Abstract:Yahweh’s stated preference for Job’s speech toward him in opposition to the friends in Job 42:7 is difficult to understand in light of the many criticisms Job levels against God in the course of the debate and the many seemingly pious and biblically supportable claims which the friends made. A variety of proposed interpretations of this verse are considered and rejected. It is argued instead that even when Job curses creation in ch. 3, he shows how much he values the friendship with God which he thinks he has now (inexplicably) lost; even when he rails against what seems to be a guilty verdict in chs. 9–10, Job shows how profoundly he understands that human claims of righteousness must be substantiated by God to have any worth. In these ways and others, Job spoke rightly about God even when he criticized.
One of the great surprises of a difficult and surprising book comes in its final chapter, when YHWH states that Job spoke rightly about him, unlike Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (42:7). This is, of course, the exact opposite of how one might expect the Lord to evaluate the debate between Job and three friends.1 Job’s friends have repeatedly defended God’s perfect justice and given Job counsel which, at least some of the time, appears to be supported elsewhere in Scripture (compare Job 5:17 with Prov 3:11–12). Much in contrast, Job accuses God of attacking him with terrifying violence (16:9–14) for no reason (9:17). Extrapolating outward from his tragedy as narrated in chs. 1–2, Job names God an amoral tyrant who destroys everyone regardless of moral character (9:22), who laughs at good people when they suffer disaster (v. 23), and deliberately frustrates the execution of justice in the world (v. 24; see further 12:13–25). In Job’s horrifying new vision of the universe, God is a moral monster, and his creation a kind of inner city ghetto, filled with the unanswered screams of the innocent (21:7–34).
In what possible sense could Job have spoken rightly about God? In considering this question, it should be admitted from the outset that the Lord’s vindication of Job’s speech over against that of the friends cannot imply total approval of everything Job has said—after all, although God never accuses Job of any sin, he does begin both of his speeches by issuing a clear challenge to Job (38:2–3, 40:7–8). Job responds in kind by admitting he spoke about wonders too great for him (42:3) and repenting in dust and ashes (42:6).2 Surely it is no accident that God vindicates Job before his three accusers only after Job makes this confession: as Rick Moore says, “Job says, ‘I have been wrong,’ whereupon God says, ‘You have been right.’”3 But since Job speaks more about himself than God in 42:1–6, God’s approval of Job’s speech cannot be referring only to Job’s final response in 42:1–6. The comparison with the friends implies that the Lord is referring to the debate in chs. 3–31—which only exacerbates the problem of his seeming approval of Job’s speech.4
1. Previous Interpretations of Job 42:7
Commentators struggle to explain how Job’s speeches in the debate with the friends could be considered “right.” At least one scholar has pronounced the problem insoluble: Carol Newsom writes that it is impossible to reconcile 42:7 with chs. 3–31, and so the statement must refer to Job’s statements in chs. 1–2.5 But this leaves unexplained why Job’s speech is contrasted with that of the friends in 42:7, for the friends say nothing in chs. 1–2. On the other hand, some understand this statement as an admission from God that Job’s protests against God are correct. C. L. Seow connects this verse to the lament tradition in the OT; according to Seow, Job has spoken to the truth about God’s absence from innocent suffering.6 David Clines takes this interpretation to an extreme: because he understands the Lord’s speeches in chs. 38–42 to “refuse … the categories of the dialogues” by denying the truth of the retribution principle, when Job criticizes divine injustice, Job is, in fact, speaking the truth.7 Although Job did not quite mean it this way, since God admits he does not administer creation according to the justice implied by the retribution principle, Job is right when he criticizes God and the friends are wrong when they defend him. But aside from the fact that God’s speeches do explicitly state his concern for justice (see, e.g., 38:12–15 and 40:9–14), Clines’s reading does not explain why Job would repent and worship in response to YHWH’s speeches in 42:1–6, nor why (if God’s administration of the world has nothing to do with justice) Job is restored to blessing in 42:10.
