Job 38:1-42:6

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Home > The Old Testament > Job > Chapters 38-42a / Verses 38:1-42:6
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Relationship to Job. The relationship of Chapters 38-42a to Job as a whole is discussed at Job.




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  • Job 38:4-7. The Lord asks Job a series of rhetorical questions about the creation of the world and pre-earth life, an essential part of our heavenly father's plan. "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?...Who hath laid the measures thereof?...Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened?...When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
This is an oft-quoted scripture about our pre-mortal life, and a very poetic one. During the past few weeks as we have watched a house being built across the way from us, I've been fascinated by what a beautiful, organized process it is. Each part of the house goes up with precision, and each new addition to the frame makes it more complete and more wonderful.
Much symbolism is attached to the construction of a house. While reading this passage in Job I am reminded of this. The Lord didn't allow the earth to be created by chance. Sure he may have allowed natural processes to form the Grand Canyon, allow plants and animals to evolve over thousands or millions of man-years. But he was behind it all - the master builder, who with precision "laid the measures" and cornerstone and completed the most beautiful, diverse planet for us to live on that we could ever imagine. As the sons of God did, I feel to shout for joy at the sight of the spectacular earth God created for us, just as I do at the sight of the home across the way.
  • Job 42:1-6: Alternate translation. J. Gerald Janzen offers this alternate translation of verses 2-6 in his commentary on Job, p. 251 (part of the Interpretation series):
2. a You know that you can do all things,
b and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3. a "Who is this that obscures design
b by words without knowledge?"
c Therefore, I have uttered what I have not understood,
d things too wonderful for me which I did not know.
4. a "Hear, and I will speak;
b I will question you, and you will make me to know."
5. a I have heard you with my own ears,
b and now my eye sees you!
6. a Therefore I recant and change my mind
b concerning dust and ashes.
First, it must be noticed that there are quotation marks in Job's speech. The first (verse 3a-b) is a direct quotation of Job 38:2, the words of the Lord to Job. Job quotes the Lord's words, and then responds (in c-d). The second is an altered quotation of Job 38:3 and Job 40:7. The alteration is that Job here replaces "Gird up thy loins now like a man" (in both instances) with "Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak." The alteration seems to set up Job's response (in verse 5a-b) to this second quotation. (It is not at all odd for Job, of all people, to alter interpretively the word of the Lord.)
Second, and this is the clinching point for the interpretation of the entire book of Job, Janzen's translation of verse 6 must be understood. However, discussion of that point must be located on the commentary page for that verse.
  • Job 42:4. This verse seems a bit troublesome since it seems to portray Job as demanding something from God and yet, in verse 6, Job seems to humbly repent. The NAB seems to omit this verse entirely. The NET translates this as Job recalling God's words telling Job to listen ("You said, 'Pay attention, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will answer me').
The Hebrew word yada, to know, is what is translated as "declare." This word could be read differently so here Job is declaring faith and/or that he is ready to know God—that is to see (v. 5), not just hear what God has been saying without really understanding God.
  • Job 42:6: Repent. The Hebrew word nchm is translated here as "repent." However, the word is typically used in the Old Testament to refer to God repenting/relenting, not man (e.g. Gen 6:6-7; Ex 32:14; Judg 2:18; 1 Sam 15:11). The word nchm is also used to mean "comfort" (e.g. 2 Sam 10:2; 1 Chr 19:2; Isa 61:2; Jer 16:7; 31:15). Interestingly, in all other instances in Job, the word nchm seems to to fit the "comfort" meaning more naturally and is thus translated in the KJV (viz. 2:11; 7:13; 16:2; 21:34; 29:25; 42:11). David Wolfers argues that verse 6 should be translated, "Therefore do I despise, and am comforted for, all that are dust and ash" (p. 333, Deep Things Out of Darkness, ISBN 0802840825; cf. Scheindlin, 1999, ISBN 0393319008, "I retract. I even take comfort for dust and ashes"). On this view, the significance here is that Job finds comfort after God speaks, not from anything his friends have said. The LXX seems to take an approach more similar to the KJV, where one translation of the LXX text is "Therefore, I despise myself and I melt, and I consider myself dirt and ashes." According to William Morrow (Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 105 n. 2, June 1986, p. 213), "Apparently the LXX translator wanted to highlight Job's reconciliation with God by having Job echo what he earlier described as the divine opinion concerning him [in Job 30:19]." Morrow also notes that "It is conceviable here that Job 42:6 is seen as having adopted a posture of humiliation as part of his grief and suffering, a posture he now renounces and forswears in order to adopt an attitude of praise." Morrow's ultimate conclusion is that that verse is purposely vague: "no translation of this verse can succeed without forcing the text at some point or another. . . . Job 42:6 is a polysemous construction, which even its original readers would have heard differently, depending on their evaluation of the meaning of Yahweh's address to Job. . . . [T]he poet himself intended no explicit resolution to the tension that exists in the Yahweh speech(es) between the very fact of Yahweh's presence and the actual contents of the divine address. Rather, he created a situation that can be interpreted in several ways according to the theological inclinations of the reader. The vague and ambiguous language of 42:6 is a reflection of this intention."
