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Many translations of Job 42:6 have something like the NIV:

Therefore I despise myself 
   and repent in dust and ashes.

However, in the article on Job from The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Lindsay Wilson recommends something like, "Therefore I reject and turn from the way of dust and ashes."

Is this translation possible given the Hebrew? Is it likely?

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2 Answers 2

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I was surprised by this translation of וְנִחַמְתִּי, because I generally think nacham in the sense of "comfort". However, BDB connects comforting to repentance:

verb Niph`al be sorry, console, oneself, etc. (only in derived species) [...]

  1. be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion, for others

  2. be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent, of one's own doings (this is the definition that's tied to this verse)

  3. comfort oneself, be comforted

  4. comfort oneself, ease oneself

Apparently, comforting and repentance are related; when one repents of his past deeds, perhaps he takes comfort in knowing that he is now on the right path? (This is my speculation.) In any case, "repent" in the sense of "regret" or "be sorry" seems to be the meaning here; this is the inward face of repentance, the regret, but not the outward face (making amends, reconcilliation, etc).

A further note about the end of the verse: the translation quoted in the question is "in dust and ashes", while an alternate proposal is "from the way of dust and ashes". The key word here is עַל , which is neither the prefix bet (in) nor the prefix mem (from). 'Al is generally something like "upon", so I would say that "in" is a fair translation. "From the way of" seems to be reading into the text; in particular, no word like "way" appears in the Hebrew.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Concerning the meaning of the word translated "repent"
In the piel, "nacham" refers to comforting or consoling, but in the nifal, as it is in Job 42:6, it can also mean "repent" or "be sorry" (HALOT). And while "console" is also a possible meaning of the word in the nifal, "repent" makes more sense when juxtaposed with "dust and ashes".

Concerning possible translations of the verse
The literal translation of the verse, word for word, is "Therefore I reject/abhor and repent on dust and ashes." Though it is technically speaking possible to read the verse as if Job were repenting of the dust and ashes, this rendering of the preposition "al" is rare and poorly supported. But the context must make the final determination:

Job 42:5-8 “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.” And so it was, after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”

Job is portrayed in a positive light, as one accepted by God. It is therefore not likely that Job was turning away from "the way of dust and ashes", since dust and ashes were symbols of his godly humility. This is made even less likely by the fact that Job's statement in v6 is motivated by what he says in v5 about having seen God.

The better translation is therefore "Therefore I reject/abhor [myself/my previous words], and I repent in dust and ashes." Otherwise, if Job did not repent, it is difficult to explain why God blesses and exalts him at the end of the book.

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