Perhaps most frequently, commentators speak in a more general way of how Job’s agonized search for God—half critical, half hopeful of some kind of reconciliation (13:20–23)—is relatively better than the friends’ reductive certainties.8 In a similar vein, others emphasize that Job’s motives in speaking are good, even if not everything he said was strictly correct.9 It has also been suggested that Job’s right speech has to do with his denial that suffering always and only comes about because of sin, and that the friends’ mistake lies in their insistence on this very point.10 None of these interpretations of 42:7 is obviously wrong within the context of the book as a whole. Especially with regard to Job’s search for God, it is amazing to see Job long to meet with the person (23:3) who has given Job so much reason to hate him. But none of these interpretations entirely convinces, for the Lord says in 42:7 that, unlike Job, the friends spoke wrongly about himself. It looks as if Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar made specific claims about God which were incorrect, while (at least some of) the content of Job’s speech about God was correct. Interpretations which focus on Job’s desire to meet with God, his motives in speaking, or the debate about the retribution principle may not fit very well with the Lord’s specification that Job is vindicated for the content of his speech about God, and the friends are under God’s anger for the same reason. But this is only to re-state the question: what is there in Job’s speeches of which the Lord might approve?
Other commentators have, however, argued that we need not set ourselves the difficult task of searching Job’s agonized accusations of God for good theology. Perhaps, it is argued, the verse can be translated in a way which obviates the problem. Two aspects of Job 42:7 present possibilities in this regard. First, the Lord uses the preposition אֶל, “to, toward,” in the phrase in question. As a result, perhaps the verse should be translated, “You have not spoken to me rightly” (see the same phrase earlier in the verse), the point being that Job has continued to speak to God in his pain, while the friends only spoke about him.11 If this is correct, however, it is not clear why YHWH would add “rightly” at all; according to this reading, all that matters is that Job spoke to God, regardless of what he said.12 Furthermore, Piel דבר with אֶל at least sometimes includes the content of what is said and not only the person addressed (e.g., Gen 12:4; Exod 1:17; Jer. 35:14, 40:16). The two prepositions אֶל, “to, toward,” and עַל, “about,” overlap somewhat in any case (see Jere 33:14, or compare Job 1:11 with 2:5, where they are used interchangeably).13
Or perhaps the Niphal participle usually translated “rightly” (נְכוֹנָה) should be rendered differently. Duck-Woo Nam claims that Job is commended in this verse not for speaking “rightly” but “constructively” about God. Nam leans heavily on the root of this word (כון, “to be established” [HALOT 464]) to argue that Job’s speeches open up new possibilities for theological discourse as he “champions the unconventional aspects of the divine nature,” in contrast to the friends’ rigid theorizing.14 But it is not clear how claims that God is an amoral tyrant in passages like 9:22–24 count as “constructive” speech about God. Furthermore, its use elsewhere suggests that the Niphal participle of כון is best translated “true” or “right,” not “constructively” (see Gen 41:32; Exod 8:22; Deut 13:15; 1 Sam 23:23, 26:4; Ps 5:10, 51:12). John Walton gives a variation of this reading, defining the word in question as referring to what “is sensible, logical or able to be confirmed or verified.”15 According to Walton, Job is commended for speaking about God on the basis of what could be derived from his experience—specifically, the tragedy of chs. 1–2. In contrast, the friends theorized about God in a way which went beyond the available evidence and produced specious accusations against Job.16 It is correct, of course, that Job has spoken about God on the basis of his own experience. But when Job’s conclusions about God on that basis are so ugly, one wonders why God approves of his speech and is so angry with the friends. This is in addition to the fact that Job’s portrayal of God on the basis of his tragedy in chs. 1–2 as a moral monster is, in fact, false, as Job himself recognizes.
Finally, one can simply revise the text. After an extensive discussion of previous inadequate attempts to explain this verse, David Frankel emends the כְּ prefix in 42.7 to בְּ: “You did not speak rightly to me about my servant Job.”17 On this reading, the verse is only a divine vindication of Job against the accusations of the friends. Frankel cites in support of this emendation the seemingly intractable nature of the MT as it stands and the other textual witnesses which show this reading (some Hebrew manuscripts, the LXX to v. 8, Testament of Job 42:4, and Saadiah Gaon). But aside from this being an obviously easier reading, such emendation may be premature. It may be possible to find specific claims which Job has made about God within the debate of chs. 3–31 which were true. In order to explore this possibility, I will focus specifically (but not exclusively) on chs. 3 and 9–10 to show that Job’s theology is admirably robust: even as he protests, Job repeatedly shows how much he values God, his friendship, and God’s evaluation of him. In fact, Job would not protest so intensely if God did not mean so much to him. In this sense, Job spoke rightly about God.
