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.

5 comments on “Did Job abhor himself?

  1. Jen says:

    More questions!!

    Putting theological implications of viewpoints aside for a bit: What is it that Job recants/ rejects? What new insight regarding his dust-iness has he gained at this point? Or regarding his relationship as creature of dust before God? I am still unclear on this.

    In other words, is Job’s second confession different in tone than the first (which seems to be simple humbling), and if so, what in God’s second speech (other than submitting to more words) has made the difference in the quality of Job’s answer?

    Does Job speak well of God in his confessions (40:3-5 and 42:2-6), or is it of his speeches in general that God tells the friends that Job was correct in his presentation of God?

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Jen, sorry for the delay in getting back to you about this. In think this is a crucial verse (42:6) in understanding Job, but it is clearly very difficult to translate. David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness, Eerdmans, 1995, 460f) has some helpful comments:

      “Job’s last words have almost always been translated to convey abject surrender. … However we look at 42:6, it is impossible to find a precedent for a reflexive sense to this verse – I abase / abhor myself – while the usual alternatives, retract/recant are either not intransitive, or very far from all other uses of the verb.
      “On the other hand the Niph’al נחמתי, when followed by על can mean repent, but in one of the senses, relent, retract, not in the modern sense of feeling remorse for a wrong action. Another common use of the phrase is to be comforted for; the best known example of this meaning is in Jer 31:15 מאנה לדגחם על־בניה … כי איננו – Rachel … refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are not. The verse, had it been spoken by God, would be easy to understand – I reject and repent me of flesh and blood, but there is no way in which Job can have said נחמתי על־עפר ואפר with this sense to it. As an absolute, נחם is not repent, which is שׁוב. …
      “Respect for the symmetry and integrity of the architecture of the Book of Job leaves no choice but to understand נחמתי explicitly as I am comforted – surely not by the comforters, nor in the way they intended, but nonetheless comforted. This is a perfect example of the irony which pervades this work from start to finish.
      “In Job’s mouth therefore, the sentence which is capable of meaning I reject and repent me of flesh and blood comes to mean I despise, and am comforted concerning, flesh and blood. After God’s aweful revelations, in Chapters 38 and 39, of the insignificance of all individual life, and in Chapters 40 and 41 of His intentions regarding the Assyrians and the Judeans, Job perforce accepts the devaluation of the individual and is consoled by the promise of the survival and destiny of the collective.”

      • Jen says:

        Oh dear that’s another can of worms re: the meaning of 38-41. I’ll leave that for another day.

        >>Job perforce accepts the devaluation of the individual and is consoled by the promise of the survival and destiny of the collective.”<<

        Not sure I can accept that either.,. what consolation is there for the suffering servant in that? Job's suffering still seems for nought… Or is it precisely that; Job is comforted that his suffering will come to an end, into nothingness. His appeals have been in vain; no one has stepped forward to mediate on his behalf.

        Suggest alternative: Job has not been comforted by his thoughts on his bed, nor by discussion with his friends… now after God's expansive speech, Job is finally comforted, by accepting what he cannot change, and hoping for death. Fortunately, the story doesn't end there.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Jen, re the last part of your post, I hope to post something very soon about “speaking well of God”.

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