Scripture describes Job as “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (1:1).1 God Himself endorsed this depiction when He twice declared, "there is no one like him on the earth"(1:8; 2:3). In contrast with these early endorsements of Job’s character is Job’s final proclamation of repentance (42:6), ostensibly admitting a failure to maintain an upright character and integrity.
How can we resolve what appears to be a contradiction?
Careful biblical exegesis allows for an alternate reading of Job 42:6, one that does not necessitate an admission of transgression. Rather, Job 42:6 can be seen as the result of what happens when sinful human nature encounters the divine. And although Job’s nature was sinful, his integrity remains intact and God’s confidence in him was justified. Also, what Job shows us is that, when disaster strikes, we are at liberty to dialogue candidly with our Maker. When the injustices of this world inundate us, God encourages straightforward and forthright discourse with Him, the One who knows our innermost pain.
History of interpretation
At first glance, one could easily conclude that, in his suffering and anguish, Job sinned against God. The key to properly understand Job’s moral posture, however, hinges on an accurate understanding of the original language. The Hebrew language uses several terms to describe sin, the most frequent being hata, "to miss a goal or way." 2 A second term often used to describe sin is 'wn, meaning iniquity or actions in defiance of God’s stated commandments. A third term to describe sin is ps,' signifying transgression and open rebellion against God.3 When compared with the latter two, hata, is apparently the least egregious. This term is used in 1:22 and 2:10, where the Bible declares that Job did not sin.
If the early assertions of Job’s sinless character hold throughout the entire book, this would consequently imply that Job was not acting defiantly when he professed, "I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" and later "I loathe my life" (7:11, 16, NKJV). Moreover, this would suggest that Job was not in open rebellion when he lamented,
"[God] tears me in His wrath, and hates me; . . .
He also has taken me by my neck,
and shaken me to pieces;
He has set me up as His target,
His archers surround me.
He pierces my heart and does not pity;
He pours out my gall on the ground”
(16:9, 12, 13, NKJV).
It seems counterintuitive that, even in all of this, Job did not so much as “miss the mark.” Nevertheless, various scholars support this conclusion. Before we examine the overwhelming support, we should note that a minority of commentators hold that Job did sin. Thomas Aquinas argued that Job’s sin was not a grave offense, but one “out of levity.”4 John C. Shelley observes that some commentators conclude Job was guilty of pride and self-deification.
At this point, one might ask where this notion of Job’s sin originates. A major source of this allegation is articulated by Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Over the course of their extensive and tenacious disputes with Job, the reader might overlook Scripture’s claim that "in all this Job did not sin” (1:22; 2:10) and believe, instead, Job’s accusers.
One such assumption of sin is Eliphaz's plea to Job: "If you return to the Almighty, you will be built up; you will remove iniquity far from your tents" (22:23, NKJV). Likewise, Bildad, urging Job to repent, advises, if you would earnestly seek God, and make your supplication to the Almighty, if you were pure and upright, surely now He would awake for you’ ”(8:5, 6, NKJV). Finally, speaking of the inheritance of the wicked, Zophar ruthlessly reminds Job, that “ ‘the increase of his house will depart, and his goods will flow away in the day of His wrath’ ”(20:28, NKJV). These and other statements seem to favor the view that Job, indeed, fell short and sinned.
In contrast, John E. Hartley, author of the New International Commentary on the book of Job, proposes that Job did not sin when he complained against God.6 Hartley asserts that it was not “wrong for [Job] to swear an oath of innocence.”7 To the contrary, Hartley declares that “the integrity of Job’s faith shines brightly.” Hartley does concede that once Job encounters God, “the supplicant must surrender everything . . . including his just grievances.”9
James Strahan presents a similar view to Hartley’s. When juxtaposing Job’s sinlessness with the sinfulness of his colleagues, Strahan concludes: “God prefers the honest doubt of the earnest seeker after truth, to the zeal of the orthodox believer whose faith has never been tried.”10 Strahan likens Job’s repentance to that of other pure and noble men, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, who, after receiving a vision of the glory of God, became “overwhelmed with a sense of their own unworthiness.”11
Another Bible commentator, Norman C. Habel, supports Job’s innocence. “[I]n all of Yahweh’s speech, He nowhere enumerates Job’s sin.”12 Interestingly, the Lord does not once accuse Job of sin. When the reader considers Job’s many speeches, filled with seemingly audacious and blasphemous accusations toward the Most High, the reader may be left wondering whether such behavior is acceptable. Habel responds to this query, suggesting that Job’s bold and candid approach is acceptable to God only under the condition of ignorance. Because of Job’s ignorance, and through his confession in 42:3, God’s integrity remains preserved.
