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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Job

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YHWH's Two Speeches and Job's Responses ( 38:1–42:6 )

The dramatic climax to the book of Job finally arrives, after an interminable delay, at least from Job's perspective. In a sense, his eagerly awaited audience before the Creator contains no surprise, for he expected to encounter power; still, the divine speeches do not measure up to advanced billing. Instead of resolving the matter of Job's innocence, they completely ignore the problem that has exercised Job and his four detractors for so long. Nor do the divine speeches from the whirlwind throw any light on the suffering of innocent persons. YHWH's entire discourse ignores humankind, except in mocking questions addressed to Job. Instead, YHWH expresses exhilaration over meteorological phenomena and animals that dwell outside the ordinary habitat of humans, with one notable exception, the warhorse. Most importantly, YHWH reserves pride of place for two partly mythological creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. The two speeches ( 38:1–39:30; 40:1–41:34 (MT 26)) begin with narrative introductions ( 38:1; 40:6 ), present direct challenges to Job ( 38:2–3; 40:7–14 ), and examine specific themes already articulated in the rebuke of Job (the divine plan, 38:4–39:30 ; mišpāṭ, 40:15–41:34 (MT 26)). Each speech has two distinct parts. The first speech takes up cosmological and meteorological phenomena ( 38:4–38 ) and then discusses five pairs of animals ( 38:39–39:30 ). The second speech is limited to two special creatures. After each divine speech, Job responds ( 40:3–5 —following a specific invitation from YHWH to answer in 40:1–2 —and 42:1–6 ). The content of the divine speeches resembles the exquisite poetry of Isa 40:12–31 and Ps 104 . Readers react variously to the divine speeches; some consider them sublime irrelevance, others think they succeed in forcing a self-centred Job to take a less egocentric view of the universe, and still others discern an unpleasant fact beyond the playful(?) mockery: a world devoid of morality (Tsevat 1966: 73–106). Perhaps the poet chose the wisest course, to leave Job's problem unresolved, for no answer would have sufficed, whether spoken by YHWH or anyone else. This ambivalence suggests that the dominant genre, disputation, served the poet well, for its strength lies in its ability to present alternative viewpoints.

( 38:1–40:5 ) The Divine Plan of the Universe

YHWH's ῾ēṣâ (plan, counsel) includes the cosmos and the realm of wild animals. The initial speech focuses on these two topics, highlighting the argument with periodic questions directed at Job (‘Who? Where? On what? Have you? Can you? Where?’).

( 38:1–3 )

v. 1 derives from the narrator, who has framed the discussion thus far and made important judgements about Job's character. That the name YHWH occurs here, as in the prose framework ( 1:1–2:13; 42:7–17 ), comes as something of a surprise, for it has been avoided in the poetic discourses except for the cliché in 12:9 . This name, together with the information that YHWH speaks from a whirlwind (se῾ārâ), reintroduces the additional problems posed by the interaction between the Adversary and YHWH. Does disinterested piety exist? Will anyone serve God gratuitously, for nothing? Furthermore, the destructive power of the whirlwind, its capacity to renew Job's gut-wrenching memory of ten dead children, does not bode well for him. Biblical theophanies usually bring solace along with the inevitable sense of awe; in this instance, form and content clash (Crenshaw 1992 ). Job has his wish, but not on his own conditions. vv. 2–3 make this fact painfully clear; YHWH rejects Job's reasoning as senseless, an obfuscation of the divine plan. YHWH has no intention of capitulating before human charges of injustice; instead, he will expect far more intellectual rigour from the accuser. The initial question, ‘Who is this?’ has the tone of ‘How dare you?’ Job has demanded that God tell him the specific wrongs he has committed ( 10:2; 13:23 ), promising an answer for each breach of trust ( 13:22 ). This stance quickly becomes meaningless in the type of universe described by the divine speeches. YHWH does not encourage Job to hold on to his conviction that a moral principle governs the world. In the light of this radically different world-view, the situation has suddenly reversed. Instead of YHWH being obligated to answer Job ( 13:2 ), Job must now come up with an appropriate response to new revelations about the nature of the universe. The image, ‘Gird up your loins like a man’, probably refers to tucking the ends of one's robe into a belt to permit quick movement.

