Did Job’s Wife Say ‘Curse God and Die!’?
During the trial of Job, his wife said, ‘Curse God and die!’ but did she really said it, or she said something else?
In the article “Misunderstanding of Job’s Trial Few Could Bear” the present author intentionally omitted in his teaching a verse in Job 2 according to which Job’s wife said, ‘Curse God and die!’
Let us recall the Job story. Iyov (Job) was a righteous man. And the messengers came to present themselves before YHVH. And YHVH said to the satan, “Have you considered My servant Iyov, that there is none like him on the earth, a perfect and straight man, one who fears Elohim and turns aside from evil?” And the satan answered, “Is Iyov fearing Elohim for nothing? … But strike all that he has, if he would not curse You to Your face!” Then YHVH permitted the satan to lay hands on all his possessions only not on his life.
And on that day Job’s ten children died, robbers killed his servants and took all his possessions, but he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return there. YHVH has given, and YHVH has taken away. Blessed be the Name of YHVH.” (Job 1:21-22)
And on another day YHVH said to satan, “Have you considered My servant Iyov, …? But the satan suggested that if he was allowed to lay hands on Job’s flesh, he would curse Him in His face. And YHVH said to the satan, “Look, he is in your hand, only spare his life.” (Job 2:1-6)
And the satan struck Job with loathsome sores all over the body and he suffered a lot. And when everything looked hopeless and helpless for Job, his wife said (according to the translations),
Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die! (Job 2:9)
But he said to her,
You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Indeed, should we accept only good from God, and not accept evil? (Job 2:10)
The JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation renders Job 2:9 thus, ‘Blaspheme God, and die!‘; KJV: ‘Curse God and die!’ and virtually in all other translations of Job follow either JPS or KJV. It seems like there is no problem with this translation.
However, there is a problem and the problem is that the Hebrew text is not so easy to translate. The Hebrew word behind “curse” is barak which is very often translated as to bless; something just opposite of to curse.
So, did Job’s wife say, ‘Curse God and die!’ or she said, ‘Bless God and die!’? The difference is quite substantial not to pay attention to it, and that is why the textual criticism of Job 2:9 will be the subject of our article.
The word barak rendered as to bless appears 310 times in the Hebrew text. The most recognizable verse where barak is used is Gen 12:3: the blessings for those who bless Avraham’s offspring and curses for those who curse them, which JPS translation renders thus,
And I will bless (barak) them that bless (barak) thee, and him that curseth (kalal) thee will I curse (arar); and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed (barak).’ (Gen 12:3 JPS)
See also the blessings of Elohim’s creation in Gen_1:22, Gen_1:28, and Gen_2:3.
In Gen 12:3 we find the same word barak juxtaposed to the two words for to curse: kalal and arar. But, in Job 2:9 barak, which means to bless, is rendered as to curse. But, did Job’s wife not say, ‘Bless God and die!’?
In order to find the answer to this question, let us first consider a scenario in which barak is rendered as to curse.
Scenario 1: the righteous Job suffered the loss of his ten children and all his possessions in the trial he was not aware of. Standing faithful to YHVH and still not losing hope that his prayers would be heard, he said, ‘YHVH gives, YHVH takes away! Blessed be the Name of YHVH’ (Job 1:20). But, when he was afflicted with painful sores all over his body, affliction he could hardly bear, his wife said, ‘Curse God and die!’ to which Job replied with the rebuke, ‘You speak like foolish women’.
What we can take from this possible scenario is this: in the critical point of his suffering, his wife urged Job with disdain to curse God before his imminent death. In this case the faithful Job is juxtaposed to his wife who is portrayed in all Jewish and Christian commentaries as a villain who is manifested as the mocking opposer of his righteousness. Job had lost his ten children, but his meanspirited wife instead of giving him counsel and comport, spoke like an enmity towards God her sarcastic words, which, if they were more than mockery, counseled him to suicide.
This view of what happened between Job and his wife is the most common, if not the only interpretation of the Job story in Judaism and Christianity.
However, there is second scenario which is as plausible as scenario 1.
Scenario 2: Job suffered the loss of his ten children and all his possessions. Staying faithful to YHVH, he said, ‘Eloah gives, Eloah takes away! Blessed be…’. But, when he was afflicted with painful sores, his wife said, ‘Bless God and die!’ to which Job replied with the rebuke, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Indeed, should we accept only good from God, and not accept evil?’