2. God’s Friendship with Job and Job’s Curse on Creation (3:1–26)
Many commentators have noted how Job’s curse on the day of his birth contains a number of cosmic adumbrations which imply that Job is cursing not only his own life, but all of creation. The creation-wide context for this poem is seen both in the sustained echoes in these verses to the account of creation in Genesis 118 and the reference to Leviathan in v. 8. After all, if Leviathan were roused, as Job wishes, the chaos monster would not content itself with swallowing only Job’s existence: the order of all creation would be threatened. It is, in other words, a more-than-natural darkness which Job calls down on creation in this chapter. Job undoes God’s blessing on all creation and curses light and order into darkness and non-existence. He would rather the world had never been made, if only that would prevent his being born and seeing such misery (3:10).
From one perspective, this appears a little selfish. Why is Job taking away every other human life, just because his own is so miserable? It would make sense for Job to wish his life was over, as he does elsewhere (e.g., 6:8–9). But Job says more here: he wishes he had never been born at all, and even implies that he wishes no-one had ever been born in the first place. Why does Job wish his former life of privilege and blessing out of existence—a life which is, from the OT’s perspective, ideal in every respect (1:1–4)—simply because he has lost it? For Job to look back fondly on what he once had while wishing for death would make more sense.
In considering this question, it will be helpful to remember that Job would have interpreted his suffering in chs. 1–2 not simply as misfortune, but as punishment for sin. Job’s loss of God’s blessings of children and livestock looks very similar to the covenant curses for unfaithfulness in Deuteronomy 28. It is also significant that word for the sores he suffers in 2:7 (שְׁחִין) is the same word used in the list of covenant curses in Deuteronomy 28:27, 35.19 This explains why Job laments not only his pain and loss, but what looks like God’s inexplicable anger (16:9, 19:11). It also explains his fierce protest against God’s injustice, because Job knows he has committed no sin worthy of such extreme punishment. It looks to Job as if he has inexplicably lost God’s favor and blessing—and he reacts by cursing creation out of existence. Although Job’s curse in ch. 3 is horrifying, we can see that it is precisely at this point that Job shows how highly he values friendship with God (29:4). If Job cannot live under God’s favor, he implies that does not see any point to his existence at all, blessed or otherwise. Job shows no interest in his prior life of blessing with his family and his sterling reputation unless it exists under God’s smile (cf. 10:13). In fact, without God’s favor and friendship, Job implies that there is no reason for anything in creation to exist at all.
Job will expound on the theme of the intolerable quality of life without God’s favor in a number of other places in his speeches. For instance, ch. 13 ends with Job wanting to know what possible sin he could have committed (v. 23) to make God treat him like an enemy (v. 24) and terrify him like a leaf (v. 25). Under this unbearable weight of divine anger, human life becomes dreary, dry, and hopeless (14:1–2). The best Job can ask for in such a bleak existence is for God to ignore him so that Job can enjoy life the best he can on his own (v. 6) or for God to hide him in Sheol until God’s inexplicable anger passes by (v. 13). Even though God will challenge Job’s account of created existence in ch. 38, it is only because Job values God and intimacy with him so much that he laments in this way.
Job does, of course, retract his curse on creation by the end of the book (40:4). God directly challenges Job’s curse of supernatural darkness on creation by speaking of the morning stars singing for joy as God founded creation (38:7). But even as he curses, Job’s theology is good in the sense that Job rightly values God and God’s favor more highly than any earthly blessing. From this perspective, Job’s curse in chapter 3 is a kind of mirror image of his worship in 1:21. The same high view of God from that earlier verse is expressed in a negative way. Even when Job curses, he shows that even an ideal life loses its appeal without the friendship of God. Although not everything Job says in this curse stands up to the Lord’s challenge, Job is speaking rightly about God when he places God above all the privileges Job used to enjoy.
3. Job’s Vulnerability before God’s Judicial Verdict (9:1–10:22)
Job’s third speech is extremely difficult exegetically. As John Hartley writes, in these two chapters, Job “tends to state a position boldly, then abandon it when he sees its difficulty and jump to another idea, which is also quickly abandoned…. His jumping about reflects his frustration at the lack of any insight into the reasons for his plight.”20 The speech is difficult for another reason: Job hits a low point in his protest against God. Although Job will express more hope in later chapters, here he portrays God as positively vicious (9:22–24). Job’s reasons for speaking about God this way are understandable, even if frightening: for no sin Job can think of, God crushes Job in the storm and multiplies his wounds (9:17). Job cannot think of an explanation for why God would treat him this way (10:2) and so thinks he has no alternative but to draw some terrifying new conclusions about God.
