Job 42:1-6 — Did Job “Repent”?

Something climatic happens in Job 42:1-6 when Job responds to Yahweh’s second speech.

Some believe that Job is unmoved.  He has heard God and is not convinced. He maintains his defiant stance since God has not answered his questions. This is a rather recent critical position taken by several in the Academy (cf. Curtis, JBL [1979] 497-511).

Some believe Job is penitent. Job experiences a conversion. He acknowledges his sin–at least the sin of arrogance or the sin of justifying himself and putting God in the wrong–and submits to God. This is a rather traditional position (cf. Newell, WTJ [1984] 298-316).

Others, a minority report, suggest that both of these misread Job.  I accept this minority report and hope to explain a version of it in this post.

Yahweh’s first speech silenced Job (Job 40:4-5). He confessed his finitude (“I am of small account”) and promised silence (“I lay my hand on my mouth”). Yet, Job does not seem content; he does not embrace God in doxology. He simply gives up his complaint (“I will proceed no further” ), but he does not appear satisfied. There is, at least, no indication of that. It is as if Job is saying, “I hear you and I recognize your creative wisdom and power, but….” And the “but” is left unexpressed.

But Yahweh expresses it. Job still wonders about the reign of evil in the world. Has God lost control? Where is the justice of God? Or, has God turned toward evil himself? Yahweh’s second speech addresses these questions. Yahweh says, “I am sovereign over evil and chaos.”

Job’s response to the second speech comes in two parts. First, Job praises Yahweh (42:2-3). Second, Job embraces Yahweh’s presence (42:4-6).

Job praises Yahweh (42:2-3). Job acknowledges that God is Almighty and that his every purpose will be accomplished. Interestingly, “purpose” is the same term Job used in 21:27 when he was talking about the divine “schemes” against him. Job recognizes that he cannot disrupt God’s plans, purposes, or intent, even if he does not like them.

Job responds to Yahweh’s question, “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” (cf. 42:3; 38:2). Job doxologically confesses that God’s purposes are “too wonderful” for him. Job uses the same term present in Psalm 139:6,14; it is a term Job himself had previously used in a doxological context in Job 9:10. He confesses God’s wondrous acts as well as his ignorance of their meaning and significance. Job knows he does not understand God. He has confessed this earlier as well (9:11; 12:13; 23:8′ 26:12).

So, what is new? Nothing here is new. It is rather a renewed confession, a remembrance of what Job already knew and confessed.  What is new is what comes next.

Job embraces Yahweh’s presence (42:4-6). Again, Job quotes Yahweh (cf. 42:4; 38:3; and, interestingly, both of these quotations of Yahweh go back to Yahweh’s first speech). In this second response, Job is responding to both speeches. His quotation is an acknowledgement that he cannot answer Yahweh’s questions. Job knows his limitations. But then the climactic confession appears: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you” (42:5).

This is the turning point. Here Job confesses his encounter with Yahweh.  Previously, Job had only heard of Yahweh or had only listened to Yahweh through the various ways in which Yahweh spoke to the patriarchs. Now something is different; Job has experienced something new. Now, Job has “seen” God.

We might take the verb “see” in a literal sense, that is, he saw God in the whirlwind. He saw the theophany.  Thus, Job’s hope was fulfilled. He had hoped to see God in the flesh again (19:26), and he did.  I think that is at least true, but it is more than that.  “See” is also a metaphor for experience. Job has experienced Yahweh.  It is a theophanic encounter with or experience of God.

I have often referred to this as a “sanctuary” experience.  It is what the Psalmist in Psalm 73 experienced. He questioned God until he entered the sanctuary of God (73:16-17). It is what Habakkuk experienced. He questioned God until God appeared to him (expressed in the theophanic hymn of Habakkuk 3). It is the “nevertheless” of Psalm 13:5.  We cry “how long?”, but in our experience of God we “nevertheless” trust in God’s gracious purposes.

