job 42:3 — too marvellous or too difficult?

In English translations, Job 42:3 is usually rendered as follows:

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

The reference to “things too wonderful for me” appears to be a little odd given the context, following Job’s confrontation with Yahweh wherein Job is presented with a series of questions apparently designed to highlight his ignorance. The emphasis here is on Job’s lack of knowledge, a point asserted by Yahweh and affirmed by Job when he says “I have uttered what I did not understand.” Indeed, perhaps Job’s own emphasis here when he declares ‏לכן הגדתי ולא אבין is not simply that he spoke of things he didn’t understand, but that he actively affirmed them as factual (i.e., made his point quite vociferously).

So while it might be true that many of the things Job did not understand were too wonderful for him, part of what he didn’t understand was the justification for his own suffering. I’m not sure that he would describe that as “wonderful”!

However, this is not the only way to understand the verse, nor even the best way. The niphal participle here from פלא can also mean “be too difficult” according to HALOT when followed by the preposition מן, as it is here. In fact, when you look at the way in which the verb is used elsewhere with מן + a personal pronominal suffix (see Deut 17:8; 30:11; Jer 32:17; Ps 131:1; Prov 30:18), the emphasis generally appears to fall on the notion of difficulty, not wonder. And this fits better in Job 42:3 as well, for both Job and Yahweh have spoken of Job’s ignorance. His inability to answer any of Yahweh’s questions speaks to the fact that they were, for Job, too difficult, not too wondrous.

Consequently I suggest a better translation might be something like:

I have asserted, but I did not understand;
these things are too difficult for me, and I do not know them.

ISTM this better fits with what’s going on between Job and Yahweh.

2 responses to “job 42:3 — too marvellous or too difficult?”

  1. Bob MacDonald

    Hey – a comment on Job – you are ahead of me. Thanks for the anticipatory comment. I am still working on chapter 36 – but looking forward to the denouement.

  2. Martin Shields

    Hi Bob. I’m hoping to have more on Job at some point in the future. Quite a task you’re undertaking over there, keep up the good work!

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