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71. Job’s Cynicism and Anger, Job 7:19-20

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?


The combination of Job’s pique and cynicism comes to the fore in the last phrase of verse 19. He wants God to avert the divine gaze from him “until he can swallow his spittle.” So close is God’s presence that it almost suffocates. Perhaps that experience lies behind Job’s earlier choice of the hapax noun machanaq (v 15, "hanging” or “suffocating”) to describe his current predicament. Job wants God to allow him to swallow his spittle. Humans have developed devices of torture or discipline over the years that prevented a person from swallowing spittle. The branks, for example, was a device invented in Scotland in the late sixteenth century that would be placed over the mouth, and inserted into the mouth, of a gossipy woman, to prevent speaking and swallowing of saliva. Pictures abound online.


To use the words coming from the world of the branks, then, one might say that Job is asking God to remove this “scold’s bridle” or “branks” so that he could continue his normal swallowing process. Bala (49x) is usually translated “swallow” in the Bible, but a few of its appearances in Job might be best rendered “ruin” (2:3, used by God in talking to the Satan) or “destroy” (8:18, when Bildad talks about the future destruction of the wicked). Its most vivid appearances are its threefold use in Numbers 16:30, 33, 34 to describe the earth opening its maws to “swallow” (bala) Korah and his rebellious horde.  Famous also is Miriam’s“Song of the Sea,” after the Red Sea closed in upon the pursuing Egyptians. She talks about the earth “swallowing” (bala) the Egyptians as they pursued the Hebrews (Exodus 15:12).


“Spittle” (roq) is one of those delightful Hebrew words that is both brief and nearly onomatopoetic. If you say roq witha certain guttural flair, it really does sound like you are preparing to expectorate. Despite the fact that the word only occurs in two other places in the Bible (Job 30:10; Isaiah 50:6), we want to learn the word! It’s other two appearances are likewise memorable. Job’s lament in 30:10 is that people who used to honor him now dishonor him; “They do not refrain from spitting (roq) in my face.” Even more somber is its use in Isaiah 50:6, one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, where the servant of God gives his back to those who struck him, his cheeks to those who plucked out his beard and his face to those who spat (roq) upon him. Rarely is such a short word so memorable in the Bible. We see that the anger (kaas) which began Job’s speech in 6:2 has not left him.  


In the final two verses of Job 7, he poses a series of questions that aren’t always clear, but which culminate in an almost spiteful statement about his imminent death and God’s inability to torment him anymore. Job’s opening question in verse 20 is potentially confusing. Literally it runs, “I have sinned, what does that do to you, O watcher of humanity?” Most, but not all, scholars add an absent im to the sentence, so that it would read, “If I have sinned….” Ironically, in Bildad’s speech in Job 8, there appears to be an extra im at the beginning of verse 5, where the meaning seems to be an exhortation to seek God rather than a conditional phrase, “if you seek God.” Since Bildad has three consecutive ims in 8:4-6, he could trade the im of verse 5 to Job for a future draft pick or other consideration. In truth it shows us that the whole subject of Biblical Hebrew grammar is at least as much art as science. I favor the majority approach in this instance, translating 7:20 as “If I have sinned, what does that do to you, O watcher of humanity?”  


Job is asking how his sin affects God. His question is, ‘Even if I have sinned, how does that hurt you, God?  Don’t you think you have reacted a little disproportionally to whatever minor sin I may have committed?’ Job is really posing a fairly profound question, the flip side of which is briefly explored by Eliphaz in a later speech. In 22:2, Eliphaz will ask rhetorically, “Can a human benefit God? Can even a wise/prudent person be profitable to Him?” The implied answer is, “No. . .” God is so vast, big and powerful that the affairs of any one person don’t really affect God. So, in a way, Eliphaz is answering Job’s question of fifteen chapters earlier in Job 22.  Yet, he might be answering it in a way that works against him. Job’s point is that he is so small that even if he sinned, it wouldn’t affect God in such a major way that it should trigger God's singling Job out for this special torment and treatment.  Eliphaz would unwittingly be agreeing with Job.

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