The Grave! (Job 3:22)
Bill Long 1/9/11
When One Word Makes Your Whole Day
The key to happy learning in life is to recognize when you have learned enough for "one meal," so to speak, when you have gotten to the point of satiety but not feel intellectually "stuffed." Then, you should rejoice greatly over the learning, find a way to record it, and do something else for a while. Celebrate learning and its incidents with true joy, and that same learning will repay you richly.
So, today, as I was studying/memorizing a few verses from Job 3, I delved into the final section of that remarkable poem (20-26), where Job returns from his reveried/imagined journey to Sheol only to ask questions about the futility of life here. Why, he wants to know, do people just have to keep on living when their troubles are so severe (20)? They yearn for death much like miners for hidden treasure (21). But death escapes them, just as other benefits of life have probably escaped them.
As I was reading these words, I noted the seeming incongruity between the longing for death and the search for hidden treasure. But then, in v. 22, it all came together, with the one word "grave." I rejoiced greatly at this grave discovery. Here it is.
The One Learning--from Job 3:22
In chapter 3, Job fills our minds with strong images by use of solid words. Words of light and darkness abound in Job 3. Verbs of rest or sleep fill the chapter (esp. v. 13). We bounce back and forth between amal and rogez to describe the troubles faced by Job or all people. Finally, in 3:22, we run into the first appearances of the vocabulary of joy, where smh and sus appear in the same verse. We also have two appearances of the most interesting word "and it is not" or "but in vain" in the middle of v. 9 and v. 21. It is as if hope is launched in the first words of the verse (yearning for death), but "it is not." Hope is reversed. But then, as we are really getting into the rhythm of Job's special speech, we meet the grave, the last word of v. 22. It functions in two distinctive ways.
On the one hand, the grave (keber) is sought by the one who now suffers. He yearns for it (v. 21). The verb for yearning at the beginning of v. 21 (hakah) can either be translated as "wait for" or "yearn strongly," depending on context. We aren't sure at first how to take it, but the second half of v. 21 removes all doubt. They want death like those who search for hidden treasure. How does that happen? David Clines, in his incomparable commentary on Job, has stories from 19th century Palestine describing the indescribable energy expended by those seeking gold, and the incomparable joy upon finding even the smallest traces of it. So, the verb at the beginning of v. 21, whose meaning has to stay hidden (like the gold) for a few words, will be best translated as "yearn for." So, the first use of "grave" is in the context of the yearning of the sufferers for their own death, with grave in v. 22 being a metonymy for death.
But the other meaning of "grave" in v. 22 is provoked by the analogy to those who seek for treasure in v. 21. What is the most predictable treasure sought by miners? Not the evanescent and deceptive possibility of actually finding the shimmering metal in the earth, but the greater possibility of discovering actual gold in the grave of dead people. So, when does a miner become a grave robber? Perhaps it is different for each person, but desperation and the hope for a quick buck has probably made many a miner a grave robber. Then, they seek out and find the grave like the one seeking the grave for death. Just as the one who wants to die rejoices greatly at the possibility of his death, so the grave-robbers are exultant when they finally find a grave. Maybe money is there! Their search will be rewarded.
There is one other interesting gradual uncovering of the meaning of a verb in this part of Job. Like the hakah in v. 21, which only became "yearn for" when we completed the verse, so the verb mtsa in v. 22 only becomes full in meaning when we pair it with its object keber (grave). The thought is as follows: "they rejoice to the point of exultation; they rejoice because (literally) they have found the grave." The literal meaning of the verb pairs the word "grave," rather unexpectedly, with the grave robbers/those who search for treasure--because then, they "find" it. But many translators render the verb mtsa more vigorously, and connect it with the experience of the sufferer, who longs for death and, therefore, "seeks out" or "attains" (Clines) it. Just as the word "grave" has to do double service, so the preceding verb does, too. How difficult is that for a writer, but how rewarding. We, the reader, are then faced with the dual pictures of the marauding grave-stealers and the yearners for death. Both are going for the grave!
So, we return to Sheol, or at least a place halfway to Sheol (the grave), and the grave is the means by which we return. Both desperately want the grave, but for different reasons: the troubled so that their troubles will end; the miners/robbers so that their riches might be increased. The grave of the troubled person will be troubled by the riches-seekers, but it is the focus of all the activity. We have the word "rush to the bottom," coined in law and other professions to describe the way people go to the least common denominator to get what they want. Here there is a different kind of rush to the bottom--the grave, halfway between life above and below the ground. In this nether world the longings of both the robber/miner and the sufferer meet. The hopes and fears of all the world are met in thee tonight..
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long