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Twenty translations of Job part 4: is Job a fairytale? (1:1)

January 18, 2012

The opening of Job immediately places severe challenges on the translator.  A split among translations is evident in the first few words, between those translators who view this story as a fairytale or parable (and try to translate the idiomatic Hebrew beginning of the story) and those who translate the prologue to the story as straight narrative.  A further split occurs in the notes in folk etymologies of the name “Job,” between those who view Job as an originally Hebrew story and those who think of it as a translation from another language.

Who is Job?  Where is he?  When is he?  What sort of story is this?

As part of my ongoing series examining the translations of the book of Job, here is a look at how different translators have rendered the opening words of the book.

One view is that Job is a non-Israelite and that this story is a folk-tale.  Alter discusses some of the issues here:

These initial words signal the fable-like character of the frame-story. The opening formula, “A man there was,” ish hayah, resembles the first words of Nathan’s parable of the poor man’s ewe in 2 Samuel 12, “Two men there were in a single town,” shney anashim hayu be’ir ahat. The more classical formula for starting a story in Hebrew narrative is “there was a man,” wayehi ish, the order of verb and subject reversed and the converted imperfect form of the verb used.

Uz: Many scholars have located this land in Edom, across the Jordan from the Land of israel. But it is really a never-never land somewhere to the east, as befits the fable and the universalizing thrust of the whole book. In this regard, the fact that uts in Hebrew means “counsel” or “advice” invites one to construe this as the Land of Counsel.

On the other hand, Gordis believes he may be a real character:

Increasingly contemporary research in folklore and literary history attributes a high measure of credibility to the nucleus of fact underlying such epics as the Iliad and the Song of Roland. Such legendary figures as King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Dr. Faustus are no longer dismissed as figments of the imagination. These trends strengthen the likelihood that there originally was a historical figured named Job who became the nucleus of a folk-tradition which was later utilized by the poet.

And Driver similarly argues that Job may have at least some real historical basis:

The unique character of the combination of prose and poetry in the book has sometimes been treated as the result of the origin of the book, of the existing material which the author utilized. What was this? That the book is a report of facts of history, the exact record in prose of the actual fortunes of a particular individual and of the words spoken in verse by him and others, is a view that was long maintained or accepted, though not even in earlier times without occasional suggestions that the book is fiction. It is unnecessary to repeat here the arguments against a view which has become entirely antiquated. But if the book is not history, and the speeches not the ipsissima verba of speeches reported verbatim, it need not be pure invention; the story with which it opens and closes may be, and in part almost certainly is, based on or derived from popular tradition or literature; and, indeed, this is quite certain, if the book is rightly inferred to have been written after the Exile (see § 42 ff.), for Ezk. 14:14, 20 refers to Job along with Noah and Daniel, as a conspicuously righteous man. Among those—and they are all but all who have discussed the subject—who admit that the author has utilized tradition or popular story, there is, however, wide difference of judgment as to how much he has derived from thence, some holding that he owes nothing more to tradition (and that in the form of popular oral tradition) than that there was once a righteous man named Job, others that the entire prologue and epilogue were excerpted by him from a book containing the popular story (a “Volksbuch”). Between these two extremes it is possible to hold as a middle view that the fundamental elements of the story—the righteousness of Job, his endurance under trial, etc.—the scene in which it is laid and the names of the persons are some or all of them derived from tradition; if this were so, it might offer some suggestions as to whence the story came.

Some translations (IBFET, Mitchell) immediately try to set the tone of a folk tradition by beginning with the English formula “Once upon a time”; Driver (parenthetically), NRSV, and Scheindlin inserts a “once” to give it a fairytale feel.  NJB explicitly states in a footnote:  “In this prose narrative the author has preserved the flavour of a folk tale.”

On the other hand, NABRE, NEB, and REB work against this effect by changing the word order, bringing Job’s “blameless and upright” characteristics as modifiers of his name.  The Message uncharacteristically translates the opening as straight history:  “Job was a man who lived in Uz.”  The NET similarly plays down the folk tale aspect of the story with the note “The Hebrew construction is literally “a man was,” using אִישׁ הָיָה (’ish hayah) rather than a preterite first.  This simply begins the narrative. ”

Pope elaborates on the strange beginning of the book:

The book does not begin with the regular formula for historical narrative, which would have been wayěhî ʾîš, “there was a man,” but rather with ʾîš hāyāh, “a man there was.” This formula is used to indicate a clear-cut beginning without connection with any preceding event, like Nathan’s parable, 2 Sam 12:1, and the story of Mordecai, Esther 2:5. The principal witnesses of LXX begin the Samuel story in this way, 1 Sam 1:1, as against the MT which has the regular formula.

