The Strange Language of the Book of Job

Science and Health

The ideas of the Book of Job have always been challenging. How can a just God not only permit but orchestrate the terrible suffering of a truly righteous person? It is hard to get one’s head around that question. But no less challenging is the language of the book. The grammar and vocabulary go far beyond what might be excused as poetic license. The language is strange — so strange that the earliest translators, into Aramaic and Greek, frequently stumbled over it, and the great medieval Bible commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, suggested that the book, which is basically Hebrew, must have been translated from another language. Some scholars in modern times too have proposed that the book’s difficulties must result from having been translated from another language, such as Edomite — a barely known Canaanite language akin to Hebrew — or an early dialect of Arabic.

In fact, however, in spite of its occasional foreign elements, the Book of Job is essentially a Hebrew composition. The narrative in prose that frames the book is good biblical Hebrew, albeit of the later (post-Babylonian exile) variety; and the large majority of verses in the poetic core of the book, the dialogues, are entirely Hebrew. Its language is so difficult because the author of Job was a skilled poet who knew how to employ dialect, allusion, wordplay and more to lend sophistication and flavor to his work.

The chronological setting

One reason the language of Job is strange is that it is meant to sound archaic. We call language that is not actually old but is made to sound old as “archaizing.” Early modern translations of the Bible use words like “thee” and “thou” for a similar effect. 

The story of Job is set long ago in the period of Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs. The verse describing Job’s extraordinary wealth (1:3) — “His livestock were seven thousand small-cattle and three thousand camels and five hundred yoke of large-cattle and five hundred she-asses, and a very large servantry; that man was greater (in wealth) than all the sons of Qedem”— alludes to the wealth of Isaac, as it is described in Genesis 26:13–14. Not only are the terms for “cattle” (miqne) and “great (in wealth)” (gadol) shared, but the unique terms for “servantry” (avudda) occurs in only these two verses. 

The characters in Job, Qedemites or Easterners, refer to the deity by names such as El and Shaddai, which are associated with Israel’s early history. Moreover, the names of Job’s three companions are all derived either directly (in the case of Eliphaz the Teimanite) or by a small adaptation (such as Bildad from Bedo and Zophar from Zepho) from the list of Edomites in Genesis 36. The name “Job,” in post-exilic times, is identified with the Edomite name “Jovav,” which appears in the same chapter. All of this serves to set the book, from the perspective even of its author, in a time long ago and a place far away.

Accordingly, the poet of Job makes use of archaic Hebrew words and forms in order to confirm the story’s setting in a much earlier period. In addition, the poet draws on words, phrases and verses from earlier Hebrew literature in order to give the book a classical coloring. Such borrowings or allusions are fairly common, and because the poet relies on the reader to recognize and interpret on the basis of an allusion, one often cannot understand a verse or a passage without identifying the source. Here is an example from Job’s discourse in 3:23. The verse is ordinarily understood to say that a person cannot find one’s way because the Deity obstructs one’s path. However, the verse is a near quotation of Isaiah 40:27:

Why, O Jacob, do you say, / Why, O Israel, do you state:

“My path is hidden from YHWH….?”

Relying on the clear sense of this verse, in which a person’s path is obscure not to the person but to the deity, Job is asking:

(Why give light) to a man

Whose path is hidden from Eloah,

Who screens him off from his sight?

Job is lamenting that God ignores the plight of humanity. This complaint is repeated by Job in 21:22. When the reader catches the allusion to Isaiah 40, the point Job makes in 3:23 is clarified.

The geographical setting

The Book of Job is not only set in an early time; it is set in a particular geographical location — on the eastern side of the Jordan river. Job and his companions are identified as “sons of Qedem” (1:3) and Job himself is said to live in the land of Uts (1:1). Qedem means “East,” and Uts is associated with Edom, which is situated at the southern end of the Dead Sea and southeast of Yehud (Judea of the Persian period). The author has chosen to place his characters in Qedem because the Easterners were famed as sages (see 1 Kings 5:10; Obadiah 8). In the narrative framework of the book, these Qedemites are not depicted specifically in terms of their ethnicity. But in the poetic dialogues, the language of the speakers is repeatedly colored by non-Hebrew linguistic elements that make them sound foreign and by features that are characteristic of Aramaic, which resemble the languages of the Transjordan (Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite) more than Hebrew. The author of Job is in this way a master of dialect.

