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7. Job 1:5 Job’s Solicitude Towards His Children
5 "And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did."
We see one special aspect Job’s fidelity to God and care for his family in 1:5. This one instance is supposed to give us an insight into Job’s total character; thus, the reader is supposed to infer Job’s full personality from this one act. Job is uber-faithful. Verse 5 can actually be divided into three smaller thoughts: Job’s customary practice, his words upon performing the practice, and a statement of Job’s regularity in doing the practice. The last point can be quickly dealt with. The verse just ends with the statement that Job did this all the time. Literally it says, “Job did (this) all the days.”
First, then, Job’s customary practice. The periodic parties of Job’s children naturally come to an end. But our author has an interesting way of saying that in 1:5. “When the days of the party were rounded off/gone about/run their course/completed their cycle. . .” The verb behind this is the not-too-frequently-appearing (19x) naqaph, a verb that usually has the meaning elsewhere of encircling or surrounding something (the sea in II Chronicles 23:7; 4:3) or, more visually, circling the city of Jericho before shouting and making the walls fall down (Joshua 6:3, 11). On one occasion it has to do with how one cuts the hair on one’s temples: one is prohibited from “rounding it off” (Leviticus 19:27). So, here the meaning has to be that the party days are over, rounded off, complete.
The actual focus of the verse, however is on what Job did on those “rounded off” days.The next seven words contain four verbs; thus we see Job springing into action. He “sends” out, and he “sanctifies them.” Then it says he “rises” in the morning and “offers whole burnt offerings.” We don’t know if these are two separate acts or one act; if they are two acts we don’t know what the “sending out” consists in. The verb for “send” is shalach, and it seems to be an unimpressive verb when we first meet it, but soon it will play a major role in Job 1, 2 as it becomes the verb to describe the Satan’s challenge to God: “Send out your hand and strike/touch Job” (1:11; 2:5). Job’s customary practice then was to offer sacrifices on behalf of his children.
Second, we have the result of Job’s thinking on the matter. His first word is “perhaps.” It is the word ulay, a 45x-appearing adverb expressing uncertainty or a hypothesis. Its most famous appearance in Scripture is in the debate between God and Abraham over Sodom’s punishment in Genesis 18. Six times in fewer than ten verses Abraham says, in exploring a hypothetical situation, “Suppose/perhaps (ulay) that there are XXX righteous men in Sodom. . .will you then destroy it?” So, Job is proposing a hypothetic situation. ‘Maybe my children have sinned. . .’
The next five words create the translator’s first nightmare in the Book of Job. They normally are blithely rendered, “my sons/children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” Yet the word for “curse” is barak, which every place in Scripture other than the opening narrative of the Book of Job unquestionably means “bless.” But there we have it, literally, “Perhaps my children have sinned and ‘blessed’ God in their hearts.”
We naturally think, and we are probably right, that Job is so faithful, so holy, that he can’t even bring himself to utter the word “curse” when thinking about his beloved children, and so he euphemistically uses “bless” to mean “curse.” We do this all the time as we speak, perhaps even using mock quotation-marks in our gestures to show that we mean the opposite of what we actually are saying. “This blessed XXX” often really means “this cursed XXX.”
Well, that is a nice explanation which no doubt gets us out of a translation pickle here but the problem is that the verb barak appears five more times in the Job 1-2 narrative (1:10, 11, 21; 2:5, 9), with it unquestionably meaning “bless” In 1:10 and 1:21 and apparently having the same meaning (“curse”) as in 1:5 in 1:11 and 2:5. Job’s wife’s use of it in 2:9 is ambiguous. We don’t really know whether she is asking Job to “curse God and die” (i.e., the cursing will somehow unleash the divine judgment on Job) or “bless God and die” (i.e., get your house in order by continuing to bless God, as he did in 1:21, and then gently expire).
This is not an insignificant problem. One of the problems that the Book of Job explores through this narrative and Job’s first speech in Chapter 3 is whether Job will actually “curse/bless” God in his suffering. If he does so, then he has confirmed the truth of the Satan’s allegation in Chapter 1. Job will unleash a torrent of curses in Job 3, not directly against God, but he does so using the traditional and familiar language for cursing in the Bible (see commentary below).
So why does the author, in this seemingly pellucid preliminary narrative, use the verb barak three (and perhaps) four times in the space of thirty verses in a way opposite of its true meaning? We might say that Job has a theological or personal objection to using the verb “curse” (1:5) in the same sentence as the words “my children,” but the Satan would certainly not have that same problem in 1:11 and 2:5.
As I mentioned in an earlier essay, I think the author does this because he wants to indicate that our world, beginning with our verbal or linguistic world, will be upended or destabilized through this story. What we thought we knew to be utterly true (that barak means “to bless”) will somehow become the opposite. Job will later accuse God of doing exactly that to his words—twisting them to the meaning opposite of how he is saying them. We get the first taste of that verbal deception as readers in 1:5.
I have no qualms ultimately with translating barak in 1:5 as “curse.” That seems to be the meaning in this instance. But I do so realizing that by making that translation, I have just given the author (and God) the ability to rock my verbal world in the coming pages. What we think we knew will be fully upended. Perhaps we should quit now. . .