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

8 comments on “Did Job repent?

  1. Stephen Cook says:

    This comment by Gerald Wilson in the New International Biblical Commentary: Job (Hendrickson, 2007, p468) is also helpful:

    ‘The meaning of the Hebrew here is much debated and variously translated. First, “myself” is not in the Hebrew text but reflects the interpretive conclusion of the NIV translators. … The interpretation of the phrase repent in dust and ashes depends largely on how one has translated the first part of the verse. If Job is taken to “despise himself,” then usually he is said to “repent.” The verb nkhm can mean this, and it often does. But it can also mean “to change one’s mind.” Such a rendering does not require that Job has committed some sin of which he needs to repent. Rather, he needs to understand God in a new way because his old perceptions have changed. Those who take the repentance route must come up with some sin that Job has committed.’

    • Jen says:

      Thank you for following up on that Stephen… it appears the words are difficult enough to translate to allow for vastly different interpretations of meaning. Big picture view though– I’m not sure how Job has changed his mind regarding his dust-iness from what God has said– how anything God has said has introduced an answer to satisfy Job’s cry for justice.

  2. Stephen Cook says:

    Here is some further information on the niphal of נחם and whether it should be translated “regret” or “am comforted”. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (commonly HALOT – Koehler and Baumgartner, Brill, 1995) vol II p688 explains that to comfort and to regret both express “a similar emotion of releiving one’s feelings”.

    The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT – Eerdmans, 1998) volume IX p342 similarly explains that both meanings “involve the emotional realm (a change of feeling on the part of the one who repents or comforts).” On Job 42:6 TDOT says (p349) the verb ‘might also denote a change in inward attitude. … the common rendering of m’s as “recant, retract, reject” as a parallel to “repent” (with its overtones of disavowing wrong or sinful conduct, a meaning rare in the OT) is by no means certain here.’

    I did not find The Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Jenni and Westermann, Hendrickson, 1997, vol 2 p734-9) to be particularly helpful this time.

  3. Jen says:

    Thank you Stephen… I am really enjoying your posts as well!

  4. Jen says:

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

    Not a satisfying answer; Job repeatedly states that God is in control; that is never in question. The difference is that his friends say that Job's predicament is just deserts (he deserves this treatment from God), while Job says it is unjust persecution (he is going to die anyways, and is no more guilty (less so) than others, so why is God torturing him in life more than others?). I don't see that Job finds comfort from being rebuked per se (any more than he enjoyed being chosen for suffering)… unless there is something in the rebuke itself that gives him hope. Is it that Job is happy that God has 'descended to talk to him; is it that God taking notice of Job's dilemma is itself enough to comfort Job? Or that God's answer contains some sort of answer in its content? Or is it that Job is *not* satisfied, and is throwing in the towel at last, giving up trying to understand the Mind behind all this.

    The only suggestion that seems to have the 'aha factor' is that Job uses the 'dust and ashes' phrase –not to abase himself (he is already clearly in the dust)– but to appeal to God's conscience… to the one who transformed man from earth-substance to living creature by his spirit. None of Job's sufferings have moved God, none of Job's words have moved God up until this point. The conflict has shifted; Job's relationship with God is now in mortal danger if the longsuffering (and persistently questioning) Job receives no divine comfort and dies destitute and unredeemed. God moves in his own time; but in the play Job's final absolute declaration of his helplessness provides the incentive for God (to shorten the time?) and openly declare himself as either 'redeemer of the oppressed' or as one who abdicates the responsibility of the goel in front of the congregation (the 'friends' and the readers).

    Will be interested to read your take on 42v7 'ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job'… in due course, certainly!

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Jen, you’re absolutely right about this: it wasn’t a satisfying answer! As I was posting it I was thinking myself that I ended it a bit abruptly and with a couple cliffhangers. I probably gave the impression that that was the end of the matter. Sorry about that.

      Over the next couple of days I’m planning to post some thoughts about (a) how Job spoke well of God; (b) whether or not he “abhored” himself (he didn’t – the KJV is hopelessly wrong!); and (c) more on “dust and ashes”. I hope to get the next post up later today.

      I love your questions and the way you’re thinking!

  5. Interesting again
    I think Job repented not of specific sin but of misunderstanding the Sovereignity of God in his life .
    regards Col

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