When I hear people discuss the book of Job I sometimes walk away wondering if they have actually ever read the book. For example, I often hear people slamming Job’s friends. You know, stuff like, “I sure wouldn’t want to have friends like that.” To which I always want to respond with something like, “You mean friends who would sit with me in silence for seven days and seven nights? Who would recognize that my grief was very great? Surround me with unconditional love and support? Engage my deepest questions once I was ready to talk? Yeah, who wants friends like that?”
More misconceptions often show up when people talk about what the problem was in the book. You know, who was right and who was wrong (because that’s the most important question to answer). I hear about all the bad theology that Job’s friends were espousing, and all of the great things that Job said about God. To which I always want to respond with something like, “All the great things Job said? Really? You mean like how the first words out of his mouth after his seven days of silence was to curse the day he was born? Or how he accused God of being unjust and tyrannical? Or perhaps how he boasted of his innocence and challenged God to show him otherwise? Or when he asked God if he was having fun torturing him? Or maybe when Job begged God to leave him alone so he could at least have a few moments of joy before he died?”
It’s like the spirit of Job hits me when I hear these misconceptions. I want to scream like Job did. Of course, I never really say those things. I keep myself calm, cool and collected. Unlike Job, I care what my friends think. I care what God thinks. You know why? Because I haven’t suffered enough.
There is a clever insight into the book of Job that was revealed to me by a spiritual father of mine, Rickie Moore. It is a point published in an essay entitled Raw Prayer and Refined Theology, which can be found in this festschrift. It is an explanation of a little word in Job 42:7, which reads:
After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”
The key is found in the preposition about. God tells Eliphaz that he is angry with him and his friends because they have not spoken the truth about God, as did Job. If you take the time to actually read the book you will know that something seems wrong here. Job said a lot of things. A lot of what he said was specifically about God, but very little of it sounds like the truth about God. In contrast, read the speeches of Job’s friends. They exalt God. They speak of his justice. They talk about his infinite power. They proclaim his endless wisdom. They say a whole lot about God. And it all sounds like the truth. What is going on here?
As it turns out the Hebrew preposition translated about is a common one, ‘el. It is used hundreds of times in the Hebrew bible, and it can be translated about. However, you will only find a couple of examples where it is translated that way. Every other time it is translated to. In other words, the better translation is this:
After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth to me, as my servant Job has.”
Interesting. One little pronoun. Yet, it changes our understanding of the entire book of Job. We do not think of the power of prepositions as English speakers. But there is a world of difference between speaking the truth about God and speaking the truth to God. The point was not for Job to speak about God, but for him to speak to God. And Job did exactly that for the entirety of the story. It is bewildering that it is almost impossible to find an English translation that gets this right. But one humble, Hebrew scholar saw it easily. How did he see it? I think he saw it because he has suffered.
If you have suffered you might not need this insight. Perhaps you are not waiting for permission to speak the truth to God concerning your pain, your suffering. Then again, maybe you are waiting. Maybe you do need that permission. Here is the truth. Whether your pain is great or small, God wants you to bring it to him. Scream it to him. In the end he will show up and he will answer. And at that point you will know that he is big enough to handle your biggest accusations…your strongest complaints…your loudest screams. But more importantly, for the first time in a long time you will know this: you are not alone. Even when you’re screaming in the dark.
Wow! You have given me a lot to think about. Another thing about the Book of Job is whether or not one reads the book straight through or whether one reads it piecemeal. It is much more meaningful straight through.
So true, mom! It’s a long read, but you cannot get the full experience without reading it straight through!
Your post reminds me of the words of Paul in Philippians, “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” I don’t think the preposition is as important as you or your friend is making it out to be. It is impossible for us to speak about God in the third person. He is not some object we can pull out of time and space. When we speak about Him, we speak to Him. I would challenge you that in spite of your exhortation at the end of the post, your conception of God is not sufficiently grand, if you believe you can exclude Him from your conversations.
However, Tony, I find that there are many people who know ABOUT God…but, do not KNOW Him. Likewise, I find that there are many, many people who talk ABOUT God in this world, including philosophers and athiests, but do not talk TO Him.
