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406. Job 40:3-5, Job Responds
3 Then Job answered the Lord and said,
4 “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
5 Once I have spoken, and I will not answer;
Even twice, and I will add nothing more.
The astonishing thing about these few verses is that Job decides he will not play according to the rules God has just laid out. Job won’t drop his case. Nor will he answer. But he couches his unwillingness to respond to God in a most interesting way: by using the verb qalal (rendered “of small account” here). The point is that Job’s self-description here, because of the polysemic character of qalal, can be read in almost as many different ways as God’s question of verse 2. If this is what is going on here, Job may be staring back at God and saying, ‘You can use confusing language—well, guess what? I can do so, too! But I won’t play your game.’
Qalal appears 82x in the Bible. A little hint of its potential complexity can be gained if we look at its first five or so appearances in the Bible. In Genesis 8:8, 11 it describes waters that “abate” or “recede” (qalal) after the Great Flood. A few verses later (8:21), God uses qalal in the sense of “cursing” (“I will not again curse (qalal) the ground”). Then, in Genesis 16:4, the narrative regarding Sarai and Hagar, the latter became pregnant by Abram and “looked with contempt” (qalal) on Sarai. Then, when Jethro, Moses father-in-law, is counseling him on how to manage a huge multitude of people, he gives advice and then says, “Thus it will be easier (qalal) for you” (Exodus 18:22). It can also mean “show oneself swift” (Isaiah 30:16) or to “be light or trifling.” Confused yet?
While almost all interpreters render the verb qalal in Job 40:4 as “to be unworthy or insignificant or of small account” or, my favorite (from the KJV), “vile,” its wider field of meaning must have been a slight “touché” to God’s confusing question in verse 2. Could it be read, “I am cursed/I have cursed”? Perhaps. In fact, it might even be a more combative response to God to talk about being cursed at this stage than simply being “light” or “of no account.”
However we render the qalal here, the important point is to see that Job is neither dropping his lawsuit nor answering God. Instead, by using two different verbs (the common shub and anah) he states that he won’t be answering. “What shall I return to you” (shub)? Placing one’s hand on one’s mouth is simply a gesture of silence, rather than of being abashed or confessing. Then, in verse 5, Job speaks in proverbial-type language to say that he already has spoken (the common dabar) once and again. Instead of “answering” (anah) and “adding” (yasaph), the way that Elihu was characterized as speaking in 36:1, Job emphatically says here that he will neither “answer” (anah) nor “add” (yasaph) any more.
Why might Job have selected this strategy at this point in his lawsuit with God? One response might be that Job is overwhelmed by the divine theatrics of Job 38-39 and is still “processing” what he has seen. He is in no position to answer. His silence here may be a prelude to his dropping the case after the effects of what God has done/said sink in with him. But another approach, taken here, is that Job is continuing his defiance and will therefore accede to neither of the suggested modes of proceeding. If we adopt this approach, Job would not at all be dazzled by the divine pyrotechnics because he sees through them—i.e., he sees them as God’s fancy way of trying to evade responsibility for what has happened to Job. That this approach is more likely of the two alternatives can be divined by reading the next passage, where God is highly upset, and almost cruel, to Job (Job has used the rare noun akzar, “cruel,” in describing God’s treatment of him, in 30:21). One reasonable explanation for it, to which we will now turn, is that God realizes that the tables have turned, that the power is now really in Job’s hands, and that God has to scramble to try to win back His child. But, as we will see beginning in the next essay, God really doesn’t rise to the occasion in the second divine speech.