But the central paradoxes are perhaps best stated by Eisemann, who (surprisingly for an Orthodox Jewish translation) notes that Ibn Ezra considered the story to be of non-Jewish origin:

The stark featurelessness of this statement – nothing is said which would place Iyov in any known time-frame or familiar setting – seems to mark him as timeless and super-historical. our phrase perhaps means to say that Iyov is a mashal, parable. Make no attempt to place him in any known period, among any known people. He is too big to be contained in this or that context. Do not diminish him by placing the limitations of time or place upon him. It is true that at [Babylonian Talmud] Bava Basra 15a a number of attempts are made to place Iyov in a particular historical context. But Ramban [Maimonides] in Moreh Nevuchim [Guide of the Perplexed] thinks that the very fact that such disparate time-frames are suggested – they range from patriarchal times to the return from the Babylonian exile – argues for the assumption that Iyov is not a historical figure…. In the land of Utz: [If] Iyov was not a historical figure … consequently, he ought not to be tied to a particular time or place. Why, then, the identification of the place in which he lived. Indeed, Bava Basra 15a asks this very question on the Sage who had suggested that Iyov was not a historical personage. No answer is given. It is possible that even a mashal [parable] might assign a fictitious place, either as a simple fleshing out … or, because it evokes certain associations …. [Iyov]: if the name is a Hebrew one, then the root would be “to be hostile to.”… However Ibn Ezra … suspects that the saga had its origins in a different language and that it was translated into Hebrew. If so, the name need have no significance. (Daas Mikra points out that although the name does not occur anywhere else in Scripture, there is arcaheological evidence that it was common in patriarchal and pre-patriarchal times.) This may indeed be the meaning of the passage in [Babylonian Talmud] Bava Basra where Iyov asks God whether He had become confused … between the name Iyov and the Hebrew word for enemy. Iyov, as we assume throughout this commentary, was a non-Jew and his name was therefore without any significant connotation. Accordingly, he may well have meant to ask the following question of God: Have You forgotten that I am not Jewish, that within the duties which are expected of me as a non-Jew I have performed well. Do you see me as a Jew, whose name, derived from the Hebrew, would connote enemy, and therefore deem me to have fallen short of my obligations?

Gordis makes an observation about Job’s unusual name as evidence for the non-Jewish origin of the story:

The name “Job” is totally different [than the names of the later identified Friends]. While it has early Oriental analogues and is referred to in Ezekiel, chap. 14 together with Noah and Dan’el, it does not occur in early Hebrew literature. This observation lends support to the the view, though it obviously does not prove it, that the poet utilized an ancient Oriental folk tradition about Job, in which the Friends played no part, as framework for the poetry….

The JSB views the message as universalist:

Even a non-Israelite like Job can be God-fearing. The reason for Job’s fear of God soon be question by the Adversary. A Talmudic tradition considers Job to have been more virtuous than Abraham because only the fear of God is ascribed to Abraham and Job’s other virtues are not.

And Scheindlin similarly views the story as being “unrelated to … covenantal theology.”

The name [Uz] probably refers to a place in or near Edom, the territory to the southeast of the Dead Sea, in what is now the northern part of the Kingdom of Jordan. The exact location is less important for the literary appreciation of the book than the fact that it is non-Israelite territory. By making Job a foreigner, the author hints from the start that the story will treat a theme of universal interest, unrelated to the covenantal theology that occupies so much of the Bible

Pope focuses on Uz’s location using Septuagintal hints, but considers a wide variety of alternatives:

There are two conflicting lines of evidence for the location of Job’s homeland. The one points to the Hauran and the other to Edom. Josephus (Antiq. I.6.4) says that Uz, one of the four sons of Aram (cf. Gen 10:22, 23; 1 Chron 1:17), founded Trachonitis and Damascus. Uz was also the name of the oldest son of Abraham’s Aramean brother Nahor, Gen 22:21, thus making the Aramean connections of the name very strong. Byzantine and Arab tradition place Job’s homeland in the Hauran near Nawā and Sheikh Meskīn. According to Abulfeda (Historia anteislam, p. 26), the whole of Bethenije, a part of the province of Damascus, belonged to Job as his possession. The monastery Deir Ayyub near Damascus is another witness to this tradition. The appendix to LXX places Job’s homeland on the borders of Edom and Arabia and names his city as Dennaba, the modern Dhuneibeh between Deraʿ and Sheikh Meskīn. Etherius (ed. Geyer, p. 56) further identifies Job’s city Dennaba with Carneas, i.e., Qarnayim (the Qarnini of the Assyrian records), mentioned in Amos 6:13. Qarnayim has been identified with the conspicuous mound Sheikh Saʿad in the Hauran, about twenty-three miles east of the Sea of Galilee. Qarnayim was an important city in the first two millennia B.C. A badly weathered stela of Ramses II with a relief of a deity and a worshiper and a dedication in hieroglyphic to the Semitic deity Lord of Zaphon found at Sheikh Saʿad became known as the Job Stone because of the Arab traditions connecting the patriarch Job with this place (cf. ANET, p. 249, n. 6).

