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33. Job 4:5-6, An Experiment in Alternative Translation

 

Almost all translators render these verses as follows: 

 

“But now trouble/it comes upon you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are     dismayed. Isn’t the fear of God your confidence, and the uprightness of your ways your hope?”  

 

The thought follows seamlessly from verse 3-4. Job has helped others in need, strengthening their weak limbs, but now in his own need he is impatient. He fails to apply the same lessons to himself.  

 

This usual translation, with which I really have no quarrel, makes the passage’s meaning clear, a meaning that would nicely dovetail with Eliphaz’s stated intent to “test” Job in verse 2.  The first test will be chiding him for being unwilling to ‘take his own medicine,’ urging Job to apply his wisdom to himself. This traditional translation may be the best translation, when all factors are considered.


Yet, there is one issue that is dissatisfying about this translation in verse 5 and two in verse 6. The issue in verse 5 is the rendering of the series of verbs beginning with “t.”  There are four verbs in verse 5:  tabo, tela, tiga, tibahel. The verbs are “come, be impatient/weary (see 4:2), touch, be dismayed.” They present a nice alliterative series in Hebrew. They can either be the third person feminine or second person masculine of the verb. Traditional translations alternate the person of the verb: for example, they say now “it” (feminine subject assumed) comes upon you and “you” (Job, second person masculine) are weary/impatient; “it" (third singular feminine) touches you and “you” (second singular masculine) are  troubled/disquieted/dismayed.

 

It is possible to alternate one’s translations, but a more natural way to read these is as a series of second person singulars addressed to Job. Job is, after all, being addressed in this passage.


In addition, translating the tabo as “it has come” (i.e., this distress has come) as a third person feminine doesn’t make sense to me because both words for distress that have appeared so far, amal and rogez, are masculine nouns. They would have taken a different form of the verb. A third term for distress, in verse 8, is aven, but that is also a masculine noun. So, translating the first verb as an impersonal third person, though probably done someplace in Hebrew literature, isn’t the best choice.  

 

If we were to go with “you” being the subject of each of the verbs, and if we take seriously the fact that the first verb is in the Qal Imperfect, which points to continuous present or future activity, we have something like the following: “But now (soon?) you are/will be coming to your self but you are (already) impatient; you are/will be striking/touching yourself but you are (already) dismayed.” The way I have translated verse 5 is to suggest that Eliphaz is predicting future trouble for Job if he keeps up his intransigence. In true wisdom tradition fashion, Eliphaz would be laying out future consequences of Job’s current actions. What are these consequences for Job? Job will “come to himself”  and “he will strike himself”, though he is already dismayed. It will just keep getting worse for him. The attitudes and actions Job has shown in Chapter 3 indicate to Eliphaz that Job is going in a very bad direction.

 

Then, verse 6 can be “retranslated” as follows: “Isn’t your fear (i.e., your current attitude) your foolishness? Isn’t your (real) hope in the integrity of your ways?” Almost all translations add the little word “God” after fear, making it “Isn’t the fear of God. . .,” even though the word “God” doesn’t appear in the text  Almost all translators then render the word kesilah as “confidence,” (“Isn’t the fear of God your confidence?”) though almost all the more than 70 biblical appearances of the root k-s-l have to do with foolishness or stupidity rather than confidence.  

 

This is not the place for a complete word study of the k-s-l root in the Bible, but it includes at least the following words:  kesel, kesil, kasal, kesiluth, kislah. Kesel appears thirteen times. A few of these may well be translated “confidence” (Psalm 78:7; Job 31:24), but even in the latter instance it probably is best to render it something like “foolish confidence”—i.e., “If I have placed my foolish confidence in gold…” Kesil is the usual way that the k-s-l combination appears, and in all or nearly all of its 70 appearances it is best rendered “stupid” (Psalm 49:10) or “fools” (Proverbs 3:35; 8:5, etc). Kasal (Jeremiah 10:8) and kesiluth (Proverbs 9:13) are hapaxes, and both have to do with foolishness. The word in Job 4:6 is kislah, which only appears one the place (Psalm 85:8), where it is definitely “folly” or “stupidity.”   

 

Thus, the traditional translators take two huge liberties in rendering verse 6 “Isn’t the fear of God your confidence?” They add the word “God” and they translate a “fool-based” word as “confidence.” Job 4:6 is much more likely to be an expression of Eliphaz’s continual chiding of Job: ‘Isn’t the fear that you are now evincing (through your explosion of anger) just an indication of foolishness?’ ‘Instead, one’s hope should be in the integrity of one’s way.’  But using the word ‘integrity’ (tam) here in verse 6, Eliphaz is pointing back to its repeated use in describing Job in Chapter 1. Job is upright and blameless (tam). That characteristic, rather than fear, will be more helpful to Job at this point.  

 

Reading Job 4:5-6 as I have suggested is not free from difficulties, of course. So far in Job the verb naga refers to God’s “striking/touching” Job with his great distress. It is a bit of a stretch to see it here as Job somehow striking himself or beating himself up, though one could read Job 3 in that way. Yet, Eliphaz’s speech in general is a forward-looking speech. He wants to warn Job about the foolishness of continuing to act in the fearful way he has begun. This fear is actually foolishness. Job will neatly turn the concept of fear against the friends in Chapter 6. That passage makes most sense, however, if there is already an allegation of fear on the table.

 

But before leaving this text, we ought to remind ourselves that the first destabilization in Job is of language and meaning. Conversations often “go past” each other; meaning is often hard to come by. We may have that at work in Job 4:5-6. And, this may also function as a warning for us as we continue. Be ready to revisit what one thought were agreed-upon translations, to see if there might be another defensible way to go with the text.