Contronyms (or “Janus words”) are words with two opposite meanings. For example, you can cleave to someone, or cleave from someone. You can dust off the countertop, or dust a cake with icing sugar. Lease a house out, or lease it from someone.
It’s not limited to English either – I recently learned that in Cantonese, 好嘢 (hou2 ye5) can be an expression of delight (like “Cool!”), or an expression of mockery and warning. I’m sure you can think of other fascinating word riddles.
I say this because in the book of Job, there’s a crucial word riddle that’s glossed over in most of our English translations. (I’m especially grateful for Kirk Patston’s 2019 Hebrew class where we first explored this, as well as Tod Linafelt’s 1996 article on the same topic).
The riddle of “blessing” in Job
In the book of Job, after the title character suffers the loss of all his wealth, possessions and his 10 children, his first response is recorded as follows:
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.”
In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.Job 1:20-22 (NIV)
The highlighted word in the original Hebrew is ברך (brk), and it usually means “to bless, praise, greet, to kneel before someone/thing”, or perhaps “to greet/farewell” (e.g. to say a blessing). The word brk appears 8 times in the book of Job (1:5, 1:10, 11, 1:21, 2:5, 2:9, 31:20, 42:12), including 6 times in this prologue. So it’s a key word and idea.
But in our English translations, it’s not always translated as “to bless”. For example:
- Job says: “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed (brk) God in their hearts.” (1:5)
- The Accuser (or Satan) says: “You have blessed (brk) the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse (brk) you to your face.” (1:10—11)
The actual word for “curse” in Hebrew is קלל (qll) – and it’s not as if the narrator doesn’t know how to write it, because it’s right there in Job 3:1 –
After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed (qll) the day of his birth.Job 3:1, NIV
A riddle lost in translation?
So what’s going on? There’s two possible explanations. One is this: imagine I’m a devout, Hebrew-speaking scribe paid to copy out the Bible. But then I get to 1:5 and I don’t feel so good about writing out “Curse God”. So I’ll say, “bless God” – and let the reader understand what I actually mean. And I’ll do it again, and again. Ever since a 10th century Jewish commentator explained this, this view is seen as so obvious that most English translations won’t even tell you and just write “curse” for brk in Job 1:5, 1:11, 2:5 and 2:9 (though occasionally you’ll see a footnote about it, e.g. in the ESV). So perhaps it’s a well-known euphemism.
But I think another explanation is that maybe our English translations have inadvertently scrubbed out a riddle. Consider some earlier translations of Job 1:11, for example:
- The LXX (Old Greek translation) says: “ἀλλὰ ἀπόστειλον τὴν χεῖρά σου καὶ ἅψαι πάντων, ὧν ἔχει· εἰ μὴν εἰς πρόσωπόν σε εὐλογήσει.” (But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has: surely to you face he will bless you!)
- The Latin Vulgate (4th/5th century) says: “sed extende paululum manum tuam et tange cuncta quae possidet nisi in facie tua benedixerit tibi” (But stretch forth your hand a little and touch all that he has, and see if he doesn’t bless you to your face).
And some translations of Job 1:5:
- The Reformer Martin Luther’s original German (1545) said: “Meine Söhne möchten gesündiget und Gott gesegnet haben in ihrem Herzen.” (My sons may have sinned and have blessed God in their hearts.)
- The translators of the Chinese Union Version (1919) makes an interesting choice – “因為他說：恐怕我兒子犯了罪，心中棄掉神” (Because he said: “I’m afraid that my sons have sinned, and discarded/abandoned God in their hearts” – rather than 咒詛, “to curse”, like in Job 3:1, they’ve chosen to render brk in 1:5, 1:11, 2:5 and 2:9 as 棄掉 “to discard/abandon”, which is within its semantic range.)
What I think we see is that many translations outside of our modern Western cultures are more willing to wrestle with the ambiguity of the word brk in Job’s story. In contrast, when we read the opening of Job’s story (in English at least) it comes across as a Rubik’s cube that’s already solved, or a crossword that’s already filled out (which I think too easily leads to sermons that go, “be like Job”, or “be quiet like Job’s friends”).
The riddle of our “blessing”
But what if Job’s story opens by challenging readers like us — from materialistic, wealth-worshipping cultures — to riddle over what it means to “bless” (1:21) and be “blessed” (cf. 1:10, 42:12)? And what if God in his wisdom invites us to riddle over Job’s suffering a bit more?
- When God “brks” Job with wealth (1:10) — has he actually been “blessed”?
- When Job’s wife screams: “Brk God and die,” what’s actually in her heart?
- When Job sings: “Brk be the name of the LORD”, what’s really in his heart?
- And finally, what will it mean for God to “bless” (brk) Job again? (Cf. 42:12)
My aim isn’t to get you to doubt your Bibles – it is precious, it is God’s unmistakable, unfailing Word. But I think it’s worthwhile to recognise that Job’s story was originally recorded in a way that isn’t so black and white. I think we’re meant to consider: what does it really mean to be blessed? Perhaps if we read Job as the earliest Christians did, we become wise enough to admit that walking with God through pain and suffering can sometimes feel like a riddle.
After all, one crisis can push someone to cleave to God, yet push another to cleave away from Him. Some will learn nothing from their trials, others will be deeply transformed. One death might seem a pointless statistic, while another may spark a faith that is world-changing.
The ultimate riddle of “blessing”
One of my favourite worship songs is “Blessings” by Laura Story. It’s a beautiful poem that she wrote in response to her husband being diagnosed with brain cancer, and the painful journey that followed. Through much wrestling and agonising, she sings:
“What if Your blessings come through raindrops?“Blessings” by Laura Story
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near?
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?”
Likewise, perhaps we too can wonder: what if the riddle in Job’s story pushes us towards the riddle at the heart of the universe – that God in Christ would suffer for us?
“This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” – Ephesians 3:6, NIV
(Feature image credit: Michelen Studios)