The reason for Job’s twisting, difficult argument in these two chapters is perhaps more difficult to see but still important. In this chapter, Job pursues the question of how a man can be right with God (9:2). As he will make clear in 9:14–16, 19, 32–33, 10:2, Job is using legal language to talk about forensic righteousness in this verse: he is searching after how a man might be recognized as being in the right by the constituted (divine) legal authority. Doubtless it was frustrating for Job’s friends to hear this question, since Bildad had just finished answering this question for Job: repent and seek God (8:5–6). For Job, of course, the question is much more troubling, because Job knows with utter certainty that, although he is not perfectly sinless (31:33–34), there is no fault in his life which would explain God’s punishment of him (as he swears in ch. 31). As a result, Job is right and God is wrong (9:15a). But Job has such an exalted view of God that it is inconceivable to him that anyone could win an argument with the Almighty, least of all himself (v. 15b, 19–20). On the other hand, Job is certain that the punishment he is receiving from God is not just—God is treating him as a sinner when Job is blameless (1:1). At the same time, Job knows he is asking for an encounter with the Almighty, whom no–one resists (v. 12), who tramples powers far greater than Job (v. 13). Little wonder Job has no idea what he would say to God in a legal encounter, even though Job has right on his side (vv. 14–15)! Job spends chs. 9–10 twisting in this contradiction, bouncing back and forth between his certainty about his own blamelessness and the irresistible nature of God’s judgment of him.
But it is not God’s power alone which terrifies Job as he imagines a day in court with the Almighty. Somewhat strangely, it is also God’s moral authority as judge which makes Job tremble. This is strange because Job insists God is a completely amoral judge: “It is all one; therefore I say, he destroys both blameless and wicked” (v. 22). In light of this, one would assume that Job regards this arbitrary despot as having no moral authority to judge him. But Job makes other claims which, in contradictory fashion, put God in the right. The first is found in 9:29, which is usually translated to show Job imagining being condemned in his hypothetical court date with God: “I shall be condemned” (ESV), “Since I am already found guilty” (NIV), “If I must be accounted guilty” (NAB). However, Job uses the Qal and not the Hiphil form of רשׁע; the Hiphil of this verb normally expresses condemnation or finding someone guilty.21 As a result, it is probably best to translate his statement אָנֹכִי אֶרְשָׁע as “I am guilty” or “I am wicked,” instead of expressing Job’s expectation that God will find Job guilty even though Job is innocent.22 This, of course, does not make much sense, because the very first thing we are told about Job is that he is a blameless man (1:1). And Job himself will shortly reverse this by claiming that God knows Job is not guilty in 10:7, using exactly the same form (לֹא אֶרְשָׁע). It is difficult to understand why Job would contradict himself in this way unless we assume that Job’s sense of moral rightness is so deeply rooted in God that, should God contradict the plain evidence of Job’s senses that he is innocent of any sin by treating him as a sinner, then Job cannot resist God’s judgment. He must be guilty. Even though Job’s case is easy—even though he is clearly innocent of any secret crime which could explain his suffering—Job’s sense of God is so profound that he finds himself incapable of resisting what looks like a guilty verdict from on high. Job finds himself contradicting the plain evidence of his senses before the judgment of God—“judgment” in the sense of moral and legal evaluation. “Though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse” (v. 20).
This is probably why Job makes another paradoxical statement in v. 21 that is difficult to communicate in translation: לֹא־אֵדַע נַפְשִׁי, which is usually suitably rendered along the lines of Job not having any regard or concern for his own life (see NIV and RSV). This translation fits well with the next clause, where Job despises his life. Furthermore, the verb ידע, “know,” can refer to acknowledging someone or something or having regard for it (Prov 12:10, Ps 31:8, Exod 23:9).23 But it may be that Job is also saying he literally does not know who he is anymore.24 If this is so, it is highly significant, for it implies that no matter how strong Job’s sense of his own integrity is (תָּם, v. 21, and in 1:1), it cannot make a claim on God. As a result, Job in turn cannot know for sure what he knows about himself unless God agrees.25 Job’s sense of God is such that he needs God to vindicate him and show him to be in the right. Despite the obvious evidence in Job’s favor, Job cannot make that claim on his own with any validity without the Judge vindicating him. Job cannot autonomously assert his own righteousness. If God does not vindicate him, Job simply doesn’t know who he is or what category to put himself in.
