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146. Interpreting Job 14:16-17

16 “For now You number my steps,
You do not observe my sin.
17 “My transgression is sealed up in a bag,
And You wrap up my iniquity.


There are two ways of reading these verses, which may be captured in dueling translations:


a  “For now you number my steps; don’t you watch my sin? (or, you do not even wait for my sin). My transgression is sealed up in a bag, and you heap up my iniquity.”


b. “For then you would number my steps; you would not watch over my sins. My transgression would be sealed up in a bag and you would cover over my iniquity.”


Two different worlds. The first presumes a contrast between the glowing picture of future intimacy between Job and God in verses 13-15 and the present reality of Job’s being haunted and hunted by God. It suggests that God’s numbering of Job’s steps, watching his sin, and sealing up his transgression is being done so that a future judgment of unimaginable proportions would be visited on Job. “Numbering” then would be seen as God’s keeping a record of sins, as if God is some kind of divine accountant making sure that no sin goes unnoticed, no transgression slips by the awesome divine gaze. In support of this translation is the word attah, “now,” which seems to contrast Job’s current experience with his experience of reverie in verses 13-15. If we read the passage this way, we would see verses 16-17 as a kind of prelude to the thought of verses 18-22, in which Job returns to the sadness of earlier in the chapter.


But I interpret the future tenses of the verbs in verse 16 to continue the future sense of the two verbs in verse 15. All are in the Hebrew imperfect (i..e, future) tense. Thus, there is no reason to change reference points/times between the two verses. In addition, when we get to verse 18 we have a much stronger adversative (ulam, “but” or “indeed” or “however”) than the kiy-attah (literally “but now”) of verse 16. Thus, I tend to see these two verses as continuing the rather optimistic tone of verses 13-15. Job is still on his mental break, imagining a time of future intimacy with God. Most scholars are of this mind today.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that the interpretation of each clause is simple. The first problem one encounters in verse 16 is the insertion in a few translations of the word “not” in the first clause, so that it reads, “For then you would not number my steps.” The word “not” isn’t in the Hebrew text, but has slipped into the Syriac version of the Hebrew text, probably to maintain a parallel structure between the two halves of the verse. That the translators of many modern English translations incorporated this rather unusual suggestion shows the degree to which it wanted to “clean up” possible interpretive difficulties to maintain an unequivocal future reference in verse 16. I don’t follow many modern English versions.


So, verse 16 then would read for me, “For now, and in the future, you number my steps but you won’t keep a close watch on my sins.” The point would be that God would, as always, keep track of all Job’s steps but wouldn’t “watch” (shamar) over them or bring him into judgment because of them because of the paramountcy of the relationship between Job and God. God numbers steps because that is what God does. As the Psalmist says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up” (Psalm 139:1-2).  But instead of numbering the steps to find further fault with Job, God would number them as a sign of divine affection. Later Job will use this same phrase (“number my steps”) to express Job’s matter-of-fact recognition that God knows everything about him, but that God will, nevertheless, vindicate him (31:4ff).  


Even if we accept this explanation, the phrase “You would not watch over my sin” at the end of verse 16 is difficult for my interpretation. Clines tries to handle it by translating the phrase, “but not watch for any sins of mine” as if God is somehow keeping a record of the sins while not “watching” for them. Usually a divine watching (shamar) implies close divine scrutiny rather than kindly ignoring what is seen. My solution is to emphasize the relational nature of Job’s connection with God now. Because of the strength of that bond, a mere “accountant-type” relationship with Job is out of the question.


Verse 17 continues the thought of verse 16, but it also plays tricks on us. The tenses of the verbs change to past tense, so that we literally have “My transgression has been sealed up in a bag” and “you XXX my iniquity,” though the thought directly follows on the future contemplation of verse 16. This may be just another example of destabilizing the reader. As we have often seen, once the main point is clear (an imagined restored relationship between Job and God), the rest can be ambiguous without impairing the overall meaning.  


Making verse 17 even more difficult is an appropriate translation of the last verb, taphal. We have seen it previously in 13:4, where I rendered it as “plasterer” or one who smears something, in that case “lies.” It only appears one time outside of Job, where the arrogant are said to have “forged” a lie against me/smeared me with a lie (Psalm 119:69). But for God to have “smeared” his iniquity doesn’t really make much sense. The point seems to be that God may number the sins, not “watch” them" (i.e., visit them on Job) because of the centrality of the restored relationship, but then God would, as it were, store them away in a bag and completely “cover them over/plaster them over.” 


Those who understand these two verses as standing in contrast to verses 13-15 see God’s sealing up (verb is chatham, 27x/5x in Job, which we have seen in 9:7, and appears in 24:16 with the meaning of “shut up”) the transgressions in a bag as God’s storing up all Job’s sins so as to release them all at once in one great episode of judgment.  Yet, I tend to look at God’s sealing up sin and covering them over consistently with the thought of Isaiah 43:25, “I, I am the one who blots out your transgressions (pesha, same word as in Job 14:17) for my own sake, and I will remember your sins (chattaah, same word as in Job 14:16) no more.” Isaiah used the verb machah (“blot out/abolish,” 36x, doesn’t appear in Job) whereas Job has images of sealing up and covering over. Thus, verses 16-17 don’t mark Job for further judgment; they speak, instead, with confidence of the relatively small role that sin plays in his (imagined) restored relationship with God. The fact of the relationship, of calling and answering, will be the powerful and glorious new reality for Job.

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