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79. Job 8:11-19, The Reality of Judgment


11 “Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh?

    Can reeds flourish where there is no water?

12 While yet in flower and not cut down,

    they wither before any other plant.

13 Such are the paths of all who forget God;

    the hope of the godless shall perish.

14 Their confidence is gossamer,

    a spider’s house their trust.

15 If one leans against its house, it will not stand;

    if one lays hold of it, it will not endure.

16 The wicked thrive before the sun,

    and their shoots spread over the garden.

17 Their roots twine around the stoneheap;

    they live among the rocks.

18 If they are destroyed from their place,

    then it will deny them, saying, ‘I have never seen you.’

19 See, these are their happy ways,

    and out of the earth still others will spring.


Let me begin my consideration of this section by laying my cards on the table. I see Bildad’s words in 8:11-15 as semi-clear at best and opaque at worst; his words in 8:16-19 are fully unclear. I don’t have the optimism of Anderson who says, about these verses, “the ensuing sketch of the wicked is brilliant” (Job, p 141). We would have hoped that such a “brilliant” sketch would have merited more than the two brief paragraphs of description he gives, paragraphs that elide almost all the difficulties of reading these nine verses. Nor do I have the seemingly nonchalant optimism of Seow, who simply translates in a ho-hum fashion without giving the sense of how Bildad is tying himself into verbal knots as he proceeds. Many authors are great in employing certain literary styles but utterly worthless when moving to others. Lawyers for example aren’t renowned for their poetic insight. I see Bildad here trying to launch into the world of metaphor and simile but being fully incapable of rising to the demands of that stylistic feature.


As mentioned, Bildad treats Job with a kind of tough love in this chapter, even though some of his references are somewhat oblique (“mighty wind” rather than “great wind” of 1:19) or “if children sinned,” (im)) so as to enable him to dodge any allegation of unfair judgmentalism. Yet as he turns to the subject of judgment in this passage, he lapses into the kind of obscurity that occasionally dogged both Eliphaz and Job in previous speeches. A scholarly consensus on this next passage hasn’t yet congealed.  As mentioned, one scholar has called it a “brilliant” poem, though others are left scratching their heads because of the poem’s elusive images and vocabulary. He begins with an image  of papyrus growing in marshy settings (vv 11-12), but he quickly gets himself tied up in his image by the time he gets to verse 13.  The rest of the passage seems to treat the “godless” or “hypocrite” (chaneph) both as a person (vv 13-15) and then as a plant (vv 16-19). The result is a passage that even after five or ten readings leaves me wondering, ‘What did I just read?’ 


Let’s begin with verse 11, which all agree is a proverbial-type of statement, much like Eliphaz used in 5:2. Proverbial-type statements are usually expressed in trenchant language that often is subject to diverse readings. We have,


     “Can a papyrus grow but not in a marsh? Can reed grass shoot up without water?” 


Our first thought is that this wisdom-type statement is inserted here because it is an illustration of what has just been discussed. Bildad had just movingly presented what one might call the “argument from tradition”—i.e., that the tradition they share provides insight into the bewildering complexities of contemporary life. Tradition, as it were, nourishes us. We need to be rooted in it—just like the papyrus is rooted in the swamp. If this reading is correct, the marsh may be likened to the nourishing power of tradition, and the papyrus to a person in the world.That Seow takes the marsh to represent the community shows that we are already losing touch with some form of reality. . .

If the understanding of ‘marsh as tradition’ can reasonably be inferred from verse 11’s close proximity to verses 8-10, we see verse 11 as presenting a ‘picture,’ then, of how reliance on tradition works. We would be like the papyrus that grows up in the marshes.The tradition is the nurturing marshland or swamp. In fact the papyrus can’t grow without the swamp or marsh or mire. The word describing this marsh is the rare bitstsah, which only occurs elsewhere in Job 40:21 and Ezekiel 47:11; some suggest that it is related to the hapax bots, which is something into which Jeremiah’s feet sank in Jeremiah 38:22. The first two words (“grow” and “papyrus”) are the euphonious pair gaah and gome. The first word, gaah, appears 7x in the Bible, four of which are in Exodus 15 (twice in v 1; twice in v 21) and are rendered “to be exalted” in that context. The other three appearances are best translated “lift” or “rise” (here; Job 10:16; Ezekiel 47:5). It is a strange word to express the concept of growing, but alliteration is often a stronger force in an oral tradition than simple dictionary meaning. Gome (4x) is even rarer than gaah, and is usually rendered “rushes” or “papyrus” or “wicker.” The Biblical vocabulary of rushes etc. isn’t an exciting one, yet we will also see the words achu and chatsir from this world in verses 11-12. 


The proverb in verse 11 is expressed in neat parallelism, with the second half concerning other kinds of grasses (the rare achu (3x) is usually translated “rushes” or “meadow grass” or “reeds”) that also need to grow (verb is sagah) in water. Sagah appears in just three other places, one of which we have just seen (8:7) but is translated similarly in all three:  “grow” (Psalm 92:12) or “increase” (Job 8:7; Psalm 73:12).  Though the words are rare in verse 11, the sense is relatively clear. A rhetorical question is being posed. ‘Can papayrus/reed grass grow without the supporting environment of the marsh or water?’ Of course not.


Yet this proverb, seemingly such a clear illustration of the nurturing power of tradition derived from natural history, quickly disintegrates in verses 12 and 13. The problem Bildad faces is that he wants to get to the fate of the wicked or godless (chaneph) in verse 13. He ultimately does want to talk about judgment and not simply the nurturing power of tradition. Most theologians who are hyper-clear in their categories leave ample space in their system for the ways that bad people will receive their comeuppance by God in the end. It allows them tidily to tie up the system, even if it is “regrettable” that so many people suffer the punishing flames of eternal torment. But God’s justice requires it; and the system has to account for all people, too. But moving to judgment  is where Bildad runs into problems.

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