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83. Job 8:16-17, Descending Into Obscurity
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.
But it’s about time for more and even deeper obscurity. Don’t you agree? So, Bildad kindly obliges us in the final image he provides, an image regarding the fate of the one who forgets God (vv 16-19). Because I take this section as hopelessly obscure, I will have some fun with it, exploring imaginative ways of reading the verses that are suggested by the language.
Some have seen this section as pointing, contrariwise, to one who is blessed by God (perhaps because of the “joy” of v 19—see below) but this opinion hasn’t gained much traction. As in verses 11-12, so here he likens the chaneph to a plant. By the way, there is no word for "wicked" in the Hebrew text of verse 16. We have to stay with the chaneph of verse 14. Here the name of the plant whose shoots spread is unspecified, and no water is mentioned. We also don’t get off to the most auspicious start with the first Hebrew word of verse 16: ratob. It is a hapax, perhaps derived from ratab, another hapax appearing only in Job (24:8). The context of both suggests that it has something to do with “being green” or “being wet” or “springing up.” We might render verse 16, “He is green before the sun.”
Yet we really don’t know what that means. We seem to have the hypocrite now likened to a plant, rather than simply being a person, but is the greenery a sign of health, if indeed that is what ratob means? Some see it as quick-growing weeds. Does “before the sun” mean “under the rays of” the sun or “before the sun arises?” Some read the verse in the latter way, and thus suggest that the sun’s rising actually makes the plant wither—a thought consistent with Bildad’s interest in things that wither.
Well, we don’t know, and Bildad is not about to tell us. So let’s continue. The rest of the verse has, “its young branches (yoneqeth, 6x) shoot out upon/over its garden.” It is an unusual way of saying that a plant grows, but I think that is what BIldad is getting at. So, with only a little torturing of the language we can say with some confidence that Job 8:16 describes the simple process of a plant’s growth. The branches shoot out all over the garden. Phew. That was more difficult than it needed to be.
Not wanting us to become too overconfident in our understanding, Bildad then continues: “Upon a heap/billows, its roots wrap; he beholds the house of stones” (v 17). Yes, you heard that right. We have discussed branches, now we will look at the root. Linking this verse with verses 14, 15 is the word “house,” though at first we don’t understand what the reference to a house of stones might mean. We ran into “roots” (shoresh here) in its verb form (sharash, “to take root” or “to uproot”) in 5:3. Here we have roots wrapping upon a heap. We have to admit that we have no idea what it means that roots wrap around a heap, but we boldly press on.
The verb for “wrap” (sabak, 2x) is also of somewhat uncertain meaning but “wrap” is as good as any translation; its other appearance can be rendered “tangle” (Nahum 1:10). Usually when we think of roots of plants wrapping around something, they wrap around something subterranean, such as underground rocks. But here they are “upon a heap/billow” (gal). The word “heap” is derived from the common verb galal, meaning to “roll away” or “roll,” and so the thing upon which the roots wrap is something roundish in form. That is why it can also be translated “wave” (of the sea). Yet it is more commonly rendered “heap” (usually of stones or rubble). Genesis 31 uses gal 7x to describe the heap of stones laid out as both a boundary and a witness of the covenant between Jacob and Laban. A heap is definitely above ground. And, it must be high enough above ground to catch everyone’s attention.
So, how does the image work in verse 17? Are we to imagine that the plant here, becoming green before the sun, wraps its tendrils upwards? Or, that it sits upon the heaps (how did it get there?) and lets its roots down but that they still are upon the heap? All kinds of weird pictures flood the mind. The one most pleasant to contemplate is a plant like the Dicentra, or “Bleeding Heart,” described by one sources as where “the heart-shaped flowers with white-centered blossoms hang from arching stems..” Perhaps there was some kind of ancient Near Eastern plant that was characterized by hanging down from tops of heaps of stones with its roots above. How that would actually work is anyone’s guess, but Bildad’s obscure language encourages this kind of worthless thinking.
Think about it a moment, though. Bildad might have envied Eliphaz’s and Job’s ability to be obscure after they had made clear points. Recall previous examples of obscurity. We saw five different kinds of lions, some of which had broken teeth and some of which flee as supposedly illustrating the principle that you reap what you sow (4:10-11). Scratch the head. We ran into things “black because of ice on which the snow hides” (6:16), when most snow on ice is pretty visible. Hmm. . . We saw people/maybe even robbers who had revisited homes of sons who were crushed before the gates “taking things to/from the thorns” (5:5). Really? We have met people who had the unfortunate fate of being “crushed before/by the moths” (4:19). Yikes! Bildad must have heard these statements with a kind of wistful admiration and wished more than anything that he too, could come up with obscure images from natural history. Thus, when his turn came to speak, he probably was really interested not so much in how he might lay out his systematically-devised theology but in how he could descend into obscurity in such as way as even to top Eliphaz and Job. I think that after we finish considering this passage we would have to award him the laurel for most obscure language in Job--so far.
Think a moment more about it, this time from the bright side. By talking about the fantasy of a plant that has the remarkable capability of having its roots seemingly above it, sitting upon the heap (of rocks), we encourage fantasy-type thinking. I would love to gather a group of six year-olds, read a few of these nonsensical images from Job and then say, “Draw them…” I am sure we would have all the material we need for the next Netflix miniseries.