In this very different way of interpretation of the story, the righteous Job while still having hope in YHVH, was indeed disheartened by his righteous wife who saw in the peak of their suffering that no hope was coming. She begged Job to bless Eloah (God) and give up, as death was seen by her as the only outcome of what befell them. Her intent, per this scenario, was to see the end of his suffering.
The few words she said were sufficiently characteristic. They can be explained as, ‘Call on God for the last time, and then die!’, or, ‘Call on Him that you die!’ Her desperation proceeded from her strong love for her husband and if she had to suffer as he did, she would probably have struggled against despair. But love hopes all things; the love for her husband does not say, ‘Curse God and die!’.
And when Job replied with the rebuke, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Indeed, should we accept only good from God, and not accept evil?’, it could be interpreted in the context of scenario 2 thus, ‘Why are you depriving me of hope? Should we accept only good from God, and not accept evil?’ But seven days later he would give up by cursing the day of his birth (Job 3:1).
When we consider this scenario, let us not forget that they both, Job and his wife, suffered the loss of their children and everything they had. Let us not forget that she, like her husband Job, was not aware either that what they were going through was a trial. Most likely, she did struggle against despair along with her husband and was not a bystander passively watching the calamities that befell them, but they both were object of the trial, although it seems that only Job was.
If that was what she said, her words defend her against the too severe judgment of the first scenario.
So, which scenario of Job’s trial is the most plausible: the one in which Job’s wife said, ‘Curse God and die!’ or the other in which she said, ‘Bless God and die!’? To answer this question, we need to put aside awhile the translations we read and consider what the Hebrew text actually says.
The Hebrew text of the authoritative Westminster Leningrad Codex reads thus,
Job 2:9 WLCבָּרֵךְ אֱלֹהִים וָמֻת׃
bareik Elohim va’mut
The Hebrew word in our focus is the primitive root בָּרַךְ barak, which is predominantly rendered in the Scripture as to bless. But, what does a blessing mean?
In the Gentile world blessing has an abstract concept that brings to mind the idea of saying good and nice words or wishes addressed or meant for someone.
But, Hebrew is a concrete language and does not deal with abstract ideas, since most of the Hebrew words are based on primitive three-letter verbs that have a concrete, specific, meaning. We should also keep in mind that, unlike the Gentile languages, the Hebrew words have only one meaning and different applications used according to the context.
What this means is that whenever a Hebrew word is used in the Scripture, it is used to have a concrete meaning, but depending on the context it may have different applications, and if it should be translated, it is to be translated accordingly.
And so should we do regarding the Hebrew verb barak. Literally, בֶּרֶךְ barak means to kneel, kneel down, hence by implication to bless God as an act of adoration. The noun would be berek, a knee, and we find its literal meaning in a verse like,
I have sworn by Myself, a word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, so that to Me every knee (berek) shall bow, every tongue swear. (Isa 45:23)
With its application of בְּרָכָה berachah, “blessing” we find the verb barak in the verse,
And I shall make you a great nation, and bless (barak) you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing (berachah)! (Gen 12:2)
(Read more about what is to bless in the article “And I Shall Bless those Who Bless You”)
Consequently, we may ask the question as to how the translators have come to the idea of associating barak with cursing in Job 2:9, a diametrically opposed concept of blessing.
And to add more to our trouble, the Hebrew word barak is indeed used in the Scripture with its application of “cursing” although not that often as its application of “blessing” (as “cursing”, barak has been used only three times in the verses like Job_1:10-11, Job_2:5 and Job_2:9; and to blaspheme in 1Ki_21:10, 1Ki_21:13).
Perhaps, the translators had thought that if the satan had used barak with its meaning of to curse, then Job’s wife must have meant to say, ‘Curse God and die!’ We keep on reading from the verse in which the satan said those words. We see that he used barak with its both applications when challenging YHVH,
Have You not made a hedge around him, and around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed (barak) the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out Your hand, please, and strike all that he has, surely he will curse (barak) You to Your face! (Job 1:10-11)
It seems that instead of going towards solving our issue, we are adding even more complications, namely that the satan seemingly told YHVH that Job would bless Him?!
How can we solve our textual challenge: did Job’s wife say, ‘Curse God and die!’ or she said, ‘Bless God and die!’? Because, evidently from the Hebrew Scripture, both translations are applicable.
Or, perhaps, a clue can be found in the words the satan used to challenge God. Let us read again his words, this time paying a closer attention: But stretch out Your hand, please, and strike all that he has, surely, he will curse You to Your face!