As noted above regarding Janzen's alternate translation of this verse: "Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes." Janzen points out (on p. 255 of his commentary) that in "every other instance where the niphal (middle or reflexive) form of nhm, 'change the mind,' is followed by the preposition `al, translators uniformly render the expression 'to repent of, concerning' (e.g., Jer 18:8, 10)." In other words, besides adding "myself" to the verse, the KJV translators offer a poor or at least unconventional translation. The plain meaning of the Hebrew: Job repents (mourns his former character or position) concerning "dust and ashes."
This more literal translation opens a fascinating interpretive possibility: instead of being driven to repent in dust and ashes, Job's experiences have led him to a new understanding of dust and ashes. Janzen suggests that the Lord's treatment of Job have led him to better understand what it means to be a human being in the image of God. This can be seen by looking at how "dust and ashes" is used in Gen 18:27 and Job 30:19. In each of these verses, the phrase "dust and ashes" (which appears nowhere else in the Bible) refers to the beginning and ending of man, which is formed out of dust and ends as ashes. The phrase in these two texts quite clearly refers to the fallen nature of man: man, as dust and ashes (not in dust and ashes), stands before God as created and mortal. But even so, dust and ashes are the very image of God (if one follows Gen 1:26). Job seems, after all the Lord has dragged him through, to recognize an important lesson: man, though dust and ashes, is nonetheless something far more than just dust and ashes.
If this is indeed the lesson Job is taught by the Lord, then the whole of the Book of Job is transformed: Job's perfect piety at the beginning of the story is not good enough and must be overcome. Job's piety is based on a sort of false humility, a misunderstanding of man's place in the more eternal scheme of things. Job is, as it were, too passive, too receptive, too safe. The radical trial (meant in the literal sense: God tries and proves him) is meant to radicalize Job, to take him beyond the safety of piety and so to help him understand the radical implications of the covenant he has with God. This radicalization was already implicit in Job, and the trial is meant to bring it out. In other words, the Lord's chastisement of Job in chapters 38-41 was a test to see if Job would "maintain his ways" before God. When Job sees that he is justified in complaining to God in direct prayer, it changes his mind concerning his own mortal (dust and ashes) standing and relationship with the Lord. Only by remaining true throughout the book is Job justified by the Lord in the end, while his three friends are disapproved of. Perhaps, in the end, Goethe saw the meaning of this book far better than most recognize.
This was hidden behind the Discussion tab, but much of it would be helpful to have here on the main Commentary tab:
  • Repenting of dust and ashes. Joe, I find this approach fascinating. I assume you are referring to Faust in your Goethe reference. I'm ashamed to say I haven't studied Goethe or Faust very carefully so I'm anxious to hear you elaborate (if only on the discussion page if this isn't appropriate for the commentary page). I also see now how this is crucially related to understanding Isa 6:5ff. Couple thoughts/questions: Might ashes be related to the "burning" of the Holy Ghost, baptism of fire etc.? Dust figures prominently in the Book of Mormon (I'm thinking "less than the dust" in Helaman esp.). Is there any reason to think they did or did not have access to the book of Job? What else is the significance of dust? From what I understand, it is Jewish tradition to have more respect for prophets who sort of talked back and argued with God. I'd like to look into this more—can you recommend anywhere to start looking? I think I've got a Ginzberg book checked out of the library, I'll see if he says anything related to Job in this vein. Very, very interesting.... --RobertC 16:54, 23 Aug 2006 (UTC)
On dust/ashes. It would be worth reading through the Book of Job with an eye to the Book of Mormon (I vaguely recall seeing some parallel language at some point). I don't know where I fall on dating the Book of Job. Placing it in the post-exilic milieu makes sense to me, though I have to admit that the sheer audacity of the text suggests an earlier date in some ways. I'd have to dedicate more to that.
On prophets talking back. A number of the OT prophets seem to have these moments. D&C 121 is an interesting place to look at it as well (recall that the Lord even cites Job there). I wonder if the best place wouldn't be Habakkuk. I began a few weeks ago to dedicate some discussion to that book here on the wiki (for this very reason), but interest didn't seem plentiful, so I dropped it. It might be worth returning to it. Habakkuk definitely dedicates himself to talking back to the Lord, but it is quite an odd text in its manner of execution. The whole theme of talking back probably needs to be thought through higher orders of prayer (which is what I think the Book of Job is all about). What of Jonah? That might be more interesting still: the prophet who simply refuses, gives in, refuses (the silence of Jonah clearly parallels the silence of Job in chapter 40), and then has a similar theophany, etc.
