In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pain and Suffering in the Hebrew Bible

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • God, Pain, and Suffering

Biblical Studies Pain and Suffering in the Hebrew Bible
Rosanne Liebermann
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0331


Pain and suffering are challenging terms to define and delimit, both individually and in connection to one another. They are affected by biological, emotional, psychological, and social factors; they resist simple expression via language; and they are anchored in the cultural context in which they are experienced and perceived. All of this makes examining pain and suffering in the Hebrew Bible, as a composite text from thousands of years ago, a difficult task. Nevertheless, biblical texts are so full of descriptions of various types of pain and suffering that these topics have naturally attracted a considerable amount of scholarship. Some researchers have addressed the issue of how to identify pain in the Hebrew Bible, with philological, literary, and psychological approaches—as well as insights from medical anthropology—thus far having provided valuable insights. For example, biblical scholars are united in their assessment that the Hebrew Bible portrays pain as a complex physical, psychological, emotional, social, and (because it is a text about religion) religious experience. Meanwhile, other scholars have focused on the specific types of pain and suffering most frequently addressed in the Hebrew Bible, such as illness, disability, childbirth, infertility, trauma, and exile/involuntary migration. Some of these experiences are associated with individual characters, while others are associated with entire communities—though occasionally by means of a single, representative literary figure (such as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53). The Hebrew Bible tends to present all experiences of pain and suffering in relation to its understanding of God, asking whether it is God who causes them and, more importantly, why. Scholarly treatments that evaluate the theological aspects of pain and suffering in the Hebrew Bible as a whole often attempt to trace diachronic developments in the corpus’s presentations of pain, usually with a view toward developments evident in the New Testament. Still other scholars prefer to limit their focus to the analysis of pain and suffering in individual texts or groups of texts within the Hebrew Bible. Most such works address the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2-3; the books of Job or Lamentations; select Psalms of lament; or the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (or parts thereof). Since pain and suffering are integral aspects of these biblical books as well as many others, treatments of these topics can naturally be found in many scholarly works that do not cite pain and suffering as their focus. Since a review of all such literature would be impossible, this article attempts to highlight publications that most explicitly and representatively address the topics of pain and suffering as they are presented in the Hebrew Bible.

General Overviews

There has not been a great number of works that attempt a systematic overview of the topic of pain and/or suffering in the Hebrew Bible. This may be due to the complexity of defining and delimiting the topic in the first place, as well as the great diversity within the Hebrew Bible in terms of how pain and suffering are presented. Scholars agree that there is no one, unified treatment of pain and suffering in the Hebrew Bible, though there are dominant trends; namely, the claim on the one hand that pain and suffering are deserved divine punishments for wrongdoing and, on the other, that the actual pain and suffering observed in the world do not seem commensurate with the wrongdoing of those who experience them. Some of the overviews listed below, such as Renner 1982; Brueggemann 1985; Simindson 1992; and Sager 2022a attempt to track chronological developments in biblical authors’ thinking about pain and suffering. This approach is either implicitly or explicitly related to the desire to read the Old and New Testaments together and therefore to see in the Hebrew Bible developments that lay the groundwork for Christian ideas such as vicarious suffering and/or the suffering of God in preparation for Christ’s atoning death on the cross (see also many of the works in God, Pain, and Suffering). This Christian theological hermeneutic of pain and suffering in the Hebrew Bible is, however, only one possible way of interpreting the texts. While not mutually exclusive with this approach (as, for example, Scharbert 1955, Sager 2022a, and Sager 2022c demonstrate), other works, such as Bauks and Olyan 2021; Davage and Scheuer 2021; and Sager 2022b focus more on philological and historical-critical readings of Hebrew Bible texts, often combining these with insights from the social sciences.

  • Bauks, Michaela, and Saul M. Olyan, eds. Pain in Biblical Texts and Other Materials of the Ancient Mediterranean. Forschungen Zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 130. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021.

