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The Immaterial Hippopotamus: Rereading the Book of Job on God and Evil, Part 2

Last week I posted the first installment of an essay I wrote on God, suffering and the Book of Job.  In that first post I argued that Job’s contention (accusation?) that God had afflicted Job without cause (Hebrew, hinnam) is basically correct when read against the background of the book’s preface.  To put not too fine a point on it, Job’s contention is basically that God has acted unjustly by tormenting him as He has.  In this next section I argue that Job, far from abandoning this contention, sticks to his guns even after God shouts him down with a hurricane of rhetorical questions.  This, I will argue, is precisely what constitutes Job’s wisdom: Might does not make right, even for God.  If God is great but is not also good, the human condition is pitiable indeed.

William Blake, Illustration of the Book of Job

Job’s Silence: Deferential or Defiant?

Then Job answered the LORD:

“See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.  I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (Job 40:3-5, NRSV)

The 10th century Rabbi Saadya Gaon once observed, ““When one interlocutor says to his partner, ‘I can’t answer you,’ it may mean that he acquiesces in the other’s position, equivalent to ‘I can’t gainsay the truth’; or it may mean he feels overborne by his partner, equivalent to ‘How can I answer you when you have the upper hand?’”[1]  As Jack Miles observes, “Silence can be defiant as well as deferential.”[2]

“See, I am of small worth,” says Job (40:4a).  It would be a mistake to think that this is something that has only just dawned on Job as a result of hearing God’s speech.  Indeed, Job has already pointed to the diminutive stature of man as being precisely a reason for God to leave him in peace.  “What is man,” Job asks, “that You make much of him, that You fix Your attention upon him?” (7:17)[3]  He continues,

You inspect him every morning, examine him every minute.  Will You not look away from me for a while, let me be, till I swallow my spittle?  If I have sinned, what have I done to You, Watcher of men? Why make of me Your target, and a burden to myself?  Why do You not pardon my transgression and forgive my iniquity? For soon I shall lie down in the dust; when You seek me, I shall be gone. (7:18-21)

It is striking that Job, even early in his dispute with his friends, poses these provocative rhetorical questions directly to God.  More striking, however, is the fact that Job has suspected all along that God would shout him down in just this way and that he would be reduced to silence.  “He is not a man, like me, that I can answer Him (e’enennu), that we can go to law together,” he says (9:32, DMW).

In two parallel phrases Job emphatically resolves not to answer God: “I have spoken once, and will not reply; Twice, and will do so no more.”  It should be kept in mind that Job has, in a very real sense, already spoken his peace.  After calling God to the carpet and cutting his friends out of the conversation altogether by calling down upon himself a series of self-maledictory oaths (31)—saying, in effect, “If you’ve got a case against me, God, then, by all means, throw the book at me!  If not, then how are you just?”[4]—we are told by the narrator that “the words of Job were finished (tammu dibre ‘iyyob).” (31:40, DMW) Against this background it is difficult to see Job’s silence as deferential, for Job has already made and rested his case.  He is, in other words, persisting in the silence initiated in 31:40.  At any rate, Job’s silence is clearly insufficiently deferential for the Lord’s tastes and so He continues His invective.

Speaking Truth to Power

            Below is my own translation of Job’s response to the Lord’s second, lengthy rhetorical barrage:

You know (yada’ta) that You can do everything, that nothing you propose is impossible for You.  You say, “Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?”  Therefore (laken), I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know.  You say, “Hear now, and I will speak; I will ask, and You will inform me.”  I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees you;  Therefore (al-cen), I scorn[5] and pity[6] (’em’as wenihamti) mere dust and ashes (‘al-aphar wa’epher). (DMW)

It must be recognized that the Hebrew of these verses is notoriously difficult and that each of the key interpretive decisions represented here are controversial, to say the least.  Nevertheless, though the translation here proposed is controversial, it is also defensible.