The poet peppers the dialogues with especially Aramaic words and forms. These are not meant to obscure comprehension, as some have suggested, but to add a Transjordanian flavor. After all, most of the Aramaic words that are employed would be familiar to the contemporary audience, and many are juxtaposed with their Hebrew equivalents which makes them easier to understand (biblical poetry often uses this kind of parallelism). For example, in the famous couplet in 16:19, Job proclaims that the deity knows he is innocent of wrongdoing:

For even now my witness is in the heavens,

The one who knows the truth [literally, the testifier] is on high.

In the first line of this couplet in parallelism we find the Hebrew term for “witness” (ed) and in the second the corresponding Aramaic term (sahed). In Job 4:2 the Hebrew word for “word,” davar, is paralleled by the Aramaic word for “word” in the plural — millin. This well-known Aramaic word appears about a dozen times in Job with the Aramaic suffix –in; but it also appears a dozen or so times with the Hebrew suffix –im.

There are many instances in which a Hebrew word is used with an Aramaic twist; for example, the teeth of the lions (a metaphor for the wicked) are said to “crack” (Job 4:10); but instead of the expected Hebrew verb nittats we find the form nitta with an ayin as the last letter instead of the tsade. (In some cognate words the Hebrew has a tsade while the Aramaic has an ayin, for example: Hebrew erets “land” = Aramaic ara “land.”) The poet exploited that phenomenon in creating a sort of pseudo-Aramaic in which the Hebrew is made to sound somewhat Aramaic. The reverse occurs as well; for example, the Aramaic equivalent of Hebrew or “light” is nahor. The Joban poet creates a new word by imposing a Hebrew form (morphology) onto the Aramaic base (stem), producing the hybrid nehara (3:4). The sound of the new form echoes a number of other Hebrew words in the same passage, such as anana “cloudiness” (3:5) and renana “joy” (3:7), suggesting that the poet made this move for aesthetic reasons.

The poet not only has a masterful command of Hebrew, and Aramaic, but some other ancient Semitic languages as well. He is strikingly a lover of language and words. One way to enhance his unmatched vocabulary is to draw on other languages. For example, in order to refer to the lawsuit Job seeks to bring against God, so that he can learn what charges the deity might be holding over him, the poet takes a Babylonian expression, “to put forth a matter” (a legal case), and converts it into Hebrew — sim divra (5:8). The classic Hebrew term for a legal matter is the masculine noun davar. But in reflecting the Babylonian usage, where the term for “word, matter” is feminine, the poet changes the gender of the Hebrew word davar into the unique form, divra. Once the poet has established this phrase, he employs it in abbreviated form — just “to put forth” (sim) — later on in the dialogues (23:6; 34:23).

Idiosyncratic Language

Perhaps the strangest use of the poet’s private language in Job is the fact that he has Job refer to the womb in which he gestated not as his mother’s womb (a misinterpretation made by most translators and interpreters) but as his own womb. Job curses the day of his birth because “it would not lock the doors of my womb” (bitni; Job 3:10). Job avoids referring to his parents because he is trying to undo rather than reconstruct the circumstances of his birth. Moreover, from a logical point of view, the fetus is unaware that it is lodged inside someone else’s body. Understanding this odd usage is crucial to understanding something Job will say later. In lamenting the fact that, on account of the stigma of being seen as anathema to God, his family and friends shun him, Job asserts:

My breath is foul to my wife,

And my odor to my siblings.

The phrase used here for “siblings” is literally “sons/children of my belly/womb.” But any reference to Job’s children would be grotesque, since they have been killed in a wind-storm in the prose prologue to the book. However, recalling that for Job his mother’s womb is “my womb,” the reader should realize that Job is here referring to the others who emerged from the same womb as he did — his siblings. They are alive and will reappear in the book’s epilogue (Job 42:11).

To sum up, great literature — from Homer to Shakespeare — is often difficult to read because the language is sophisticated. The Book of Job is also in this category. Those who wish to tackle it in the original should allow for a great deal of creativity by the poet in order to get a handle on the manifold devices he is using with language. But cracking his codes can help us gain deeper insight into a book that has fascinated for millennia.

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