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133. Job 13:13-17, Making the Case, The Dangers
13 “Let me have silence, and I will speak,
and let come on me what may.
14 I will take my flesh in my teeth,
and put my life in my hand.
15 See, he will kill me; I have no hope;
but I will defend my ways to his face.
16 This will be my salvation,
that the godless shall not come before him.
17 Listen carefully to my words,
and let my declaration be in your ears.
The passage neatly begins and ends with a demand of his hearers to shut up. He has already told them to do so in verse 5 (with a double use of charash), but the reappearance of charash in verse 13, along with the strong command to listen to him in verse 17 (double use of shema,“hear”) tells us that Job is finished listening to them, at least for now. When we pause for a second more on the verb charash, we see that Job 13 dances nicely with the word. The hearers are told to be silent/shut up in verses 5 and 13, but then, in verse 19, Job vows that in certain circumstances (the translation is ambiguous. . .see below), he will shut up (charash). Shutting up means that you realize the other has something to say that is more important than your words.
The more interesting development in verses 13-15, however, is the attitude which Job adopts as he plans to approach God. Interesting too is the way that scholarship has decided, almost unanimously, to “retranslate” verse 15 from the King James Version (followed by many, many versions into the 20th century), “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,” to a “Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope. . .” A larger Copernican revolution in translation can scarcely be imagined. But first, let’s deal with Job’s attitude.
After demanding silence from his hearers again (v 13), Job then says in verses 14-16,
“OMG! I will take my flesh in my teeth, and I will put my soul in my hands. He will indeed kill me; I have no hope. Even so will I reason with him, arguing my ways to his face. This will be the thing that saves me, that a hypocrite will not come before his face.”
We can feel the tectonic plates of argument shifting in these verses. Rather than complaining about the bitterness in his soul; rather than mocking God; rather than positing the existence of divine anger since the beginning of the world, Job will now actually seek acquittal before God. It is one thing to lob spitballs from the back row when the teacher isn’t looking; it is another thing actually to sit face to face with a person/force which can absolutely obliterate you at any moment and then calmly state your dissatisfaction with this person/force. What Job is saying in these three verses is that whatever the personal consequences he may face, he will make his argument to God.
Job is now facing such a fearsome possibility and a perilous situation. So, probably making use of yet another proverb, Job states that he will risk his life, risk any kind of danger, to press on with his case. The Bible knows of the phrase “life/soul in one’s hands” elsewhere (see, for example; Judges 12:3; I Samuel 19:5; 28:21; Psalm 119:109), but the phrase “flesh in my teeth” in verse 14 is new. The Scriptures know, and all those Bible characters fortunate enough to have had an intimate relationship with God know, that speaking directly to God means entering a sacred zone where every step you take might be full of land mines. Scripture provides examples of those who were incinerated for casually entering or even coming too close to the divine precincts. Though not obliterated, Abraham realized that he was treading on sacred ground when he queried God, in humble form, for an explanation of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18-19. Two sons of Aaron were incinerated for offering “unholy” fire in Leviticus 10.
But, despite the dangers, despite the cost, Job will persist and approach God. Some may call it stupidity or recklessness to do so, but Job will be the one who isn’t afraid to raise the level of argument from humble petition to in-your-face argument. Perhaps because Job knows the dangers that surround him, he can utter verse 15.
Before we look at verse 15 more closely, we should say a word about the two untranslatable particles or adverbial expressions that begin verses 14 and 15. Literally, verse 14 begins with “upon what shall I lift up. . .” But al-mah or “upon what” makes little sense in English. We have to infer meaning from context. It isn’t exactly a “for this reason” or “therefore,” because Job is on the brink of losing his reason in verses 14-15. I have rendered it in a way that expresses the sudden realization of the “terror zone” that Job is entering. It dawns on Job what he is really going to do. Thus, for me, the al-mah is more of an interjection, an explosion of emotion that overcomes him. “Oh My God!” (OMG!) tries to capture it. Then, the little hen at the beginning of verse 15 has bedeviled translators. I see it as the interjection, “Lo!” or “Behold!” and the uttering of it here is more of a clear-eyed awareness of what Job feels is going to happen to him. He feels he will die. It is not a concessive (“although”) particle.