The Edomite connections of Uz are equally strong. Dishan the Horite chief of Edom had a son named Uz, Gen 36:28. Jeremiah mentions the kings of the land of Uz in connection with those of Egypt, Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Ammon, Jer 25:19–20. Edom and the land of Uz are plainly identified in Lam 4:21. A. Musil has proposed identification of Uz with el-ʿIṣ some three kilometers south southeast of eṭ-Ṭafīle (Arabia Petraea, II, 1907, book 1, pp. 337, 339, n. 6). The mention of the raid of the Sabeans, vs. 15, suggests a still more southerly location. Dhorme, however, would identify these Sabeans not with the great South Arabian kingdom whose celebrated queen paid a visit to Solomon but with the Sheba mentioned along with Tema in 6:19. Dhorme would find a reminiscence of this Sheba in the name of the wadi es-Saba in the territory of Medina. Tema is also mentioned in Jer 25:23 along with Dedan and Buz. Dedan is identified with the oasis el-ʿUla directly south of Medain Saliḥ and for Buz Dhorme suggests a location between Jauf and Tema, thus fixing the land of Uz in the vicinity of Edom and western Arabia. The location of Buz, however, is uncertain. Albright would place it on the east of the Arabian peninsula in the hinterland of the island of Dilmun, modern Bahrein (W. F. Albright, “Geschichte und Altes Testament,” in Festschrift A. Alt, 1953, p. 8, n. 2).

It appears impossible to reconcile the conflicting evidences and opinions as to the exact location of Uz. Tur-Sinai’s reminder that the names Aram and Edom may be confused in several places in the OT (because of the resemblance of the letters dāleṯ and rēš in various stages of the Hebrew-Aramaic script) does not help to solve the problem. Delitzsch suggests that the term ʿuṣ/ʿiṣ (the Arabic name of Esau is el-ʿiṣ) may have been applied collectively to the northern part of the Arabian desert, extending northeast from Edom to Syria. This covers a lot of territory, but one still not vast enough to encompass the widely separated locales proposed for Job’s homeland. An inscription of Shalmaneser III mentions tribute from a certain Sasi, “a son of the land of Uṣṣa,” (D. D. Luckenbill, ed., Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, I, 1926–27, No. 585, p. 201) presumably our Uz, but unfortunately gives no indication of its location.

While NET seems to view Uz as being a real place:

The term Uz occurs several times in the Bible: a son of Aram (Gen 10:23), a son of Nahor (Gen 22:21), and a descendant of Seir (Gen 36:28). If these are the clues to follow, the location would be north of Syria or south near Edom. The book tells how Job’s flocks were exposed to Chaldeans, the tribes between Syria and the Euphrates (1:17), and in another direction to attacks from the Sabeans (1:15). The most prominent man among his friends was from Teman, which was in Edom (2:11). Uz is also connected with Edom in Lamentations 4:21. The most plausible location, then, would be east of Israel and northeast of Edom, in what is now North Arabia. The LXX has “on the borders of Edom and Arabia.” An early Christian tradition placed his home in an area about 40 miles south of Damascus, in Baashan at the southeast foot of Hermon.

The name Job suggests many different possibilities – it is very similar to oyev (enemy) in Hebrew, as Scheindlin notes:

Job: in Hebrew, Iyyov. the name is known from ancient Semitic inscriptions, and Ezekiel (14:14, 20) mentions it together with the those of Noah and Danel (not the Biblical Daniel) as that of an ancient religious hero. Although there is no certainty as to the meaning of the name, it is so similar to the common Hebrew word for enemy, oyev, that ears trained in Hebrew hear it as meaning “a person who is object of enmity.” This meaning is so appropriate to Job’s role in the story that it may well have dictated the choice.