We must first begin by noting that in verse 2, rather than following the Qere reading, “I know” (yada’ti), as most English translations do, we have followed what is written (Kethib) and translated yada’ta as “You know.”[7]  As Miles notes, “Change verse 42:2 in the RSV translation by just that much—from ‘I know that thou canst do all things’ to ‘Thou knowest that thou canst do all things’—and its air of confession and submission immediately becomes ambiguous and potentially ironic.”[8]  Indeed, that the interaction between God and Job is to be taken as ironic is made all the more likely by the fact that Job himself has voiced premonitions that things would work out just this way.  Indeed, Job’s speeches in chapters 9 and 26 have many points of resonance with his interaction with God in the latter chapters of the book and must be taken into account in any adequate interpretation of that interaction.

A particularly striking feature of the divine speeches is that Job has already inoculated the audience against them.  Job fully recognizes the precariousness of calling the Almighty to account:

“Truly I know that it is so: But how can a man be in the right before God?  If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times.  He is wise in heart and mighty in strength- who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?- he who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger, who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number.  Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him.  Behold, he snatches away; who can turn him back? Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ (9:2-12, ESV)

Strikingly, the Lord will also appeal to many of the same features of His creation in His diatribe against Job.  Job knows full well that he was nowhere to be found when God laid the foundation of the earth (38:4-6), made the morning stars to sing (38:7) and set limits upon the sea (38:8-11), and that is precisely why Job’s position has always been an uncomfortable one.  Indeed, God’s questions to Job,

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?  Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children?  Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? (38:31-32, ESV)

must sound overbearing to the point of absurdity, for Job has already acknowledged that God alone can do any of these things (9:8-9).  The point is not simply that God is not telling Job anything that Job does not already know.  Rather, the point is that Job’s argument from the beginning has been that even for the Creator of the Universe might does not make right and that His singular power and knowledge is simply irrelevant to the question of whether He has treated Job justly.  As Job says, “If it is a contest of strength, behold, he is mighty! But if it is a matter of justice, who can summon me (mi yo’ideni)?” (9:19, DMW)  In short, the uncontestable and uncontested fact that God is great is, under the circumstances, quite irrelevant to the question of whether He is good, and that has been Job’s point all along.

That Job’s response, then, is better understood as a comeback rather than as contrition is further supported by the fact that he responds to God by quoting God back to Him.  Both verses 42:3a and 42:4 are verbatim quotations from the beginning of God’s hurricane harangue (38:2-3).  Miles acutely observes:

"Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you....Can one take him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a snare?...Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?"

Twice, in the remainder of this short speech, Job first quotes something that God has said and then comments on it.  In ordinary human discourse this is a faintly insulting thing to do.  If, after hearing your long tirade against me, I calmly quote your very first words verbatim into your teeth, I serve notice quite effectively that I have kept my cool, that what you have said has not bowled me over.  This is precisely what Job does.[9]

Indeed, Job’s response, according to Miles, almost takes the form of a counterargument.  Pointing to the Hebrew word laken, “therefore,” in 42:3b, Miles argues that Job is here taking up the gauntlet flung down by God in 38:2-3 (which Job has just quoted).[10]  “A question, ‘Who is this…?’ does not establish a premise from which a conclusion can be drawn,” observes Miles.  However, “we need only supply some form of the implied words ‘You say’ before God’s question, now in Job’s mouth, and it instantly becomes a premise: ‘You say, ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge’ Therefore [i.e., because you have said this] I say….’”[11]  The very fact that Job’s words take the shape of premises and deductions suggests that there is more riposte than repentance here.

It should be noted that Job has structured his words as a sort of rhetorical layer cake that alternates as follows: quotation-conclusion-quotation-conclusion.  Because repetitions and pairings are frequently used in Hebrew poetry for amplification and emphasis of a central point, Job’s two conclusions should be read as mutually informing one another.  Miles suggests that the first of these conclusions, “Therefore, I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know,” should be heard as irony.  He writes, “[Having] now heard the Lord’s bombastic speech, [Job] concludes that he spoke a truth beyond what he could have guessed at the time.”[12]  In other words, Job is not saying that he did not know what he was talking about but rather that, unfortunately, he had spoken more truly than he had realized.

This reading of 42:3b-c is strengthened by a close analysis of Job’s second conclusion in 42:5-6.  What Job has known only “by the hearing of the ear,” namely, that God is a being of such immense power that there is no contending with Him—“Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, He would prove me perverse”—is now a matter of painful experiential knowledge for him.  Arguing before the Creator of the Universe is fruitless if He has no sense of obligation to do right by His creatures.

