Job's Oath of Innocence (Job 31)
Bill Long 2/23/05
Gaining a Perspective
The meaning of this final chapter of Job's last long speech may be beyond the grasp of Western people in 2005. The chapter consists of a list of Job's self curses. We really don't really believe in a magical power of curses anymore (do we?). We don't generally attribute much potency to a curse of us, beyond the fact that it makes us mad at the person who curses. Yet, as many scholars tell us, a curse in the ancient world carried a real wallop to it. If directed against the self it could connote a desire for complete self-annihilation if the first statement (the "if" clause) was untrue. So, scholars try to look at Job 31 in this light--as another example, but a more severe one, of Job's taking his "flesh in his teeth" (13:14). I think the potency of the curse, and possible dramatic effect on ancient people, is largely lost on us today.
But there is something else in ch.31 that may also be lost on us. Some scholars have stated that the cumulative nature of Job's self-imprecations as it were compels the deity to respond. To use an athletic metaphor: it is as if one has either so violated the rules or so insistently demanded clarification of the rules that the "umpire" or "referee" must respond. I don't know if I fully understand this idea, but I would suggest that from the perspective of American law the notion of compelled response is quite explicable. That is, in American law once a complaint has been filed, the other party must respond or risk facing a default judgment. A default judgment would amount to giving the plaintiff all that was requested in the complaint. Even if the party charged is fully innocent of the charges, that person must respond, either with an answer or a motion to dismiss the case or some other legal device.
So, these two ideas form the "backdrop" for Job 31. It is so dramatic, from the perspective of ancient literature, because of its self-imprecatory and compelled (against God) nature. I still don't think that I have fully explained it, so Western and "modern" am I.
Ch.31 has been variously called Job's "oath of innocence" or the "code of the man of honor." It consists of about 15 statements where Job either calls down curses on himself (four times) or just gives us the first part of a curse (i.e., "If I have done X..."), before he figuratively "signs" his complaint against God (31:35). The curses cover the entire range of personal and socially ethical conduct. In the remainder of this essay I will introduce the four "if-then" curses and then, in the next essay, I will introduce the rest of the curses and Job's final "signature" of the complaint.
Job's Four "If-Then" Curses
The first of these is in vv.7-8.
7 "if my step has turned aside from the way, and my heart has followed my eyes, and if any spot has clung to my hands; 8 then let me sow, and another eat; and let what grows for me be rooted out."
This is a typical example of one of Job's curses. Very important in the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel was keeping to the "way" (Hebrew--derek) or the "path." Those who stray from the path sacrifice the good things of life. But here, Job is ratcheting the implications of straying a bit higher. If he has strayed from the path, he not only expects some kind of disicipline or correction from God, but he expects others to come and take the fruit of his toil. Here there is not the deep sense of annihilation if Job has been unfaithful, but the envisaged result is still not pleasant.
The second is in vv.9-10 and is, from the perspective of 2005, strange indeed.
9 "If my heart has been enticed by a woman, and I have lain in wait at my neighbor's door; 10 then let my wife grind for another, and let other men kneel over her."
Maybe this is just a reflection of sexual stereotypes and notions of wives as personal property that is reflective not only of the ancient traditions of Israel but of our own common law tradition derived from medieval England. In any case, the words seem starkly clear: if Job has lusted and followed after another woman, let Job's wife serve another, both economically and sexually.
The third is in vv.21-22.
21 "if I have raised my hand against the orphan, because I saw I had supporters at the gate; 22 then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket."
Here we have the first clear indication of the disproportion that is probably implied in many of the other curses, though we may see some disproportion even in vv.7-8. This one focuses on Job's role as administrator of justice. He prided himself on giving justice to the poor and orphans (29:12). So, if he didn't actually do that, he is not just asking that injustice be done to him but that the same arm that pronounced the judgment would become useless. The picture is even more ghastly than that. It is as if the arm would both rot and be broken. So sure is Job of his righteousness.
The fourth appears in vv.38-40.
38 "If my land has cried out against me, and its furrows have wept together; 39 if I have eaten its yield without payment, and caused the death of its owners; 40 let thorns grow instead of wheat, and foul weeds instead of barley."
This final self-curse is unusual because it comes after Job's signature has been affixed to the complaint (vv.35-36). Is the author trying to suggest that it is an afterthought (an "aftercurse"?)? Is it out of place? In content it is not too dissimilar to the first "if-then" curse in vv.7-8. The difference is that the earlier curse was predicated on Job's false or unethical actions while this one relates to Job's misuse or abuse of the land and the owners of land. The curse of thorns and weeks is more severe than we might think---the effect of Job's action would be taking valuable, and rare, farm land out of cultivation. And it would not be so that a new strip mall could be installed.
If there is one question that stands behind this study it is, What do you make of these curses? What do you make of the chapter as a whole? It is obviously meant to be a most powerful culminating statment. Is it that for you as you read the Book of Job? The next lesson will probe other verses of the chapter more thoroughly.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long