( 38:4–7 )

The creation of the earth is described as if it were a huge temple; YHWH designs and constructs the edifice, to the jubilation of interested onlookers (cf. Prov 8:22–31 , where the emphasis falls on wisdom's presence and excited reaction). The allusion to heavenly singing echoes the liturgical dedication associated with the construction of an earthly temple. The dedication of YHWH's temple evoked singing from the morning stars and divine beings. The final phrase of 38:5 , ‘surely you know!’, occurs elsewhere in the related sayings attributed to the foreign sage, Agur (Prov 30:1–14 , specifically in v. 4 ).

( 38:8–11 )

Once earth has been established, YHWH sets about to contain the boisterous sea, which represented primeval chaos in ancient Near-Eastern myths. Acting as midwife, YHWH assists in its birth and cares for the newborn infant. At the same time he provided clothing for the sea (clouds and darkness), YHWH determined its limits, here envisioned as doors imposed by divine command. The image is that of parental discipline, a prohibition aimed at the infant's well-being. Behind this language of bursting forth and containment lie numerous biblical and non-biblical stories about primordial chaos, but that hostile power is here circumscribed (cf. Ps 74:13–14; 89:10–13 (MT 9–14); Isa 51:9–10 ; Enuma Elish). The allusion to proud waves points beyond itself to an important topos in the second speech (see 40:10–14 ).

( 38:12–15 )

YHWH's description of dawn's power to renew creation each day echoes Job's earlier curse ( 3:9 ) and complaint about reversals of dawn and darkness ( 24:13–17 ). In YHWH's graphic image, a personified dawn takes hold of earth's corners like a bedsheet and shakes out the wicked like bedbugs. Their natural fondness for darkness becomes a self-fulfilling curse, light being denied them and their strength being checked ( 38:15 ). In YHWH's world, the wicked have a place just like the good, but dawn limits their destructiveness.

( 38:16–21 )

Turning to the remote regions of the universe, YHWH asks Job about the extent of his progress in reaching the deep recesses, whether above or below. The prophet Amos mentions similar remote areas, along with hiding-places closer to home and a little more distant (Am 9:1–4 , Sheol, the depths of the sea, heaven, caves on Mt. Carmel, exile). Whereas Amos emphasizes YHWH's ease in following and punishing anyone who might flee his wrath, the divine speech in Job 38:16–21 concentrates on Job's inability to make such a journey. Twice in this brief section YHWH mocks Job (vv. 18, 21 ). YHWH reminds him that his life span is but a speck on the eons of time.

( 38:22–4 )

At this point, YHWH shifts from cosmology to meteorology. At least two, possibly three, of these items cause harm (hail, east wind, lightning (?)). The use of the Hebrew word ᾽ôr (light) instead of the usual word for lightning (but see 37:11 ), and the reference to snow, suggest that the speech alludes to two positive and two negative phenomena. Only in one instance does YHWH elaborate: hail is associated with warfare (cf. Ex 9:22–6; Josh 10:11 ). Late Jewish literature describes heavenly journeys during which angels disclose esoteric knowledge to favoured individuals (cf. 1 Enoch 41:4; 60:11–12 for a journey to heavenly storehouses).

( 38:25–30 )

YHWH asks Job if he knows pertinent facts about the rain, dew, hoarfrost, and ice. According to the ancient Israelite cosmogony, the firmament was thought to resemble hard metal, hence the language of cutting channels for the rain and making openings through which lightning could pass. YHWH goes to some lengths to emphasize the divine prodigality where rain was involved (cf. Am 4:7–8 ). Twice YHWH states that rain fell where no human being lived, in the desert waste. vv. 28–9 use images of begetting and birthing; rain and dew are referred to the male act of procreation, whereas ice and hoarfrost are associated with the womb. The formation of ice is further described as water hiding on a rock (cf. Sir 43:20 , ice is viewed as a lake's breastplate).

