Job's Darkness I (10:21-22)
Bill Long 4/26/05
You have all heard the story, the truth of which I cannot confirm--that certain Pacific Northwest Eskimos have more than 50 terms in their language for "white." Another example: when I first began living in Oregon in 1982 and was not fully aware of its long, gray winters I was informed by a colleague that his vocabulary of synonyms for "gray" or "bleak" had multiplied since moving to Oregon. So, the phenomenon is familiar; our vocabulary expands to reflect our geographical surroundings.
But this also holds true for psychological realities. The ebullient British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins combed the dictionary for expressions of brimming confidence in God's grandeur. And, our author, Job, manages to find, develop and use a sophisticated language of darkness to describe his debility, fatigue and pain. The purpose of these two essays is to probe some of those terms in two verses at the end of Job 10.
Job's Words for Darkness
Darkness is both the world Job inhabits and the world to which he is going. He sinks into the comforting folds of deep gloom like one might cover oneself with satin sheets. It is a world to which he returns after spending more than 50 eloquent verses (9:1-10:20) launching a legal case against God but then realizing the possible futility of that venture. That is, Job 9:1-10:21 is an exploratory venture for Job. But, in the end, the overwhelming realities of bodily infirmity, physical weakness and psychological lassitude lead him to long for the safe confines of his world of darkness. He wants God to leave him alone so that he may find a little comfort (10:20) before he goes to that bourne from which no traveler ever returns, the land of darkness. Just the mere repetition of the phrase here has a sort of quieting and sobering effect on me as I write. Maybe, I think, that is the world to which we all tend.
Aiding Job in his quest for the realm of darkness is a vocabulary of unparalleled intensity in the Old Testament for gloom. Here is the New Revised Standard translation of 10:21-22:
"before I go, never to return, to the land of goom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness."
The NRSV has a footnote after the second "gloom," which reads "Heb gloom as darkness, deep darkness." That is, the translation has significantly cut Job's vocabulary of darkness. The Hebrew tumbles over itself and piles word on word, Ossa on Pelion, and becomes almost like a metaphorical ash heap on which Job's emotional life sits. Thus, a more literal rendering would be:
"to the land of darkness and the shadow of death, a land of extreme darkness like deep gloom, the shadow of death and not ordered reality, and it shines as deep gloom."
The Hebrew Words of 10:21
The last words of v.21 give us "darkness" (hoshek) and the "shadow of death" (tselamavet). The former word is the most common term for darkness in the Bible, occurring upwards of 75 times in the noun form alone. We meet it first in Genesis 1, where God separates the light from the darkness (hoshek) and calls the darkness evening (laylah). Thus, the first word is a neutral descriptor; it simply is the word for the lack of light incident upon nightfall.
But the second term has a suggestive richness to it. It appears to be a word made up of two other Hebrew words, tselem, meaning "image" or "shadow" and mavet, meaning "death." Of the 18 appearances of this word in the OT, 10 of them are in Job. Job is the master of darkness. The most popular and well-known appearance of it outside of Job is in Ps. 23:4 where the Psalmist talks about the "valley of the shadow of death." It is a term that reflects what we might refer to as psychological darkness.
It is also famously used in Is. 9:1--"the people who walked in darkness (hoshek) have seen a great light; those who dwelled in the land of deep darkness (tselemavet), on them has light shined." As a matter of fact, the reference in Isaiah was the only other place in the Bible I could find where these terms come together in such rapid succession. When we realize that Is. 9:1 is a passage brimming with hope, with hope of some kind of messianic deliverance (9:6), and which talks about how darkness is transmuted into light (9:1 also), we have the perfect literary foil for Job 10:21-22. In Isaiah 9 it is people who sit in physical and psychological darkness who see a great light. However, in Job 10:22 we will have the interesting reference to light shining as darkness. Job might be reversing the tenor of that most famous Scripture.
The next essay moves us to 10:22 and more terms for darkness.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long