As with ch. 3, Job makes some terrifying claims in chs. 9–10 which he will later retract when God directly challenges Job’s claim of injustice in God’s administration of the cosmos. This seems to be the entire point of the Lord’s second speech: “Will you break my justice? Will you condemn me, so that you can be right?” (40:8). The descriptions of the chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan26 and their coming defeat (40:19, 41:8) shows the Lord’s concern for evil at loose in the world and his plan to defeat it one day. But even as he protests in a way he will later painfully regret, Job shows his profound sense of God’s greatness and moral authority, as well as Job’s utter dependence on God for his very sense of himself and his own rightness. This surely is “right” theology (42:7)! Indeed, it is precisely this profound sense of God that drives Job’s agony and wild claims: from his perspective, God is bringing down on him the punishment of a guilty sentence. How could someone in that position speak moderately (6:2–3, 10:1)?
The Lord’s vindication of Job’s speeches clearly contrasts them with the friends’ (42:7). In light of the above discussion, it is easier to see why. The friends show no sense of valuing God beyond what secondary blessings favor with God brings, nor do they evince any sense of the dependence of human righteousness on God for validation and vindication. Bildad, for instance, speaks in 8:6 of God restoring Job’s “rightful habitation” if Job repents—literally, “the habitation of your righteousness” (נְוַת צִדְקֶךָ). It is Job’s righteousness which is in focus here, the righteousness he works in getting rid of whatever sin it is which Bildad is certain has started Job’s tragedy (“if you are pure and upright,” 6a). If Job fulfills these conditions, Bildad says, showing his own changed righteous behavior, God will respond in kind by restoring Job’s “habitation of righteousness.” The difference between Bildad’s soteriology and Job’s sense of his rightness or wrongness before God is striking—a righteousness and moral standing which a human being works for themselves and is secondarily recognized by God, in contrast to a righteousness entirely anchored in God’s evaluation. Consider also Eliphaz’s implication in 15:4 that, if Job is right and there is no benefit to serving God, then no-one will (“you are doing away with the fear of God!”). The unstated assumption is that human beings serve and obey God for no other reason than that they personally benefit from the relationship. In fact, it is very doubtful whether the friends would have passed the Accuser’s test of loyalty to God, regardless of what losses one incurred because of it (1:9, 2:10).
The friends’ long speeches about the justice of God’s retribution also make God distant. In 15:17–35, for instance, Eliphaz mentions God only once in a description of judgment lasting 18 verses. Bildad receives almost the same score in ch. 18, where God is mentioned once at the tail end of 16 verses (vv. 5–21). Zophar’s description of Job’s future blessings, if only he repents, does not mention God at all (11:13–19). Although they doubtless do not intend it, the friends’ portrayal of retribution set God at some remove from the working of it. He seems to exist as a kind of midwife to the retribution principle—but the friends do not show much interest in God beyond his role as the provider of blessings for good behavior. In great contrast, Job loves God for his own sake, and has no sense of a righteousness which could be established independently of God. His whole sense of self is entirely rooted in God and God’s evaluation of him. The book of Job as a whole leaves no doubt as to which kind of orientation toward God is accepted and which is rejected.
This article has argued that Job’s curse of creation (ch. 3) and his accusation of divine injustice (chs. 9–10) arise from an admirably profound sense of the value and worth of God’s friendship and approval of a human life. Without God’s friendship, Job sees no point for creation to exist; without God’s favor and vindication, all of Job’s certainties about himself and his innocence are undone. This is what sparks Job’s protests. In this sense, Job spoke rightly about God and the friends did not.
Further exploration could be made into Job’s speeches regarding what is “right” (נְכֹנָה) in them. But finding certain ways in which Job spoke rightly about God should not blunt surprise of the Lord’s statement in 42:7. Even in light of the way Job shows how much he values God while he protests, and even in light of Job’s repentance in 42:6, it is shocking to see the Lord vindicate Job and his speech over against the friends. In fact, God’s two speeches to Job are surprisingly gentle, given the accusations Job has made against God: far from crushing Job in the storm (9:17), the Lord appears in the storm and reasons with him. As a result, although the Lord’s commendation of Job at the end of the book is not groundless, it should surprise us. The Lord is being entirely gracious with his servant who, in the midst of genuine and enduring faith, said many foolish things (42:3).