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When translating Job 42:8, most English Bibles are basically the same as ESV:

Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

The point of inquiry is regarding what is translated "according to your folly."

The MT reads:

וְעַתָּ֡ה קְחֽוּ־לָכֶ֣ם שִׁבְעָֽה־פָרִים֩ וְשִׁבְעָ֨ה אֵילִ֜ים וּלְכ֣וּ׀ אֶל־עַבְדִּ֣י אִיֹּ֗וב וְהַעֲלִיתֶ֤ם עוֹלָה֙ בַּֽעַדְכֶ֔ם וְאִיֹּ֣וב עַבְדִּ֔י יִתְפַּלֵּ֖ל עֲלֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֧י אִם־פָּנָ֣יו אֶשָּׂ֗א לְבִלְתִּ֞י עֲשֹׂ֤ות עִמָּכֶם֙ נְבָלָ֔ה כִּ֠י לֹ֣א דִבַּרְתֶּ֥ם אֵלַ֛י נְכוֹנָ֖ה כְּעַבְדִּ֥י אִיֹּֽוב׃

It seems to me the most natural reading of אֶשָּׂ֗א לְבִלְתִּ֞י עֲשֹׂ֤ות עִמָּכֶם֙ נְבָלָ֔ה is something like this:

I will accept [his prayer] so as not to do folly with you.

There is no second person plural suffix that would indicate that the נְבָלָ֔ה is that of Job's comforters, but rather appears to be a potential נְבָלָ֔ה of God himself, that he wishes to avoid.

Are there serious grammatical or syntactical reasons why so many translators understand נְבָלָ֔ה as that of the comforters rather than of God? Or is it merely theological uncomfortableness that has led so many to translate something like "according to your folly"?

I am primarily not concerned with the semantic range of the word נְבָלָ֔ה, or the potential implications of God doing נְבָלָ֔ה, although these issues might be related.

I am primarily interested in an objective grammatical analysis of the text.

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A Range of Possibilities

There is certainly some versatile grammar here for the phrase in question:

כִּ֧י אִם־פָּנָ֣יו אֶשָּׂ֗א לְבִלְתִּ֞י עֲשׂ֤וֹת עִמָּכֶם֙ נְבָלָ֔ה

And while you state...

I am primarily not concerned with the semantic range of the word נְבָלָ֔ה, or the potential implications of God doing נְבָלָ֔ה, although these issues might be related.

...I do not believe that translation issues can be resolved without looking at:

  1. the plausible possibilities for any/all words involved
  2. the context
  3. the former revelation God has given about Himself in Scripture

For the discussion, I am using HALOT word glosses1 and information from Williams' Hebrew Syntax.2 Some things to note then about feasible grammatical/syntax possibilities:

  • (A) כִּ֧י אִם can be taken as:
    1. asseverative (#449; certainly/truly...)
    2. adversative (#447; but instead...)
    3. causal/conditional (#446 & 453; because/for if...)
  • (B) לְבִלְתִּ֞י can mean:
    1. without (#421)
    2. except/unless (#422)
    3. not (#423)
    4. so that not (#424)
  • (C) עֲשׂ֤וֹת (make/do/create/work/effect) is an infinitive construct, which grammatically could be directly related to the verb (אֶשָּׂ֗א; carry/lift up), but in this case is clearly not, and rather takes an explanatory role.
    1. A relation directly to a verb would be as
      1. subject (#192; but not here, as verb is a 1st person subject)
      2. object (#193; but not here, as the object of אֶשָּׂ֗א is פָּנָ֣יו [head/face; i.e. in conjunction, the idea of פָּנָ֣יו אֶשָּׂ֗א is to look on favorably, or "accept"]).
    2. An explanatory role might be one of the following here
      1. purely explanatory, i.e. epexegetical (#195; by ...ing)
      2. purpose (#197; in order to...)
      3. result (#198; thus ...ing)
  • (D) עִמָּכֶם֙ might conceivably meet one these ideas here:
    1. accompaniment (#328; with you)
    2. advantage (#331; on behalf of you)
    3. disadvantage (#332; against you)
    4. comparison (#334; similar to you)
  • (E) נְבָלָ֔ה (stupidity/folly/willful sin [i.e. sacrilege]) is in the absolute form, and because we are dealing with an infinitive in עֲשׂ֤וֹת, then נְבָלָ֔ה could be:

    1. The object of the infinitive (make/do/create/work/effect stupidity/folly/sacrilege)
    2. The subject of the infinitive (stupidity/folly/sacrilege make/do/create/work/effect)


    Note that the word נְבָלָ֔ה and its implications essentially demand that whatever translation is taken, it not be God that is the stupid/foolish/willfully sinning sacrilegious actor (potentially or actually) in question, as the whole prior discussion between Job and his friends made one thing clear that they agreed on—God does right and is righteous (e.g., Job 8:3, 9:2-3), which God affirms in His challenge to Job (40:2, 8). Man is accountable to the God who is just and right. So the fools (the root נָבָל from which נְבָלָ֔ה comes) and their actions are opposite God (so Job's wife's speech, Job 2:10, and the fools who are vile, Job 30:8).

The Common Translation

So you give the ESV's:

for I will accept [his prayer] not to deal with you [according to your] folly

Can that be mapped to the possibilities? I believe so.

  • "For" is a mild way of expressing the asseverative idea for A.1, essentially equivalent to "truly" in this case.
  • "not to deal" is equal to B.3 and C.2.1 essentially "by not doing..."
  • "with you [according to your] folly" is equal in meaning to the combination of D.3 and E.2, which then combined with the preceding infinitive, becomes "by folly not working against you" (i.e., implying that their own folly, already noted in v.7 as "you have not spoken of me what is right" [ESV], is the folly God is speaking of as what might work against them; reiterated at the end of v.8).