    A collection of articles in English and German on the representation of pain in texts and archaeological remains from ancient Israel (including the Hebrew Bible) and the wider ancient Near East and Mediterranean worlds. Includes topics such as torture, mourning, and illness.

  • Brueggemann, Walter. “A Shape for Old Testament Theology, II: Embrace of Pain.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 395–415.

    Argues that certain Old Testament texts (including the protests of Moses, the Psalms of lament, Jeremiah’s laments, and the book of Job) question the legitimacy of a theology of divine retribution based on experiences of pain that seem unjust. This changes the dynamic between the sufferer and God, in that the sufferer gains authority and God is drawn “into the fray” and cannot remain unaffected.

  • Davage, David Willgren, and Blaženka Scheuer. Sin, Suffering, and the Problem of Evil. Forschungen Zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 126. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1628/978-3-16-157539-6

    A collection of articles, dedicated to Frederik Lindström, that focus on how the topics of sin, suffering, and evil are conceptualized either independently or in relation to one another in the Hebrew Bible and its reception history.

  • Renner, J. T. E. “Aspects of Pain and Suffering in the Old Testament.” Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review 15.1 (1982): 32–42.

    A brief overview of some of the Hebrew Bible’s main approaches to suffering, including the idea that suffering is the result of a rupture in the divine-human relationship (i.e., of sin) as well as passages that question whether suffering is always commensurate with wrongdoing (e.g., in Jeremiah; Ps 22; 30; 73; Job 7). Tracks the development of the concept of vicarious suffering from Jeremiah, through Isaiah’s “suffering servant,” to Jesus.

  • Sager, Dirk. “Schmerz in der Welt des Alten Testaments.” Der Schmerz 37 (2022a): 1–6.

    Examines the language, expressions, and metaphors of pain in the Hebrew Bible, emphasizing that pain is depicted as something coming from outside the body. Based on a diachronic analysis of Isaiah, argues that biblical writers increasingly conceptualized pain as an indication of a disrupted relationship with God and, by analogy, of disrupted social relationships, while certain individuals began to be portrayed as those who could resolve the community’s pain.

  • Sager, Dirk. “Wie deutete man chronische Schmerzen im Alten Israel? Eine Spurensuche.” Zeitschrift Für Religions- Und Geistesgeschichte 74.2 (2022b): 165–173.

    DOI: 10.1163/15700739-07402006

    Using recent findings from pain studies and thought- and social history, as well as linguistic analyses of Hebrew texts, investigates how texts from the Hebrew Bible deal with what today would be called “chronic pain.” Concludes that the phenomenon of chronic pain was well known in ancient Israel, even if it was not itself classified as an illness.

  • Sager, Dirk. Die Leidtragenden: Schmerz Im Alten Testament. Stuttgarter Bibelstudien 250. Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2022c.

    Employs findings from anthropology, history of thought, and social history as well as traditional historical-critical approaches to evaluate how pain was perceived and dealt with according to the Hebrew Bible. Argues that the notion of pain as punishment from God in these texts is a limited one; their focus lies more on coping with long-lasting pain, e.g., via images of a God who identifies with the suffering.

  • Scharbert, Josef. Der Schmerz Im Alten Testament. Bonner Biblische Beiträge. Bonn, Germany: Peter Hanstein Verlag, 1955.

    A comprehensive study of all the terminologies for and types of pain in the Hebrew Bible, followed by an analysis of the theologies of pain presented by different parts of the canon (Pentateuch, Deuteronomistic History, post-exilic histories, prophets, wisdom literature, Job, and Psalms), ending with a discussion of the pain of Yhwh.

  • Simindson, Daniel J. “Suffering.” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 219–225. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    A short summary of the main treatments of suffering in the Hebrew Bible. Attempts to track chronological developments in thinking about suffering from pre-exilic to exilic and post-exilic texts, e.g., regarding themes such as individual retribution; the potential redeeming value of suffering; protesting God’s apparent injustice; and the attribution of suffering to evil powers, among others.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.