What happened in these instances is occasioned by the oppressive nature of the chaos or evil which burdened believers. They expressed that burden in lament. They cried, “how long?” or “why?” or “where are you?” Their questions were legitimate and faithful. This is also true of Job’s laments. But God showed up; he came to these lamenters. And they changed. This did not deligitimze their lament. Rather, it moved their lament to praise. They moved from lament to comfort. This is what happens to Job.

Job changes. Job, according to most English translations, repents. But repent is too strong for this word and leaves a false impression.  This is not the normal Hebrew term for “repentance” in the sense of a sorrow for sin or a turning away from sin.  Rather, this verb (nhm) fundamentally means a change of mind. Job changed his mind, just as God is depicted as changing his mind within the narrative of Scripture (cf.Exodus 32:12; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; 1 Chronicles 21:15). There is nothing inherent in the word that denotes a change from evil to good, a kind of repentance as we normally think of the English term.

Job changed his mind, but from what to what?  I think the intertextual cue is how this Hebrew root is used in Job itself. The friends came to “comfort” Job (2:11); Job hopes that his bed would “comfort” him (7:13); Job calls his friends miserable “comforters” (16:2); Job questions whether his friends can “comfort” him (21:34); Job himself was one who “comforts mourners” (29:25); and in the Epilogue Job is “comforted” by his friends and family (42:11). Everywhere this root is used in Job, it always means “comfort” unless Job 42:6 is the exception.

So, why do translaters call it “repent” here? They believe that Job has somehow sinned in his addresses to God in the dialogue. Job must repent if there is to be resolution.  But if we do not assume that Job has sinned, then we might simply recognize that Job is comforted in this text.

However, Job’s language before he acknowledges his “change of mind” is problematic. The verb “I despise” has no object in Hebrew.  What does Job despise? What does he reject?   Job had previously used the term in how he had not “rejected the cause” of his servants (31:13), and how God had despised the work of his hands (10:3), and how Job had loathed his own life (9:21; cf. also 7:16). But without an object in 42:6 it is difficult to determine what Job despises/rejects except by context.

If we understand that Job has changed his mind, particularly that he has been comforted, perhaps what he now does is “despise” his case (or perhaps reject his lament). He gives up his lawsuit against God (“retract,” NASB). He will not press charges. Or, perhaps it is language that voices humility such as “I melt away” (NEB). I don’t think Job is recanting everything he said (as the NLT translates it) but is rather “letting go” of the lawsuit, “letting go” of lament, or humbling himself before God (“I am little/I melt [before you]”). He is letting go of whatever resentment (psychological) or legal proceedings (forensic) he had against God.He will no longer lament; he will no longer mourn.

Job’s encounter with God comforted him. Giving up his lawsuit or humbling himself before the divine theophany, Job is “comforted over [my] dust and ashes.” Perhaps “dust and ashes” is a metaphor for his mourning (a possible meaning of 30:19) or  “dust and ashes” is a metaphor for the finitude of humanity who returns to dust and ashes in death (cf. Gen. 18:27). Either way, Job is consoled in his mortal humanity or in his mourning. Indeed, we may read Job 42:6 as Job’s reject and change of mind about mourning–he will now leave the place of mourning he has occupied since 2:11 and return to life (cf. Patrick, VT [1976], 369-371).

Living in a chaotic world, Job’s finitude and ignorance generated unanswered questions, nagging doubts, and bewildering situations. His encounter with Yahweh changed him. Yahweh’s theophany spoke about sovereignty, wisdom, and care which generated peace, praise. and comfort. Job was comforted despite unanswered questions because the presence of  Yahweh assured him. Job turned from mourning to comfort. Job’s lament moved to praise.

Perhaps Job 42:6 might be translated something like this: “Therefore, I melt away before you [giving up my lament, ending my mourning], and I am comforted in my dust and ashes [my human frailty and mourning].”

See also “Did Job Repent” by Thomas Kruger.

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