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69. Job 7:17-21, Turning A Famous Scripture on Its Head (Psalm 8)
17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
18 visit them every morning,
test them every moment?
19 Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?
20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
21 Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
For now I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be.”
Job’s eloquent desperation continues. We have already seen his probable dependence on the world of Deuteronomy 28:65-67 and disagreement with the sentiment expressed in Psalm 27:13. Now he plays for even higher stakes by undermining the meaning of one of the most famous Psalms of praise: Psalm 8. In that memorable Psalm, the author praised the excellence or majesty (adir) of God, whose glory is evident in all the earth. After losing himself in that expression of admiration, the Psalmist turns to humans and asks, “What are humans that you remember them? That you visit them each morning?” (8:4). With God so lofty, humans must be insignificant. Yet, God has demonstrated love by elevating humans to a high position in the earth. The Psalm then ends with the same ringing endorsement of God’s excellence (8:8).
Triggering the Psalmist’s question about the importance of humans in the world are three Hebrew words: mah enosh kiy, “What is a human that…?” (8:4) Job’s first words in 7:17 are also mah enosh kiy. For a culture that depends mostly on hearing and memorization, which characterized ancient cultures from China to the Middle East, this repeated expression would immediately bring Psalm 8, or its “proto-version” to mind. But Job’s words continue the cynicism started in 7:12. Job 7:17 reads, “What is a human that you make him so great, that you set your heart on him?” Instead of Psalm 8:4’s two verbs of zakar (“remember”) and paqad (“visit”), Job has gadal (“make great”) and sim leb (“set the heart on”). Yet, Job has just used zakar in 7:7, and will use paqad in the next verse, 7:18. I think especially the latter is a sign or wink that Job consciously has Psalm 8 in mind.
Job’s thought calls into question the correctness of the sentiment behind Psalm 8:4. Job asks, continuing into verse 18, “Why do you make such a big deal of humans? Why do you visit (paqad) them in the morning and at every moment test them?” Whereas the Psalmist used the language of visitation to show God’s care, Job uses it to show God’s constant “testing” (bachan) of humans (v 18). Rather than singling humans out for love and concern, as the Psalmist would claim, Job’s God singles humans out for special investigation and, by implication, torment. The greatness or largeness of humans must be so that they can more easily be the objects of the divine arrows. That is Job’s way of turning the meaning Psalm 8 on its head.
We should note the two words for periods of time in Job 7:18 and then look more closely at the nature of the bachan or “testing” that God performs on humans. Job’s God “visits” (paqad) humans in the mornings (baqar), and tests them rega. Rega appears 23x in the Bible and usually means “instantly” or “a brief moment.” The meaning in Job 7:18 could either be “every moment,” as most translations have it, or “at a moment’s notice/in the twinkling of an eye/suddenly.” The latter would emphasize the unpredictability of the divine testing, and actually might better fit the larger context of Job—where Job has seemingly lost everything in an instant— while the former translation emphasizes its constancy. But we should also note the haunting similarity of rega to the verb raga (the same three consonants in Hebrew), which we had a lot of trouble translating and ended up rendering it “become quiet.”
The verb bachan (“to test, try, examine”) appears 29x in the Bible, two-thirds of which are in Job (5x), the Psalms (9x) and Jeremiah (6x). The subject of bachan frequently is God. “I the Lord test (bachan) the heart and kidneys/mind of people” (Jeremiah 17:10; similar thought in Psalm 7:9); “the Lord tests (bachan) the righteous” (Jeremiah 20:12). Its most vivid usage in Job is in connection with the refining or testing process of gold. Job says, “I know the path that is with me; when he (God) has tested me, I shall come out of it like gold” (23:10). In Chapter 23 Job realizes that God has sent him through the fire; he is confident he will emerge out of the testing process like gold. But in Job 7 he probably couldn’t have put it that way. In Job 7 the testing is more like a torment, the visitation more like harassment.
We know that Job 7 uses the testing metaphor in a negative sense (i.e., God’s testing is an oppressive intervention in Job’s life) because of verse 19. One way to render it is, “Why won’t you avert your gaze from me? You don’t even relax your grip on me so that I can swallow my spittle.” God’s presence has surely become an oppressive presence for Job.