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313. Job 31:12, Third Oath, On Adultery


9 “If my heart has been enticed by a woman,

Or I have lurked at my neighbor’s doorway,

10 May my wife grind for another,

And let others kneel down over her.

11 For that would be a lustful crime;

Moreover, it would be an iniquity punishable by judges.

12 For it would be fire that consumes to Abaddon,

And would uproot all my increase.


Job has already mentioned that he made a covenant with/laid an injunction upon his eyes that he would not even regard/look at an unmarried woman (v 1); now in this third oath he speaks more explicitly about penalties he would expect had he committed adultery. Deuteronomic law taught the following:


    “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay 

    with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel," 

    (Deuteronomy 22:22; see also Leviticus 20:10).  


Job actually will not go down the same road as the Pentateuchal provisions; he focuses more on humiliation (v 10) than death. The truly remarkable thing about the punishment envisioned here in verse 10 is its explicit sexual character; we will get to that presently. First, however, a verbal tour of the crime. He begins with a verb easy enough to translate but deeply suggestive in its root meaning:  patha(c)h. The p-th-ch or p-th-h root in the Bible means, as a verb, “to be open” or “to be spacious” and, as a noun, a “door.” The root has a few alternate spellings or different verb patterns (pethichah, pitchon), but in every instance it has something to do with opening things.


Our first phrase in verse 9, literally, reads:


    “If my heart has been opened/enlarged (pathah, 28x) upon a woman.”


But we must hasten to add that the “open” meaning for pathah (e.g., Genesis 9:27) quickly morphed into, or had a parallel existence with, its meaning of “entice/deceive/seduce.” The oldest Israelite law code used the word to describe a man seducing an unmarried woman (Exodus 22:16), and that usage became dominant in the Bible. One can see how the word might have evolved. We recall from our discussion of the previous section that an “open” mind or heart was the first sign of trouble for an ancient Israelite. Such a person would soon be in danger of opening it so wide that s/he ended up leaving the “path” and following other gods. Thus, the concept of “openness” towards a neighbor’s wife is dangerous. It is, or quickly becomes, adultery. With these things in mind, my “final” translation of 31:9a agrees with all other translations, “If my heart has been enticed by a woman.”


[The only difficulty with the foregoing paragraph is that pathah’s appearance and meaning of “entice” in the earliest strata of Biblical Hebrew language suggests that the evolution of meaning might have gone the other way—from “entice” to “open,” though it is difficult to see how that might have occurred. Thus, the suggestion of a possible parallel development of the words and concepts makes linguistic sense; we just don’t know, however, if we can get there historically.]


Part of Job’s literary brilliance is that he uses alliteration and other catchy devices to make his point. We see that in verse 9b: “Or I have lain in wait (arab) at the door (pathach) of my neighbor.” Thus, the verse begins with pathah and ends with pathach,  a powerful literary duo. Job’s pathah/pathach method in 31:9 also allows introduction of the vivid verb arab (41x, “to lie in wait/lay an ambush”). Arab finds its home primarily in military contexts, where one sets an ambush to surprise one’s opponent. Almost one-third of its biblical appearances are in Joshua 8-9, where the people of Israel are taking the land of Canaan.  In the case of Job 31:9, however, the man is presented as lying in wait not to kill but to seek an advantageous love opportunity—e.g., when the husband has gone off to the fields or possibly to battle.  


The punishment expected by Job is laid out in verse 10:


    “Then let my wife grind (tachan, 8x) for another person and let others make her bend over

     be upon her.”


The translation of the first part is uncontroversial, even if the action contemplated is humiliating. Tachan only appears 8x in the Bible, but each time it is best translated “to “grind,” whether it is the golden calf made by Aaron being ground into powder (Exodus 32:20) or a punishment exacted on a conquered people (Isaiah 47:1-2). The latter passage is helpful in illustrating the humiliating nature of the task of grinding:


    “Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter of Babylon!

    Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea!. . .

    Take the millstones and grind (tachan) meal, remove your veil. . .”


If Job’s wife were to be employed as a grinder for another person, then not only she but also Job would be utterly humiliated. Scholars of all theological stripes have been quick to point out a double standard here. Job seems to be more concerned about the effect of his possible act of infidelity not in his own punishment but in the activity of his wife. The argument runs, ‘If I do X, my wife will suffer Y.’  It is probably a true statement, perhaps even reflecting a belief in human history until the 19th century in the West and still not fully reflected in other societies, that the wife isn’t simply the “property” of the husband. But nevertheless it rings a bit empty in contemporary ears.   


The second punishment contemplated for his wife is a sexually explicit one: having others bending over his wife and penetrating her, probably from the rear. Literally the last three Hebrew words are “over her/upon her bend/bow down others.” So “other people” are bending her over. This of course is too explicit for most committees which translate the verse, and so we have vague renderings such as “let other men kneel over her” (NRSV and NASB, but what does that mean?) or “bow down upon her.” Several translations recognize the explicit sexual nature of the words but simply say, “May other men sleep with her,” as if just the mere thought of sleeping with his wife is humiliating enough, without adding the humiliation of actually translating what is said!  What is in view is the timeless activity of intercourse from behind, with the woman bent over. I thank David Clines for his insistence that the verb kara (“bend”) is “indisputably used here of sexual activity.” 

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