We already learned that the word barak literally means to kneel. When one kneels in homage, he/she bends knees and body, or lower head to bow. But in our verse the satan said, he will kneel to You to Your face. What we see here is a variant of the phrase he will kneel to You to which he added to Your face, אֶל־פָּנֶיךָ el panecha,
Evidently, when one kneels in a respectful manner, he/she does not kneel to someone’s face.
A very close phrase of to Your face, el panecha, we find in the First Commandment of the Covenant of YHVH, which literally reads thus,
You shall have no mighty ones of others against My face. (Exo 20:3)
Here the phrase in question is עַל־פָּנָי al panai, which means against my face, and the idea is the prohibition of bringing the idols of the nations in YHVH’s face in any shape and form, i.e. in thought, word, and deed.
We find that al panai, against my face, has the same idea of el panecha, to your face, in our verse: he will kneel to You to Your face, el panecha.
In other words, as bowing down to idols is a blasphemy, disrespect, or mocking in the face of the Lord, so will the bowing to His face be a blasphemy. So, when the satan said, he will kneel to You to Your face, in Hebrew it has the same meaning of kneeling in a blasphemous and disrespectful manner before Him.
Likewise, had Job’s wife meant to say, ‘Curse God and die!’ we should expect to see the phrase,
בָּרֵךְ אֱלֹהִים עַל־פָּנָיו וָמֻת
bareik Elohim al-panav va’mut
‘Kneel to God to His face and die!’
But, this is not what we find in Job 2:9. What we find is,
בָּרֵךְ אֱלֹהִים וָמֻת׃
bareik Elohim va’mut
‘Kneel to God and die!’
In other words, there is no textual proof that Job’s wife told Job to curse God. Had she meant to say it, she would have said words similar to those the satan used. But, of course neither she nor Job knew of the conversation in the heaven.
Now, let us take an untraditional approach to solve our issue whether Job’s wife say, ‘Curse God and die!’ or she said, ‘Bless God and die!’? We will do this by considering three simple examples.
In the colloquial saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ What exactly does that mean: that the other part is right, or that a sarcasm is applied here?
Or, another example: one is bowing deeply (bending knee) before another person especially in an excessive manner accompanied with a duplicitous smile. Would that not be considered disrespectful?
Or, one more example this time from modern Hebrew. The word Adoni, which literally means “My Lord” or “My Master” in the Bible, but its contemporary application is “Sir”, can be either a polite form of addressing, or an ironic way to mock.
The idea here is evident: the interpretation of the Hebrew word barak wholly depends on the context and the way it is said or done.
By the same token, Job’s wife said in Hebrew bareik Elohim va’mut, but it could have meant ‘Curse God and die!’ or ‘Bless God and die!’—depending on the way she said it (something we could not possibly know), because the Hebrew text supports either interpretation.
With all that being said, we came to the point to see the literal meaning of barak which the satan and, perhaps, Job’s wife had said in our story. As we learned already above, barak means to kneel, to kneel down, or to bend a knee; all depending on to whom and how one kneels: with respect or with disrespect.
In conclusion, which scenario is the most probable: Job’s wife said, ‘Curse God and die!’ or she said ‘Bless God and die!’?
Perhaps, a clue can be found in the fact that Job’s wife is only mentioned in one other passage (Job_19:13-20), in which Job complained that he was alone with no one to help, and even his wife saw him repulsive,
My breath (ruach) is profane to my wife, and I entreated to the children of my loins. (Job 19:17)
Literally speaking, this means that his bad breath was repulsive to his wife and he was loathsome to the rest of his children (perhaps his grandchildren), or in other words Job complained of the neglect and indifference which he experienced from those around him (his wife included).
But, Job 19:17 could be interpreted to mean also,
My spirit (ruach) is profane to my wife, and I entreated to the children of my loins. (Job 19:17)
We derive this from the literal meaning of the Hebrew word ruach: wind or breath, commonly rendered as spirit.
Unfortunately, we cannot have a conclusive answer to the question whether his wife said, ‘Curse God and die!’ or ‘Bless God and die!’; it may be weighed either way.
But what we know is that sometimes a question is more important than an answer; the answer is always a matter of a personal opinion, while the question shows that there is an issue to solve.
Probably, that is why the Sages acknowledge that the Hebrew in the Book of Job is very complex and hard, as they have this saying: in Psalms one chapter has nothing to do with the other and in Proverbs, one verse has nothing to do with the other. But in Job one word has nothing to do with other, meaning the Hebrew in Job is very difficult to interpret.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.