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Job’s Last Words

I’m going to read the last; the very last sentence that Job ever speaks in the book, which you would think, was a pretty important sentence.  It’s his signing off word.  ‘Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’ 

I was reading that in the New Revised Standard Version which is a common Bible for many people, but I’m sorry that it and almost all our versions of Job are wrong.  In at least two places, this cannot possibly be what the Hebrew original means because the word for despise, as it’s translated to despise, doesn’t have any myself after it.  It just says, ‘Therefore, it seems to say, I despise.’  What?–you don’t know, but our English translations have tried to fill the gap by saying, “I despise myself.’  But, there’s nothing to suggest in the Book of Job that Job despises himself.

So, I think the thinking now is that it can’t really be that word, to despise, but another similar sounding word that means something like, melt or submit or give in or quit. I would argue that what Job is saying—the speech of God to him has been so unsatisfactory— he has no redress for his wrongs; that he’s given up his case against God and he just quits. 

Now that’s a very strange and rather dramatic reversal of the way it’s usually understood. But the second point is that our translations generally say, ‘I repent in dust and ashes.’  But the whole story of the Book of Job is that Job has nothing to repent of!  The very first verses of the book say that he was an innocent man, a perfect man who had done nothing wrong, so how could he be repenting? Just because God has described the underworld and the goats on the mountainside to him, why should he repent?  He’s got nothing to repent of, and in any case, the verb that is translated repent has another completely different meaning that fits this context much better; and it also means to console one’s self or to be consoled, let other people comfort you. What Job is saying is, I now propose to accept the consolation my friends are giving me, and I will get on with the rest of my life.

  • David J. A. Clines

    David J. A. Clines is professor emeritus of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. He is director and publisher of Sheffield Phoenix Press, editor of the eight-volume Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, and author of a three-volume commentary on Job in the Word Biblical Commentary Series. He was president of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1996 and of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2009.