Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17
We have walked with Job the last few weeks through the book that bears his name. This week we read the final chapter of the book and find out what becomes of Job in the end.
This epilogue to the book of Job is, for many readers, hard to accept. The whole book up to this point has been (apparently) an argument against the doctrine of retributive justice; that is, the idea that God always rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Now, at the end of the book, that belief seems to be upheld: Job is rewarded for his piety (or at least reimbursed for his losses). The friends seem to have been right all along.
On top of that, we moderns are understandably troubled by the notion that God replaces Job’s ten dead children with ten new children at the end of the book, as if children were replaceable.
The epilogue to the book of Job can be (and has been) read as a facile ending to an otherwise profound book. It can be (and has been) read as a kind of modern absurdist ending that calls into question everything that has preceded it. But these kinds of readings do justice neither to the details of the epilogue nor to its relationship to the rest of the book. And, frankly, these readings don’t “preach.”
So, let’s sketch a reading of the epilogue that takes into consideration its relationship with the rest of the book, a reading that will “preach.” I’ll spend time at three particular points in the epilogue, knowing that much more could be said about each:
Job responds to the divine speeches by acknowledging that he has neither God’s power nor God’s wisdom. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). He had accused God of creating a world of chaos, and God responded by showing Job the world as it really is: a place of order, but also of freedom and beauty, not centered on human beings, full of wild creatures Job never imagined in his former life.
And somehow, through that vision of creation, Job’s fierce hope is fulfilled. Earlier, in the throes of despair, Job had proclaimed,
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:25-27).
Now, after the divine speeches, Job says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).
Somehow, through the grand vision of God’s creation, Job’s profound desire to be in the presence of God has been fulfilled. He has seen God. And that vision moves him out of despair into life again.
One more note about Job’s response: The last verse is notoriously difficult to translate. The NRSV reads, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). There are a number of problems with this translation. Without getting into all the details of the Hebrew, suffice it to say that a better translation (in my opinion) is this, from the Tanakh: “Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:6).1
Job does not abjectly repent on his ash heap, browbeaten into submission. Instead, he acknowledges that he spoke of things he did not understand. He recants, and he realizes anew his place in the world, a mortal human being. But at the same time, this creature of “dust and ashes” (like Abraham before him) is privileged to stand in the presence of God himself: “Now my eye sees you.”2
Job is not the center of the universe. He knows that now. But he has a place; he has a role to play, and he takes up that role again in the verses that follow.
The “Friends” Reprimanded
The lectionary skips verses 7-9, which tell the story of God’s response to the “friends.” It is worth reading this passage, though, as it makes an important point:
“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done'” (42:7-8).
All English translations of these verses translate God’s charge along these lines: “You have not spoken about me what is right.” But note that the Hebrew can also be translated, “You have not spoken to me rightly, as has my servant Job.”
This latter translation points out what was true all along. For all their speaking about God, the “friends” never once in the book speak to God; they never once pray for their suffering friend. Job, on the other hand, moves from speaking only about God to speaking more and more directly to God.
The friends theologize; Job prays.
The friends try to defend God; Job laments. He holds on to God with one hand and shakes his fist at God with the other. He stays in relationship with God, addressing God directly even from the depths of despair; and for this, he is commended by God in the end.
And then Job the sufferer becomes Job the mediator. God commands his three companions to offer sacrifices. And Job, still presumably covered with boils, offers prayers on their behalf. He for whom they never prayed now prays for them; and God accepts the prayer of his suffering servant, Job. We don’t have the words of the prayer, but perhaps it begins, “Father, forgive them…”
The Restoration of Job3
God restores Job’s fortunes, giving him twice as much wealth as before, and ten more children, and it seems to many readers a cheap ending to the book. But note the details of this restoration: Job’s three daughters are the most beautiful women in the land, and Job gives them an inheritance along with their brothers, an unheard-of act in the ancient Near East. He also gives them unusually sensual names: Dove (Jemimah), Cinnamon (Keziah) and Rouge-Pot (Keren-happuch).
It seems that Job has learned to govern his world as God does. As Ellen Davis argues, the cautious patriarch of the prologue who offered “preemptive sacrifices” for his children has become a parent after God’s own heart. He gives his children the same freedom that God gives God’s creation, and, like God, he delights in their freedom and in their beauty.4
Davis writes, “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?”5 It is a question worth pondering. Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?
As for the question of whether ten new children can replace those lost, Davis argues that it is useless to focus on how much it costs God to restore Job’s fortunes. (It obviously costs God nothing.) “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”6 Like a Holocaust survivor whose greatest act of courage is to bear children after the cataclysm, Job chooses against all odds to live again. Job (and his wife) choose to bear children into a world full of heart-rending beauty and heart-breaking pain. Job chooses to love again, even when he knows the cost of such love.
Living again after unspeakable pain is a kind of resurrection. The book of Job does not espouse an explicit belief in resurrection.7 Nevertheless, the trajectory of the whole book participates in that profound biblical movement from death to life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the translators of the Septuagint add this verse to the book of Job: “And Job died, old and full of days. And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.“
And perhaps that is an appropriate place to leave this story of Job, waiting with God’s other servants for the world to come. This complex work, the book of Job, plumbs the depths of despair and comes out on the other side into life again. In this movement, it testifies not only to the reality of inexplicable suffering but also to the possibility of new life — life lived out in relationship with the God of Israel, the God of resurrection, who, as both synagogue and church proclaim, is faithful even until death, and beyond.
1 The Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society, 1985). For a more detailed discussion of the translation issues in Job 42:6, see J. Gerald Janzen, Job (Louisville: John Knox, 1985), 254-259.
2 Note that the phrase “dust and ashes” is used only three times in the Bible. This verse seems to deliberately echo another instance of human chutzpah, when Abraham, who is “dust and ashes,” dares to argue with God (Genesis 18:27).
3 I am indebted for much of the following interpretation to Ellen F. Davis, particularly her chapter, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 121-143.
4 Ibid., 142-143.
5 Ibid., 140.
6 Ibid., 142.
7 See 14:7-12, though 19:25-27 might indicate a nascent concept of resurrection.