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419. Job 42:6, Job’s Final Verse: A New Reading
6 Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes.”
For centuries we had an agreed-upon translation of this verse. Two verbs control the action, and they were read as maas and nacham. The first was almost universally translated as “reject” or “despise” or “retract” while the second was rendered as “repent.” Thus, the NRSV has, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”; the KJV has, “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The American Standard Version has, “Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” Many others translations are similar. Credit ought to be accorded the KJV for putting the word myself in italics; it isn’t there in the Hebrew text, and that actually will be important in deciding eventually how to translate this verse.
There is no doubt that nacham is what appears in the text (though I will translate it differently than traditionally), but the maas is now being scrutinized with ever more eager attention, as scholars are concluding that the very similar-looking verb masas, instead of maas, is probably in view here. In addition, even if the verb is still read as maas, its meaning may not be “reject/despise.“ As will be indicated below, when maas appears without an object in Job in one other passage (7:16), it is best rendered as “melt/fade away.” Masas is always so rendered. When we couple this with the realization that most scholars are now thinking that a better rendering of nacham in the Book of Job may be “to find comfort/console” rather than “to repent,” we have all the makings of a fresh way of seeing this final statement of Job.
As I have just shown with respect to Job 42:2-5, clarity and ambiguity often are near neighbors in the Book of Job. It would be entirely within the author’s operating method to give us a key verse that can reasonably be read in more than one way. Such a method adds to the allure, and frustration, of the book.
When writing the last volume of this three-volume commentary on Job about a decade ago, David Clines was clearly aware of the problem of how to render the first verb. He went through the various possibilities, beginning with the traditional rendering, but was bothered by the fact that no object to the verb maas/masas appears. So, one can either add an object (scholars often call it an “implied object” as if the author just happened to forget it because it wasn’t really necessary) or read the text as we have it. As indicated, he says that the only other place in Job where maas appears without an object is in 7:16, a reasonable translation of which, as the New American Standard and NRSV have it:
“I waste away (maas); I will not live forever. . .”
We can take things a bit further than the commentaries by saying that the verb maas appears a dozen times in Job, with most of the instances having an explicit object (e.g., 5:17; 8:20; 9:21; 10:3; 19:18; 30:1). For example, one shouldn’t “despise” (maas) the discipline of the Lord (5:17); Job “despises” (maas) his life (9:21).
There are a few other passages in Job, some difficult to translate, where there isn’t an object following maas. We might mention, in addition to 7:16, 7:5; 35:33; 36:5 and here, 42:6. In 7:5, for example, Job complains about how his body is “clothed” (the common labash) with worms and his skin is cracked with dirt and maas, generally translated as “breaks out afresh” or “wears away.”
Thus, if we were only to read closely the other appearances of maas in Job, we might have reason to see a “melt away/wear away” rendering in 42:6. But then, as Clines indicates, the verb masas (21x) is simply a byform or alternative spelling of maas. In most of its twenty-one appearances it is best rendered “dissolve” or “melt away” (Exofud 16:21; Deuteronomy 1:28; 20:8; Joshua 2:11; Judges 7:5; etc). Then, about a few decades ago, even an avowed Evangelical scholar in an avowed Evangelical commentary series had this to say about the first verb of 42:6, “the MT (Masoretic Text) ‘em’as comes either from the Hebrew root m’s, “despise, loathe” (the object either having fallen out or supplied from the context), or from mss, “melt away, sink down.” There are many objections to the first option,” Hartley, Book of Job, on Job 42:6, fn 4.
If we take seriously the growing opposition to reading maas/masas as “despise” or “reject,” and the growing inclination to see it as “melt away/dissolve” (and Clines has a recent YouTube video in which he now adopts that reading—his commentary just has the unsatisfactory word, “I submit”), we are left with the fascinating statement of Job,
“Therefore I melt away/dissolve/fade away. . .”
I have interpreted this in When Leaving God is a Good Choice as an indication that Job is finally leaving God. He is saying “I fade away” here to express his ultimate dissatisfaction with the way that God has been treating him not only in the distress he suffered but also when God appeared in Job 38-41. God’s goal was to get Job to submit to God; Job says that he will just fade away. In other words, Job is saying to God, ‘I have options; I have my integrity, my Redeemer, my explanation of life given by Elihu (36:16), and I need no longer serve a God who not only probably brought this terrible distress on me but won’t even have the courtesy or honesty to dignify my insistent and accurate questions with anything other than apparent disdain and with pointing out my lack of knowledge.’
Job, then, is “fading away” or “melting away” from God. But then, we have the second verb of the verse to consider: nacham. Because, in the traditional reading, it was closely connected with the “despise/abhor” rendering off maas/masas earlier in the verse, it had to be interpreted consistently with the world-view of “despising” or “rejecting” the self. What do you do? You repent (nacham), which is one of the three accepted meanings of nacham. But, as Clines shows in his commentary, and others are beginning to realize, the rendering of nacham here as “find comfort” or “console” is better attested. For example, the verb nacham (108x) appears 7x in the Book of Job, and in every other instance it is best translated as “comfort” (e.g., 2:11; 7:13; 16:2; 21:34; 29:25 and in just a few more verses—42:11). Everyone uses nacham in Job relating to the concept of comfort or consolation rather than repentance.
If we were to use that understanding in Job 42:6, we would then have Job, who has “melted away” from God, then “comforting/consoling upon the dust and ashes.” What Job is doing is shifting the basis of his “faith” from God to the ash heap. He is making a profoundly strong statement to God not only that he is leaving the divine care but will find an alternative source of comfort on the ash heap. He has been sitting on the ash hep, either literally or metaphorically, ever since the friends came to comfort him in 2:11-13. What he would be saying here, under my reading of 42:6, is that his true comfort in life now will continue to be the ash heap.
The promises of God are over for Job. He has tried to live faithfully. When disaster came, he tried to understand it with his friends. He drafted a complaint and approached God with it, though he became frustrated because he wasn’t sure where to find God. But Elihu told Job that God was trying, through Job’s distress, to lure him into a broad place, a place of freedom. Armed with this insight, Job no doubt expected God to display some kind of compassion or understanding of his situation when God appeared. But when God appeared, it was anything but that. God was seemingly chagrined that Job had disturbed him; God gently, or even more insistently, mocked Job’s pusillanimity and lack of knowledge; God didn’t answer any of Job’s questions.
Job responded in 42:1-5 by acknowledging God’s greatness, his own ignorance and his new “vision” of God, though the last concept is unclear. But when all was said and done, with God bringing the distress and not answering Job’s questions, with Job having alternative explanations for his distress and a new power source (the Redeemer), he simply realizes that his life, even on the ash heap, is better than a life with God. So, he leaves God in this verse.