Job 31:1

Posted: 20th April 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Translation

The text for this post is Job 31:1, part of Job’s defense of his integrity before God in the face of all his calamity:

NLTse: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look with lust at a young woman.”
REB: “I have taken an oath never to let my eyes linger on a girl.”
HCSB: “I have made a covenant with my eyes. How then could I look at a young woman?”
TNIV: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a virgin.”

There are three translation points of this verse that I want to look at: [1] the idea of making a covenant or legal binding with one’s eyes, [2] what is looking and what is looking lustfully, and [3] the word choice for the Hebrew “betulah”.

[1] The unique twist of this verse is the idea of making a convenant with one’s eyes. A covenant is defined by Webster as “a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action” and certainly is a familiar term to Bible readers. The REB takes a slightly different approach with the word “oath”, which Webster defines as “a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says.”

To my ears, “oath” doesn’t carry the same gravity as “covenant”. While both are legal terms, the thrust of an “oath” seems to be a verbal statement, while a “covenant” is a written agreement. That said, while the term “covenant” is common Biblespeak, it seems outside the common vernacular and I would think that something like “I signed a contract…” would be more understandable to modern readers while still conveying the idea of a written agreement.

There are two parties in a covenant, in this case Job and his eyes. There should also be terms and conditions for both parties, but we only see one side of the agreement in this verse, that Job has agreed not to look lustfully at a young woman. We don’t see the “what if” part of the contract until later in vss. 7-8: “If my heart has lusted for what my eyes have seen, […] then let someone else eat the crops I have planted.” (NLTse)

Interestingly, the REB has transposed 31:1 to just before 31:7 so that the contract conditions are positioned together in the text. Taken together, the verses might read as such:

“I have made this contract with my eyes: if my heart is excited with sexual desire for a young woman that my eyes have seen and I make my eyes look lustfully at her to gratify that desire, then let someone else eat the crops I have planted.”

Note that Job isn’t agreeing that his eyes will never notice a young woman, but that he will not force them (his eyes) to look lustfully at a woman if his heart is enticed and enflamed. I will leave the proper translation of the final idiom to someone else (see this post on Rick Mansfield’s The Lamp for an excellent discussion on this topic from a related part of this passage).

All that said, other than the REB’s use of “oath”, there is very little difference between the translations considered, so we’ll move on to the next subject.

[2] Looking and looking with lust… how many generations of Christian men have grown up believing that not only is sex outside of marriage a sin, but also that simply looking at women is a sin? It’s pretty easy to get down that road if you take a translation like the HCSB at face value, e.g. “How then could I look at a young woman?” The issue in this contract is not whether Job can notice a young woman and find her attractive, it’s whether he can purposely look at a young woman with the intent of finding sexual gratification. That is a subtlety not being communicated in the HCSB and its absence can be, in my opinion, quite damaging without a broader context.

Both the NLTse and TNIV are quite clear to identify lust as the issue, not just looking. The REB is more subtle and literary with “let my eyes linger”, but this is a legal contract situation and the terms and conditions need to be more clearly identified. Certainly Jesus left subtlety at the door when he discussed this topic in Matthew 5:27-28 (italics are mine for emphasis on this discussion):

NLTse: “But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
REB: “But what I tell you is this: If a man looks at a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
HCSB: “But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
TNIV: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

So for the NLTse, we have “look with lust” in Job and “looks … with lust” in Matthew. The REB uses “let my eyes linger/looks … with a lustful eye”. The HCSB translates “look at a woman/looks … to lust for her”. The TNIV uses “look … lustfully” in both verses. The NLTse and TNIV score points in my book for their clarity and consistency across these verses and have separated themselves from the other translations at this point.

However, what about the difference between the NLTse’s “look with lust” and the TNIV’s “look lustfully”? The TNIV word choice implies “to look at a woman in a state of being excited by intense sexual desire [lust]”. The NLTse would suggest “to look at a woman with intense sexual desire”. Given my summarized contract in part 1 above, I’m tending to lean toward the TNIV as better capturing lust as a heightened or driven state of raw sexual desire, though my tongue still trips over “lustfully”.

[3] Finally, is Job not to look with lust at “virgins” or “young women”? Is there a difference? The author of Job uses the word “betulah”, which traditionally has been positioned as the correct or more explicit Hebrew word for “virgin”. Most Bibles using older texts (e.g. NASB and ESV) use “virgin” in this verse, though interestingly the older NIV uses “girl” while the new TNIV uses “virgin”. The HCSB refers to “virgin” as an alternate translation in a footnote.

However, most of the Bibles under consideration here translate “betulah” as a variant of “young woman”, a choice seemingly supported by a sampling of recent scholarly work that questions the traditional choice. These translation choices bring Isaiah 7:14 to mind, where these Bibles translate “almah” as such:

NLTse: “virgin” in text; “young woman” in footnotes.
REB: “young woman” in text; no alternate.
HCSB: “virgin” in text; no alternate.
TNIV: “virgin” in text; “young woman” in footnotes.

Only the REB dared to not read a messianic reference into the text when most scholars say “virgin” is an alternate translation of “almah” at best. But that is a different fight for a different day. Back to Job…

Seemingly in the majority of the translations considered here, “almah” has been translated as “virgin” while “betulah” has been translated “young woman”, when the reverse might traditionally be expected. This is one of those areas where I’m going to have to defer to additional input and not be able to lean one way or another. Other than to express my opinion, which is that “young woman” is a better fit for modern readers in that it covers a wider age range than “girl” and, sadly, is more inclusive than “virgin”.

Again, the choice boils down to the NLTse or TNIV. I have a slight preference for the TNIV’s use of “lustfully” as an adverb. I don’t know whether “young woman” in the NLTse or “virgin” in the TNIV is more appropriate or accurate, but prefer the former. So, essentially a draw between the two pending more information on “betulah”.

[Note: After posting the above, I received a copy of the Jewish Study Bible and wanted to add some additional notes to the “betulah” discussion. The JSB states that “Heb ‘betulah’ can designate a young, unmarried person of marriageable age. In some contexts it means specifically ‘virgin.'” Rick Mansfield then also added a note that “betulah” is defined in HALOT (Koehler, Baumgartner and Stamm’s The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) as a “grown-up girl without any sexual experience with men… who has no husband” and that it is generally translated as “virgin”. He also noted that the Septuagint (LXX) uses the Greek word parthenos, “which specifically means ‘virgin’ and is the same word that the LXX uses in Isaiah 7:14 and Matt 1:23.” With those two data points, I feel more comfortable with the TNIV’s rendering as a whole.]

  1. elshaddai says:

    [comment originally posted at

    R. Mansfield said…
    As you have correctly pointed out, betulah is generally translated “virgin.” The word is defined in the HALOT as a “grown-up girl without any sexual experience with men…who has no husband.”

    It might also be significant that in the LXX, the word παρθένος/parthenos is used, which specifically means “virgin” and is the same word that the LXX uses in Isa 7:14 and Matt 1:23.

    April 16, 2007 6:24:00 PM CST

  2. Kevin Sam says:

    elshaddai edwards, nice new look for your blog!
    …anyway, I would add to Rick’s comment above that these terms indicate a certain life stages of a woman.: From what little I know, these stages are as follows: 1) na’arah is a young girl who is not nubile and is virgin; 2) betulah is an unmarried nubile woman who is virgin; and 3) almah is a newly married nubile woman (new bride) who may be virgin.

  3. elshaddai says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for stopping by and for the clarification on the Hebrew. I appreciate the chance to learn more about the underlying text!