Does Job’s wife tell him to “curse” or “bless” God?

Q. In your blog post “How can an evil being like Satan be allowed in God’s holy presence, in the book of Job?” does the text next to Job’s wife’s head in the medieval illustration actually say, “Curse God and die”? I can’t quite make it out. What language would that be?

The text in the illustration, reproduced above, is in Latin. It says, employing some spelling abbreviations that were common in medieval manuscripts, benedic Deo et morere, that is, “Bless God and die.”

This is actually a literal translation of the original Hebrew. Why, then, do almost all English translations read instead, “Curse God and die”? Only Young’s Literal Translation and the 1899 American edition of the Douay-Rheims have “bless.”

The problem is not limited to this one place in Job. There are several other places in the book where almost all English translations read “curse,” but these two most literal translations have “bless,” reflecting the Hebrew original. Specifically:

He would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’”

Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

Stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

This is an interesting issue for textual criticism, that is, for the discipline of figuring out what the text of the Bible originally said, because we don’t have any manuscripts that actually read “curse” in these places. Ordinarily this lack of “external evidence” would rule out an alternative reading like this. But “bless” simply doesn’t make sense in these contexts, and so the word is almost certainly a euphemism for “curse.” That is, the scribes who were copying the book of Job simply didn’t want to write “curse God,” even if that was what the Bible said there, and so they wrote “bless God” instead. Most textual critics and Bible translators agree that this is what’s going on; a footnote in the English Standard Version (ESV), for example, explains at the first of these occurrences that “the Hebrew word bless is used euphemistically for curse” in all these places in the book of Job.

Another passage in the Bible helps us confirm that this understanding is correct. At one point in the long story of Israel’s monarchy, King Ahab wants to obtain a vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth so he can add the land to his palace grounds as a garden. When Naboth won’t sell because he honors the property inheritance principle in the Law of Moses (“The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors”), Queen Jezebel plots to have him unjustly convicted of a capital offense and executed. She orders the elders of Naboth’s city to bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. The account then relates that two scoundrels were found (two witnesses were required to convict someone of a crime) to make the accusation, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” He was executed, and Ahab took his land.

In both cases, the reading in Hebrew is “blessed.” But that would make even less sense here—why would anyone be tried and executed for blessing God and the king? So it must have originally said “cursed.” (Interestingly, even the American Douay-Rheims has an alternative reading here, “blasphemed,” though Young’s, faithful to its strictly literal principles, has “blessed.”)

Your question about the illustration in my other post, however, reveals that the Vulgate, the Latin Bible that the Western church used for around a thousand years, reads “bless God” in these various passages in the book of Job. (It also reads “blessed” in the Naboth episode.) That’s why this expression appears in such illustrations.

And in the interests of justice, I would also like to specify that while Naboth was unfortunately executed as a result of Jezebel’s plot, the prophet Elijah met King Ahab when we went to inspect “his” new property and told him, “I will surely make you pay for [your crime] on this plot of ground, declares the Lord.” Ahab was later assassinated near his palace and his body was dumped on the land that was formerly Naboth’s vineyard.



Was Peter really “naked” in the boat?

Q. What does it mean when Jesus comes to the boat and finds Peter naked? I don’t understand why we need to know that, but it’s in the Bible so I expect Jesus had reason to tell us.

I believe the passage you’re referring to is the one at the end of the gospel of John in which the disciples go fishing after Jesus’ resurrection. They fish all night and catch nothing, but in the morning Jesus appears on the shore and tells them where to throw their net. The gospel then says:

So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

For many of us, when we read this passage and hear that Peter was naked in the boat, our reaction is, “TMI.” (Too much information. We don’t need to know that.)

But the first thing I’d say in response to your question is that Peter was almost certainly not completely naked. The Greek word that’s used here is gymnos. While it often means “naked,” its general meaning is “lacking clothes,” so we have to determine its specific meaning from the context.

For example, James asks in his epistle, “If a brother or sister is gymnos and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” While some English versions translate the term gymnos as “naked” there, James’ meaning seems to be instead that the brother or sister has not enough clothing and not enough food, and that genuine faith with express itself by providing for such a person. And so various other versions translate the term as “poorly clad,” “needing clothes,” “lacking adequate clothing,” etc.

In the same way, the context in the gospel of John suggests that Peter was not literally naked, as that is not how a fishermen would dress (or not dress) for work. Rather, as other English versions suggest, he was “stripped to the waist” or “stripped for work” or “lightly clad” or “had taken off some clothes to work.” The Voice Bible says, “He threw on his shirt (which he would take off while he was working).”

But this still doesn’t answer your question of why the Bible would give us these details about how Peter was dressed for work, and tell us that he put his outer tunic back on before he swam to shore to see Jesus. John is very careful about what details he includes in his gospel and there is usually some thematic or theological significance behind each one. (One of my favorites is when John says that the woman at the well left behind her water jar when she went to tell the other people of her village about Jesus. This detail has symbolic significance: She didn’t need the jar any more because she’d found living water!)