In other words, I believe that both of these translations are different ways of saying the same thing, the first more literal to Hebrew structure (from above analysis), the second (ESV) refined for English sensibilities:

for I will accept [his prayer] by [the] folly not working against you.

[= in meaning to]

for I will accept [his prayer] not to deal with you [according to your] folly

The former uses the context to glean that "[the] folly" is speaking of the definite folly just discussed in v.7 and end of v.8. But the former is awkward to English ears, and it seems reasonable to indicate that the dealings with them is "according to" that folly of theirs.

Other Possibilities

There are some other possibilities that avoid theological issues of God being stupid or doing willful sin Himself. Consider:

  • Possible translation: but instead (A.2) I will accept [it = his prayer], unless (B.2) sacrilege (E.2) be done (C.2.1) with you (D.1)

    This translation considers the כִּ֧י אִם as adversative, something David Clines in the article linked to by Davïd felt would not fit (see p.3, n.4). But it can be fitted in the total context of v.7-8, for v.7 declared (ESV) "My anger burns against you ..." and a command is given in v.8 "Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves," which precedes the statement "And my servant Job shall pray for you." Combine the concepts with the above translation:

    My anger burns against you ... offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and my servant Job shall pray for you, but instead [of anger] I will accept [his prayer], unless sacrilege be done with you...

    In other words, this phrasing could be a condition that if they do not do the sacrifice, if they commit sacrilege in this matter, it will not matter if Job prayed for them or not, YHWH's anger will burn still.

  • Possible translation: truly (A.1), I will accept [them = the prayer and sacrifices], so that no (B.4) folly (E.2) works (C.2 or 3) against you (D.3).

    This is similar to the common translation, but emphasis there was slightly toward the prayer and sacrifice needed to be made because of their folly (a reasoning, especially when choosing to translate as many do "according to your folly"), whereas here emphasis is slightly more on the acceptance of the prayer/sacrifices, such that the folly of their words is not accounted to them.

  • Potential translation: truly (A.1), I will accept [them = the prayer and sacrifices], without (B.1) doing (C [any idea]) folly (E.1) similar to you (D.4).

    This is the only objective use of folly that I have come up with that makes sense in context. God could be clarifying that by His accepting the sacrifices and prayer for the friends against their sins, He will be "folly free," unlike they were from their speech. While there is potential for this translation, I believe one of the three preceding translations thus far are better.

  • Unlikely translation: for if (A.3) I will accept [them = the prayer and sacrifices], so that no (B.4) folly (E.2) works (C.2 or 3) against you (D.3).

    This is just like the preceding, but it makes the כִּ֧י אִם into a conditional. Here I agree with Clines's other part of his statement on p.3 n.4 that the "literal translation 'for if'" does not fit. I believe it does not fit because it places a conditional on whether God will accept the prayer/sacrifices or not, which in context is out of place, for God would not require it if He were not going to accept it. Hence, I consider this an unlikely translation.

Conclusion

The various possibilities for the words, coupled with the clear immediate context in v.7-8 of a twice named "folly" on the part of the friends, and then the overall context of the book of Job showing a righteous and just God indicates that a translation where the folly is associating to the friends, not God. At least four ways to translate were demonstrated; but all four in the whole scheme communicate the same key concepts, just with different emphases:

  1. The friends have sinned in their speech about God
  2. God is angry with them for that sin
  3. The friends need intercession by their own sacrifices and Job's prayer
  4. That intercession will deal appropriately with their folly of speech and suffice God's anger

Note that with all four possible translations explored, the preferable way the folly is put where the context indicates it should be, on the friends, is by considering the folly to be in a subjective relationship to the infinitive construct (the first three translations give), and the whole phrase being an explanatory or purpose/result idea for what will come about (or not) if they fail to heed the command to bring the sacrifices.


NOTES

1 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000); all references are to the word entry in question.

2 Ronald Williams, Williams' Hebrew Syntax, 3rd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); all references are to section numbers, indicated by # followed by number.

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My own translation of Job 42:8 reads:

Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job. You shall offer a burnt offering for yourselves, and Job my servant will pray for you. Him only will I esteem, so as not to do what is improper: for you have not spoken about me fittingly, as has my servant Job.

The details of how I arrived at this are shown here:

enter image description here

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  • In the key clause you associate "Conj." to "only," which would be the conjunction אִם; what source do you have that indicates "only" is a translation for that word? The only (pun intended) notes I find in my sources say the word can be used (apart from כִּי) to express a desire meaning "if only," but here you are using the term as an adverb to limit "his face I will lift up." – ScottS May 4 '16 at 18:17
  • It's the two conjunctions together that seem to present a problem to translators. They unnecessarily complicate stuff, like Gen 15:4, which should be "This shall not be thine heir; only he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. " or they leave אִם֙ out altogether like Gen 28:17, which should be "this alone is the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." – enegue May 4 '16 at 21:37
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    What I'm asking is where you are getting information that the word can be translated as only/alone. I am not finding that in any lexicons or syntax books. What is your source for making that word potentially have that meaning? – ScottS May 4 '16 at 22:08
  • My authority/justification is "logical inference". When the two conjunctions appear together "only" is often clearly the sense of the combination. e.g. Exodus 12:9 "only roast with fire", and Leviticus 21:14 "only a virgin from his people", Numbers 10:30 "only to my land and to my kindred shall I go", and the list goes on. – enegue May 4 '16 at 23:06

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