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99. Job 9:25-35, There is No Umpire!

 

Job 9 advances Job’s argument over his two earlier speeches (Job 3; 6-7) by gradually turning the focus away from Job’s pain and his anger to his desire to approach God with his complaint. Legal terminology and method (i.e., the questions raised in 10:1-9), along with Job’s growing despair, occupy Job 9-10. Raising a complaint against God initially seems futile for Job in these chapters, but he won’t give up. Though it seems to get him nowhere in Job 9-10, that same desire to complain against God will fuel his later speeches. Job 7 and Job 10 (the final chapter of Job’s third speech) seem to end at the same place, with Job wishing for the grave, but he has made considerable progress in his argument. His confidence is gradually returning, even as his felt reality is that he has been shattered by God.

 

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;

    they flee away, they see no good.

26 They go by like skiffs of reed,

    like an eagle swooping on the prey.

27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint;

    I will put off my sad countenance and be of good cheer,’

28 I become afraid of all my suffering,

    for I know you will not hold me innocent.

29 I shall be condemned;

    why then do I labor in vain?

30 If I wash myself with soap

    and cleanse my hands with lye,

31 yet you will plunge me into filth,

    and my own clothes will abhor me.

32 For he is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him,

    that we should come to trial together.

33 There is no umpire between us,

    who might lay his hand on us both.

34 If he would take his rod away from me,

    and not let dread of him terrify me,

35 then I would speak without fear of him,

    for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

 

After watching Job take three verses (9:22-24) to make the case for God’s moral confusion, one might think that Job has nothing further to say. What more reason is there to speak if you are in such miserable straits and the only source of ultimate help is completely unreliable? But Job finds what many have subsequently found, that times of deepest despair are often the occasion for a liberating breakthrough of thought, a breakthrough that even can change one’s life. 

 

I claim that Job has such a breakthrough thought here, even though it is a ‘failed’ breakthrough. What I mean is that Job is emboldened to imagine another figure who has power either in itself or by designation to “place his hand on both of us” (i.e., God and Job, v 33), and allow Job to speak without fear of either being shut down or having his words perverted by God. But Job brings up the thought only to kill the thought—“there is no mokiach” (mediator, judge, arbitrator, daysman) who will play this role. The thought flits across his mental screen only to disappear like a lightning flash. Yet such a thought won’t fully die; it will return in a new form in both Job 16 and 19, where Job will speak, respectively, of a witness in heaven and the Redeemer of his life.  

                                                   

If there is one thought that seems to control the flow here it is that Job’s life is fully out of his control. His days fly by (vv 25-26); he can’t convince himself to be cheerful (vv 27-28); he feels that God is interested in further undermining him (vv 30-31).  God doesn’t have to play by the same rules as humans (v 32), though it would be sure nice if God did (vv 33-35). These are the sad truths of this section of the Book of Job.

 

As mentioned previously, Job’s pain distorts his sense of time. In 7:4 Job complained because the nights were so slow; now his point is that his days are swifter than a runner (9:25). Earlier they were also swifter than a weaver’s shuttle (7:6). The stark pessimism of verses 25-26 is evident in the following translation:  

 

            “My days are swifter than a runner; they flee and they do not see good. They pass on                          with the ships (made of) reeds, as an eagle darting on food/prey.”  

 

Three images are used. The image of the runner is clear; the swiftly-gliding skiff is less clear but still understandable; less clear still is the eagle darting on its prey. The verb to describe the eagle’s motion (tus) is a hapax. We think it must mean something like “darting” or “swooping,” because that is what eagles do to their targets. Is it used to emphasize the swiftness of the eagle’s attack or the danger to the prey?  Is it an onomatopoetic word, trying to capture the “Whoosh!” of an eagle or vulture with the tus of the verb?  Then, with regard to the swiftly-gliding skiff (literally, the “ships of reed”), we note the image at first seems strange. What is a desert-dweller like Job doing with images of swift-moving reed/papyrus boats on his brain?  In addition, we have a singular adjective modifying a plural noun. Almost anything can happen in biblical Hebrew, but the grammatical problem makes us slow down. The important verb chalats again appears in verse 26. Job used it in verse 11 to describe God who “sweeps by/passes by.” Zophar will pick up on it in 11:10, but here it has a more neutral meaning of skiffs just floating or sweeping by on a river. Finally, the picture of a “runner” (ruts, 103x) is clear. So we might see this as going from clear image, to slightly unclear, to ambiguous (principally because of the unclarity of the verb).  It is not too different from what I have argued is Job’s frequent literary method—going from a clear image and then gradually descending into obscurity.