Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17
What can Job possibly say to God after hearing God finally speak?
Is a response in this situation even appropriate? Before the divine speech, Job was loaded and ready. He wanted the opportunity to make his case before God. He had hours and days and months of arguments at the tip of his tongue. Now God has responded, although not in the way that Job expected or hoped. Job was never able to bring God to trial to testify against God. He never received reasoned or reasonable answers to his “why me” questions. But God did speak and something happened to Job in the process.
In this final chapter, Job doesn’t say much (comparatively) but he chooses his closing words very carefully. Beginning with a statement of God’s power, Job states what has been clear to him from the beginning: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” This is, in fact, the reason that Job wanted to speak to God in the first place. As Robert Alter points out, Job never doubted God’s power; he questioned only God’s justice.1
The rest of Job’s statements are framed as responses to God’s questions and demands. To God’s earlier question — “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” — Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Here, in contrast to Job’s first words where he talks about what he does know (that God can do anything), Job emphasizes his lack of both knowledge and understanding.
In Alter’s recent translation of the Book of Job, he renders this sentence somewhat differently: “Therefore I told but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know.” Which things did Job say or tell that he did not understand? He said an awful lot, after all, to God, to his friends, even his wife. Does Job mean that although he was convinced he knew his God and communicated this image of God to his friends and family, he didn’t really understand God very well?
And the “wonders” that he did not know — what are they? In the Hebrew Bible this word has been variously translated as “miracles,” “wondrous works,” “marvels,” and even once as “monstrous things” (Daniel 11:36). The word almost always refers to acts that only God can perform or do and which humans can’t seem to explain or account for. In the divine speech that unfolds across the preceding chapters, this is precisely what God describes — the marvels, wonders, and even monstrous things (like the Leviathan in Job 41) that God creates and controls. God has painted word pictures of creation that Job has not ever been able to even imagine — wonders of which Job was wholly unaware.
Quoting God once again, “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me,” Job finally hints at the fact that something powerful has happened to him in his encounter with God. Alter translates Job’s statement like this: “By the ear’s rumor I heard of You, and now my eye has seen You.” What is it that Job saw? He doesn’t, exactly. We only know from this that what Job knew before was based on hearsay, not experience. Job says, though, that because of what he has now “seen,” he recants (NRSV says “I despise myself” but “recant” is probably a better rendering) and repents in dust and ashes. Just as in the earlier verse where Job claims that he didn’t know or understand, we aren’t quite sure what the content of his recanting or repenting are. Is he withdrawing his entire case? His claims to innocence? His demands for justice?
I think it’s possible that Job is rejecting or renouncing his previous ideas about God — his entire sense that God simply functions as a machine that processes human behavior, rewarding and punishing accordingly. A case can be made for this reading, especially since the word “repent” is problematic. In a Christian context, this word is almost always connected to sin and occurs when someone recognizes his or her error and shows remorse. In Hebrew, though, the word can legitimately be understood as changing one’s mind and setting out on a new path. This word is even applied to God in Exodus 32 where God changes God’s mind about doing away with the Israelites after the golden calf incident. Read in this vein, we might say that Job, having seen God, rejected his previous view of God and changed his mind.
So what happens in this encounter between God and Job to so change Job?
Job’s universe has just exploded! He has been challenged to think differently about everything in his life and see anew what is around him. Author Michael Chabon asserts that good children’s literature, in fact all good literature, should blow the minds of its readers wide open.2 I would go further and say that this is true of any transformative experience. It happens, says Chabon, “when something you feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.” This is what happened to Job.
With Job still in dust and ashes, God turns to Job’s so-called friend, Eliphaz the Temenite, saying, “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.” Job’s name has been cleared.
Job 42:10-17 challenges everything we’ve just talked about. It’s supposed to be a happy ending where Job gets everything back. The problem, though, is that this ending doesn’t work. Getting a new family to replace the old one? Anyone who has lost a family member — a child, a spouse, for example, knows perfectly well that a new spouse or child never replaces the one we have lost. We may love them deeply but the new family member does not erase the memory of what came before. What seems to be happening in this chapter is that these concluding verses were most likely tacked on to the original text at a later date. Subsequent editors, upset with an ending in which reward did not follow righteous behavior, decided to make it happen anyway. This is so much like what we all want to do in the face of the tragedy, loss, and grief of those around us — wrap it up and make it better. But is that the right thing to do? I much prefer to do what Job’s friends repeated failed to do throughout the book, to be present to Job in his time of grief, to listen to him, and to trust that what he said and experienced were true.
1 For this and subsequent references to Robert Alter’s work, see The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010).
2 Chabon, Michael, Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (New York, NY: Harper Collins, paperback edition, 2009), 81-82.