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97. Job 9:19-21, Spiraling Downward, Essay Two

19 If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!
    If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?
20 Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
    though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
21 I am blameless; I do not know myself;
    I loathe my life.

 

Verse 19 is also difficult to translate. The issue has to do with a contrast between strength (koach), which we already know is an attribute of God (9:4), and judgment (mishpat). The latter term can be rendered several different ways: “judgment/justice/judge” but the point of the contrast is that there are two potential principles of divine operation in the world—sheer strength and justice. Literally, “If to strength, behold strong, and if to judgment, who will appoint me?” These words are just the bare bones of meaning; we need to rush in to see how we can make them live.

 

The majority of scholars and translators read the first part of the verse as follows: “If it is a matter of strength (koach), lo, God is mighty (ammits; the two words appear in tandem also in 9:4)!” That is, who can contend either with the principle or the God who is so strong? But then another principle arises, “If it is a matter of justice, who will appoint me (a time)?” The rendering of the last thought is difficult. The final word (yaad 29x, usually translated “to appoint” or “to meet”) is in the Hiphil (causative) of the verb, which would usually make the meaning “cause to appoint.” Thus, some translations of the last word are:

 

            “who will appoint (my day in court)?”  A variation is “who will appoint (a time)?”

            “who will make me meet him (at the appointed place)?”

            “who will summon him?”

            “who will arraign him?” (Clines)

            “who can challenge him?” (NIV)

            “who will testify for me?” (Seow)

 

The differences in translations point either to Job’s wondering how he will get on the heavenly docket, how anyone will have the authority to make God appear in court or how anyone will testify for Job. The middle translation would adumbrate a problem which Job will gently probe later in the chapter—that he needs someone, with clout, who will be able to play the role of an arbitrator or mediator between the two warring sides (God and Job).  Both translation possibilities indicate that Job needs help, help that isn’t readily available, so that he might have the space to present his case.   

 

Some have seen the last phrase as an instance of God’s speaking. God would then be saying, “If it is a matter of justice, who will make an appointment with me?” I prefer to see verse 19 speaking of two alternative modes of decision in the divine world: strength and judgment/justice, but Job is frustrated that there seems to be no way to have access to the second mode of divine operation.

 

This realization plunges him to the despair-laden verses 20-21. Verse 20 presents the hypothetical of what would happen if Job could have access to the divine judgment. We might render it (again not rendering the initial im), “I will be righteous; my mouth would make me seem evil; I would be blameless, but he would prove me perverse.”  

That is, even if Job had the opportunity to present his case, either because God was correctly summoned or the appointment time was made clear, he would be righteous (tsadeq, which also has occurred in 9:2, 15) but words would become tangled. It is as if God would take his words, twist their meanings and have Job saying things that he doesn’t want to say, words that wouldn’t aid his case. The utter sadness of Job’s sense of the current situation is that he is tam, blameless, a judgment shared by God and others, but that God would “make him perverse” (aqash, 5x).  

 

Of the other four appearances of aqash in the Bible, two are in Proverbs 10:9; 28:18. The first is especially relevant for Job 9:20. As in Job 9:20, Proverbs 10:9 uses the words tam and aqash. In Job 9:20 the tam person finds that his words are perverted, but in Proverbs 10:9 the tam and aqash represent contrasting types of people. The tam are secure (batach) while those who pervert their ways (aqash) will be found out.  

 

By making both words (tam/aqash) refer to himself at the same time, Job has mixed the clean and neatly-separated categories of Proverbs. Job is saying, ‘Well, in this case, God has actually inverted the basic principle of Proverbs by perverting the one who is tam.’ 

 

Now we are ready for and can understand Job’s three hopeless, and seemingly unrelated, statements in 9:21. All of his categories are so profoundly confused at this juncture that all he can do is speak two or three-word utterances. It is as if Job had just been in a massive accident, with flying shards of glass or jagged pieces of metal all around. He needs to check to see if his body is intact. He gingerly pats himself. All he can say is, ‘No bleeding; body intact; skin not punctured’ or something like that. That is what Job is doing now. His life has been upended. He realizes that he wants an explanation from an anger-filled powerful divinity. He can’t ask for mercy.He doesn’t know how to make this divinity appear.  His words would come out in a confused way.  So, Job speaks in 9:21:  

 

     “I am blameless (tam); I do not know (yada again) myself; I despise (maas) my life.”

 

Little needs to be said about each of the affirmations.  In an accident, you first check the most vital signs. For Job it is that he is tam. He asserts it. Despite the tempest by which God has assaulted him, Job remains tam.  At least he will be able to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground when all around him are seemingly controlled by anger or deceit.

 

Rather than seeing “I don’t know myself” (literally, “I know not my soul”) as an Augustinian statement opening the fundaments of personality for inspection, we might best see it as used in the same way to a similar expression in Genesis 39:6. There, Pharaoh left control of his household affairs to Joseph. Because of this, he didn’t have a  care for anything in his house anymore. The Hebrew of that passage says, he “didn’t know (yada, same verb as in Job 9:21) with him (ito, similar to ‘my soul’) anything…”  I tend to read Job’s statement in 9:21 similarly. Job now doesn’t have a care for himself. He knows his life is over; he is perfect/blameless. He is not concerned about himself anymore. He knows he has nothing to lose. 

 

Now we understand the force of the last two-word phrase: “I despise/reject (maas) my life.”  As earlier mentioned, the verb maas plays an important role in Job, and our translation of it differs based on whether an object follows it. Here, as in 8:20; 10:3, maas has an object. We might see the final two words of 9:21 as a gentle irony directed at Bildad’s confident words in 8:20.  Bildad had said that God wouldn’t maas a tam.  Now, using both those words in a seven-word statement, Job says, “I am tam” and “I  despise (maas) my life.”  Life isn’t supposed to work out that way, according to Bildad. But Job won’t care because he has already made that statement about not caring in the middle— “I don’t know/care for my life.”  That is the kind of despair and drive that will propel the rest of the book.