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100. Job 9:27-31, Continuing to Think About His Pain
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint;
I will put off my sad countenance and be of good cheer,’
28 I become afraid of all my suffering,
for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 I shall be condemned;
why then do I labor in vain?
30 If I wash myself with soap
and cleanse my hands with lye,
31 yet you will plunge me into filth,
and my own clothes will abhor me.
In 9:27-28, Job mulls over a different approach to his pain. Perhaps he ought not to complain anymore. Isn’t it true that you become how you present yourself? That if you act happy you become happy? I don’t know if there were ancient ‘life coaches’ who would have said something like that to Job, but he entertains this thought for a moment in these two verses:
“If I say, ‘Let me forget my complaint; I will abandon my face (usually rendered as “sad countenance") and flash a smile; then I have become afraid of my pains, and I know you will not consider me innocent.”
The phrase shakach siach (“forget complaint”) has a euphonious ring to it, reminding us that pain, as well as other emotions, is never so painful as when it is expressed so beautifully. He hasn’t actually submitted a formal complaint to God, though the contours of his case are emerging. He no doubt refers to the generic attitude of complaining. But he imagines here “forsaking his face” and “putting on a smile.” One only needs to say something like “forsake the face” and the reader naturally understands the full meaning, just as when Hannah received encouraging advice from Eli, she went her way and, literally “her face was not to her any longer” (i.e., she was no longer sad; I Samuel 1:18).
What Job puts on in place of the “forsaken” or “abandoned” face is expressed by a rare verb balag (4x) which elsewhere carries the idea of brightening something (Amos 5:9) or taking comfort or comforting oneself (Job 10:20; Psalm 39:13). The notions of self-comfort and smiling again are not too far apart. Job, then, is resolved on another strategy here—‘put on the happy face.’
But that strategy also won’t last long. He can’t fool himself, much less God, very long. Even as the smile creases his lips he feels afraid, though he expresses that concept by using the elegant and rare yagor (5x). We don’t have enough examples of yagor truly to calibrate its difference from pachad or yare, but yagor appears in the same sentence with pachad in Job 3:25. When yagor appears, we are in the realm of dread and significant fear. Job might resolve to put on the happy face, but his situation immediately returns to him, and he is terrified. But his terror is not because he simply feels the pain of his body but because “I know you will not hold me innocent.” Just as many of the scars on our body are memorials not simply of bravery but of stupidity or loss, so Job knows that the pains in his body are indications that God considers him guilty. He seemingly can’t escape that reality.
A mini dose of reality then assaults Job in verse 29, “I shall be condemned (using the legal term rasha again, as in verses 20, 22, 24); why then do I labor in vain?” Again, Job is weighing out the painful realities in front of him, realizing the futility of any action, and then questioning himself ‘Why do I keep working so hard when it is all useless? I am like a condemned man going to the gallows; what use now is planning next year’s activities?’ The ash heap has probably never looked so comforting.
Job’s futility continues in a very graphic way in verses 30-31. In one of the most memorable of all his memorable images Job says,
“Even if I washed myself over and over again with snow, and I purified my hands
with soap, you would certainly dip me into the pit, and my clothes would abhor me.”
God is so morally unreasonable, according to Job’s reckoning, that even if Job tried to do all he could to clean himself up, God would simply plunge him into the dirt again, easily removing the effects of everything Job is trying to do. Make no mistake about it; Job doesn’t believe that he ought to clean himself since there is nothing, in his mind, that requires confessing in his life. As he will say in a later chapter, “my prayer is pure” (16:17). So even if Job were to take the unnecessary step of trying to subject himself to God through a self-purification process, God not only wouldn’t receive the clean heart, but would further dirty it.
This is the first time that Job has ventured into “purity” language. Though one might look at claims of innocence or blamelessness as occupying the same intellectual space as a purity claim, the worlds to which they point are different. When Job speaks of ‘purifying’ his hands, he uses the verb zakak (4x). Its adjectival form, zak, is more prevalent (11x), four of which appearances are in Job. The language and world of purity implicates the sacrificial system and priestly activity. Indeed, closely allied with “purity” is the notion of “dipping” (tabal 16x, it appears in our passage in 9:31). Six of the sixteen appearances of tabal are in Leviticus. For example, the high priest “dips” (tabal) his right hand in blood and then sprinkles it before the Lord as part of the ritual for securing forgiveness for unintentional sin (Leviticus 4:6, 17). Job then is appealing to familiar ritualistic language of priestly service to state the futility of any action on his part.
In another context, Isaiah speaks of the result of forgiveness as being that one’s sins are “white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18); Job is claiming that he would wash his hands with snow ahead of time to show the purity of his heart. The other thing with which Job purifies himself is called bor, a hapax that is generally translated “lye” or “soap,” though it also has been rendered “pure/purity.” This has led some to translate the last phrase of 9:30 as “never so clean,” so that the phrase might read, “And make my hands never so clean.”
But it will all be to no avail. God will just dip (tabal) Job into the pit/mire/ditch, easily undoing the work that Job has tried so hard to do. This is the real sadness of this image; that even Job’s best efforts would be undermined by God. God becomes like the malevolent parent who briefly examines the vulnerable four year-old’s art work before destroying it. In this case Job will be so filthy after the dipping into mire that even his clothes will hate him. The verb for “abhor” sounds somewhat like “dip” (taab vs tabal), and so the torturous euphony continues.
The word taab (22x) connotes extreme abhorrence. It can be used in synonymous parallelism with sana (“to hate”; Psalm 119:163); it captures the moral repulsiveness of Israel to God in their disobedience (Psalm 106:40); it is a word used in Deuteronomy (4x) to divide up the world around Israel—-into nations that either are “detested” or not (Deuteronomy 23:7). By saying here that his own clothes would abhor/detest him, Job is providing a vivid picture of rejection. Instead of Job’s careful efforts to purify himself and make himself clean, all we have is a Job covered in muck who must lie naked because his clothes are so repulsed they don’t even want to do their job and cover him.