( 38:31–3 )

Unlike the rest of the sections dealing with meteorological phenomena, this one has nothing directly to say about water. Perhaps it was thought that the movements of constellations affected what transpired on earth, even influencing rainfall. The identity of the constellations mentioned here is not certain; a case has been made for the following: Pleiades, Orion, Sirius, and Aldebaran (de Wilde 1981: 366–7). He notes that the last three in this list appear when Pleiades is ‘bound,’ i.e. hidden from sight.

( 38:34–8 )

The chapter concludes with questions about Job's ability to summon the rain and command lightning during a severe drought. YHWH asks Job if he possesses the requisite skill to handle containers holding precious water, skins and jugs. Although the Hebrew of v. 36 is difficult, it may refer to the ibis and the cock; ancient Egyptians thought the ibis announced the Nile's rising and the cock predicted the approach of rain. Divine sarcasm in v. 35 stands out above the constant ridicule of the rhetorical questions; YHWH imagines the ludicrous: lightning bolts address Job obediently, ‘Here we are.’

( 38:39–39:30 )

Beginning in v. 39 , YHWH calls Job's attention to wild animals: lion and raven, mountain goat and deer, wild ass and ox, ostrich and horse, hawk and vulture. Scenes from the ancient Near East depict kings hunting many of these wild creatures. Such royal sport contains an element of control; as lord of all creatures, the King of the Universe subjects wild animals to his wishes. Two irreconcilable symbolic gestures rest behind these descriptions; YHWH protects his kingdom from all threat posed by wild animals, and he rules over the animals' well-being. The rhetorical questions continue throughout these descriptions, with the exception of the reference to the ostrich, where one also finds God mentioned in the third person.

( 38:39–41 )

For some unknown reason the lion is paired with the raven. The terror inspired by lions prompted the prophet Amos to speak of the divine calling to prophesy as an inescapable summons, just as the roar of a lion brings terror (Am 3:8 ). YHWH asks Job if he can provide food for hungry lions and ravens when they cry out.

( 39:1–4 )

In this section YHWH recalls an earlier stage, that of gestation and birth. He asks whether or not Job could watch over these intimate moments in the lives of mountain goats and deer.

( 39:5–12 )

YHWH turns to discuss two wild animals with domesticated equivalents. The wild ass, or onager, lived in the steppe or in salt flats; its preference for living away from human presence gave rise to proverbial sayings (e.g. ‘Ishmael is a wild ass of a man’). The strength of the wild ox, possibly the extinct aurochs, was an occasion for marvel. The questions regarding this animal approach the ludicrous: will it serve you, sleep in your crib, submit to your ropes, and plow a straight furrow?

( 39:13–18 )

Like the wild ass, which laughs at noisy cities ( 39:7 ), the ostrich laughs at the horse and its rider. YHWH claims to have withheld wisdom from the ostrich, with unfortunate consequences for its offspring. In perpetuating this misconception about ostriches, YHWH gives voice to popular lore at the time of the author. In this matter, as in all others, the author faced enormous difficulty the moment he decided to allow YHWH to become one participant among several in a debate.

( 39:19–25 )

The horse is the only domesticated animal in this list of ten, but what a majestic creature! YHWH can hardly contain the excitement over the warhorse. Completely devoid of fear, the mighty horse laughs as it charges into the heat of battle. The language of a ‘warrior god’ serves to characterize this horse (might, thunder, majesty, terror; so Habel 1985: 547). The horse's desire for battle rivals the drive for water or sex (Newsom 1996: 612).

