Misunderstanding Job’s wife

Throughout history Job’s wife has been maligned. But have we got her all wrong, all along?


Job’s wife is perhaps the most misrepresented woman in Scripture. Her name has not survived and the first hint of her existence is in the strange expression “there were born to him seven sons and three daughters” (Job 1:2). She was apparently the one who bore those 10 children! Job refers to her twice as “my woman” in 19:17; 31:10 meaning “my wife”, because biblical Hebrew lacks a word that is the direct equivalent to the English “wife”1. Her only appearance is in a brief wife-husband dialogue (2:9,10). Like most other biblical women she is allowed very little voice—only six Hebrew words, to which Job replied with 12. But her words deserve more attention than they are usually given because they are among the most mistranslated words in the Bible.

Job’s wife’s six Hebrew words were entirely focused on her husband: first summarising his situation, then suggesting how he respond. Her first three words, literally translated, were “still persisting in your integrity” (2:9a). Though unaware of it, she repeated word-for-word what God had already declared about Job in what might be termed a “great controversy” dialogue between God and “the accuser” (Hebrew the satan2): “still persisting in his integrity!” (2:3).

Job's wife . . . was unlikely to tell him to "curse" God.

She did not blame her husband for bringing on their loss and suffering due to any lack of integrity. To the contrary, she acknowledged his sustained integrity through it all.

Her final three words “bless God and die” suggested what must have seemed from a human point of view the best response to their enormous shared loss and suffering.

Readers at this point will reach for their Bible, thinking “but didn’t Job’s wife tell him to curse God, not to bless Him?” And their Bible, regardless of translation, will support their recall. Why render it “bless”? A defence of this translation will require a brief journey into ancient Hebrew to demonstrate that the traditional translation of her words “curse God and die!” is misleading and places an unjustified limit on the possibilities for understanding Job’s wife and the nature of her appeal to her husband.

The Hebrew verb barak occurs just over 325 times in the Old Testament, most frequently translated “to bless” in the sense of giving benefits. This makes sense when used to describe God blessing His creation and people, as in Genesis 1:22 where God blessed recently-created sea creatures, empowering them to carry out His will, thereby benefitting them. This is also clearly the meaning of barak in the words of the satan to God about Job: “you have blessed (barak) the work of his hands” (1:10).

However, this same word has another meaning in passages where humans “bless” (barak) God, and must be translated differently. Note Psalm 103:2: “Bless (barak) the Lord O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits . . .” How could God’s creatures, dependent on Him for life itself, possibly empower or benefit their Creator? Translating barak as “give thanks!” is called for here and in about 35 other places in the Old Testament3. When Job’s wife said to “barak God and die” her words could be translated “give thanks to God, then die!” In other words, thank God for His earlier blessings and the hope of resurrection.4

The verb barak in a few Old Testament passages has the meaning “to kneel down”. The related Hebrew noun for “knee” is berek. According to 2 Chronicles 6:13, King Solomon “knelt down (barak) on his knees (berek)”. Psalm 95:6 urges, “Let us kneel down (barak) before the Lord our maker . . .” If this meaning of barak is applied, Job’s wife would have urged him to “kneel down before God, then die!” Freed from the exasperation she felt at that moment, her speech could be paraphrased, “thank Him for the good in our life, then accept death”.

A third, somewhat rare translation of barak is “be strong!” It has this meaning in Psalm 147:13 where Zion is assured that God “strengthens (barak) your sons within you”.5 A related form of barak also meaning “to strengthen” occurs in Deuteronomy 29:19 (29:18 in Hebrew): “then he strengthens himself in his heart, saying, There will be peace for me . . .”6

The traditional translation of Job’s wife’s final three words “curse God, then die!” is based on the fact that words are sometimes used to express the opposite of their usual meaning. Protestant reformer Martin Luther reportedly announced that young couples wanting him to bless their marriage should not arrive before a certain hour of the day; if they disturbed him by arriving earlier he would “bless” them alright, but they would not thank him for it!

This opposite meaning of the verb barak, its antonym, occurs on the lips of the satan in the “great controversy” dialogue with God about Job: “if you touch his possessions, he will curse (barak) you to your face” (1:11, repeated in 2:5). This rare meaning of barak is also found in 1 Kings 21:10-13 when Queen Jezebel engaged two scoundrels (literally “sons of wickedness”) to bear false witness against Naboth, accusing him of “cursing” (barak) God and king”. Job’s wife, with her insight into her husband’s integrity, was unlikely to tell him to “curse” God. That would have been contrary to his sustained integrity, which her first three words so clearly affirmed.

