Job 17 – “Job’s Fifth Speech – Part II”

shadowsHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Job continues his fifth speech in chapter 17. He laments how people ignore the truth which is so obvious to him, i.e. the fact that God punishes the innocent for no reason. Job ends with a gruesome description of his steady advance to the grave.

II. Photo
Job describes what his eyes see: “My eyes fail from vexation; All shapes seem to me like shadows.” (v. 7)

III. Important Verses

v. 2: Surely mocking men keep me company, And with their provocations I close my eyes.
v. 7: My eyes fail from vexation; All shapes seem to me like shadows.
v. 12: They say that night is day, That light is here — in the face of darkness.
vv. 13-16: If I must look forward to Sheol as my home, And make my bed in the dark place, Say to the Pit, “You are my father,” To the maggots, “Mother,” “Sister” — Where, then, is my hope? Who can see hope for me? Will it descend to Sheol? Shall we go down together to the dust?

IV. Outline
1. Hopelessness
2-5. Description of friends to God
7-9. Description of how others react
10-12. Description of situation to friends
13-16. Hopelessness

V. Comment
Job concludes his fifth speech in chapter 17. There are two difficulties in reading the chapter: (1) it isn’t always clear who Job is addressing, and (2) many of the chapter’s verses are ambiguous. It seems that vv. 1-5 are an address to God, but vv. 6-10 are an address to the friends. Vv. 11-16 might be an address to the friends, God, both, or possibly no one. In terms of structure, Job characteristically ends his speech with a description of death (vv. 13-16; cf. 7:21; 10:21-22; 14:20-22).

Like the previous chapter, ch. 17 has features in common with lament genre found in the book of Psalms. For example, in v. 2 Job speaks about those who mock him: “Surely mocking men keep me company, And with their provocations I close my eyes.” This is similar to 12:4, “I have become a laughingstock to my friend — ‘One who calls to God and is answered, Blamelessly innocent’ — a laughingstock.” A common complaint in the book of psalms is about “mockers.” For instance, Ps. 22:8 says “All who see me mock me; they curl their lips, they shake their heads,” and Ps. 35:15-16 says, “But when I stumble, they gleefully gather; wretches gather against me, I know not why; they tear at me without end. With impious, mocking grimace they gnash their teeth at me.”

In vv. 13-16 Job talks about his descent to Sheol (the “abode of the dead”): “If I must look forward to Sheol as my home, And make my bed in the dark place, Say to the Pit, ‘You are my father,’ To the maggots, ‘Mother,’ ‘Sister’ — Where, then, is my hope? Who can see hope for me? Will it descend to Sheol? Shall we go down together to the dust?” In this passage Job touches upon many of the prominent themes of “Sheol” (which occurs roughly 65 times in Tanakh). He describes it as a place which one “descends” to (v. 16, cf. Num 16:30; Job 7:9; Isa 57:9; cf. Isa 29:4; Ps 88:3–4), and as a place of darkness (v. 13, cf. Lam 3:6; Job 18:18). Job calls Sheol his “house” in v. 13, much like 30:23: “I know You will bring me to death, The house (beit) assigned for all the living.” Similarly, Ps. 49:12 says, “Their grave is their eternal home (batteimo), the dwelling-place for all generations of those once famous on earth,” and Eccl. 12:5 says, “… And the caper bush may bud again; But man sets out for his eternal abode (beit ‘olamo), With mourners all around in the street.”

Job also describes Sheol as the shachat “pit” in v. 14, a common term for the abode of death (cf. Job 33:18, 22, 24, 30; Ps 16:10; Jonah 2:7). In v. 16 Job talks about the ‘afar “dust” of Sheol, and this is also a common description for the underworld. For example, Ps. 30:10 says, “What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit (shachat)? Can dust (‘afar) praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?” Similarly, Dan 12:12 says, “Many of those that sleep in the dust (‘afar) of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.” Also see Job 7:21, 20:11, 21:26, Ps. 22:16, 22:30, and Isa 26:19.

One might ask, what exactly is “Sheol”? Lewis writes (“Abode of the Dead, The” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. II, pp. 101-105): “Sheol is intimately connected with the grave, although the degree to which it is identified with the grave has been debated. On one extreme we have those who see the grave behind every reference to Sheol, while on the other extreme Sheol and the grave are kept totally separate.” In support of the theory that Sheol is related to the grave, Clines notes (p. 399) that archaeologists have found an ossuary (a box used to store bones) in Israel which is shaped like a house (see the discussion of the word “house” and Sheol above) and bears the inscription “Sheol” (see E. M. Meyers, “Secondary Burials in Palestine,” BA2 33 [1970] 2–29, and L. Y. Rahmani, “Jerusalem’s Tomb Monuments on Jewish Ossuaries,” IEJ 18 [1968] 220–25 [222] and pl 23).

Clines gives an interesting summary of Job’s fifth speech (p. 377): “The function of this speech is to urge a prompt response from God to the demand for a lawsuit made in Job’s previous speech (chaps. 12–14). On the trajectory of Job’s developing argument, this speech adds no new matter to his complaint against God, but serves—in the absence of any divine reply to his summons in 13:22—to stress the urgency of a reply. ‘Sleepless I wait for God’s reply,’ he says (16:20b). He has nothing further of substance to lay before God; his legal cry for justice of chap. 13 has been uttered in heaven’s presence, and can now be assumed to be awaiting its turn to be heard: ‘it is my cry that is my spokesman . . . it will argue a mortal’s case before God;’ (18:20–21).”

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Clines, Job 1-20 (Word Biblical Commentary)
Murphy, Wisdom Literature (Forms of Old Testament Literature)
Lewis, “Abode of the Dead, The” in Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. II (pp. 101-105)
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