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Job’s Last Words

Debate surrounds the last words uttered by Job in the book that bears his name.

William Blake. Job.

Job 42:6 is the punch line of the entire book of Job. The reader waits with bated breath to hear how Job will react to the majestic—though seemingly off-topic—divine response to Job’s questions about justice. Will Job continue his protest against God? Or will God’s words effect a dramatic change of heart on the part of our hero? The answer to both of these questions is: perhaps. Over the course of the book, Job speaks more than 18 chapters’ worth of words. And yet, he is remarkably terse in response to God’s speeches from the whirlwind. Many popular English translations suggest that as a result of his encounter with God, Job recognizes his guilt and submits to God in penance. However, the ambiguity of the Hebrew allows for a number of different, even contradictory, ways of construing Job’s last words.

What does Job say in Job 42:6?

In order to determine what Job says in Job 42:6, translators must contend with several difficulties in the Hebrew text. A more-or-less literal translation yields a nonsensical English sentence: “Therefore I reject and I am sorry upon dust and ashes.”

 The first difficulty with the Hebrew text has to do with the first verb, which can mean “I reject,” “I refuse,” or rarely, “I despise.” Such a verb needs an object, but the Hebrew does not supply one, leaving unspecified precisely what Job is rejecting. The second problem arises from the wide range of meanings that are possible for the second verb, which can mean “I am sorry” or “I repent, turn,” or “I have changed my mind,” or the opposite, “I am consoled about.” Third, though the final two nouns in Job 42:6 are almost always translated “dust and ashes,” the preposition that precedes them is ambiguous; it could mean “of,” “upon,” or “about.”

 Fourth, although there is no real debate that the Hebrew words are “dust and ashes,” it is not clear what these words mean. If “dust and ashes” is metaphorical, it could refer either to death or to the human condition (that is, to being insignificant or mortal). It might also point to acts of mourning or suggest a posture of submission or humiliation. Or one could take the phrase more literally: Job is ready to “turn” away from the place where he sat down in grief (Job 2:8, “among the ashes”).

 In short, almost every word in Job 42:6 can be understood in a different way. Instead of providing the book with a sense of closure, Job’s final words create space for readers to come to their own conclusions about the sufficiency of God’s response to the questions that Job and his friends have raised in their dialogue.

What does Job mean in Job 42:6?

Because what Job says is ambiguous, at least four distinctly different interpretations of Job 42:6 are possible.

 1. Job is being sarcastic when he says, “I despise myself and repent of being human.” (“Whatever, God, you’re all-powerful and I’m a worm.”)

 2. Realizing that God will never acknowledge wrongdoing, Job gives up his fight even though he rejects God’s answer. (“I reject your response but I will accept consolation for my grief.”)

 3. Job accepts God’s response and resolves to turn from his grief and live his life. (“I retract my lawsuit against God and I will turn from my grief.”)

 4. God’s speeches effect an interior change in Job. He embraces his place in the wild, beautiful world, recognizes his own finitude, and submits to God in humility. (“I despise my words [because I spoke wrongly about you, God] and I repent in submission.”)

 Determining the meaning of Job’s words also depends on the way one hears God’s speeches, and readers’ reactions are remarkably different. Some see God’s monologue as a smoke screen designed to distract the reader from the fact that God agreed to torment Job to settle a bet with the Adversary (or “the Satan”; Job 1:9-12, Job 2:3-6). God’s attempts to silence Job’s legitimate protests cause Job to respond with sarcasm or resignation. Others are awed by the depiction of a god who is unconstrained by human understandings of reward and punishment. For them, the view of creation from above disrupts Job’s myopia and leads him to repentance and inner transformation.

 The meaning of Job’s reply depends, in part, on the sentiment one reads into it. Not unlike the experience of reading a cryptic e-mail about a controversial topic, the uncertain tone of Job’s response allows the reader to draw a number of different conclusions about the attitude underlying the written words. In such a hall of mirrors, any interpretation of this ambiguous text will reflect the view of the reader as well as the author.

  • Amy Erickson

    Amy Erickson is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. Her dissertation explores the metaphor of God as enemy in Job’s speeches. Erickson has written articles on Job, the Psalms, Zechariah, and Amos. She is a regular contributor to and the Huffington Post ON Scripture. She is currently working on a commentary on the book of Jonah for a new series, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, entitled Illuminations.