Further evidence that she did not tell Job to curse God comes from God’s own words in the final chapter of Job, where He declared that neither Job nor his male comforters had spoken correctly. In response Job confessed, “I have spoken out about things I did not understand . . . therefore I repent . . .” (42:3,6). God then ordered Job’s male comforters to offer sacrifices because, despite their flood of words, they failed to speak correctly about Him (42:7,8). While they came under God’s censure for speaking incorrectly, Job’s wife did not.

Why would Job’s wife urge him to “get it over with” by dying? The terse narration of their sudden reversals, with devastating loss of children, property, health and reputation, compounded by their constant pain and despair, provide poignant context for her words. Job suggested an additional reason: “my spirit (Hebrew ruach) alienates my wife” (19:17), suggesting that the stress of their loss, plus the opinion of family and community that Job had committed grievous sin, was driving them apart.

Another reason for her urging was that a married woman without a functioning husband to defend and provide for her left her open and vulnerable to exploitation, especially if her deceased husband was considered to be a sinner. Job acknowledged that potential exploiters were already circling him (30:12-14), and he felt his own death approaching (30:23). He could not count on being rescued (30:24), so his death would free his wife for a possible remarriage, thus regaining the needed protection provided by another functioning husband. The possibility of a childless widow being denied any inheritance from her deceased husband is implicit in Numbers 27:8-11.

A fragment of an ancient Hebrew letter known as “The Widow’s Plea”, containing a widow’s appeal to an official to prevent her loss of inheritance, has been recovered. It reads, “And now, may my lord the official listen to your maidservant. My husband has died (leaving) no sons. (I request politely that the following) happen: (let) your hand (be) with me and entrust to your maidservant the inheritance about which you spoke to Amasyahu. As for the wheat field that is in Naamah, you have (already) given (it) to his brother.”7

So why have translators so consistently chosen the “curse” option to translate Job’s wife’s urging her husband to barak God? Here are some suggested answers. The “following precedent” answer is that, since earlier translators placed “curse” on the lips of Job’s wife, later translators unquestioningly follow their lead. The “context of Scripture” answer is that the occurrence of barak meaning “curse” in the satan’s accusation—“he will curse you (barak) to your face!”(2:5)—sets the context and calls for Job’s wife’s use of barak to mean “curse”. The “gender bias” answer is that nearly all Bible translators are male and the great majority of them have seen no reason not to place the harshest translation option on the lips of Job’s wife. The “ignorance of the translation options of barak” answer implies that translators for centuries have failed to take their task seriously enough to uncover valid options when translating the words of Job’s wife.

The full answer is probably a combination of these four, plus additional factors. More work needs to be done, not only by translators but by commentators and especially expositors of Scripture. They should be motivated by dissatisfaction with past and present handling of this passage, applying themselves to removing the defective traditional picture of Job’s wife and restoring the more nuanced picture of her that the text supports.

Steve Thompson is a supervisor of higher degrees by research for Avondale College of Higher Education.

  1. The two basic meanings of Hebrew ‘ishah are “woman” and “wife” according to NP Bratsiotis in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol 1, revised edition, p. 224.
  2. Hebrew ha-satan, “the accuser”, is best understood as a title in each of its 14 occurrences in Job because of the presence of the definite article “the” (Hebrew ha-).
  3. See Genesis 24:48, Deuteronomy 8:10, Judges 5:2, 9, Nehemiah 8:6, 9:5, in addition to about 25 occurrences in the Psalms where barak must be translated “give thanks”.
  4. Old Testament references to resurrection of the dead are rare but the hope is mentioned in Job 14 and 19.
  5. This translation is supported by The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Vol 2 (David Clines, editor. Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), entry brk, p. 271. Most translations continue the traditional “He blesses your sons/children . . .”
  6. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Vol 2, p. 272.
  7. “The Widow’s Plea”, Dennis Pardee, translator, in W W Hallo and K Lawson Younger, Jr., editors, The Context of Scripture, Vol 3: Archival Documents from the Biblical World (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 86.