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89. Job 9:1-12, The Torment (for Job) of God’s Greatness, Introduction
Then Job answered:
2 “Indeed I know that this is so;
but how can a mortal be just before God?
3 If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand.
4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength
—who has resisted him, and succeeded?—
5 he who removes mountains, and they do not know it,
when he overturns them in his anger;
6 who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
7 who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
8 who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;
9 who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10 who does great things beyond understanding,
and marvelous things without number.
11 Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
12 He snatches away; who can stop him?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
As C L Seow has pointed out, Job begins his long journey with legal terminology in this two-chapter speech (Job 9-10). We are immediately taken into the legal world in verse 9:2, 3 by the use of tsadeq (in this case, “to be found righteous/found in the right”) in verse 2 and rib (“contend/bring a lawsuit”) in verse 3. They both serve as signals that what Job is doing here is not simply exploding with emotion (Job 3) or expressing his anger, cynicism and frustration (Job 6-7) but now turning his concern into a legal case, his anger into a pleading. I will note some of the legal terminology in these two chapters as the exposition continues. The legal terms continue into Job 10, but there Job actually poses at least three questions (10:1-9) that he would ask God in such a proceeding. Thus, when Job says several chapters later (13:18) that he has prepared his case and he knows he will be vindicated, he is both looking backwards to Job 9-10 and forward to his words about the witness in heaven (16:19) and Redeemer of his life (19:25). Law, then, becomes the new language of Job.
Thus, my slightly different translation of verse 2 is:
“Truly I know this is so, but how shall a person be found in the right (tsadeq) with God?”
Job’s first words of this verse are striking and unexpected. We have thought of him as trying to draw a contrast with his friends’ ideas; now we see him as saying that what they said is “so” (kiy ken). Two meanings, one serious and one humorous, come to mind. The serious one is that Job is affirming that his basic belief system is not that different from the friends. Or, slightly varying the point, he is zeroing in on one of the points made by either Eliphaz or Bildad and affirming it. Two possible translations of Eliphaz's question in 4:17 are, “Can a mortal be just before God?” or, more interesting,”Can a mortal be more righteous than God?” In 9:2 Job may simply be gently affirming the importance of Eliphaz’s earlier question and agreeing with its rhetorical force, i.e., ‘No human is more righteous than God.’
But a more humorous meaning of kiy ken also emerges. After listening to Bildad carry on with rather meaningless drivel for several verses, Job might be agreeing with Bildad that what he says is “so” or “right” just so that the latter will shut up. There often is nothing better than agreeing with someone to get them to be quiet and then continue with what you wanted to say in the first place.
As indicated, my approach to Job’s words in these chapters is to focus on the question of how one can win a lawsuit or emerge victorious in a legal dispute with God. Job isn’t just hiding behind a general “feel-good” notion of righteousness (tsadeq) but is actually seeking a forensic solution to his problem. He will quickly morph into other ideas, but his concern with law permeates these chapters. Later Job will actually say that God has wronged him/put him in the wrong (19:6). By the beginning of Chapter 9, however, Job isn’t quite able to say that, though he is feeling that a legal remedy may be his best alternative. But, as the next verses show, Job is fully aware of the perils of that approach.
Job states his problem in nutshell in verse 3,
"If one is inclined to bring a lawsuit (rib) against him, He would not answer one word to a thousand.”
As with many verses in Job, two meanings are possible. Some read this verse with God as the subject of it—that God would actually be the one who desires to contend with Job. The prophetic literature of Israel talks about God having a complaint (rib) against the people (e.g., Hosea 4:1). Yet in the context of Job 9 it makes more sense to think of Job contemplating a case against God. This case will mature in 13:18 to Job’s confident assertion that he now has prepared his case; he knows that he will be vindicated. Job 23 also focuses on Job’s case, but it expresses the frustration that Job can’t find the defendant—God. We read Job best if we see the first inklings of a legal case already here. The verb rib occurs 67x in the Bible, often with the precise meaning as in Job 9:2, of bringing a lawsuit/case (see, e.g., I Samuel 2:10; several times in Judges 6:31-32).