I haven’t found other interpreters discussing the particular detail of Peter’s tunic, but let me offer some reflections of my own about it. I do think it’s significant that three other scenes of taking a garment off or putting one on lead up to this scene at the end of the gospel. Even though different words for the specific “garment” in view are sometimes used in the earlier scenes, I think there’s still significant thematic continuity.

– At the Last Supper, Jesus lays aside his outer garment in order to dress as a servant would as he washes the disciples’ feet.

– When Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the soldiers put a purple robe on him, mocking his claim to be the “King of the Jews.”

– At the cross, as the soldiers are dividing up Jesus’ clothing, they don’t want to rip his tunic into pieces, so they cast lots for it. (In this case, the term for the garment is the same as in the fishing scene.)

Each of these details reveals something about Jesus’ identity. He has come to earth in the role of a servant; nevertheless, he really is a king—the soldiers’ mocking gesture is truer than they know; his death fulfills what Scripture says about God’s redemptive plans, so it’s actually a defeat for his enemies and a victory for God.

I’d argue that Peter putting his tunic back on also reveals something about his identity at that point. I think it symbolizes how he isn’t yet ready to lay aside his “garments” (symbolizing his role and authority) and become a servant as Jesus did. But as Peter speaks with Jesus on the seashore, and Jesus offers him the opportunity to affirm his love for him three times, undoing his threefold denial, Jesus also offers him the role of a servant who will “tend his sheep” and ultimately give his life for them, too. And Peter actually did this: John says that Jesus was showing Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God.

Particularly since Jesus’ act of laying aside his garments stands out as something we wouldn’t expect at a banquet, and Peter’s act of putting on his tunic stands out as something we wouldn’t expect of someone who was just about to dive into the sea and swim, I think we are supposed to associate the two scenes and understand that Peter was just about to learn something necessary about servanthood and embrace that role.

I hope these reflections on your question are helpful.

One person responded to this post by observing that Jesus says to Peter on the shore, “When you were young, you put on your own clothes and went about wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you up and take you where you don’t want to go.” This suggests that Peter putting on his tunic is indeed being contrasted symbolically with the way of suffering and sacrifice that Jesus invites him to follow.

“The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish,” Duccio, 14th Century. Note that the artist identifies Peter symbolically by having him walk on the water, even though that actually happened in an earlier episode in the gospels. He has already put his tunic back on.


What does the Bible mean by the “sons of God” marrying the “daughters of humans”?

Q. Please explain in detail the passage in Genesis that says, “The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.”

I discuss that passage in detail in this post:

I hope my discussion there is helpful to you.  Thanks for your question!

What is the definition of “soul”?

Q. Someone recently asked me to define “soul.” I gave an answer but I’d also like to hear what you have to say.

I would say that a person’s “soul” is the totality of everything in them that is not their physical body–that is, their mind, will, emotions, etc., working together as a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

There’s almost a definition of the “soul” (Hebrew nefesh) along these lines in the poetic parallelism at the start of Psalm 103:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise His holy name.”  The NIV translates this second phrase “all my inmost being,” and I think that’s a good way to think about the soul.

The “soul” in biblical terms is equivalent to what we often call the “self” today.  We find the psalmists especially addressing their “souls” in what we recognize as “self-talk.”  For example, in the chorus that occurs three times in Psalm 42-43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? . . . Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.”

There’s some debate in Christian theology about whether the soul is mortal, and so dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or whether the soul is immortal, living on after death.  I discuss that question in this post.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may we all be inspired by the example of the psalmists and in the most difficult times talk to our souls (ourselves) to encourage them to hope in God, looking forward to the time when we will see His work on our behalf and praise Him for it.

How can an evil being like Satan be allowed in God’s holy presence, in the book of Job?

Q.  In the opening part of the book of Job, how can a totally evil being like Satan be allowed to enter directly into the presence of God?  I’ve always been told that God is so holy that He can’t tolerate any evil in his presence.

To state the matter simply, the character in the book of Job commonly called Satan in English translations isn’t exactly the same as the devil or Satan described in the New Testament.

As I explain in my Job study guide, in this opening narrative, “Satan” is not actually a name. The Hebrew word satan literally means “adversary,” and in the book of Job it’s always preceded by the word “the,” so this is actually a title: “The Adversary.”  (Many Bibles, the ESV and NRSV for example, have footnotes explaining that the Hebrew actually reads “the Accuser or the Adversary”; others like the NIV explain the meaning of the term: “Hebrew satan means adversary.”)

