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80. Job 8:12, A Problematic Verse
12 While yet in flower and not cut down,
they wither before any other plant.
Verse 12 functions as a transition verse between two potentially incompatible concepts: the wonderful power of tradition (vv 8-11) and the fate of the godless (vv 13ff). Let’s see how Bildad negotiates this transition in verse 12. It reads, literally, “While it is yet green it isn’t cut down; and before any other plant it withers.” Huh? Here we see how he unsuccessfully navigates the unbridgeable divide between good tradition and bad people. The first half of the verse has to relate to the papyrus or reed grass growing in verse 11. It grows and flourishes because it grows in the swamp; it has water and so it increases. I suppose it isn’t cut down when it is green because it isn’t yet ready to be cut down. It hasn’t reached its point of maximum utility for humans. So, it continues to grow. “While it is green, it isn’t cut.” First clause is clear.
The word “green” is really “in its greenness” or “in its freshness” (word is eb). It comes from the word abib, “fresh young ears.” Abib was also the name of the first month of the agricultural year before Israel settled on its own calendar and names for months. Things are “fresh” and growing. But such growing things are not “cut down” (qataph, 5x), which is usually rendered “plucked” in its other appearances. So, we have papyrus growing in the swamps, growing and not cut down. The person rooted in tradition, apparently, is like this.
Yet Bildad has to get to destruction pretty quickly, and he hasn’t really prepared himself or his reader for it. So, the second half of verse 12 is dumped on us: “And it withers/dries up (yabesh, 73x) before any other plant (chatsir, 21x).” Now this is a real head-scratcher. Where does withering come from? We had a vibrant papyrus plant, neatly rooted in the refreshing swamp, symbolizing the person who has deeply taken root in the life-giving power of tradition. Now it dries up before other grasses. How does it do that if it is rooted in the swamp? Well, that is where the ingenuity of scholars comes in. Many suggest that there must have been a phrase that has dropped out, something like ‘If water is taken away.’ But the phrase isn’t there, and to bring it in is to save Bildad from his unclarity is like a professor straightening out a logical gap in a student’s paper and then saying, ‘Well, this is probably what they really meant. . .’ before giving the student an “A.” Nope, lower their grade. . .
There is no reason to believe that rooted and growing papyrus, papyrus that isn’t cut down when it is green, will dry up and wither. If it dried up and withered, it would kind of wreck the point that Bildad so eloquently made in verses 8-10. Tradition wouldn’t be such a great source of strength after all.
So, why does Bildad mess things up in the second half of verse 12? Because he has a more exciting topic, for him, to turn to in verse 13—the fate of the godless. But he doesn't know how to get there. All the nice phrases about tradition’s nurturing power have to give way to the finality and certainty of judgment. Bildad tells us quite plainly that this is where he is going in verse 13, and especially by the first word: ken,“thus” or “so.” Verse 13 reads, “So are the paths of all who forget God. The hope of the hypocrite shall perish.” He has tried to apply his image about growing papyrus both to the nurturing power of tradition and the fate of the godless, and the image splits in the middle. That is painful. Especially when it is on YouTube and you can see it repeatedly.
Forays into natural history have now blown up in the faces of Eliphaz, Job and Bildad. That is a 100% blow-up rate. They blew up for Eliphaz in a few ways: first, his reference to five different kinds of lions, some of whom have their teeth broken (4:10) and some of whom are simply scattered (4:11), were supposed to illustrate the point of reaping what one sows (4:8), but it was hard to see how being scattered is reaping what one sows, especially when nonmoral creatures are involved. Then, natural history blew up in Eliphaz’s face also when he suggested that those dwelling in houses of clay will be crushed before or by the moths (4:19). Natural history, or at least food, blew up for Job in 6:6 when he asked about the taste of the rir challamuth, which has been opaque much longer than it has had any meaning (if it ever did).Things got worse for Job in 6:16 where things darken because of ice and because snow hides on its surface, when in my experience snow on the surface of ice is usually visible.
Now it is Bildad’s turn to take us to obscure worlds through natural history. Because he really is now more interested in judgment than the nurturing power of tradition, the image of papyrus withering for inexplicable reasons is supposed to illustrate the fate of the godless. It would have been better had he just ended his image in verse 12 without any reference to withering and then started verse 13 with a “however” or “yet”—to show a stark contrast between those who are nurtured in tradition and the godless.