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310. Job 31:1-4, No Escape from God’s Searching Eyes
Our general outline of Job 31 is as follows:
Job 31:1-4, No Escape from God’s Searching Eyes
Job 31:5-34, A Series of Denials and An Oath
Job 31:35-37, Signing the Complaint
Job 31:38-40, One Last Denial
1 “I have made a covenant with my eyes;
How then could I gaze at a virgin?
2 And what is the portion of God from above
Or the heritage of the Almighty from on high?
3 Is it not calamity to the unjust
And disaster to those who work iniquity?
4 Does He not see my ways
And number all my steps?
Unlike the rest of the chapter, these first four verses are not in an “if. . .then let me be” form, even though they also point to an activity that from which Job says he refrained. Thus, they stand out as odd from a literary perspective. They also seem odd, at first, from a theological perspective because they appear to go a different direction than Job’s ideas in Job 21. In that chapter Job had upended the traditional theology by recounted the prosperous, rather than miserable, days of the wicked. Now, however, Job seems to reinforce the traditional theology by talking about a “calamity” for the unjust (v 3). Upon further reflection, and taking the entire chapter into consideration, Job is simply saying in Job 31 that by any measure of good ethical conduct he has performed admirably. That is the substance of his case; that is why he can sign his complaint in good conscience in verse 35, knowing that he has every reason to be vindicated.
Job first probes the idea of his sexual morality in verses 1-4. Many translations give the impression that these verses are almost four independent statements, but I argue here that verses 2-4 flow naturally from the main point in verse 1. Job won’t permit himself even to “consider” (the verb bin) another woman because, if he did so, his heritage/portion from God would disappear (v 2), that this would lead to calamity, because of his unrighteous deeds (v 3). All of this is because God sees and numbers his steps (v 4). Interestingly, he doesn’t make the case that looking, much less acting upon, these libidinous desires is simply wrong because it dishonors his wife or violates a commitment he made; here he points to God’s “seeing” and “counting” as the brake on his activity.
The meaning of verse 1 is clear, even though its fine points are difficult:
“I have made/cut a covenant for my eyes; and how shall I look upon a maiden?”
The difficult fine points are two: first, the easy phrase in English “to make a covenant with my eyes” (as if swearing to do something) isn’t supported by the Hebrew text. Clines therefore has rendered it, “I have laid an injunction on my eyes.” Yet even though we may not be able to come to a suitable translation, the meaning is clear. Consistently with the rest of the chapter, Job here “swears” that he hasn’t looked lustfully at an unmarried woman.
The notion of “looking at/upon” (bin) is the second difficult fine point. Job often uses the common verb bin (169x/23x Job), which normally means to “consider/think wisely about/understand.” It is a verb that in the wisdom tradition emphasizes careful and sage consideration of an issue. We saw it just a few verses ago in 30:20 in an unusual phrase where Job complains that God is silent: “I stand up and you look at/consider (bin—but not, apparently, help) me.” By putting these two passages together in our mind, we have the idea that God didn’t engage with Job; he only “looked upon” him (30:20). Job likewise doesn’t engage with unmarried women; he can’t even “look upon” one. Job doesn’t do with women what God doesn’t do with him—engage personally and intimately.
If he did so, he would be sacrificing his portion or inheritance with God. That is what verse 2 says:
“And what (then) would be my portion of God from above and inheritance of the Almighty from
In using the synonyms “portion” (cheleq, 67x) and “inheritance” (nachalah, 223x) together, Job has taken a page from Zophar’s book in 20:29. There the portion or inheritance of the wicked person is bleak indeed. The heavens show his sin; the earth rises up against him (20:27); he loses all his goods (20:28). Consult the commentary on that passage for further descriptions of the multiform disaster that the wicked faces. This will be their cheleq or their nachalath.
Job is arguing the same thing in 31:2-3. He first asked (v 2) what his cheleq and nachalath would be if he looked upon a maiden; then he answers his own question in verse 3:
“Wouldn’t that be calamity/destruction (ed, 24x) for the unrighteous person (avval, 5x) and
disaster (neker, hapax) for those who do iniquity (aven, 78x)?”
Job gives us a nice tour here of some of the language of disaster and unrighteous behavior. Disaster will surely be the result of Job’s action; by doing this action he would become an unrighteous person. Job has a full one-fourth of the biblical appearances of ed. Ed doesn’t just simply point to a temporary reversal or misfortune. It can also be referred to as the “day of ed,” or one’s own private day of ultimate judgment (Job 21:30). Disaster, then, would stalk one who “looked upon” an unmarried woman. Such a person is “unrighteous” (avval), a concept that seems to be “owned” by Job (4/5 appearances of the word avval are in Job) until we realize that avval is really just a variant of evel (53x/12x Job), a common word which also occupies the linguistic space of injustice, wickedness, and evil.
The same can be said about the final word, aven, which also appears disproportionately in Job (13/78x) and occupies the linguistic world of wickedness, iniquity and sorrow. Though Job uses the word aven here, it generally is found on the lips of the friends (four times Eliphaz—4:8; 5:6; 15:35; 22:15; twice Zophar (11:11, 14); multiple times by Elihu). The only unexpected and difficult word here is neker which, because of the context, has to mean something similar to the ed of the first clause. The only Hebrew words spelled identically are the common verb nakar (49x, to discern, recognize) and the common noun nekar (36x, strange(r), alien, foreign(er)). Because of the possible connection with the latter word, some scholars have argue that neker here partakes of that “other” or “foreign” flavor.
Job concludes this opening section of Chapter 31 with the rhetorical question, “Doesn’t he see my ways and number all my steps?”Job had previously recognized and confessed the truth of this statement (7:18-20), though in that passage he spat it out with some anger (“Won’t you let me alone for a minute while I swallow my spittle?” he asked in 7:19). Yet, verse 4 also gives us a pair of affirmations that are quite common in the Scripture. With great gratitude, and perhaps some frustration, the Psalmist says, “You have searched me and known me. . .” (139:1). The Psalmist in Psalm 139 then goes on with a much more granular description of the ways that God knows him than does Job in 31:4. Many other verses of Scripture also speak of how God searches out all things, especially the human heart (e.g., Psalm 7:9; 44:21; Jeremiah 17:10; Proverbs 5:21).
The wisdom tradition also believes that God measures or knows our steps. Proverbs 16:9 provides the basic text. Using the same relatively rare word as in Job 31:4 (tsaad, 14x, “steps”), The Book of Proverbs says, “A person’s heart devises his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (tsaad).” Perhaps enjoying his own use tsaad in 31:4, Job repeats it in verse 37 where he declares the satisfaction he would feel if God would indict him. He would carry it on his shoulder (v 36). But then Job would declare the “number (saphar, same word as in 31:4) of my steps (tsaad, same word as in 31:4).” Elihu may have been impressed by this fine verbal showing of Job, for he later says, “His (God’s) eyes are on a person’s way; and he sees (raah, same verb as in 31:4) all his steps (tsaad again, 34:21).”
Job 31:1-4 acts as Job’s mini “confession of faith.” Job still believes in God, despite the pain and cynicism expressed in previous chapters. He still has every reason to believe that God will treat him honorably and recognize the validity of his claim.