Is God privileged to the conversation and dialogue going on about Him? Certainly. Does that mean He feels an intimacy about the exchange? I’m not convinced.
The point for me in this passage, as well as others, is that God seems to desire us to face Him at times…even if it involves wrestling (as with Jacob) or screaming (as with Job). Is there time for shoulder to shoulder discourse? Certainly. Is that all God wants from our relationship with Him. My theology tells me otherwise.
This is a common idea out there way before Dr. Stone or Dr. Moore brought up the prepositions.
So, prepositions aside…
Job’s friends, whether you change the preposition or not…talked ABOUT God. Job talked TO God…and I appreciate Job’s example for me. And, “In all of this, he did not sin” Job 1:22. Wow, could this mean that I can be real with God…and, sure, He might answer me back pretty big…but, in all of this…it is not sin?
What freedom to be transparent and intimate with my Creator.
I talk more about this here:
Well said, Emily. It is, as Rickie calls it, “raw prayer.” Many need permission to pray it!
Thanks for your comment. You bring up a great point. One I had not thought about in precisely the way that you are starting it. And if I were going to expand the point of the post beyond the idea of giving permission to speak to God with congruence then I think it would be an important one to include.
I think your point is an important point in a deeper study of the book of Job because it brings in another aspect that I ignored (knowingly, and with conflicted feelings), and that is the sort of “correction” that Job gets in the end. When God finally shows up He speaks to Job in much of the same tone that Job spoke to Him throughout the book. When I have discussed the book of job with others in various studies this sense of “correction” often gets expressed. I think there is a sort of correction there, and it is along the lines of what you are saying in your comment. That is, God was never excluded from the conversation. And while Job may have felt alone in his pain, God “corrects” him on that point, and reveals to him a “sufficiently grand” picture of who He is to Job.
However, God also affirms Job in the same process. There are few pictures in all of Scripture of God drawing so intimately close to a human in so much glory. Yes, Job had not been alone. But I am quite certain that Job had never seen God in all of his power and beauty as he did in the last four chapters of the book. In that sense, God entered onto the scene in a way that He had not previously been. He had always been there, but not in a way that they could sense Him.
I say all of that to say that I do not disagree with your point about God being in all of our conversations. But your point, in my mind, does not take anything away from the point of the post. As for the issue of the preposition, Rickie published those thoughts in an essay entitled “Raw Prayer and Refined Theology.” You can find that essay in this festschrift.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I have added to the post a link for the essay mentioned.
Thank you (and Emily) for the perspective and insight. Truth be told, I probably did not read and respond to this post in the right spirit this morning (long story) and could have chosen my words more graciously. Yours and Emily’s responses were much more charitable than my initial comment deserved. Thank you to both of you.
If you were in a bad place when you wrote then your post probably sounded a lot worse to you when you reread it than it did when I read it. Wasn’t that bad to me. Nonetheless, thanks for the heartfelt words, and thanks for taking the time to read.
[…] Stone makes a great point about Job 42:7 in an article on his blog here. After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with […]
Jonathan, you make some great points here and I thank you for bringing them to my attention. In his introduction to Psalms Eugene Peterson wrote that biblical prayers in Hebrew are “earthy and rough” and he encourages us to pray with raw honesty, articulating our despair, anger, disappointment and frustration. In the context of Job, to ‘speak well to God’ is to confront him with our concerns when his world appears to be unfair and his ways unjust.
Well said, Stephen. Thanks for the attention you gave to the pronoun on your blog. I look forward to seeing what you uncover in your investigation.
Thanks Jonathon, enjoyed reading your post.
Thank You it is interesting how this idea was creeping into my current teaching on Job, I love the way that works.
I love it when that happens too. Thanks for stopping by.
Reblogged this on Anzaholyman's Blog.
Looking at the book as a whole, Job teaches that God did the things that he did simply because he could. There’s no justification (except that might makes right), no moral reason that explains the trials God puts Job through. A discouraging message.
I also found it odd (at least from a modern perspective) that the book ends with God restoring everything to Job. He has twice the wealth he has and 10 new kids. It ignores the fact that his 10 old kids are still dead.
