What happened to Job’s children?

In an earlier post I wrote:

A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his sons as though they are still alive: “I am loathsome to my children” (19:17 JPS). While some translations interpret this as “the children of my own mother” (ESV) or “my brothers” (NIV), the Hebrew (לבני בתני) literally reads “sons of my belly” and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. Elsewhere in Job בתני is ambiguous, being used in reference to a man’s belly as well as a womb. Moreover, as it is in the first person (my belly/womb) then it is more likely to be a reference to his own children who came “from his loins” rather than his mother’s womb. In the prologue it doesn’t say Job’s children died, only that a messenger said his children had died (1:18-19), and if the literal meaning of לבני בתני is correct then it suggests that Job’s children were still alive later in the story.

In support of my assertion that Job referred to his livingchildren in 19:17 here is a comment by David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 135f):

Job 19:17 ‘unmistakeably refers to the children as still living … The phrase פרי בטנך, the fruit of your body, occurs repeatedly in Deuteronomy, addressed to the community of Israel, with the force of the sense of “womb” attenuated as here to refer simply to the power of generation, without regard to gender e.g Deut 28:11”.

Wolfer refers to several other references in the speeches to Job’s “descendants” and allusions to his living children. Some translations attempt to resolve this apparent ‘contradiction’ by translating לבני בתני as “my brothers”, or similar, although the  expression “the sons of my womb/belly”,  is never used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to brothers. Trying to resolve a difficulty by mistranslating simply won’t do. Job has already referred to his brothers in verse 13, as well as his wife, servants and other relatives, and goes on to speak of the reactions of friends and young children. The most natural reading would be that Job is listing  all those with whom he has regular contact, including his children. To speak a second time of his brothers would be unnatural.

So what happened to his children? The best explanation, in my opinion, is that the poetry parts of Job were composed seperately to the narrative prose in the ‘frame’ story. The poetry was written first and the prose was added later to give the debate a ‘setting’. It is not an historical record. This means that there are some conflicts between the poetry and the prose, but this was certainly of no concern to the writer (otherwise he could easily have corrected it) or to his audience. Consistency is probably more important to the modern reader than it was to an ancient one, and this may very well be because of our preconceived theological notions about what ‘inspiration’ means or demands of the text.

8 comments on “What happened to Job’s children?

  1. Jen says:

    Stephen, I suggest another way to resolve the apparent inconsistency: a closer look at 1:19. The text says that (the house) fell on the four corners of the house, and the ‘young men’ are dead. This is the same word “ne’ariym” translated ‘servants’ in the three earlier disasters (verse 15,16,17). The fate of the daughters is never specified, and it appears that the fate of any of the children is deliberately obscured: the reader (and apparently the friends) are led to *assume* that Iyov’s children are all crushed. As you mention, there are other allusions in the book that hint that this was not the case.

    This idea helps to answer the issue of Job’s jarring silence on the topic of the loss of his own children; as he seems to mourn their estrangement from him rather than their absolute loss (see his emphasis on his expressed care for others in chapter 30 contrasting with his lack of voiced care for his children).

    This idea also finds some support in many interesting echoes in other passages; intriguing connection to Isa 51 for example.

    I suggest that the absence of his children throughout Iyov’s temptation period and their reappearance at the end of the book solves another problem: the apparent ineffectiveness of Job’s intercession for his children at the beginning of the book contrasting to the apparent effectiveness of Job’s intercession for his friends at the end of the book. Job’s intercessions *were* heard in both instances: and not one of his children were lost (though temporarily astray).

  2. Jason says:

    I have a couple of things that I consider when reading and considering the book of Job that I would like to hear opinions on. The first is the fact that Job is referred to as an actual person, alongside Noah and Daniel in Ezekiel 14, and again in James 5. The other being, in the book of Job, Yahweh speaks and acts. If the book is not historical in some sense, then did the LORD not actually say and do the things in Job? Is then not the whole of scripture left open to personal opinion concerning the pronouncements, promises, and the truth of God? If “The LORD answered Job” doesn’t mean Yahweh actually spoke to an actual person named Job, then the authority of scripture seems to be greatly reduced.

  3. Jen says:

    @Jason: It seems doubtful that the entire passionate dialogue in real life would have happened in poetry. To say that it is recorded in a poetic rather than a historical way does not necessarily reduce the ‘authority’ of scripture, does it? For example, what if the Real Person’s name was George, but for the purpose of the book, he is given the name ‘Persecuted’ (Job); does that make the story any less powerful? I would say that the story is no less powerful (and perhaps no less accurate) for being recorded in such a way, and likely becomes more imbued with meaning to one who understands the poetic language.

    In the same way, I think that most people who reference the ‘authority of scripture’ believe that what needed to be recorded was recorded, and the 100% technically-accurate is often irrelevant. Would you agree?

    • Stephen Cook says:

      What would happen if someone made a really good point and then quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to reinforce their point? Would it matter that they were quoting from a fictional character, or would it simply be an effective use of a story with which we might be familiar? Would a reference to a fictional character lessen the force of their point? If I referred to Macbeth or Hamlet or even Humpty Dumpty would that mean that I believe these people actually existed? I personally don’t think that a mention by Jesus or any of the NT writers means that they are confirming the person actually existed; it would simply be a reference to a character with whom they were familiar, whether historical or fictional.

  4. Jason says:

    @Jen I agree the poetic form of the Book of Job does not reduce the authority or message that the story is meant to convey, if your understanding is that Job is poetic writing based on historical events. If it is not based the events of an actual person, then the message and power are greatly reduced. To take this idea to an extreme, what if Christ never really existed, but was merely a story meant to teach moral principle?

    @Stephen I agree with you that a reference to a fictional character does not mean that one must believe they actually existed. It seems strange to me that Ezekiel would reference two real people alongside a fictional character “these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job”, to me it seems as if Ezekiel believes Job to be a real person.

    Another question I have for you is, how poetic are the speeches in the Hebrew? What poetic elements are found in Job that makes it poetic rather than formal?

    Thanks you both for the responses

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Jason, I’m going to be offline for a few days but I hope to respond to your comment soon.

    • Stephen Cook says:


      I’m back from a short break and plan to start blogging again soon. But first, here is a brief answer to your questions about poetry in Job: “Another question I have for you is, how poetic are the speeches in the Hebrew? What poetic elements are found in Job that makes it poetic rather than formal?”

      I don’t know how familiar you are with Hebrew poetry, so I apologise if I’m telling you stuff here which you already know. Hebrew poetry can be identified by parallelism, rhythm, acrostics, alliteration and occasionally rhyme (unlike English poetry, Hebrew poetry contains very little identifiable rhyme, although it is evident in a few texts; as pronunciation changed over time it is possible that it was also once present in places where it is no longer apparent as pronunciation has changed). While Hebrew poetry is metrical its rhythm is difficult to translate into English and is therefore usually lost. Not all of these poetical devices may be present at the same time. Medieval Jewish scribes made poetry more easily identifiable by the use of special accents and line divisions. The Aleppo codex, possibly one of the most important Hebrew manuscripts in existence, includes these identifying features. The dialogues in Job are written entirely in poetry.

      Here are some helpful articles which may interest you:

      Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Literature

      Ancient Hebrew Poetry (an excellent blog with a lot of great information by John F. Hobbins)

  5. Jason says:

    Ok, I have been known to ask a lot of questions, I thank you for the responses.

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