The word satan is used many times in the Old Testament to describe a determined and persistent opponent, as in the account of Solomon’s reign in Samuel-Kings: “Rezon son of Eliada . . . was Israel’s adversary as long as Solomon lived.” As a noun, the root satan is used in a specialized way to describe the accuser in a legal proceeding; as a verb, it describes the act of accusing, as in Psalm 38: “My enemies . . . lodge accusations against me.” Here in the book of Job, the Adversary is both a determined opponent of God and an accuser of anyone who seeks to follow God faithfully.

While this character is similar to the devil or Satan described in the New Testament, the portrait isn’t drawn as fully in the book of Job. The book doesn’t account for where he came from or how he became opposed to God.  It does portray him as a crafty and malicious player within the complex moral web of the universe, but not necessarily as a consummately evil being who could never be allowed into the presence of a holy God.

A Medieval illustration of Satan scourging Job, with Job’s wife urging him to “Bless [i.e. curse] God and die”–just the outcome the Adversary is hoping for. But the depiction of the Adversary as just like the devil is anachronistic, not quite true to his identity in the book of Job.

Did Nebuchadnezzar say that the spirit of the “holy gods” or “holy God” was in Daniel?

Q.  In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar says several times that the “spirit of the holy gods” is in Daniel.  In my Bible there’s a footnote that says this could also be translated as the “Spirit of the holy God.”  Which is right?

It might appear that the translation should be determined by whether the word for “God” (or “god”) is singular or plural in the original.  But things are actually a bit more complicated than that.  This account is written in Aramaic, and in that language, as in Hebrew, there’s a “plural of excellence.”  If something is the supreme example of its own class, it’s put in the plural, even though it’s just one thing, not more than one.  The name for the supreme God in the Old Testament is therefore plural: Elohim in Hebrew, Elohin in Aramaic.  But the same word can also be used to refer to multiple “gods.”  So in what sense is Nebuchadnezzar using the term when he refers to Daniel in this account?

The vast majority of English Bibles translate it as “gods.” For example, almost all of the approximately forty English versions (not counting multiple editions of the same translation) that can be surveyed on BibleGateway render the expression this way. This likely reflects the reasonable assumption that Nebuchadnezzar is a pagan and a polytheist and so would naturally talk like this.

Only four of those versions—the NKJV, Amplified Bible, Jubilee Bible, and Modern English Version—instead have Nebuchadnezzar say that the “Spirit of the holy God” is in Daniel.  However, the ESV, RSV, NASB, and Good News Bible all provide this as an alternative translation in a footnote.  And I think that the possibility should at least be acknowledged to that extent.

Nebuchadnezzar’s account is actually a letter “to the nations and peoples of every language,” in which he acknowledges repeatedly that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  Since Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that Daniel speaks on behalf of the “Most High,” he may well be addressing him as someone in whom is the “Spirit of the holy God,” meaning the Supreme God.

It might be countered that “the holy gods” was a characteristic Babylonian way to refer to the entire pantheon of gods that were recognized in that culture.  If the phrase is found with that meaning in ancient Babylonian literature or inscriptions (I’m not aware whether it is), then that would strengthen the case for the most common translation.  But we can note that the phrase does not appear in the book of Daniel where it otherwise might if it actually were a formula for the pantheon.  For example, Nebuchadnezzar challenges Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego by asking, “What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”  He doesn’t say, “Which of the holy gods will be able to rescue you?”  So once again, even if “the holy gods” is chosen as the translation, I think it’s wise to provide “the holy God” as an alternative.

Why does Hebrews say that Jesus needed to be “made perfect”?

Q.  The book of Hebrews says that “in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God . . . should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”  How much more “perfect” could Jesus (the pioneer) have been made, if he was already without sin?

Here’s what I have to say about this question in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews:

“Jesus . . . didn’t need to be made perfect in any moral sense.  But he did need to be perfected for his work as a high priest, and that required sharing the same experiences of suffering as the ‘brothers,’ ‘sisters,’ and ‘children’ he was going to represent.”

The wider context in Hebrews makes clear that what is in view is “perfection” in the sense of equipping Jesus for his work as high priest.  The passage goes on to say, “Since the children have flesh and blood . . . he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, the Greek word in this passage that’s often translated “to perfect,” τελειόω, can also mean “to make successful,” that is, “to equip for success.”  Walter Bauer’s lexicon says similarly that the verb can refer to bringing something “to its goal in the sense of the overcoming or supplanting of an imperfect state of things by one that is free from objection.”  In other words, by sharing our human experiences and sufferings, Jesus became a high priest that no one could object to, because he can effectively and successfully represent us before God.

The New Living Translation captures this sense well when it says, “It was only right that [God] should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring [many children] into their salvation.”  The Amplified Version speaks similarly of Jesus being “perfectly equipped for His office as High Priest.”

In my study guide, after explaining this meaning, I ask:

“What experiences have you had that have equipped (‘perfected’) you to sympathize better with others as you come alongside them in the trials and sorrows of their lives?” 

What would you say in answer to that?