Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17
In the opening chapters of the book of Job, a dialogue takes place within the Divine Council, a dialogue between God and the hassatan about Job.
The hassatan queries “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Or put differently, would Job fear God if he had nothing? The hassatan answers his own question in Job 1:11 and 2:5, declaring that if God were to strip Job of all that he had, then Job would assuredly curse God to his face. The reader arrives at Job 42 with the original question of the hassatan still in the air. God has appeared to Job in the whirlwind and offered a dizzying array of cosmological and meteorological references to which Job offers his response in chapter 42. Will Job curse God to his face?
Even as the meaning of the speeches of God appeared somewhat opaque at first, so it is also with responses of Job. What is certain, however, is that the hassatan is incorrect. When afforded the opportunity, Job does not curse God. Embedded within his brief reply are two quotes from the earlier speeches of God (verse 3a, 38:2; verse 4a, 38:3; and 40:7b) around which he makes several confessions. These are not confessions of sin or transgressions but an acknowledgement that indeed his worldview has been reoriented (see comments on Job 38:1-7, 34-41). He thought he fully understood how the world, and by extension God, operated, but having received instruction from the Creator (chapters 38-41), he now knows otherwise.
Central to this new orientation is his comment in verse 5. Job admits that he had heard of God before, but now he has seen God. Although no one is supposed to see God and live (Exodus 33:20), the Old Testament reports significant moments in Israel’s history when a person or persons has seen God (Genesis 16;13; Isaiah 6:11). In each instance, those who see God come away with “insight,” a new way of seeing the world. For Job, God’s coming in the whirlwind and his lengthy speeches could not be construed as a “verbal beat down,” as some might suggest, but instead as a wondrous moment of new insight. Job reminds us that while we can learn much about God from what we “hear,” seeing happens when God comes near and our lives are reoriented.
The clearest evidence of this change in Job’s perspective appears in verse 6, but that verse is not without its challenges both in translation and interpretation. Both the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translate the verse as “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Rendered as such, the final confession sounds like something a person would read in one of the penitential psalms. These translations appear to suggest that Job is repenting of some sin, but such an understanding would certainly undercut one of the central themes of the book, that is that Job has not sinned.
There is another, and in my mind, preferable way to render and understand the verse. In Job 42:6a, the verb can mean to “reject” or “retract.” The verb appears repeatedly throughout Job with that meaning in view (for example Job 31:3). Although the NIV and NRSV insert the word “myself” in their translations, there is actually no explicit object of the verb in the Hebrew. Rather than rejecting “myself,” it seems more likely that Job is referencing his words or thoughts: “I reject my words.”
Job rejects his earlier words because he has come to a new understanding, as becomes clear in 42:6b. Although, the NIV and NRSV translate the verb na?am as “repent,” a word that typically connotes repenting from some sin or transgression, the verb na?am can also refer to a changing of one’s mind as clearly evident in Amos 7:3, 6. Job is not repenting of sin but changing his mind, and in particular, he changes his mind concerning (?al) the human condition (dust and ashes). The mechanistic worldview cannot explain the human condition or God’s way in the world.
Following Job’s confession, he is restored twofold (Job 42:10). For example, the livestock mentioned in verse 12 is double that of his original holdings in the prologue and we are told that Job lives 140 years, double that of the expected life span (compare with Psalm 90:10). The restoration of Job has long puzzled interpreters and rightly so. Although the speeches in the book of Job challenge the doctrine of retribution, the epilogue seems to advocate for that view, that is Job was restored because he did the “right” thing.
The ending may, however, suggest a different reading. In Job 1:9, the hassatan asked, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Job’s response in 42:1-6 seems to answer in the affirmative; he fears God without any assurance of a subsequent blessing. Understood this way, the restoration of Job reflects God’s faithfulness to those who fear him. Job does not fear God to receive a reward, but in fearing God, Job discovers the faithfulness of God.