Job 13:15–An Exercise in Interpreting!

Every now and then I come across a Bible verse where translations of English Bibles display remarkable and confusing contradictions. Job 13:15 represents a dramatic example. Notice the following:

  • “Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope” (Revised Standard Version, RSV)
  • “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” (New American Standard Bible, NASB)
  • “God might kill me, but I cannot wait.” (New Living Translation, NLT)
  • “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (New King James Version, NKJV)

Is Job’s statement a declaration of certain death (RSV), possible death (NLT), no hope (RSV), hope (NASB), impatience (NLT), faith (NKJV)? A variety of interpretation issues are involved in unraveling this apparently contradictory and confusing array of translation options. Textual criticism, syntax, word studies, and context are necessary elements in deciphering Job’s exclamation.

Textual Criticism–The first issue is to establish the most likely original wording of the verse. The Hebrew text presents two options, one in the text itself and the other in the margin. The different choices create very different interpretations. The RSV and NLT translate the second clause in negative terms whereas the NASB and NKJV give positive readings.

  • This textual problem involves similar sounds of the two readings, a common problem in the transmission of ancient manuscripts. The text contains the negative “not” (לא) while the margin substitutes a preposition with an appended personal pronoun “in Him” (לוֹ). Both sound the same. The Jewish editors of the Old Testament manuscript placed in the margin what they considered to be the original reading. This reading is also found in the text of some other Old Testament manuscripts.
  • The NASB and NKJV followed the ancient textual critical decision. The RSV and NLT chose to stay with the reading in the text. The present discussion accepts the marginal reading as original and the one that appears to accord best with the context (see below).

Syntax–This refers to the relationships between words in a sentence. A variety of syntax options for different parts of speech exists (Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline). In the above translations the verb in the first clause refers to either a simple future idea (RSV), a concession (NASB, NKJV), or a possibility (NLT). In the second clause, the verbal idea is viewed as either an ongoing mental activity (RSV, NLT) or a simple future declaration (NASB, NKJV). Each of these interpretations is possible, but each cannot be correct.

Word Studies–The first word study issue involves the initial term in the Hebrew text (הן). This could be an interjection, “behold” (RSV), or a conjunctive of concession or condition tied to the following Hebrew verb (יקטל, to kill). (Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 243; John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, 221). The NASB, NKJV and NLT (possibly) translators chose the latter interpretation. In contrast Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, p. 497, says that “the meaning see [“behold”] is no doubt preferable.” (The accents in the Hebrew text are inconclusive.) Again, both possibilities cannot be right.

The second word study involves the Hebrew verb focusing on “waiting” (NLT), “hoping” (RSV, NASB) and “trusting” (NKJV). When this verb (יחל) is followed by the preposition ל as here, the resultant meanings are “to wait for” or “to hope for” (William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 133; Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 403-04). In this instance, since there is a sense correlation between “waiting” and “hoping,” the choice will depend upon how the context affects the sentence. The “trusting” terminology of the NKJV, though close in meaning to waiting or hoping, has a different perspective. The major dictionaries do not include this meaning for the word. (See also Harris, Archer, Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, I, 373-74.)

Context–As in any interpretation, the context of the passage in question plays a determinate role in sifting through various options. Often one enters the realm of probabilities instead of certainties. In Job 13:15 the interpreter must allow the context to be the guide through the maze of textual, syntactical, and lexical differences.

  • Does the context suggest that Job expects God to kill him? It does not appear so. Job wants an opportunity to present his case before God and is convinced that he will be vindicated (verses 15 and 18). He may lose his case and be killed, but he firmly believes that he will be exonerated. Therefore, the probability appears greater that the NASB and NKJV with their “concession” statements probably should be given priority in interpretation.
  • Regarding the second syntax issue, the ongoing mental state of waiting/hoping or a future expectation, the broader context of verse 15 would point to a future idea. Job wants to present his case and wait for the verdict from God that will follow his defense. Therefore, the future idea is more probable and so translated in the NASB and NKJV. (See Hartley, The Book of Job, 221-23, for a different interpretation of the context.)

In attempting to capture all of the interpretive conclusions, the following translation is tentatively offered: “Though He may kill me, I will wait for Him.”

Here is my paraphrased interpretation of the verse: “Although God might find me guilty and kill me after I make my defense, I will wait for His verdict, but I am confident that He will find me not guilty.” Such an interpretation coordinates well with the preceding desire on Job’s part to argue his case before God (verses 3 and 13) and with the following context where he expects to be vindicated (verse 18).

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