On Faust. Yes, Faust is what I had in mind. Goethe's brilliant move was to read the historical pact with Satan (apparently made by a real German priest named Faust) as a bet (Faust bets Mephisto that the latter cannot give him, through the pleasures of the flesh, the vision of the unifying meaning of all knowledge, the Augenblick), which Goethe reads as parallel to a sort of bet between Mephisto and God at the beginning of the play (God bets Mephisto that Faust will hold strong against all temptation). Goethe seems to have seen in Job, then, the radical character of God, desirous to show off His hero and willing to put His servant through a great deal of trouble in order to prove him (saving him at the very end, oddly enough, through Faust's horribly treated victim, Gretchen). In the end, I think what Goethe read well in Job was the question of the gamble, the deal, or the bet, which could only have been made with an eye to Faust's/Job's implicit worthiness and its explicitation through the gamble. Of course, Goethe misses (or is not interested in) the theme of prayer that so powerfully underlies Job, as he does a number of other major themes. After all, Faust is far more complicated than all this, one of the most complicated works in literature, really. But it is clear that Goethe saw something interesting in Job that most readers miss. --Joe Spencer 15:04, 24 Aug 2006 (UTC)
I'll try to consider Habakkuk and Jonah in the light you suggest (Jonah is the week after Job on the SS docket, but Habakkuk is never covered...). Thanks for these thoughts. --RobertC 16:13, 24 Aug 2006 (UTC)
Would be good to 'splain the Faust reference on the commentary page, as I think most won't get it. --Rob Fergus 23:10, 24 Aug 2006 (UTC)
  • More on dust and ashes. I finally got the Janzen book from the library. I think his writing is very, very interesting (though frustrating at times b/c he doesn't seem to quite fully develop his ideas; I'm anxious to look up some of the references he cites...). So I've been looking more closely at how the words dust and ashes are used in scripture.
  • Sackcloth and ashes. I think it's significant that the phrase "sackcloth and ashes" is not used, although the phrases of course may have similar meanings. Several later scriptures use the prhase "repent in sackcloth and ashes." On the one hand, this may be taken as suggestive that the reading of Job should be (or at least was historically taken as) such that Job is repenting in rather than of or concerning dust and ashes. On the other hand, the later use of "in sackcloth and ashes" may have a contrasting meaning to the "repenting of sackcloth and ashes" rendering.
  • Ashes and purification. I think the use of ashes in the Num 19:1-10 cleansing ritual is significant and may be taken as a symbol of the need to be purified. In this sense, it may be that Job, who continually maintaints that he is righteous, still has a need to be further purified. That is, perhaps an important purpose of the story of Job is to illustrate a distinction between righteousness in the sense that Job can legitimately claim for himself, and purified which only occurs later.
  • Dust and creation. This is what I think I really need to study more. It seems the discussion of creation in Job does not really include man among God's creations (I need to check this...). That is, man is not like God's others creations and so, although man is created from dust like other creatures, man is given a unique opportunity to transcend the nature of dust—after all, man is created in the image of God. This seems to be a major thrust in Janzen's argument, that man must reconcile his beginning as dust, but his destiny as more than dust. I think this is what is particularly interesting from an LDS perspective, given the prominence of dust in the BOM and the "man is nothing" phrase in Moses, coupled with man's divine potential. Definitely something I want to study more.... --RobertC 19:38, 2 Sep 2006 (UTC)
Robert, I think your third bullet is the best avenue for study. I think the phrasing is so careful here that Job's author is trying to take a departure from the common "in sackcloth and ashes" as you suggest. There are certainly some interesting themes of purification with ashes (a theme universal in the ancient world--cf. the Odyssey). But the dust and creation thing is certainly the most significant. I think that the creation story, as told in Job, needs to be explored in far greater detail by Latter-day Saints, particularly because it appears as a part of a theophany, as in the temple (in a way).
There is more, too. I really think it would be fruitful to try to read the book of Job through the theme of prayer. As I read the debates between Job and the friends, I see Job continually struggling to leave off the friends so that he can pray. In other words, Job sees the difficulties as a reason to turn to God in prayer. The friends are constantly telling him not to pray, distracting him from his prayer, because they believe a prayer the way he raises it to be blasphemous. When they are finally silenced by his arguments, he offers the prayer that results in a twofold engagement: Elihu (Alcibiades in the Symposium?) and God Himself. That Job essentially offers the prayer three times (in the three cycles) is interesting. There is a truer order of prayer at work here, I think. And in that order of prayer, Job is to repent of dust and ashes, to change his mind concerning dust... A thought, at least. --Joe Spencer 15:38, 4 Sep 2006 (UTC)
Interesting idea about prayer, I'll chew on this for a while.
