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155. Job 15:14-16, You Aren’t So Special, Job, Essay Three
14 What is man, that he should be pure,
Or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?
15 Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones,
And the heavens are not pure in His sight;
16 How much less one who is detestable and corrupt,
Man, who drinks iniquity like water!
So, in verses 14-16 Eliphaz changes the subject to focus on purity and cleanliness. His point will be that no being, human or supra-human, is clean or pure in God’s sight. Even the “holy ones” aren’t pure; how much less can Job be said to be pure? Before examining the text more closely, we ought to pause on the concept of purity. It seems that the friends are focused on, even obsessed with, the idea of purity (zakak, zakah, bar, zak) while Job rarely mentions the concept. For him, the emphasis is on the idea of blamelessness, uprightness or righteousness (tam, yashar, tsadeq). Is there a difference?
Let’s look at the words for purity. The verb zakah (5x) appears in 15:14 to express the notion of being pure or clean. Its only other appearance in Job is on Bildad’s lips in 25:4, where the same argument used by Eliphaz in Job 15 is made. Zakak (4x) also is translated “to be pure”; three of its four appearances are in Job. Job uses it once aspirationally (“even if I would make my hands pure/clean,” 9:30), while Eliphaz uses it in the next verse (15:15), as does Bildad in 25:5. Four of the eleven appearances of the word zak are in the Book of Job. Job uses it once, where he talks about his prayer being pure (16:17), but elsewhere it is on the lips of Bildad (8:6); Zophar (11:4) and even Elihu (33:9, accusing Job of saying he is zak). Bar (7x) may also may be translated as “pure,” and its only appearance in Job is on Zophar’s lips (11:4). Other synonymous phrases, such as “without transgression,” or words, such as the hapax chaph (“innocent,” 33:9), also appear on the friends’ lips.
Job, in contrast, will be described as tam and yashar (blameless and upright), one who fears God and turns from evil (1:1). Job will seemingly be more interested in a sense of right standing or general well-being before God than any notion of “purity” or “cleanness” suggests, even though the image on Job’s lips in 9:30-31 emphasizes both his own cleanliness and filth. Job wants access to God; he wouldn’t be very sympathetic to someone who wanted to use the “purity card” to deny him access. The friends want to emphasize that no one is clean. Therefore, Job is not clean or pure and should openly confess his sin, shortcoming and impurity to God. Job isn’t interested much in purity, but he is interested in justice and rightness. He believes that God has acted improperly towards him in this instance. That he might be a sinner and have committed faults along the way, even as he frames his case, is not a problem or a question to Job. But it shouldn’t be a hindrance to approaching God, nor should it be used by others to try to keep Job from pursuing his case. Job’s position is like a person who feels aggrieved in our society. He wants redress. Someone might say to him, ‘But you have so many faults, yourself. Why do you want redress?’ Job would say, ‘I know I have faults, but that isn’t the question in this instance.’
Though I have pointed out the contrast between “purity” and “righteousness/blamelessness,” I believe they aren’t neatly and diametrically opposed in Job. For example, as we see in 15:14, the concepts of “purity” and “righteousness” (tsadeq) are expressed in poetic parallelism by Eliphaz. Job also uses the verb tsadeq to apply to himself. Yet, the topic of purity, brought up repeatedly by Eliphaz here, and echoed by Bildad later, is mostly beside the point. Job knows he isn’t “pure” in their definition of purity. But who really cares? He has a case to make and a complaint to bring.
With this in mind, let’s conclude by suggesting a more nuanced translation of verse 14-16.
“What is a human that s/he would be pure (zakah)? and the one born of woman that s/he should be righteous (tsadeq)? For He doesn’t put his trust in His holy ones and the heavens aren’t pure (zakak) in His eyes. Certainly then, (he doesn’t trust) one who is abominable (taab) and morally filthy (alach), one who drinks sin like water.”
Eliphaz’s language has turned almost violent by the end of verse 16. The words for abominable and morally filthy occupy what one might call the lowest tier of moral uprightness in Biblical language. They are things that are abhorred, filthy, to be banned. The gloves are now completely off. Eliphaz will now launch into his most vigorous and extensive passage on the divine judgment. Though he never refers directly to Job in the next 19 verses, we can’t help but wonder if Job is the target of his thoughts. Eliphaz’s gentle style has now changed. Job is not longer one whom he can coax back to fidelity. A much more severe purgative is necessary for this “abominable” and “morally filthy” person.