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315. Job 31:13-15, Oath Four, On Not Despising His Servants


13 “If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves

When they filed a complaint against me,

14 What then could I do when God arises?

And when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him?

15 Did not He who made me in the womb make him,

And the same one fashion us in the womb?


The first two oaths of innocence had to do with generic activity; the third with the specific act of adultery. Verses 13-15 continue the enumeration of another specific bad act that Job didn't perform, this time an act directed towards his servants. Yet, we don’t have a strict formula—‘if I have done XX act, let YY punishment happen. . .' Rather we have the statement of the bad act followed by the ominous words, “What shall I do when God rises up (in judgment, v 14)?” The effect is the same as an ‘if XX, then YY’ phrase, but the words show that Job is not bound to a literary form or convention for these words.


Most translations begin verse 13 with the comparatively mild “If I have rejected the cause. . .” but I think an equally good case can be made for the stronger:  “If I have despised the cause,” as with the NASB, quoted above. Rejection suggests “dismissing as inadequate, inappropriate or not to one’s taste,” while despising connotes “feel contempt or deep repugnance for.” Both English words are used to translate the Hebrew verb maas. Yet often it isn’t clear how maas (75x/12x Job), here in verse 13, ought best be rendered.  


For example, do people “reject” or “despise” (maas) the statutes of God (Leviticus 26:15)? Reject or despise the land? (Numbers 14:31). We are pretty sure that when God says, “I hate, I maas (Hebrew verb) your feasts” in Amos 5:21 that God “despises” the feasts. The basic difference, then, between reject and despise seems to be the personal pique felt by the person who despises. Rejection can be a rather neutral act of dismissing, without emotion.


Maas, as mentioned previously, is a verb that appears disproportionately frequently in Job. As I will argue when describing its final appearance (Job 42:6), a crucial issue in its interpretation also is whether an object follows it or not. When it takes a direct object, as in 31:13, it can be rendered “reject” or “despise.” It is not easy to decide which is appropriate to translate Eliphaz’s use of it in 5:17, where he told Job not to maas the discipline of God. Yet, when Bildad says in 8:20 that God will not maas a person of integrity, it probably is best rendered “reject.” When Job uses maas in 9:21 to describe his life (“I maas my life”), it no doubt is best translated “despise.” Thus, context often is king in determining how to render maas when followed by an object.  Upon further reflection, then, let’s just leave both translation possibilities open for Job 31:13:


    “If I have despised/rejected the plea of my male or female servants when they complained

     against me. . .”


The word translated “plea” here is mishpat, the same word Job used with such power in 13:18 to describe the “case” he was putting together against God. Often it points to the result of a case (i.e., a judgment), but here it is used in the sense of a plea or cause, as in 13:18. In 13:18 Job talked about “arranging” (arak) his “plea/case” (mishpat).  Here the servants “complain” against Job. The verb behind “complaining” is another important legal term:  rib (67x) which in this case may mean “to bring a lawsuit.” In non-legal contexts rib can simply describe a quarrel (Genesis 26:21, 22), but by the time of the earlier prophets it matured into the word to describe a formal legal complaint (“Arise, plead your case (rib) before the mountains,” Micah 6:1; see also Micah 7:9).  


We don’t know if Job is using the verb rib in its more technical or general sense here, but there might not have been a lot of difference between the two if the quarrel was confined to Job’s larger household and never reached the town elders. Scholars have also brought up the apparent incongruity here of servants bringing lawsuits/complaints against masters when we know of no provision in ancient Israel where servants had that privilege. So, perhaps after all it is best to see rib here as a generic term for the servants’ complaints.


Rather than a defensive reaction, ‘What do you have to complain about?  Get back to work!’, Job says that he didn’t reject/despise these complaints. We would love to have an example of the kind of complaint that might have been brought against Job. Who knows? The complaints raised by male and female servants (Job uses the common ebed/amah to describe them) may even have formed the basis for Job’s complaint against God. After all, Job is accustomed to directing his thinking and judgments “downward”—from his lofty peak of authority and respect towards the “little” people in the land. Such a person might be taken aback or uncertain about how best to direct a complaint “upward” in his personal need. So, why not use the form or feeling behind the servants’ complaints? If so, and this is all speculative, it would support the notion that often the “little” people in your life give as much or more help on how to live your life and make it successful than do the “big” people.    

Job does not say that the reason he doesn’t reject or despise the complaints of his servants is that he loves justice or that he prizes fairness. Rather, he puts it in terms of an awareness of God’s judgment.  Verse 14 says:


    “Then what shall I do when God rises up (qum)?  How shall I respond when he

    visits/punishes/inquires (paqad)?”


Though the word qum (“stand/rise up”) is among the most common of Hebrew verbs, it has a specific legal connotation in the Book of Job—to describe one party in a legal dispute’s “rising up” to state a case or accuse another party. In a most difficult, and ghoulish, verse Job talked about how God has shriveled him up (the rare qamat) so that his own bad condition (the difficult word kachash) “rises up” (qum) to “answer/bear witness” against him (16:8). It is almost as if Job sees his withered body as something distinct from himself, rising and testifying against him. Or, when Job has expressed confidence in a Redeemer of his life, he expressed this confidence by the verb qum.  “At the last he (the Redeemer) will stand (qum) upon the earth.” The Redeemer isn’t just standing there to check the wind direction; he is pleading Job’s case.


Thus, when Job says in 31:14 that God will “rise up,” it is a rising up to testify against Job or a rising up in judgment. The second half of the verse confirms this. Though the common verb paqad has a variety of meanings (“to visit/attend to/number or muster (troops)/appoint or put in charge/judge”), its use here is probably the same as in Job 7:18, where Job, using the language with great irony, talks about how God “magnifies” people, setting the divine “heart” on them (7:17) and then “visits” (paqad) them every morning (7:18). This is the “visitation” that makes Job ask God to leave him alone (7:19-21). Thus, the divine “rising” and “inquiring” into Job’s condition is either the divine judgment or a prelude to that judgment.


We might have expected that in completing this fourth clearance oath, Job would have concluded with the result of the divine “visitation.” Yet, in verse 15, he reflects on God and not on punishment.


    “Did not the One who made me in the womb also make them? Did not the One

    establish us in the womb?”


Two points of word choice or grammar should be mentioned. First, the initial question literally reads, “Did not in the womb the one making me make them?” We have consecutive appearances of the verb asah (“to do/make”) with two different suffixes.  The suffixes are actually “me” and “him,” but since male and female servants are in view in verse 13, the plural is an appropriate translation. Second, the common word echad, which usually is translated “one” or “the same,” probably is meant to be understood as a title of God here, rather than “in one/the same womb,” which also would be grammatically permissible.  


Job’s mercy towards his servants rests on his realization that they all share a common humanity. He has no reason to lord it over them or to despise their claim. He knows he stands before God, and he takes that stand now with confidence. But he wouldn’t have that same level of confidence if he oppressed them. Job is certainly no social leveler—even as he professes his concern for his servants.

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