On the one hand, I'm a little unmotivated to really spend a lot of time on Job b/c there only seem to be three mentions of Job in others scriptures (Ezek 14:14, 20; James 5:11; D&C 121:10). On the other hand, I think these are all fascinating and important passages regarding patience and adversity. By the sheer number of times we here D&C 121 quoted, I think it's importance is self-evident (I've wondered if there is a connection with the first part of that section and the last part, but haven't really looked into this yet). I think patience in the book of James is a very intriguing concept, esp. in light of the tantalizing ideas which begin the book in James 1:2-4: "the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect"—thus patience seems a theme which serves as book-ends to this book, with famous passages about asking God, words, faith and works in between, so again I think these passages are particularly significant for Mormons. I think Ezek 14:12-20 is a fascinating pericope addressing themes which are at least loosely related to Job, but I'm still a bit puzzled as to why Job, Daniel and Noah are singled out. The next step I take in trying to understand Job may be looking at these other passages more closely.
I should also add that, in reading about Job, I've read criticisms that James is missing the point of Job. Although I'm sympathetic to a polyphonic (in the Bhaktinian sense—after all, I studied Russian literature as an undergrad...) reading of Job, I think a lot can be learned from a Jamesian reading of Job, and I think the D&C allusion may presuppose a Jamesian reading. I also think a Jamesian reading may shed a lot of light (though perhaps not the only type of light) on the Ezekiel passage. In other words, I am interested in first understanding how Ezekiel, James and Joseph Smith understood Job (or how their writing elucidates Job) and secondarily interested in in understanding the book of Job on it's own (this is mainly b/c I only have a limited amount of time and prefer to focus it on understanding the most Mormon-relevant scriptures, as I arbitrarily see fit...). --RobertC 17:17, 4 Sep 2006 (UTC)
James, I think, reads this text wonderfully. We just have to realize that patient faith does not mean sitting quietly and waiting, but rather turning to God in accusatory prayer. The prayer theme is important for James' reading, I think: patience and faith are not attitudes (being happy or unhappy with God), they are actions (turning to God whether happy or unhappy versus turning away from God where happy or unhappy). I love your contextualization of James, though, the connection between patience late and patience early in the epistle. I have to reread James now. I have not taken D&C 121 on this subject very seriously. It is so brief a reference, and it seems to me to suggest little more than that Joseph doesn't have it so bad. But I'd be interested to hear what you come up with there.
Ezekiel is not so simple. I personally think that Ezekiel was written before Job, which would complicate trying to read Ezekiel in light of Job, rather than Job in light of Ezekiel. In fact, there is reason to believe that Ezekiel had a tradition in which Job, Noah, and Daniel were all considered to be traditional stories that everyone knew about. If one accepts the late dating of Daniel (I'm not sure whether I do or not yet) and the late dating of the Noah cycle (I certainly do not), then Job fits right in as a late text (I do, however, believe Job is rather late). Whatever Ezekiel knows about the three figures, it is clear that they are all understood to be figures from a much earlier history, folk stories, etc. I think that the book of Job, then, is a late literary handling of a story that had been around a long time (which means that the Job story might well be historical, though the book is not--that's my position). Noah's story seems to have been officially written up by this time, by all accounts, so it is not quite clear why Noah would be mentioned as folklore, unless the Genesis text was simply unavailable generally. Daniel was, as yet, nobody, and I am increasingly convinced that the Book of Daniel was written in a manner similar to Job: later, but based on historical stories that had been around a good while (in other words, I think the historical Daniel was probably not so late as the book of Daniel suggests, though I think some of the stories there are true stories of the earlier Daniel; the remainder of Daniel would be some later prophet working through his own questions in the name of that figure).
I suppose the question that underlies the Ezekiel reference is a question of the nature of pseudepigraphical writing. Is a book uninspired simply because it was written in the name of a historical figure by a much later person? I don't think so. It may just have been the prophetic style of a few of the post-exilic centuries--a rather literary style, but for preicsely that reason a rather rich one. On that account, we can take up texts like the Testament of Job (which has some very interesting connections to the temple), the Apocalypse of Abraham (which is similar in that regard), and the Book of Enoch (which goes a long way toward explaining the roots of Christianity--besides being quoted in Jude). At any rate, some thoughts for further external work on Job, and for further internal work as well (all of this, I hope, suggests that Job has to be read as a literary work, a poem that explores the possibilities of certain themes through the historical figure of Job). --Joe Spencer 14:52, 5 Sep 2006 (UTC)

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  • Job 38:1-7. Where were we when the Lord created the earth (verse 4)?
  • Job 38:1-7. How did we participate in creating the earth?
  • Job 38:1-7. How do we continue to create the earth through our stewardship to care for the earth?
  • Job 38:1-7. Who are the morning stars (verse 7)?


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