Pope goes into detail on the New Eastern parallels to the name:

It has been thought that the name was constructed, ad hoc, to characterize the hero of the story. Accordingly, attempts have been made so to interpret it. The name has been assumed to be connected with the root ʾyb which carries the sense of “enmity, hostility.” The common word for enemy in Hebrew is the simple active participle of this root, ʾôyēḇ. The form of the name ʾIyyôḇ, however, appears to correspond to the nominal pattern which in the Semitic languages regularly designates a profession, or a habitual or characteristic activity. Accordingly, the meaning would be “inveterate foe,” or the like. This form of the root ʾyb, however, is otherwise unknown. If the name was understood as meaning “enemy,” it may have been chosen to symbolize the principal’s attitude toward God, his adverse reaction to the suffering inflicted on him. Some of the rabbis made puns on the name, connecting it with “enemy.” According to Rabbah (TB, Baba Bathra 16a), or Raba (Niddah 52a), Job blasphemed when he used the term “tempest” in 9:17, meaning, “Perhaps a tempest passed before Thee which caused the confusion between Job (ʾiyyôḇ) and “enemy” (ʾôyēḇ).” For some reason, the translator of the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira was subject to the same confusion in Ecclesiasticus 49:8–9 where the Hebrew of the Cairo Genizah text reads “Ezekiel saw a vision and described the features of the chariot; he also mentioned Job, who maintained all [the ways of ri]ghteousness,” but the translator rendered the latter verse, “For he remembers the enemies in rain, / To do good to those who made their ways straight.” The idea of enmity has been taken in the passival sense, i.e., that the name is intended to designate one who is the object of enmity or persecution rather than the agent. This sense would be quite appropriate for the victim of such cruel treatment by God and unfair criticism by his friends. There is, however, very scant philological evidence to support this explanation of the name.

It has been suggested further that the name is to be explained by the Arabic root ʾwb, “return, repent.” Accordingly, the meaning would be “the penitent one.”

In recent decades it has become clear that the name ʾIyyôḇ was not simply an invention of the author of the book. In one of the Amarna Letters (No. 256), dating from about 1350 B.C., the prince of Ashtaroth in Bashan bears the name ʾAyyāb, an older form of the biblical name. Still earlier, about 2000 B.C., in the Egyptian Execration Texts there is mention of a Palestinian chief named ʾybm, which is almost certainly to be vocalized Ay(y)abum (with the nominative ending -um which was later dropped). The name Ayyab-um also appears in the Akkadian documents from Mari and Alalakh dating from the early second millennium B.C. W. F. Albright has explained the name Ay(y)ab-um as contracted from ʾAyya-ʾabu(m), “Where is (My) Father?” Similar names occur with other relatives in place of ʾabu, “father,” such as Ay(y)a-ʾaḫu, “Where is (My) Brother?”, and Ay(y)a-ḫammu/ḫalu, “Where is the Paternal/Maternal Clan?” The name Ayyab is apparently shortened from a longer form, such as we have attested in Ayabi-sharri, “Where is My Father, O King?”, and Ayabi-ilu, “Where is My Father, O God?” Cf. W. F. Albright, “Northwest Semitic Names in a List of Egyptian Slaves from the Eighteenth Century B.C.,” JAOS 74 (1954), 223–33. The Ugaritic version of the name also occurs in a list of personnel from the palace of Ugarit in the form ayab (Mission de Ras Shamra VII/Le Palais Royal d’Ugarit II, 1957, text 35 reverse, line 10). In the same text (obverse column II, line 6) occurs the name ayḫ, a variant of the fuller form ayaḫ (spelled in Akk. a-ya-a-ḫi), with the element aḫ “brother,” rather than ab, “father,” and exhibiting already the elision of the intervocalic glottal stop. The Ugaritic name thus might have been written ayb to reflect the pronunciation ʾay(y)ābu from an original ʾayya-ʾabu.

The name Ayyāb>ʾIyyôḇ is thus well attested as a fairly common name among western Semites in the second millennium B.C. The name may have been chosen for the hero of the story simply because it was an ordinary name. It may be, however, that some ancient worthy bearing that name actually experienced reversals of fortune and became the model of the righteous sufferer. The mention of Job (Ezek 14:14, 20) along with Noah and (the Ugaritic hero) Danel suggests a hero of great antiquity.

NET, in its more literal reading, talks about the etymology of “Job,” but also strangely holds that perhaps it is irrelevant:

The name “Job” is mentioned by Ezekiel as one of the greats in the past – Noah, Job, and Daniel (14:14). The suffering of Job was probably well known in the ancient world, and this name was clearly part of that tradition. There is little reason to try to determine the etymology and meaning of the name, since it may not be Hebrew. If it were Hebrew, it might mean something like “persecuted,” although some suggest “aggressor.” If Arabic it might have the significance of “the one who always returns to God.”

The REB-OSB (and similarly the NEB-OSE) simply states:

The name Job occurs widely in the ancient world meaning “where is my father?” It may also mean “inveterate foe” or else the “penitent one,” thus indicated the role of Job and the content of the book.

