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314. Job 31:11-12, Further Thoughts on The Crime of Adultery
But rather than ending his oath with corresponding punishment in verse 10, Job goes on to reflect further on the act of adultery, or perhaps the act implied in kara (“bend over” or “bow down,” v 10) in verse 11:
“For that would be lewdness (zimmah) and iniquity (deserving of) judgment.”
The “that” might refer either to the act of adultery contemplated in verse 9 or, more probably, the rear penetration in verse 10. Many translations render the zimmah as “heinous crime” or “wickedness,” but a closer examination of zimmah shows that sexual content is intended. It appears 29x, eleven of which are in Ezekiel. All of the Ezekiel references are in connection with harlotry (e.g., Ezekiel 23:29, 35) or some kind of lewd sexual activity. Its first appearances are in Leviticus 18-20 (four times in those chapters), where sexually immoral conduct is always in view. Some appearances of zimmah in the Psalms might best be rendered “wickedness” or “mischief” (e.g., Psalm 26:10; 119:150), and the only other use of zimmah in Job (17:10) clearly refers to “plans” or “devices of thought.” Yet, the content of 31:9-10, as well as the overwhelming usage of it elsewhere suggests that sexual impropriety is in view in verse 11.
But if the “that” of verse 11 refers to the sexual act suggested by “bending over” in verse 10, then the rest of verse 11 is a bit difficult to understand. One would think she is “bending over” unwillingly, just as she was grinding unwillingly, but the activity is considered a criminal offense (NRSV) or lustful crime (NASB) or “deserving of punishment” (my translation). That doesn’t seem right. But if the “that” of verse 11 refers back to the adultery of verse 9, then it becomes easier to understand. Job’s activity would be worthy of judgment (the rare word palil, 3x, derived from the common verb palal, “to intercede”). Thus, it is an activity that is not only evil/iniquitous (the common word avon) but is also criminal and inviting of judgment.
Verse 12 further speaks further of the nature of this criminal action. We see by the rather extended discussion (in vv 11-12) of the evil of the crime envisioned in verses 9-10 that the seemingly neat structure of Job’s oaths is starting to unravel. We started with two oaths in the “if I have done XX,” followed by “then let YY” happen structure in verses 5-8. We also have that in verses 9-10. But now the author speaks more explicitly about the nature of the crime, dragging out the third oath yet further.
In verse 12 Job likens the adulterous act to a raging fire, burning all the way to Abaddon. In so arguing, he is reflecting a teaching of the wisdom tradition:
“Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes?
Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?
So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife;
no one who touches her will go unpunished” (Proverbs 6:27-29).
Thus, the act of adultery kindles a fire. Not only does it consume or eat (the common verb akal) all the way down to Abaddon, but it also destroys crops:
“And all my produce would be rooted out.”
The two words describing this act are tebuah (“produce/crops”, 42x) and sharash (“root out”, 8x). Tebuah, literally, is something that “comes out,” but when it is used in an agricultural context, it means one’s crops or produce of the land. It appears 9x in Leviticus 25, the chapter describing the great festivals of the Hebrew people. Though sharash is a rare verb, we have already run into it twice in Job. Even though Clines argues that its basic meaning is to “take root,” two of its three appearances in Job (31:8, 12) must refer to crops being uprooted.
Unlike the first two oaths, relating to deceit and turning from the way, where the results of bad acts only redounded to Job’s discredit, the repercussions of adultery reach even to the very edges of Sheol. It is not just a secret personal sin; it has cosmic effects, like the fire that would burn all the way to Sheol.
So far Job has vigorously denied any wrongdoing in these three areas. Does a solemn asseveration of innocence tend to make us think it is more or less probable that he has done these things? Most of us know that solemn or vociferous denials. especially if these denials were volunteered rather than elicited from a person, don’t necessarily point to a person’s innocence. It could be indicative of self-deception or to face the truth. We have good reason here, though, to believe Job’s denials. Even God believes Job to be blameless and innocent, fearing God and turning away from evil. Certainly it is reasonable for Job to assert the same thing.