Job – humanity at its best

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:22 ESV)

Job is described in the prologue to the book as a perfect man, blameless, upright, sinless, pious, and possibly the wisest of the wise [1]. The Hebrew word translated “blameless” (or “perfect” in KJV) is תם and means whole, complete, lacking in nothing, fully integrated. In other words, he represented humanity at its best. Even if the story was based on an actual historical character the language used to describe him suggests that we are looking at a parable about humankind. In testing Job the Adversary is also putting God on trial. If Job, the best of the best, fails the test then all of humankind fails with him.

There are echoes here of the Garden of Eden: one “representative” human couple being put to the test, with consequences for humanity; the test administered by a snake in one story and by the Adversary in the other [2]. However, it’s the Genesis story which has received the most attention by theologians and which has had the greatest impact on Christian dogma about sin, suffering and human nature (although less so in Jewish dogma). No doubt this has been the result of the huge impact which Augustine had on the formation on Christian dogma. Augustine argued that suffering is not caused by God; rather, the exercise of free will by humans has led to sin and suffering in the world as just punishment for Adam’s disobedience. Augustine’s view was that all of humanity was seminally present in the loins of Adam, so all of humanity is punished. The sin of Adam (or, in some Protestant theologies, the consequences of his sin) is inherited by all human beings so that humanity is utterly depraved in nature. Augustine’s view differed in this from Irenaeus who earlier argued that evil comes from God in order to allow humans to develop morally and spiritually.

But both viewpoints are challenged by the Book of Job where:

  1. God is directly responsible for Job’s suffering
  2. Job suffered “for no reason” and as he was “whole, perfect, fully integrated” no moral or spiritual development was necessary
  3. Job is not presented as in any way depraved or sinful – on the contrary, he is upheld as blameless and sinless
  4. Suffering is not a punishment or consequence for sin.

So while Augustinian theodicy, and all theologies based on it (both Catholic and Protestant) argue from a particular reading of Genesis these views are rendered null and void by Job. If the authority of both books (Genesis and Job) is accepted, then Genesis has been misunderstood and needs to be reinterpreted.

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Did Job abhor himself?

Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6 KJV)

This statement by Job comes at a highly significant moment in the book, as the conclusion of Job’s final brief response to the LORD. The King James Version, and others, give the impression that Job is confessing his faults, although without naming them, and repenting. It appears that Job is recognising that there was some hidden sin or character fault and in a truly repentant fashion he loathes himself for it. However, there are significant problems with this translation, or interpretation.

First, there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text for “myself” in this verse and the verb has no object. There is no textual or grammatical justification for interpreting the verb reflexively. By doing so the King James translators are interpreting rather than translating.

The verb translated “abhor myself” in the KJV is מאס and comes from a root meaning “to reject”. It’s the same word that is used in 1 Samuel 16:1 when God said “I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel” and in the few places where the KJV translates it as “abhor”, “abhored”, “abhorreth” or “abhorrest” it is clear from the context that “reject” or “rejected” is what is meant (e.g. to “abhor” God’s judgments and statutes in Lev 26:15, 43 has the sense of rejecting them). The Jewish Publication Society version has “I recant”, the NASB has “retract”, which are better but still do not provide an object. What was it Job was rejecting, recanting, or repudiating?

Samuel Balentine, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in his Job (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2006), writes: “Textual ambiguities also make it clear . . . that whatever Job’s last words may mean, they convey anything but a simple confession of sin.” He argues that “God’s disclosure invites a transformation in Job’s understanding about what it means to be ‘dust and ashes.'” This understanding is supported by the translation of Stephen Mitchell who translates this difficult verse this way: “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (The Book of Job Harper Perennial, 1992). This translation, incidentally, supports my translation of the final verb נחם as “I am comforted” rather than “I repent” (in a previous post).

However one translates this verse there are significant theological implications.

The first problem with this interpretation is that on several occasions the Book makes the point that Job was “blameless”. The narrator in the prologue introduces Job as a “man [who] was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1), and the LORD twice gives his own assessment of Job as a “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (18; 2:3). Job consistently maintains his own innocence to the end.

Those translators who have Job abhoring myself and repenting generally come from a theological position which regards the human race as “fallen”, depraved and inevitably sinful. Even the most upright person is guilty of some sin and in need of redemption. Consequently Job’s self-abhorence was a sign of true repentance and a necessary step to being put back into a right relationship with God. It is understandable how a translator with this bias would see this verse as a confession of hidden sin. However, there is a huge problem with this. To argue that Job was guilty of some hidden sin or character fault would be to take the position of the Adversary and Job’s three friends, and the LORD’s own comment on the position of the friends was that they did not speak well of God. It would make the Adversary and the three friends right and both Job and the LORD wrong!

However, if we interpret this verse as Mitchell, Balentine, Janzen and others have done and understand Job to be saying that he now has a new understanding of what it means to be “dust and ashes”, then we are faced with some important theological implications:

  1. It is possible for a human being to be blameless, and free of sin. In the epilogue Job was called to offer sacrifices for his three friends, but not for himself: he had no personal need of a sacrifice for sin.
  2. A blameless, innocent person may still suffer. There is therefore no relationship between sin and suffering. Suffering is not a punishment for sin.
  3. There is no suggestion in the Book of Job that Job’s experiences were necessary for character development, and it would be a nonsense to argue that his ordeals made him “more blameless” or upright. The only reason provided in the Book for Job’s ordeals was to “prove” that Job was upright and would maintain his integrity in the face of trials. One implication of this is that humanity is not “fallen” in the sense that human nature is inherently depraved or sinful.

