[The following first appeared in the September 2018 issue of Christianity Today: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/september/job-13-15-though-he-slay-me-translation-original.html]
Job 13:15 Commentary on Context
If we’re still uncertain how to translate Job 13:15, the context can help us. Below are two versions of 13:14-15. The first translation follows the Spoken, the second the Written.
Be silent before me so that I may speak; Then let come on me what may. Why should I take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hands? Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him (NASB).
Keep quiet; I will have my say; Let what may come upon me.How long! I will take my flesh in my teeth; I will take my life in my hands. He may well slay me; I may have no hope; Yet I will argue my case before Him (JPS).
Which translation better fits the context? I believe it’s the JPS. Job silences his colleagues, determines to take his life into his own hands by daring to bring (legal) charges (“my case”) against the Almighty. Anticipating the sentence of death for his challenge, Job acknowledges God may well slay him, and that he may have no hope. He determines, nevertheless, to pursue his case to God face-to-face.
Choosing the positive nuance of “hope” or “trust,” as some English translators do, introduces an idea alien to the flow of Job’s argument. In fact, the written Hebrew text states, “I have nohope”! Most evangelical commentaries support this reading. Gerald Wilson, for example, in his Job(New International Biblical Commentary, 2007) discusses both readings, after which he concludes: “Rather than expressing monumental faith, Job is instead indicating just how hopeless his circumstances really are.” David J. A. Clines, who wrote a three-volume commentary on Job (Job 1-20, Word Biblical Commentary, 1989) states, “The traditional translation of AV [Authorized Version], ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,’ must regretfully be set aside as out of harmony with the context.” In his determination to confront the Almighty with the injustice of his suffering, therefore, Job accepts the risk of death.
Job 13:15: Commentary in the Book of Job as a Whole
How does translating 13:15 “He will surely slay me; I have no hope” fit the context of the book as a whole? In chapters 4–27 of Job, he gradually develops a lawsuit to arraign the God of justice over his unjust suffering. Then, in chapters 29–31, Job presents his defense to the Almighty. After Elihu speaks, God finally responds, confronting Job with his awesome presence and unleashing a barrage of unanswerable questions (chapters 38–40).
Now seeing his case from God’s perspective, Job silences himself (40:4). He then must withstand God’s withering critique: “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (40:8). Job finally acknowledges God as master of all creation, including humanly uncontrollable chaos (the “Behemoth,” or “Leviathan,” mentioned in chapters 40–41). After Job acknowledges his ignorance of God’s perspective, he withdraws his case (42:1–6).
Throughout Job’s struggle, God’s absence frustrates him (23:3–9). Yet God waits patiently before responding. And, although God’s answer was not what Job expected, God demonstrates respect for his servant: He honors Job with his presence, he speaks personally to him (38:1; 40:1), and he hears Job’s complaint (40:2). God, in fact, later commends Job for his honest words. “I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).
Why Misreading 13:15 Matters
Misreading Job 13:15, therefore, involves more than an academic dispute. It minimizes Job’s anguish and lessens his fierce determination to bring his case to God. It hinders us from expressing the anguish we feel when confronted by hardship and tragedy. As a result, it reduces the power of the book to help the sufferer. Job’s words give us voice when we suffer intensely, yet dare not express how we feel. If Job protests what appears as injustice from God, whom he trusts to be just, should we hold back our tears, cries, or grief over our tragedies? Can we not, like Job, worship God both as master of creation and as the one to whom we can express our deepest hurts?