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the tempest..."

And so Job understandably ends on a note of dejection: “Therefore, I scorn and pity mere dust and ashes.” (42:6) Obviously, this translation departs rather sharply from traditional English renderings of this verse, wherein Job is taken to be repenting.  So, for instance, the NRSV reads, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  The traditional rendering of this text, however, fails on a number of counts.  Firstly, there is no reason to take the object of Job’s scorn to be himself.  Because the Hebrew amas lacks a first person singular suffix (or any suffix), there are no grammatical grounds for taking the verb be reflexive.[13]  The JPS Tanakh takes the object of the verb to be Job’s previous speeches and so translates the word as “recant.”[14]  However, it is more natural grammatically speaking to take the object of the verb to be the “dust and ashes” at the end of the verse.  The cola of 42:6 are divided so as to have two verbs (6a) and two nouns (6b), each cola being initiated by the preposition al- [15] which suggests that the nouns as a pair constitute the object of the verbs as a pair.  This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that typically when the verb nhm appears in the Nifal and is conjoined by al- to a noun, that noun is usually the direct object of the sentence (e.g., Ex 32:12; Psa 90:13; 2 Sam 13:39; Ezek 14:22; 32:31).

What sense could it make, though, to “scorn and pity dust and ashes”?  The phrase will undoubtedly strike our ears as strange until we recognize that “dust and ashes” (aphar wa’epher) was a Hebrew metaphor for mankind that connoted humanity’s frailty and mortality.  Job himself uses the phrase thus in 30:19 when he says, “He hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes (ce’aphar wa’epher).” (cf., 10:9)  Strikingly, we also find Abraham using the phrase when engaged in his own argument with God over the question of justice.  While attempting to talk the Lord out of razing Sodom by appealing to His aversion towards unjustly destroying the city’s righteous minority, Abraham strikes a humble pose saying, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (we’anoki aphar wa’epher).” (Gen 18:27)[16]  Thus, we might justifiably translate our verse as “therefore I scorn and pity mere mortals.”[17]

One can hardly imagine a greater sense of dejection.  The dark prospect Job has been facing all along—that the Creator of the Universe is not constrained by any sense of justice in His dealings with His creatures, that He is powerful but not fundamentally guided by a moral compass—appears now to be a grim reality.  If such is the case, then there can be no hope and we mortals are in a pitiable situation indeed.

To be continued…

Next week: Job wrestles with God and men, and wins, and a concluding Christological post-script.

[1] As quoted in Moshe Greenberg, “Job” in Alter and Kermode, ed., The Literary Guide to the Bible, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 298

[2] Miles, God: A Biography, 317

[3] This line perhaps parodies Psalm 8:4, which famously exalts the dignity of mankind.

[4] In this passage we see the key difference between the indignation of Job and that of Ivan Karamazov.  For whereas Ivan says, “I would persist in my indignation, even if I were wrong,” Job consents to being struck down if he has spoken falsely.

[5] In the qal form the verb sam frequently carries the sense of revulsion connoted by the words to scorn or to disdain or even to loathe, not least in the Book of Job.  Thus, for instance, we read “Even youngsters disdain (Wsa]m’ä) me.” (19:18, TNK)  Similarly, Job elsewhere says, “I loathe (sa;îm.a,) my life.” (9:21c)  Significantly, the infinitive form of the verb appears as a substantive in Lam 3:45, denoting garbage.  Thus, there are ample lexical grounds for translating the verb as scorn.

[6] Thus, we differ here from Jantzen’s idiosyncratic translation of yTim.x;_nI  as “I change my mind.” (Jantzen, Job, 251, 254) While Jantzen’s translation might possibly find some support from the LXX rendering of the text (“and I regard myself,” h[ghmai de. evmauto.n), his rendering of the verb ~hn is unprecedented in the HB.  The verb occurs 48 times in the Nifal in the HB carrying the senses of to regret, to be sorry, to console oneself and such like, but never to change one’s mind.  It seems that Jantzen has read the meta,noia that he expects (wants?) to find in the text back into this verb.

