Job 42:6 II
"I Despise"--Final Thoughts
Even though Job had periodic bouts of emotional bankruptcy and overmastering grief in the early sections of the book, by the time he reached chapter 19 he was articulating a hope in a Redeemer of his life--a hope that would propel him to the offensive with respect to his friends (Job 21) and lead to his final confident (and defiant) challenge to God in chapters 29-31. That is, the emotionally-drained Job of 7:16 and 9:21, where he despised his life, has disappeared by the time Job finishes his words in 31:40.
Yet after the revealing speeches of Elihu and the overpowering words of God, Job confesses his ignorance of the divine activity (42:1-3), states that he now "sees" God, whom he had only "heard" about before (42:5), and then "despises" and "repents upon dust and ashes."* It is in this context, Job says, "Therefore, I despise (42:6)." As in 7:16, there is no object that follows the verb "ma'as."
[*The translation of the last phrase has also been the subject of much scholarly speculation. A suggestive (and new) translation is to render it, "I repent (give up) dust and ashes," which would signify that Job, having seen God, is abandoning all religious activity. The vision of God is so powerful that that alone orients his life. I see no reason to depart from the traditional translation--"I repent in dust and ashes," which is confirmed by my reading of "I despise."]
Why does Job "despise" again? If we interpret "ma'as" not in its gentler form of "reject" (which seems to be an increasingly popular reading among scholars) but in its full meaning of "despise," and then connect it with Job's earlier uses of "ma'as" in the first person, we are confronted with a third time in which Job is suffering emotional collapse.
He has gradually built himself up in inner strength from the nadir of 17:11, but now the props of legal argument, upon which he rested his case in chapter 31, have been completely yanked from under him. To paraphrase Job in another verse, "If I wash myself with soap and cleanse my hands with lye [which he has done figuratively by devising a strategy to bolster his emotional bankruptcy], yet you will plunge me into filth, and my own clothes will abhor me (9:30-31)." In 42:6 Job feels that he has been plunged anew into the filth of himself, and so he despises (himself) again.
Despising and the Conclusion of Job
The implication of this reading is that Job, though overwhelmed by the divine vision, is overwhelmed not in the sense that his life has come together in meaning or that everything is now "wonderful" because he has seen God but that he is once again annihilated emotionally. His legal strategy, on which he had placed his hope, is now utterly ripped, just as was every other strategy to deal with his anguish. Seeing God has torn out his inner circuitry.
All there is now is the divine power; Job is absolutely nothing. The dust heap is the only proper place for Job. Maybe he will not even have a new potsherd to scrape himself anymore. He is utterly undone. He is sorry for his life. It is worse, far worse, than ever having been born. Even darkness yields too much light for him now. He was the big man, the greatest man in the East. Now he knows for sure that he is absolutely nothing, less than nothing, of utter insignificance in the flow of history and time and in the ordering of God's creation.
He cannot even finish the thought. He cannot even say, "I despise myself." All he can say is "I despise." He cannot finish the sentence because he despises so much more than just himself at this juncture. Everything that breathes, everything that even suggested an inkling of meaning or blessing, every sweet bird that relieved his day with song and every gentle breeze that mitigated the desert heat--he now abhors. He can only keep sitting right where he is, on the dust and ashes.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long