Job 42:6 I
Key to my interpretation of Job 42:1-6, the passage where Job utters his last words, is the verb "I despise" ("'ma'as" in 42:6). My argument, beginning here and concluding in the next mini-essay, is that rather than pointing to the fullness of satisfied vision of God (42:5 talks about Job "seeing" God), use of the verb signifies a complete and abject repudiation of self, a distaste of self, an emotional collapse of the first order. This interpretation of Job means that Job's last words bring him to his lowest level of brokenness and dejection. He does not finish his words in hope and triumph but in unrelieved hopelessness.
The verb "ma'as" appears about 50 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, 10 of which are in Job. It can be translated as "reject" or "despise," but it only is used by Job himself three times, and they are always in the first person singular.* The other two instances give a window into the usage here.
[*Hebrew has other verbs to express strong distaste, such as 'kut' and 'sanaah,' but it is not as if there is a continuum of hatred expressed by the verbs, as if one is less harsh and one, necessarily, more harsh. It is the same in English. Is 'hate' stronger than 'loathe' or 'despise' or 'abhor'? Neither the English language, nor perhaps any language, is that precise.]
In 7:16, Job is on the brink of emotional collapse because he realizes that he will never again see good (7:7) and that God, rather than comforting him in his distress, guards him as closely as the great sea monsters (7:12) and won't even allow him space to swallow his spittle (7:19). In this context Job utters his three tightly packed thoughts: "I despise," "I would not live forever [i.e., 'my days are short'] and "Leave me alone [addressed to God] for my days are a breath" (7:16).
The use of "ma'as" in 7:16 is without an object, giving the literal translation "I despise," which most versions of the Bible render as "I despise myself." In the context of 7:16 it signifies an emotional exhaustion that mirrors Job's physical collapse of chapters 1-2. While Job was defiant in chapter 6, asking God to "crush him" and angrily challenging God to cut him off once and for all, he still maintained a modicum of emotional strength, even if it was fueled by bitterness and resentment. In this passage, however, all his inner strength has drained away, and he is left with emotional as well as physical lassitude and depletion. All he can do is "despise" (his life?) and wish for God to leave him alone for his few remaining days.
The verb reoccurs in Job's next speech two chapters later. For the first time in that chapter Job has initiated a legal strategy to deal with his pain. He is aware of the mixed nature of that strategy; actually in chapter 9 Job sees most of the negatives of a legal approach to God. Ultimately Job believes that God would not listen to him (9:16). In fact, God is so powerful that He crushes Job with a tempest (9:17). Even if Job justified himself, God somehow would twist his words so that Job would admit guilt (9:20). In this context, Job gives up again. His mental resources are gone. All he can say are seven wrenching (Hebrew) words. "I am perfect." "I do not know myself." "I despise my life."
This is not the place to examine the peculiar rhythm and suggestive phrasing of this verse. My only interest here is to point out that Job uses the phrase "I despise my life" when he sees that there is absolutely no possiblity of drawing out meaning from life anymore. Every emotional strategy he has to deal with his peculiar agony is unavailing. He therefore despises his life--and in that verb are thoughts as various as hate, self-loathing, humiliation, and fear. It is a verb that captures all the frustration and fruitlessness of life, of promise destroyed, of life betrayed, of self-recrimination even for having hoped that life would bring good in its wake.
If we look at the "ellipse" of Job's life as made up of two "foci," one is his physical strength and the other his emotional/spiritual potency. When the first collapsed, the second was in danger of the same destruction. Job devised strategies to stave off emotional bankruptcy, but sometimes those strategies were as paper-thin as Potemkin villages. At those times, when his inner spirit is fully impoverished, he despises himself or just says simply, "I despise." Now we are ready for Job 42:6.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long