In my next post I want to discuss the implications for Augustinian theology about the “fall”, human nature and sin.

What happened to Job’s children?

In an earlier post I wrote:

A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his sons as though they are still alive: “I am loathsome to my children” (19:17 JPS). While some translations interpret this as “the children of my own mother” (ESV) or “my brothers” (NIV), the Hebrew (לבני בתני) literally reads “sons of my belly” and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. Elsewhere in Job בתני is ambiguous, being used in reference to a man’s belly as well as a womb. Moreover, as it is in the first person (my belly/womb) then it is more likely to be a reference to his own children who came “from his loins” rather than his mother’s womb. In the prologue it doesn’t say Job’s children died, only that a messenger said his children had died (1:18-19), and if the literal meaning of לבני בתני is correct then it suggests that Job’s children were still alive later in the story.

In support of my assertion that Job referred to his livingchildren in 19:17 here is a comment by David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 135f):

Job 19:17 ‘unmistakeably refers to the children as still living … The phrase פרי בטנך, the fruit of your body, occurs repeatedly in Deuteronomy, addressed to the community of Israel, with the force of the sense of “womb” attenuated as here to refer simply to the power of generation, without regard to gender e.g Deut 28:11”.

Wolfer refers to several other references in the speeches to Job’s “descendants” and allusions to his living children. Some translations attempt to resolve this apparent ‘contradiction’ by translating לבני בתני as “my brothers”, or similar, although the  expression “the sons of my womb/belly”,  is never used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to brothers. Trying to resolve a difficulty by mistranslating simply won’t do. Job has already referred to his brothers in verse 13, as well as his wife, servants and other relatives, and goes on to speak of the reactions of friends and young children. The most natural reading would be that Job is listing  all those with whom he has regular contact, including his children. To speak a second time of his brothers would be unnatural.

So what happened to his children? The best explanation, in my opinion, is that the poetry parts of Job were composed seperately to the narrative prose in the ‘frame’ story. The poetry was written first and the prose was added later to give the debate a ‘setting’. It is not an historical record. This means that there are some conflicts between the poetry and the prose, but this was certainly of no concern to the writer (otherwise he could easily have corrected it) or to his audience. Consistency is probably more important to the modern reader than it was to an ancient one, and this may very well be because of our preconceived theological notions about what ‘inspiration’ means or demands of the text.

Did Job repent?

Did Job repent or not, and if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him?

After two speeches by the Almighty we read Job’s final (uncharacteristically brief) words in 42:1-6.

Job says “I know that you can do everything” (42:2) and then repeats two of the LORD’s own challenges to him in, although in a slightly altered format, and responds to each challenge by confessing that he did indeed speak without understanding.

The LORD’s challenge: “Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?” (42:3, cp. 38:2)

Job’s response: “Indeed, I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me, which I did not know” (42:3)

The LORD’s challenge:  “I will ask, and you will inform me” (42:4, cp. 38:2; 40:7)

Job’s response: “I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes” (42:5)

This seems to be the answer to the whole book, viz. God has to be experienced through a personal encounter to be understood (“seeing”) rather than just through a theoretical/theological approach (“hearing”). But Job then job adds something odd:

“Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:6 JPS). In some translations Job “repents” (e.g. ESV, KJV). The Hebrew reads:

עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵֽפֶר

The KJV is almost certainly wrong when it has Job repenting “in dust and ashes” seeing as he has been sitting in dust and ashes since his torments began (2:8), but they get this from the Hebrew word על  which often means “on”  (but more about this to follow). This might be be an allusion to Genesis 3:19 “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (where the Hebrew word for “dust” is the same as in Job עפר) but is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 18:27 where an identical phrase occurs when Abraham says “I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (עפר ואפר)”. Job is putting himself in the same position as Abraham in daring to challenge the Almighty.

So does Job “repent” or “relent” (I’ll come back to his “recanting” or “abhoring” himself in a later post)? The Book begins by saying he was upright and blameless, and throughout the ensuing debate and legal arguments no sin has been proven. But as Philippe Guillaume rightly points out: “anyone insisting that Job repented because he was guilty ends up in the precarious position of Job’s friends, whom YHWH declares guilty (42:7-8).”  [1]  Job does not specify what he “repents” of, and in the translations that have him repenting we are left wondering about that. The Hebrew verb is from the root נחם which is used 7 times in Job. Here it is in the niphal stem but in every other place it is in the piel stem and has the sense of “to comfort”.

  1. Job’s three friends “met together to go and console and comfort him” (2:11)
  2. “… my bed will comfort me” (7:13)
  3. “You are all mischievous comforters” (16:2)
  4. “Why do you offer me empty consolations?” (21:34)
  5. “… like one who consoles mourners” (29:25)
  6. “All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and … they consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).

What’s the difference between the niphal and piel stems? The piel stem denotes an intensive or causative action (i.e to comfort or console another). The niphal form is passive and means to have regrets, to be sorry, or to comfort or console oneself. According to Gesenius, when the niphal is followed by על (as it is here) it is reflexive and means to comfort oneself or to be comforted, not “on” but “on account of” something. In other words, Job is saying “I am comforted on account of the fact that I am but dust and ashes”. Gerald Janzen translates this last verse: “Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes”.[2] Seeing the Book of Job has so many wonderful wordplays I believe there is another one here: Job was unable to be comforted by his “mischievous comforters” with their “empty consolations”, but finally he finds comfort from the LORD’s rebuke.

So in the end Job finds comfort from the LORD’s assertions that he is sovereign and in control.


[1] Guillaume, P., “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job” in Journal of Biblical Literature; Fall 2008; 127, 3

[2] Job, IBC (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 251