Yet, as he will do with several ideas in this chapter, Job will “float” them only quickly to withdraw them. Like a trial balloon in politics, where an idea is suggested before being implemented in order to gauge whether it might work, so Job floats a balloon here. Job states the problem baldly: if he brought a case he wouldn’t be able to answer God one word in a thousand. This idiom suggests that God is both too knowledgeable and too deft for Job. Later Job will believe that God would actually twist his words to his (Job's) disadvantage; here he is just emphasizing the disproportion in power and skill between him and God. The bottom line is that it is a rather hopeless task to oppose God. I find it interesting to note that if we add up God’s words in Job 38-41, when God actually begins to speak, and compare them to Job’s reaction in those chapters, the ratio is not quite 1000:1, but it is close. God will act in precisely the way Job has predicted.
We have become acutely aware in our culture in the last several years of the often baleful effects of disproportionate power between people who are working together. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, disproportionate power will lead to exploitation of weaker people. Job worries that God is like that, too. Is he very wide of the mark?
Job’s realization that contention (rib) with God will be unavailing leads him to a most fascinating hymn to the divine wisdom and strength (vv 4-10). That is, the reason a case won’t succeed is that God is “Wise in heart and mighty in strength” (v 4). Rather than just giving us a list of divine attributes to pass some kind of theological test, however, Job uses them in service to his larger aim in the passage: to stress the fruitlessness of direct appeal to or lawsuit against God.
Even though Job doesn’t descend into the cynicism of 7:17-21, he is clearly torn. In Job 6-7 he wanted to know how he could escape God. Now he is increasingly moving to a method of confronting God. But he can’t do it yet. It is too awesome a mountain to climb, too daunting a possibility.
Job’s reluctance to confront God not only arises from the fact that the tradition doesn’t give a lot of support to those who blatantly accuse God of injustice but that the Scriptures actually point to a pretty severe penalty for one who “hardens” the self against God. That is, 9:4 says, about God,
“God is wise in heart and mighty in strength; who has hardened himself (qashah) against him and prospered (shalam)?”
Job’s use of qashah (28x) in this passage, elsewhere used as “hardening the neck/heart” (e.g., Nehemiah 9:29; Ps 95:8; Prov 28:14), is fascinating from the perspective of the wisdom tradition. Proverbs 29:1 says, “A man rebuked often and hardening (qashah) his neck suddenly will be shattered (shabar) and without remedy (marpe, literary “healing”). Job 9:4 takes on special meaning in the context of Proverbs 29:1. Job would be aware that he not only confronts the difficulty of preparing a case and assembling witnesses, but that if in some way God interprets his approach as impertinent hardening, the result might be irreversible smashing. When Job later says, “I will take my flesh in my teeth and put my life in my hand” (13:14), he recognizes the dangerous truth of this sentiment. Job is treading on extremely perilous ground. No wonder in Job 9 he both wants to bring a case but then can’t imagine himself doing so; no wonder he wants to appeal to God’s mercy but then gives up that idea (9:15); no wonder he just states forlornly that there is no umpire to help him out (9:33-35). Scripture teaches that the potential repercussions of opposing God directly are too daunting to consider.
It is important in translation to maintain the literal meaning of qashah here, and especially see its implication in the wisdom tradition. Yet, few other versions or scholars do so. Here are a few examples:
“Who has resisted him and succeeded?” (NRSV)
“Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?” (NIV)
“Who has defied Him without harm?” (NASB)
“Who can challenge him and succeed?” (Seow)
“Who ever argued with him and succeeded?” (Clines)
The King James Version, however, keeps the literal, and helpful, meaning:
“Who has hardened himself against him, and has prospered?”