[7] English translations that follow the qere reading are the NIV, NRSV, KJV, TNK, ESV, etc.

[8] Miles, God: A Biography, 319; Jantzen likens Job’s “you know” to that of Ezekiel in Ezek 37:3.  However, it seems unlikely that these two affirmations of God’s knowledge carry the same force.  For one thing, the Masoretes seemed to think reading T'[.d:y” in synagogue to be less appropriate than reading yTi[.d:y”â, which would be odd if T'[.d:y were actually the more reverent expression.  Furthermore, in the case of Ezekiel, God has, in fact, asked him a question to which he does not know the answer, “Can these bones live?”  Job, on the other hand, as his speech in chapter 9 abundantly attests, already knows full well that God can do all things and he did not need God to tell him that.  Thus, it is dubious to suggest that Job says “you know” because, as Jantzen suggests, “things have been proposed in question form which exceed what the hearer could have known” (Jantzen, Job, 251).

[9] Miles, God: A Biography, 319

[10] There is no reason to suppose, as Hartley (citing Blommerde) does, that !kEål’, taken as “therefore,” does not fit this context. (see Hartley, The Book of Job, 534)  The only reason to think !kEål out of place is if one is already beholden to the interpretation of Job’s words as words of contrition.  Strikingly, Pope omits the word altogether. (Pope, Job, 347)

[11] Ibid, 320; Jantzen’s suggestion that Job’s “speaking of God’s own words with his own lips enacts the speech-form of confession, of speaking-in-agreement with,” is unconvincing for two reasons.  First, we lack examples of quotation functioning this way in confession anywhere else in the Bible.  Neither David nor Josiah nor King of Ninevah nor anyone else in the Hebrew Bible expresses repentance by quoting his accuser.  There may be some instances wherein agreement is expressed via quotation (e.g., 1 Kgs 12:9-14).  However, and secondly, as Miles points out, Job draws a conclusion from this quotation and it is awkward to think of drawing a conclusion from a question that Job has taken up as his own.  But if the quotation is taken precisely as a citation of the initial premise of the Lord’s counterargument, “You say, “Who is this…?,” then Job’s drawing of a subversive alternative conclusion (namely, “I spoke better than I knew”) makes more sense both of the text itself and the text in the broader context of the Book as a whole.

[12] Ibid, 321

[13] Pace Hartley.  See Hartley, The Book of Job, 535

[14] Oddly, Jantzen says that to add the object “myself” is “interpretative” but then himself translates sa;äm.a as “recant,” thereby implying that the object of the verb is Job’s prior discourse.  Of course, it is no less “interpretative” to supply “my words” as the verb’s missing object than it is to supply “myself.”  See Jantzen, Job, 254.

[15]  yTim.x;_nIw> sa;äm.a, !Keâ-l[; (a

rp,ae(w” rp”ï[‘-l[; (b

The import of this division of the text was suggested to Miles by Stanislav Segert in a personal letter.  The letter is worth quoting at length because it acutely sets out the logic of our interpretation:

Since both coordinated adverbial modifiers in 6b are functionally synonymous nouns, corresponding functional synonymity may be supposed for both coordinated verbal predicates in 6a.  The perons [sic] are identical; the consecutive perfect (not marked by ultima stress because of position in pausa) corresponds to the imperfect, the difference of verbal pattern is caused by lack of qal of nhm.

[However,] division in cola such as in BHS…–6a two verbs, 6b two nouns—is followed in [only] a minority of modern translations…. The now [usually] preferred division of the cola leaves the first verb isolated and connects the second verb with nouns of matters used of expressing repentance.  Still the general meaning of both verbs points in the same direction. (Re 6b, cf. Job 30:19….)

(as quoted in Miles, God: A Biography, 429)

[16] There are numerous additional striking parallels between Abraham and Job.  Neither begins, properly speaking, as an Israelite (one hailing from Ur and the other from Uz).  The blessedness of each is measured in terms of the quantities of their livestock and both die “old and contented” (~ymi(y” [b;îf.W !qEßz”, Job 42:17; [:be_f’w> !qEåz”, Gen 25:8).  See Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 178

[17] Miles prefers the translation “mortal clay.”  See Miles, God: A Biography, 325



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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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