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Resolving the Competing Translations of Job 21:16a

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Let's start as simply as we can. I have my Hebrew Bible open in front of me, and, as is so often the case, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) gives us a simple and straightforward rendering of the Hebrew text: "Behold, their prosperity is not in their hand." Given the context, this is saying that wicked people are not in control of whether or not they prosper.

Even though the NASB translation seems to be an accurate rendering of the Hebrew text, there are three challenges that any proponent of this rendering must address:

  1. It is hard to see at first how this translation fits into the context of the rest of chapter 21.

  2. The English Standard Version (ESV) translates this verse in such a way that it means exactly the opposite of what the NASB means. Something's got to give!

  3. At first glance it is not obvious how the NASB translation provides a sensible coherence between the first half and the second half of verse 16.

Challenge #1: The Context. The main message of Job 21 is that the wicked prosper; God does not punish them for their sins. Verse 16a of this chapter, according to the NASB, indicates that the wicked are not in control of whether or not they prosper, which suggests that God controls their fate, that he punishes the wicked. So it does seem at first glance that verse 16 doesn't fit well with the rest of the chapter. Here we need to remember that at some point in most of Job's speeches, he makes a statement that shines out as a ray of his original faith (see Job chapters 1 and 2), a faith that pierces out of the clouds of his complaints and confusion. See for example Job 13:15; 16:19-21; 17:3; and 19:25-27. As commentator Gerald Janzen puts it, in Job 21:16a Job "reverts momentarily to the... piety of his old days." If we look at it that way, the NASB translation of 21:16a can fit into the context of chapter 21.

Challenge #2: The ESV Alternative. The ESV translates the line in question as follows: "Behold, is not their prosperity in their hand?" This is a rhetorical question, and it expects a positive answer. This yields the following meaning: wicked people are in control of whether or not they prosper. Now we have a problem. The NASB and the ESV translate the same exact Hebrew sentence in two different ways, ways that are diametrically opposed to each other.

We need to determine which translation of this verse is better, the NASB or the ESV. It will help us sort this out if we can understand why each group of translators made the choices that they did. Let's go back to where we started: the NASB is a very straightforward rendering of the Hebrew text (that's how the NASB translators made their choices!). The burden is on the ESV to explain itself.

An aside. The 2011 ESV is a revision of the 1952 Revised Standard Version (RSV), and since these two translations are exactly identical at this verse, I'm going to place the blame for the ESV's translation where it is due -- on the translators of the RSV. From here on out, when I write "the translators of the RSV," I'm referring to the people who are responsible for the ESV rendering of Job 21:16: the original translators whose work created the foundation for today's ESV.

The translators of the RSV felt the pressure of Challenge #1. They thought that the Hebrew of Job 21:16 didn't fit well with its context. That's why they turned the Hebrew statement into a question. They transformed "their prosperity is not in their hand" into "is not their prosperity in their hand?" Is this a legitimate move? In the Hebrew language, a question is indicated by a question word (what? why? how? etc.) or by the Hebrew equivalent of our question mark -- the Hebrew interrogative particle, which gets placed at the beginning of a sentence. Job 21:16a has none of these, so the most natural reading of the verse is as a declarative statement, not as a question. In fairness to the RSV translators, it is possible to write a Hebrew question without the indicators I've listed above, but doing so is less common.

The evidence thus far suggests that the NASB provides a more accurate translation of Job 21:16a than does the ESV. Here are some other resources who side with me on that point:

  • Evangelical Heritage Version (EHV): "But I know that their prosperity is not in their own hands."

  • New International Version (NIV): "But their prosperity is not in their own hands."

  • New King James Version (NKJV): "Indeed their prosperity is not in their hand."

  • World English Bible (WEB): "Behold, their prosperity is not in their hand."

  • Commentator John Hartley: "In the final analysis [the wicked] do not have ultimate control over their prosperity."

Challenge #3: The Second Half of the Verse. Given the way Hebrew parallelism normally works, we might expect the second line of verse 16 to mirror the first. Perhaps something like this: "Their prosperity is not in their hand, and their fate belongs to the Lord." Instead we read "...the counsel of the wicked is far from me" (ESV/NASB). So the first line indicates that the wicked are in God's hands, and in the second line, Job states his resolve to not walk in the counsel of the wicked. Do these two halves of the verse connect in a sensible way? Yes. The second line is a consequence of the first. Job is saying that since God will punish the wicked, he, Job, will keep himself separate from their way of life. In fact, the NIV makes that connection explicit: "But their prosperity is not in their own hands, so I stand aloof from the plans of the wicked".

Now here's a key point. The second line of Job 21:16 coordinates better with the first line of the verse when you follow the NASB translation of the first line as compared to the ESV translation of the first line. If you go with the ESV, the first line expresses despair about the fact that God does not bring justice to the wicked, and the second line is a statement of firm faith. That incongruity is the most powerful argument of all in favor of the NASB translation of the first line.

So, how to translate Job 21:16? Something like this: "Behold, their prosperity is not in their own hands, so I distance myself from the advice of the wicked." That's my own translation, but you find something similar in translations such as the NASB, the NIV, the NKJV, the EHV, and the WEB. Why does any of this matter? I'll answer that question on Sunday morning!



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