts in 33:14-15 when he says that God speaks to people in various ways. One is “in a dream, in a vision (using the same words chalom, chizzayon as in 7:14) of the night, when deep sleep (tardemah, Eliphaz’s word from 4:12) falls upon people, when slumbering upon his bed” (mishkab, also in Job 7:13). Yet Job once again upsets a positive biblical concept because these dreams and visions are anything but comforting for him.