Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6 KJV)

This statement by Job comes at a highly significant moment in the book, as the conclusion of Job’s final brief response to the LORD. The King James Version, and others, give the impression that Job is confessing his faults, although without naming them, and repenting. It appears that Job is recognising that there was some hidden sin or character fault and in a truly repentant fashion he loathes himself for it. However, there are significant problems with this translation, or interpretation.

First, there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text for “myself” in this verse and the verb has no object. There is no textual or grammatical justification for interpreting the verb reflexively. By doing so the King James translators are interpreting rather than translating.

The verb translated “abhor myself” in the KJV is מאס and comes from a root meaning “to reject”. It’s the same word that is used in 1 Samuel 16:1 when God said “I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel” and in the few places where the KJV translates it as “abhor”, “abhored”, “abhorreth” or “abhorrest” it is clear from the context that “reject” or “rejected” is what is meant (e.g. to “abhor” God’s judgments and statutes in Lev 26:15, 43 has the sense of rejecting them). The Jewish Publication Society version has “I recant”, the NASB has “retract”, which are better but still do not provide an object. What was it Job was rejecting, recanting, or repudiating?

Samuel Balentine, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in his Job (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2006), writes: “Textual ambiguities also make it clear . . . that whatever Job’s last words may mean, they convey anything but a simple confession of sin.” He argues that “God’s disclosure invites a transformation in Job’s understanding about what it means to be ‘dust and ashes.'” This understanding is supported by the translation of Stephen Mitchell who translates this difficult verse this way: “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (The Book of Job Harper Perennial, 1992). This translation, incidentally, supports my translation of the final verb נחם as “I am comforted” rather than “I repent” (in a previous post).

However one translates this verse there are significant theological implications.

The first problem with this interpretation is that on several occasions the Book makes the point that Job was “blameless”. The narrator in the prologue introduces Job as a “man [who] was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1), and the LORD twice gives his own assessment of Job as a “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (18; 2:3). Job consistently maintains his own innocence to the end.

Those translators who have Job abhoring myself and repenting generally come from a theological position which regards the human race as “fallen”, depraved and inevitably sinful. Even the most upright person is guilty of some sin and in need of redemption. Consequently Job’s self-abhorence was a sign of true repentance and a necessary step to being put back into a right relationship with God. It is understandable how a translator with this bias would see this verse as a confession of hidden sin. However, there is a huge problem with this. To argue that Job was guilty of some hidden sin or character fault would be to take the position of the Adversary and Job’s three friends, and the LORD’s own comment on the position of the friends was that they did not speak well of God. It would make the Adversary and the three friends right and both Job and the LORD wrong!

However, if we interpret this verse as Mitchell, Balentine, Janzen and others have done and understand Job to be saying that he now has a new understanding of what it means to be “dust and ashes”, then we are faced with some important theological implications:

  1. It is possible for a human being to be blameless, and free of sin. In the epilogue Job was called to offer sacrifices for his three friends, but not for himself: he had no personal need of a sacrifice for sin.
  2. A blameless, innocent person may still suffer. There is therefore no relationship between sin and suffering. Suffering is not a punishment for sin.
  3. There is no suggestion in the Book of Job that Job’s experiences were necessary for character development, and it would be a nonsense to argue that his ordeals made him “more blameless” or upright. The only reason provided in the Book for Job’s ordeals was to “prove” that Job was upright and would maintain his integrity in the face of trials. One implication of this is that humanity is not “fallen” in the sense that human nature is inherently depraved or sinful.

In my next post I want to discuss the implications for Augustinian theology about the “fall”, human nature and sin.