Job’s inscription

In Job 19, Job laments his affliction, suffering the anguish of one abandoned by friends, family, and even God. He wishes for his words to be an eternal testimony of his pain, that he not be forgotten as time passes and God chooses another victim.

Your KJV captures his appeal in these words (23-24):

23. Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book!

24. That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!

There are two items of interest here.

1. The Hebrew that the KJV translates as, “Oh that they were printed in a book” is more ambigous than it seems in the English.

The last word of v.23 is sefer (“book; scroll”) but the relevant verb is khaqaq (“to engrave; to carve”). Paper books and scrolls are not engraved. One suggestion is that instead of sefer = book, the Akkadian siparru, “copper; brass,” is what is meant here. Even if we rely on the Phoenician word for inscription (SEÝFER), it is clear that Job’s “book” in the KJV is not something to be written on paper (and by “paper” I mean papyrus, parchment, leather, etc.).

Isaiah 30:8 offers a similar construction: “Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it (khaqaq) on a scroll (sefer), that for the days to come it may be an everlasting witness” (NIV).

2. A related problem is in v. 24. If taken in apposition to v. 23, Job is “engraving” this “inscription” on rock with an “iron pen” (= `et barzel, either “iron stylus” or “chisel”). Or, we could say that he is engraving it on copper in 23 and then also on rock in 24. Either way, a permanent memorial would be created by either engraving.

But why the lead (`ofereth)? A lead tool would be too soft for chiseling rock. Rashi suggested that lead was run into the engraved letters, but I don’t know if that makes sense. Any metallurgists here?

Virtually every verse of Job is like this.

(See further D. J. A. Clines, Job (WBC), 432 and passim)


  1. For obvious reasons, there is a lot of Mormon work on writing on metal (note that writing on rock is the only clear interpretation of Job above). Googling “Curtis Wright” will pay dividends. Search at FARMS too (William Adams, William Hamblin, Curtis Wright, John Tvedtnes). BYU Studies 45/2 has an article about Roman plates.

    But please, solve the sefer and lead problems. Kevin Barney, I’m looking at you.

  2. The lead was because Job was suffering from lead poisoning as we all know. The whole book is a made up attempt to put lead poisoning into the Bible world, just like the parting of the Red Sea was a combination of a sinkhole, a tornado, and a very large sponge.

  3. Jonathan Green says:

    Ronan, I don’t know if this is relevant at all to Semitic, but verbs for engraving/inscribing/etching are the roots for verbs of writing in the older languages I work with, like English ‘write’ from a Pgmc. verb meaning ‘to scratch’. Latin scribeo appears to have both senses. Does this ever happen in Semitic? Can the sense of khaqaq have shifted from ‘engrave’ to ‘write’?

  4. Thanks, Jonathan. That is relevant actually. Some more digging has suggested that the root sfr itself may originally have meant “inscribe.” A possibility with the lead is it would give a rock inscription a certain “shine.”

    (H. Gehman, “SÄ’FER, an inscription, in the book of Job,” JBL 63/3, 1944 – old!)

  5. Ronan, is there a chance that this is echoing language in Jeremiah about a law being inscribed on a person’s inward parts? It seems that there are several places where the notion of writing is made emphatic and dare i say immortal in symbolic terms. One of my chapters includes discussion about the hagiology of writing per se, its capacity to provide a form of immortality. While my period is generally early national America, the reading I’ve done in other cultural epochs suggests an ongoing fascination with the immortalization associated with inscribing/writing.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan, see my “A More Responsible Critique,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 97-146, here.

    The applicable section is from pp. 106-109; comments on some of the possible meanings of the lead are in note 27.

  7. What was that about searching in the journals?!!!

  8. So, I see you prefer a parallelism…

    Maybe, but sefer = siparru will need a closer look. I’ll have a look at the Akkadian material.

    Seems to me that what the Book of Mormon needs, though, is not evidence for people writing on plates, but for Jews writing whole books on plates. Right?

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Note that my argument was not that sefer = sipparu, but that the latter possibly influenced the former word choice.

    And yes, there is plenty of evidence of writing on metal, but none of writing whole books that I know of. Which would appear to make the brass plates sui generis, at least based on current knowledge.

  10. Kevin,

    I’d like to see sipparu used in the context of writing. I think there’s an example from Esarhaddon, but I’d have to check.

    I’m no comparative Semiticist, but I wonder whether the writer of Job would use spr (from sipparu) when it so obviously looks like sefer. I’m inclined to think sefer = sefer, but that it has a wider meaning than “scroll.” I’m also 60/40 on v.23 referring to v.24’s rock, but don’t ask me to defend it!