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96. Job 9:17-18 Spiraling Downward, Essay One
17 For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause;
18 he will not let me get my breath,
but fills me with bitterness.
Once we recognize that Job believes an approach to God will be futile at this point, that God is controlled by anger and, finally, that Job believes God is just interested in hurting him further, we can understand Job’s continual decline into despair here. We might divide 9:17-21 further into three mini-sections; 9:17–18 provide images of God’s attack; 9:19–20 present the actual perversity, not just the strength or anger, of God; 9:21 is Job’s seven-word cry from the bottom of his emotional pit.
9:17–18 may be rendered,
“For he breaks me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds for no reason. He will not even give me (a chance) to catch my breath, but he fills me with bitterness.”
Our only translation uncertainty is with the first word of verse 17, as in verse 15--asher. I didn’t translate it here but take it as a particle of connection, i.e., to link the thoughts of verses 17–18 with the previous verses.
The first point to note is that Job calls into service another rare verb to describe the divine torment. Recall in verse 12 we had chataph (God “snatches away”). Now we have God shuph Job with a tempest. Shuph is a rare verb (4x) whose meaning we think we know early in the Bible but then, when we see its later usages, we are convinced that we don’t know what it means. Here is what I mean. Half of its appearances are in Genesis 3:14–15, describing the future relationship between the descendants of the serpent and those of the woman. The traditional rendering is that “you (the woman’s descendant) shall bruise (shuph) his head, while he (the serpent’s descendant) shall bruise (shuph) your heel.” So important has this verse become over time that it is known in many circles as the protoevangelium, the first “prophecy” of the Gospel.
Yet, looking at the word shuph in its other two biblical appearances doesn’t support a translation of “bruise.” Job would hardly say to God, in his frenzied despair, that God has “bruised” him with a tempest. The other appearance, in Psalm 139:11, makes no sense if the darkness “bruises” the Psalmist. Something much more dramatic and drastic is at work here, captured perhaps by the word “overwhelm” or “break” or “smash.” Perhaps Job still has the thought of Proverbs 29:1 in his mind and is thinking of the “shattering” (shabar) that comes upon one who hardens the self against God. We have good grounds for rendering the first clause of 9:17, “For he shatters me with a tempest.”
The word here for “tempest” is searah, which only appears one other time in the Bible, but is almost identical in form to sa’ar,“a whirlwind/tempest/storm,” that appears 24x, and I will take them as equivalent here. Sometimes a storm can be called “the tempest of the Lord” (Jeremiah 30:23); it is usually connected in a direct way with the divine power. The Psalmist can speak about the divine “tempest” (Psalm 83:15) or God’s raising up a “stormy” wind (Psalm 107:25, 29). The mighty storm that assailed Jonah’s boat is called a sa’ar in Jonah 1:4, 12. Most interesting for our purposes is that we see God speaking twice out of the “storm” or “whirlwind” (Job 38:1; 40:6). It brings up the possibility that, for the author of Job, things are always a bit “stormy” in the divine territory. God isn’t speaking with a still small voice—at least in the Book of Job. Job’s experience has been that God has shattered or broken him with/in the tempest. Though each word can be explained separately, when we put them together we know immediately what Job means.
The second half of verse 17 doesn’t seem to add much to the first half, though two of the words deserve comment. God “makes many (the common verb rabah) my wounds (word is petsa, 8x) for no reason (chinnam, 32x).” Petsa only appears eight times, and the related verb three times. It is a rather rare way of talking about your wounds or bruises. Three of its seven other appearances are in Proverbs, a book (or an earlier “draft” of which) which Job seemingly is familiar with/responding to. Two of the three uses of petsa in Proverbs give sage and thoughtful advice: “Faithful are the wounds (petsa) of a friend” (27:6) and, perhaps more to the point of the Job passage, “Sharp wounds (petsa) scour away evil" (20:30). Thus, we might see Job as gently remonstrating with Proverbs at this point, sort of like a ‘Hmm. . .not every wound (petsa) is really a friendly one. . .take mine, for example.’
But then, the third appearance of petsa gets us thinking more. “Who has wounds without cause (petsa chinnam, Prov 23:29)?,” which is the same phrase as Job utters in 9:17. We not only have wounds, but we have “wounds without cause” or “wounds for no reason.” But let Proverbs answer its own question in 23:30, “They that tarry long at wine; and those who try mixed wine." Bingo! Job’s personal blamelessness will turn Proverbs once again on its head.
Proverbs gives the impression that a “wound for no reason” really doesn’t exist. The apparent wound for no reason is in fact suffered by one who drinks too much. From the point of view of Proverbs, Job really can’t both be blameless and be suffering “wounds for no reason.” Yet if Job asserts that God multiplies Job’s wounds, it means, that God is treating him like a common drunkard, like someone who has brought upon himself his own distress. No wonder his animosity towards God is growing.
And one other observation about verse 17 may be in order. Job is now in the process of questioning many things about God. God seems to have a permanent anger management issue; in a few verses Job will accuse God of perverting moral categories. Why not see verse 17 as adding to this? God is doing wild things against Job “with the tempest,” which includes wounding Job for no reason. What if Job’s elsewhere positing of God’s residence in the tempest/whirlwind really suggests that God himself lives a life of constant turmoil, and that perverted judgments and harmful actions are all that really can be expected of God? This might be taking Job further than what he actually is saying or feeling in this passage, but even if we didn’t go this far, we see Job descending quickly into his own whirlpool of despair.
Job’s complaint about the divine mistreatment continues in verse 18. Literally it says, “He (God) does not give me the returning of my breath.” We say in English, ‘Give me a chance to catch my breath,’ and we mean that we have expended too much wind and need rest for a minute to feel restored. But God doesn’t give Job a second to do that. This is similar to the God who won’t let Job swallow his saliva (7:19); a God who is too close and too intrusive. The phrase Job uses for “catch” his breath is from the verb shub, combined with ruchi, “my spirit/my breath.” Just as there was a “dance” with the verb anah (“to answer”) in verses 14-16, so we now have a dance with shub, which has appeared in verses 12, 13, 18. God snatches away and won’t “return” things (v 12); God also won’t “turn away/return” the divine anger (v 13). Job is now complaining that God doesn’t want to give Job (natan) the chance for his spirit to return to him (v 18). God returns nothing!
The result of all of this is that it fills Job with bitterness (the hapax mamror). The basic word for “bitterness” is mar, which Job uses in 7:11 and 10:1. Job will speak in the bitterness of his spirit (10:1). Here God has filled (saba, 99x) him with bitterness. God won’t let Job have return of things that are valuable and necessary to live, such as his breath, but God has no problem filling him with bitterness. Job has been emptied of everything that might give him health or meaning, but now God fills him with bitterness. No wonder Job will quickly conclude that God has mixed up all the divine moral categories.