BTW, kudos on the look of your blog–very professional.
You’re right, Bob. It is an odd ending. Yet, people act as if the “restoration” of Job’s “wealth” makes everything better.
Thanks on the look of the blog. I am liking it!
[…] am not going to tell you anything today that will take away the pain or speed up the process of grief that you or a loved one will experience in response to any of […]
Hi Jonathan. Really interesting post. Speaking the truth ‘to’ God is essential to relationship with Him and in the midst of difficulty, we need Him. Talking ‘about’ Him doesn’t cut it, He is the one who brings the hope.
Thanks for pointing this out & thanks for your comment on my blog, too. Blessings!
You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by, and blessings today to you and yours.
Can you offer any textual evidence that translating as “to” instead of “about” gives us a more accurate understanding? You say “It is bewildering that it is almost impossible to find an English translation that gets this right.” But you haven’t shown that this is the right translation.
Perhaps the translators had a reason for using “about” here? What might that have been? Or do you propose that they really were all lazy and Rickie Moore is the first one to have gotten this right?
Also, you mention that el is translated about “only a couple of times” — what are those other occurrences? Do you believe the translation in those cases should also be changed to “to”, in order to match the rest? Why or why not?
I agree on one thing: that the choice of preposition in this case does radically alter the understanding of the book. All the more reason to do a credible and thorough job making your case, rather than asking your audience to accept an assumption with such big consequences.
Thanks for reading. I would mention a few things in response. (1) You mentioned asking my audience to accept an assumption with such big consequences. Actually, I have not asked anyone to assume anything, but made it quite clear that there are not a lot of scholars to have noted Dr. Moore’s analysis. I happen to agree with him, but I would not expect a casual reader to be “convinced” of anything from the post, only challenged to look into it. The other part of that sentence I take issue with is “such big consequences.” I agree, as I noted, that it significantly shapes the way we read the book of Job. But I am not proposing new theology here. Whether or not one agrees with this interpretation of the “dbr ‘el” preposition/verb combination, the basic point that Scripture invites us to honestly speak our complaints “to” God is clear in the imprecatory Psalms, Lamentations, Habakkuk, etc.
(2) The “dbr ‘el” combination is used 455 times in the Hebrew Bible. 7 times it is translated “speak about.’ Those passages are 1 Sam 3:12; Isa 16:13; Jer 27:13; Jer 40:2; Jer 40:16; Jer 50:1; Jer 51:12. Thirteen times it is translated “speak against.” And 435 times it is translated “speak to.” So, again, it is possible to translate it “spoken about,” but it is interesting to note how unusual that would be to render it that way.
(3) In terms of the “why’s” and “why nots” my personal experience is that I have not found a Hebrew Scholar that has a reason. The ones that I have spoken with have only mentioned that the syntax makes the “speak about” rendering possible, but not necessarily probable. And I have yet to find one that can explain why so few English translations use the more common rendering of “speak to.” One interesting side note, when Rickie wrote his article he had noted that Eugene Peterson used both in The Message paraphrased version. So, Rickie mailed him a copy of his article. Peterson wrote him back and said he had noticed the exact same thing, and that was why he chose the wording that he did.
(4) The scholarship is out there on this verse if you’re interested in it. I think it is obvious that I am not writing a piece of scholarship. Rather, I write on spirituality. That is not to say that I don’t take the theological implications of what I write seriously. However, that is why I do not lay out all of these details to which you are inquiring. Anyway, Rickie’s essay is over ten years old now. Even when he wrote it he was able to find this observation once he dug around a bit, and since then more has been published on it.
(5) You asked, “Do you propose that they (translators) were all lazy and Rickie Moore is the first one to have gotten this right?” Perhaps you misunderstood my statement about “one humble, Hebrew scholar who saw it.” I did not mean that he was the only one to have seen it, but he is one who has seen it, and my point is to ask the question of what makes it easier for some to see it than others. Again, I suggested that suffering gave one the eyes to see it. So, no, I do not propose that he is the only one who has gotten it right. But he does seem to be one of a small minority who have discovered this gem of an insight.
Hope that helps.