The NABRE has:

The name probably means “Where is the (divine) father?” In Hebrew it is almost a homonym with the word “enemy.”

And IBFET simply states:

Job means “hated” or “persecuted.”

Below I give the various translations of the opening of Job 1:1.  I have not quoted the notes, but indicate in the table where I quote the notes in my discussion above.


Job 1:1 opening

Alter A man there was in the land of Uz – Job, his name.  [See note above.]
CEB A man in the land of Uz was named Job.
Driver There was (once) a man in the land of Ūṣ, whose name was Job.  [See note above.]
Eisemann There was a man in the land of Utz, Iyov was his name.  [See note above.]
Gordis There lived a man in the land of Uz, who name was Job.  [See note above.]
IBFET Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there lived a man named Job [See note above.]
KJV There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job
Message Job was a man who lived in Uz.
Mitchell Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.
NABRE In the land of Uz there was a blameless and upright man named Job,….  [See note above.]
NEB There lived in the land of Uz a man of blameless and upright life named Job,…
NET There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.  [See note above.]
NETS There was a certain man in the land of Ausitis, whose name was Iob,…
NIV11 In the land of Uz there was a man whose name was Job.
NJB There was once a man in the land of Uz called Job [See note above.]
NJPS There was a man in the land of Uz named Job.
NRSV There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.
Pope A man there was in the land of Uz, Job was his name.
REB There lived in the land of Uz a man of blameless and upright life named Job,….
Scheindlin A man once lived in the land of Utz.  His name was Job.  [See note above.]
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 6:33 pm

    This is another fantastic post in your wonderful series. I’d never really thought of a translation’s opener determining whether and how much the story sounded like a tale or a fable or a parable.

    You do indirectly bring in how the Septuagint texts have guided some of these English translations. I’d say the NETS, nonetheless, is rather unremarkable.

    Contrast that with the Greek opener of Iob itself (the old translation from the Hebrew); here it is:

    Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν….

    Now if you look at the gospel writers, translating the spoken language of Jesus, they put this very phrase in his mouth to start his parables. (By the way, Aristotle calls parables, fables, what Aesop and the Libyan told). Luke 16:1 , for example, has Jesus telling the disciples this one:

    Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος…. Once upon a time, there was a rich man….

  2. January 18, 2012 6:41 pm

    The NETS translation is even more surprising since it models itself on the NRSV; as I note above, the NRSV adds the word “once” to give the story something of a fairytale feel (reflecting the Hebrew idiom):

    There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job


    When the NRSV takes liberties in the literal rendition of the text (again, to reflect the Hebrew idiom), why can’t the NETS take liberties in its rendition to reflect the Greek idiom?

  3. January 18, 2012 7:56 pm

    I like Alter’s version, I did not know his version when I wrote mine 3 years ago. Exactly the same. Here we agree!

    “Where is my father” is a very curious interpretation of the name. Makes me wonder how Elihu’s 35:36 will be rendered. My translation is refused by at least some of the above scholars, I think it was Tur Sinai that specifically said, it can’t mean ‘my father’.
    my father he will be scrutinized in perpetuity
    to the turnings in mortals of iniquity
    (compare 17:14 Job where the pit is his father)

    Long may you be able to continue this good work. Delightful.

  4. January 18, 2012 8:00 pm

    Bob, thanks for your remarks. I think you may also be interested in the version I will note in my next comment below.

  5. January 18, 2012 8:18 pm

    Somehow, in compiling my list of translations of Job, I missed an important one — the English translation from the Daas Mikra Bible.

    The Daas Mikra Bible has established itself as the one of the most important recent full commentary series written in Hebrew in the late twentieth century: you can see some discussion about it here or here. The publisher, Mossad HaRav Kook, has begun translating the commentary into English. The first three volumes was a commentary on Psalms, and in 2009, the Job commentary appeared (and I missed its appearance in English until I spotted it this week.)

    Now I am looking through it, and in many ways this is an interesting translation. I think this series will soon include this volume as well. (Fortunately, I am only four posts in, so there will not be that much to revise.)

  6. January 26, 2012 1:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Thoughts in the Dark and commented:
    This is another blog that I ran across today. It does not contain much original content from the other, but it does quote a great deal of other material about the historicity of the book and character of Job.

    Personally, I read the book of Job as a fable, and I cannot understand why people insist that Job was an actual, historical character. My question for all of you reading this is as follows: Do you think that the message of the book of Job loses its meaning if Job the man never existed in history?


  1. “A Man There Was” | Gaudete Theology

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