Bill Long 5/24/05
Understanding Eliphaz's Proverb
In the previous essay I argued that Eliphaz doesn't make sense in three instances in 5:3-7. I tried to give a reason for that unclarity and I studied the first two instances, but my focus here is on the third of those examples: Job 5:7. It really is quite a wonderful verse, but when you look at it in the context of 5:3-7, it simply doesn't make sense. Let's get to it.
3. Job 5:7. Generations have learned this verse, in my mind, correctly--"But human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upwards" (NRSV). Standing on its own it is a vivid, even arresting, statement describing the inevitability of loss, trouble and pain in life. We can think of a number of circumstances in life where this proverb might come in handy. But there is a problem with it. Well, there are two kinds of problems. First there is the problem of what the text actually says, and then there is the problem of what scholars have done with the saying. Let's get to each problem.
Translating the Verse
There are a number of interesting issues with the verse, not all of which I will mention. Literally the verse reads:
"Because man (Heb. 'adam') was born for trouble, and the sons of Resheph fly high" (Job 5:7).
Let's first dispense with the second half of the verse. As Professor Good says, "Reshef was a Syrian deity of fire and plague; his sons are usually interpreted as sparks or as the fever associated with pestilence" (In Turns of Tempest, p. 60). Thus, we can see how "sons of Reshef/ph" turns into "sparks" in the NRSV and many translations. No problem. A second minor issue with the second half of the verse is the conjunction "and." Most translations render it as "as" and therefore liken the first half of the verse to the second half. Just as certainly as the sparks fly high, so we experience trouble. Clines and others try to give "and" its literal weight, which would mean that two parallel phenomena are being discussed, but I don't think it is a huge issue. Both "as" and "and" are acceptable here.
The first part of the verse also has some difficulties. We could take the word "man" here literally as "Adam," the first human, but it can also be a general observation about human life. The more controversial issue, however, is how to translate the "was born" in 7a. Well, the Hebrew is rather straightforward. It is the verb for "to give birth" (y-l-d) and it is in the passive form. "Man is born," or, to be right up to date, "human beings are born." But several scholars have changed it to read, "Humans beget trouble" or something like that. They have to change the mood of the verb, but they do it in order to "save" Eliphaz. What that means is they do it to make 5:7 consistent with 5:6. But, they do so at the cost of changing the text. I would rather have Eliphaz not make sense and keep the verse as it is, then to change the text to save Eliphaz. Here is what I mean.
The Inconsistency with 5:6
As I said, 5:7 makes perfect sense as an independent proverb, a trenchant observation about life. "Human beings are born to trouble just as the sparks fly upwards." But Eliphaz is trying to establish a contrast between the thought in 5:6 and 5:7. The thought in 5:6 is easily expressed. "Distress does not emerge from the earth, and trouble does not sprout from the soil." That is, Eliphaz is denying, in v.6, the "natural" view of distress. We don't experience distress and trouble simply because of errant natural forces that enter into our lives. Thus, when the great wind knocked down the roof of Job's son's home, killing all 10 of his children, Eliphaz would say that such an act was not simply an "act of nature." Something else is behind it. Distress has a moral meaning or is the result of personal, moral forces in the universe. It doesn't just "happen."
Thus, when we get to 5:7, we are expecting a contrasting thought, a thought that suggests that humans bring distress on themselves. Job 5:7 is supposed to be contrary to 5:6. But if we translate it literally, "Man is born to trouble..." it suggests something about the inevitability of trouble. This literal translation gives the impression that "stuff happens." We are just born to it. It is a great thought, and no doubt very true, but it completely undercuts what Eliphaz is trying to argue. He seems to want to argue that humans are responsible for the things that happen to them. Thus, many scholars "improve" or "correct" Eliphaz to say "human beings beget trouble.." Indeed, this would be consistent with the theology of Eliphaz articulated later in the book and reflects the approach of the friends to Job--'you MUST have done something wrong, Job, for all of this distress to have come upon you.'
In "saving" Eliphaz, by making the passive verb into an active verb in 5:7, many scholars however have not permitted Eliphaz to live with his inconsistency. More powerful than trying to make him consistent is to let him remain in his contradiction. He just isn't making sense. And, I would argue, there is a reason he isn't making sense. It is because Eliphaz is still trying to sort out for himself to what extent a person is responsible for the distress that comes upon him/her. Sometimes, it appears, distress is the result of foolishness or "reaping what you sow." Other times, you simply are crushed (4:19). I think the inconsistency between 5:6 and 5:7 is actually a wonderful thing: it shows that Eliphaz is still "working" on the issue. However, because it is an issue carrying such huge emotional freight, he lets slip many times in 4:7-5:7 the images of death and cursing and utter obliteration that is precisely what has happened to Job's family. The emotional weight of what has happened is still too much for Eliphaz to bear, too.
In the ensuing verses (5:8ff.), Eliphaz will draw himself back from the yawning abyss of inconsistency and emotional nakedness, and he will retreat to the safe ground of the wisdom theology. But I am glad we don't get to that safe ground without first seeing a man who is quite frightened. His senseless language shows it.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long