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320. Job 31:26-28, The Oath about Other Gods
26 If I have looked at the sun when it shone
Or the moon going in splendor,
27 And my heart became secretly enticed,
And my hand threw a kiss from my mouth,
28 That too would have been an iniquity calling for judgment,
For I would have denied God above.
The temptation to idolatry, or honoring other divinities, is nowhere more clearly stated than in Deuteronomy 4. Moses is presented there as reviewing the gracious acts of God on behalf of the people of Israel. God appeared to them in a fire on the holy mountain (4:10-11) and spoke to them (4:12). God declared a covenant with the people (4:13). Rather than giving them a form or image of Himself, God decided to give them a law (4:14-15), a law that laid out the path of faithful living.
Because of this care and this unique relationship, based on covenant and law, the people were to take heed, especially in the area of idolatrous practices. They were not to make a graven image (a pesel, 4:16) of anything, male or female, a beast of the earth or bird of the air (4:17). The things they should not make sound like an echo of the categories of the creation story of Genesis 1. But then, after going through what they shouldn’t make, Moses turns to what they shouldn’t do (Deuteronomy 4:19)—
“lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and see the sun and the moon and the stars and all the host of heaven and you feel driven/are drawn away (nadach, a favorite word of Deuteronomy— 51x/10x Deut) and you worship them and serve them.”
The allure of the heavenly bodies rested on many things: their regularity of movement (with occasional awesome breaks in the patterns), their location in the realm supposedly inhabited by God, their control over the forces of nature through giving warmth, bringing rain or even giving light in the night. Though the classic Chinese poets had a fully different world view, perhaps influenced by Taoism or Buddhism, many of them still had a special affection for the moon. It was the common treasure possessed by separated lovers lying on their cool bamboo mats at night, unable to sleep. Both could look up, see it, share it and thereby kindle their love more deeply for each other.
So, when Job introduces his next “if” clause in 31:26, marking the seventh category of things that he will not have done (deceit; turn from the way; adultery; mistreatment of servants; ignoring of pleas of vulnerable people; seek riches), he turns to idolatrous practices. Though not as systematic as Deuteronomy’s familiar trio of sun, moon, stars (shemesh, yareach, kokab), Job still makes his meaning clear in verse 26:
“If I have beheld the light as it shined; and as the moon walked in its brightness"
The “light” here no doubt stands for the “sun” which yahal (165x, praise/shine). In many printed texts of Job, the yahal of verse 26 stands directly under the chayil (wealth/army) of verse 25. The letters of the words are scrambled but they look surprisingly alike (the Hebrew h and ch are often nearly indistinguishable). Who says that the inspiration of the Scriptures must just lie in the denotation of the words? The meaning may also be in the sounds; perhaps also the shapes of the letters are indicative of spiritual or other meaning. Certainly scholars have since time immemorial posited that the numbers had mystical significance.
Yet in verse 26 there can be no doubt as to Job’s meaning. If he beheld the sun as it shone or the moon as it “walked” (the common halak) in its brightness (yaqar, 35x, preciousness, majesty, glory) so that, literally (verse 27):
“My heart has been enticed in secret and my hand has kissed my mouth,"
“This would be an iniquity deserving of judgment, because I would have denied
God who is above” (31:28).
Job may not have the need to describe his punishment further because his reed-thin arm would already be dangling from his mangled shoulder socket (verse 22), though he could have adopted some of the curse language of Leviticus or Deuteronomy to talk about eyes withering or facial disfigurement or bodily sickness. But the reader is already aware of Job’s physical debility; it is enough to mention here the fearful prospect of judgment.
Whereas beholding the sun or giving homage to the moon were done out-of-doors, perhaps in the full view of everyone, the idolatry of verse 27 is “inside” idolatry. We know that because of the appearance of sether (36x, “secret place, hiding place”). But Job also drops in the verb pathah again (“to be open, seduce, entice”) which he had used in verse 9 to describe the temptation of adultery. The same verb to describe these two different phenomena (adultery; idolatry) may not have been happenstance; the same process of allurement, physical attraction, total devotion and expected rewards is involved in both.
The first clause of verse 27 is clear, but the second clause literally says, “And my hand kissed my mouth.” The notion of kissing objects or one’s own hand is certainly familiar to the ancient world as a sign of devotion to something. When Elijah was worried about being the only one dedicated to the true God, God responded by saying that there were yet in Israel 7000 people who were not dedicated to Baal, “whose mouth has not kissed him” (I Kings 19:18). Job is speaking in verse 27 of this same kind of reality. Why are the words reversed, so that it says “hand kisses mouth?” It is probably employed as a literary device by Job to slow the reader down, lest we rush to “fill in the meaning” before actually reading the words.
Job envisions a generic punishment in verse 28. The crucial phrase “deserving of judgment” has been rendered many ways: a “criminal offense” or “sin to be judged” or an “iniquity calling for judgment.” The word for “judgment” is the hapax pelili, but it obviously is the same word as the palil (3x, “judge/punishable by a judge”) of 31:11. The same phrase, “avon palil/pelili” (“iniquity judgment”) appears in both places. Job is showing that the seductive dynamics (the verb pathah) and the punishment (avon palil/pelili) for both adultery and idolatry are the same.
He concludes verse 28 with another assessment of the danger of idolatry: it would be a “denial/lying/deception” (kachash, 22x) of God above.” Two passages in the Psalms use the verb kachash to express the concept of pretended or feigned obedience (Psalm 66:3; 81:15). The former says about God:
“How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies kachash before you."
The enemies "feign obedience" or "cringe" or "give external displays of loyalty" while really denying the power of Yahweh. If Job were to have practiced idolatry, he would not only open himself up to a criminal offense and its punishment, but it would be tantamount to pretending obedience because he was also sacrificing righteously, praying and speaking out to the true God in the assembly of the people.