And through God’s condescension to a face-to-face encounter with Job, Job’s integrity is vindicated.13 According to Habel, Job “confesses his ignorance, yet clearly he has gained new knowledge.”14 In other words, God speaks and Job gains new understanding of His character; Job then confesses his ignorance (42:3b, c). Through this two-part structure, Habel explains that Job’s posture toward God was without sin.15
David Thomas, another Jobian scholar, concurs that Job’s acknowl edgment of his ignorance drives him to (1) be taught of God and (2) have a profound sorrow for his past conduct. Lest the reader confuse Job’s confession for that of an admission of sin, Thomas immediately notes that “even the pure angels, in the presence of the infinitely Holy One, seem to have some sense of imperfection; they cover their faces with their wings.”
In sum, the aforementioned analysis reveals that, under certain conditions, one may approach the Almighty, brazen with doubt and shameless with uncertainty of His justice, without necessarily falling into sin. However, once the unknowing soul attains new light, once truth is revealed and understood as such, this same brazen and shameless behavior becomes reckless, wanton, and outside of the boundary of God’s established environment of love.
A closer look
An analysis of the texts affirms the point stated above. Most versions of the English Bible translate the two key verbs in Job 42:6, ’em·’as and ni·ham·tî, into the English words “retract” and “repent”: “Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” This translation may lead the reader to conclude falsely that Job sinned. The following exegesis, however, will demonstrate that these Hebrew verbs should not be construed to denote that Job sinned.
The first term under consideration, ’em·’as, appears only two other times in the book of Job (9:21; 31:13) and only two other times in the entire Old Testament (Jer. 31:37; 33:26). In 9:21, Job responds to Bildad’s pompus pontifications, saying, m despise [’em·’as] my life.” Here, as in 42:6,’em·’as is not the equivalent of sin. Instead,’em·’as is an expression of Job’s despair at his current state.
“Recant” being the proper rendering of ’em·’as in 9:21 is unlikely, especially when considering Job’s impassioned allegations just a few verses later in 9:24. Scholars identify 9:24 as the “climax of Job’s anger,” where he declares, "‘The earth is given into the hand of the wicked. [God] covers the faces of its judges.’" If Job’s act of questioning God’s justice was sinful and something for which he recanted in 9:21, it would not make sense for him to follow his recantation with his most vehement outburst, that of challenging God’s justice.
A third usage of ’em·’as is found in 31:13. As in 9:21, ’em·’as is translated here as “despised.” This can be translated as, 01f I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves.” This hypothetical statement could hardly be seen as evidence of Job sinning.
As noted previously, ’em·’as also appears twice in Jeremiah. Outside of Job, Jeremiah 31:37 and 33:26 are the only two places in all the Old Testament where this term is found. In these two verses, God Himself uses the word ’em·’as in describing His own acts. In 31:37, God affirms the trustworthiness of His promise, asserting that He will not “cast off” (NIV translates “reject”) His seed. In 33:26, God asserts that His covenant is as permanent as day and night, and that He will not eject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant.” In these two verses,’em·’as is not associated with sin but rather with God’s unwillingness to forsake His promises.
The next Hebrew term under consideration is the verb ni·ham·tî, frequently translated as “repent.” The term ni·ham·tî appears in this form six times in the Old Testament outside of the book of Job (Gen. 6:7; 1 Sam. 15:11; Jer. 4:28; 31:19; 42:10; and Zech. 8:14). The Almighty speaks in all six instances of this verb. For example, in Genesis 6:7, God, in speaking of the Flood, declares, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land . . . for I am sorry [ni·ham·tî] that I have made them.’ ~This statement is not an admission from God that He sinned in creating humanity; rather, it conveys divine grief, heartache, and unhappiness at what humanity has become. Similarly, in 1 Samuel 15:11, God laments, saying, [I] regret [ni·ham·tî] that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.’ Again, God does not say that He sinned in making Saul king; rather, He is sorrowful that Saul has gone astray.
A theme emerges in the final four uses of ni·ham·tî: the theme of God’s alteration of a previous decision or commitment to carry out a decision. In Jeremiah 4:28, God will not mange [ni·ham·tî] [His] mind’ from bringing destruction to a backslidden Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 31:19, God says, "'"after I turned back, I repented [ni·ham·tî]."'" Also, in Jeremiah 42:10, God was willing to “relent [ni·ham·tî] concerning the calamity" that He had inflicted on His children. In other words, He was willing to turn from His original course of action. Finally, in Zechariah 8:14, the same theme of changing course appears, though in this instance, God says He will not change His mind, and that He will do good to Jerusalem.
From the following analysis of the verbs’em·’as and ni·ham·tî, there appear to be no grounds to conclude that Job sinned against God. In his commentary on Job, Hartley supports this view, noting that the term ni·ham·tî “implies the strongest resolve to change direction, but not an attitude of remorse.” Hartley says that Job’s self-confidence led him to defend his innocence vigorously, positioning him dangerously close to pride (i.e., being certain that he could judge God). Once Job became aware of this danger, however, he humbled himself, admitting that he had misstated his case.20 And in this context, Job recants (’em·’as) and is sorrowful (ni·ham·tî) at the position he once held.
Another commentator, Marvin H. Pope, concurs that Job now “refuses [and] rejects his former attitude”;21 but Pope does not equate this turnaround with sin. John C. Shelley agrees, opining that "it is clearly not a repentance in the sense of confessing one’s sins, as if Job had suddenly discovered a series of transgressions ... rather, Job glimpses a new vision of God, the world, the self."22 Finally, Andrew Prideaux proposes that Job not only avoided iniquity, but his relationship with God was actually strengthened through this candid and straightforward exchange.23 Prideaux also offers a new translation of Job 42:6. Though Job was still suffering physically, he was relieved of his mourning and lamentation. In the new truth he had found, “Job could reject and turn away from dust and ashes.24
While Job 42:6 appears to contain an admission of iniquity from Job, this article has argued that Job did not sin. First, scholarship widely attests to the absence of sin in Job’s recantation and repentance. Second, an analysis of the two key Hebrew verbs in 42:6, coupled with the observation that these verbs are used elsewhere by God in reference to Himself, provide strong evidence for the absence of sin in Job 42:6.
Job’s brazen and impudent behavior toward God has led many to read his actions as sinful; however, a closer look reveals a deeper understanding of God’s patience, tolerance, and love toward His children in their moments of great distress and ignorance. Thus, we may be comforted, knowing that candid and straightforward communication with God is not sinful, and that such intimate exchanges, in the context of genuine searching, draw all those who dare such vulnerability, closer to the One who is infinitely holy.
1 Unless otherwise indicated all biblical references in this paper are to the New American Standard Bible.
2 Clayton N. Jerrord, s.v. 19in,~ in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2000), 1224.
4 Anthony Damico and Martin D. Yaffe, Thomas Aquinas, the Literal Exposition on Job, a Scriptural Commentary Concerning Providence (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989), 471.
5 John C. Shelley, “Job 42:1-6: God’s Bet and Job’s Repentance,” Review 8 Expositor 89, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 542.
6 John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1988), 537.
10 James Strahan, The Book of Job (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 351.
11 Ibid., 348.
12 Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job, a Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1985), 579.
13 Habel's two-part structure of Job’s final speech, 587:
A Acknowledgment (Job’s concession) - 42:2
B Quotation (Yahweh’s challenge) - 3a
C Announcement (Job’s confession) - 3b-c
B' Quotation (God’s challenge) - 4
A' Acknowledgment (Job’s experience) ~ 5
C' Announcement (Job’s reversal) - 6
15 Ibid., 579.
16 David Thomas, The Book of Job, Expository and Homiletical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Pub., 1982), 469.
18 Andrews Study Bible (2010), note Job 9:24, 635.
19 Hartley, The Book of Job, 537.
20 Ibid., 536.
21 Marvin H. Pope, Job, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 348.
22 Shelley, “Job 42:1-6,E 544.
23 Andrew Prideaux, “The Repentance of Job in 42:1-6: Another Look at a Perplexing Text,Gteformed Theological Review 70, no. 1 (April 2011): 35.
24 Ibid., 36.