( 39:26–30 )

The final pair of animals, hawk and vulture, watch from above as a grim scene unfolds on the battlefields below. From their perspective, corpses provide food for them and their young. This section reaches a conclusion by harking back to the provision of food for the raven and its offspring. Beginning with the description of the horse in battle, YHWH views the conflict of armies from the perspective of the horse and the vulture, rather than from war's effect on human history.

( 40:1–5 )

YHWH demands that Job respond. The former critic acknowledges his lack of honour (social status) over against YHWH and gestures that he will be silent. The earlier boast that he will approach God like a prince gives way now to a numerical saying. The expected disputation has not materialized.

( 40:6–42:6 ) The Mystery of Divine Governance

The second divine speech resembles the earlier description of the war-horse, only with considerably more detail. YHWH boasts about two powerful creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. Partly animal and partly a product of a mythical imagination, these two liminal beasts cavort on land and in water. YHWH's world makes room for such beasts, indeed he glories in their freedom and strength. Although a threat to any mortal who dared to challenge them, they, too, enjoy YHWH's protection.

( 40:6–14 )

The narrator repeats the introduction from 38:1 and the command to Job from 38:3 , while explicating the accusation of 38:2 ( 40:6–8 ). Finally, YHWH comes to the point of the debate as Job understands it. God is guilty, and Job is innocent. Instead of accepting this view of things, YHWH bristles at such impertinence. To silence Job, YHWH challenges him to perform specific tasks that fall to the deity. First, to manifest his splendour, then to overcome pride (gē᾽eh), and vanquish the wicked. If Job can successfully perform these duties, YHWH will concede. Does the poet permit YHWH to indulge in a minor confession that even the Creator finds these tasks something of a challenge? By focusing on pride as the fundamental form of rebellion, YHWH shifts the issue from the realm of legality to that of inner attitude. The question is no longer guilt or innocence, whether Job's or YHWH's, but a correct assessment of one's place. In YHWH's view, Job's helplessness when confronted with something as basic as pride renders his charges against the Creator null and void. The divine judge, as it were, has issued a verdict. YHWH, the accused, is innocent.

( 40:15–24 )

The task of overcoming pride becomes concrete in the two descriptions that follow. Both Behemoth and Leviathan demonstrate what it means to encounter pride near at hand. The word Behemoth is a plural form of the usual word for cattle; it may be a plural of majesty, representing cattle par excellence (cf. the plural form of wisdom, ḥokmôt, in Prov 9:1 ). The description of this animal suggests either the hippopotamus or the water-buffalo. In Egyptian myth, the god Horus hunts Seth in the form of a hippopotamus (Keel 1978: 138–9). Ugaritic myth mentions bull-like creatures, and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh records an incident in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay a ‘Bull of Heaven’. The comparison of Behemoth's zānāb in v. 17 to a cedar derives from the role of bulls in fertility religion; the word zānāb (tail) is a euphemism for penis. This powerful creature is called ‘the first of the ways of God’; the same thing is said of Wisdom in Prov 8:22 . With slight repointing of the Hebrew consonants in v. 19b , it may be translated ‘made to dominate its companions’, in context preferable to ‘its maker approaches it with his sword’, for elsewhere the description of Behemoth has no suggestion of a struggle between gods and chaos.

( 41:1–34 (MT 40:25–41:26 ))

In contrast to Behemoth, an animal in repose, Leviathan stands before Job as a creature of violence. YHWH begins the description by posing rhetorical questions to Job that illustrate the absurdity of attempting to control this terrifying creature, visualized as part crocodile and part mythical monster ( 41:1–12 ) (MT 40:25–41:4 ). The images for hunting and fishing are not entirely clear, but the practice of controlling captured slaves by inserting a cord through the nose or cheek is mentioned in the Bible (e.g. 2 Kings 19:28; Isa 37:29 ). The idea of this powerful creature begging for mercy, or submitting to girls' play, or even providing meat for bartering tradesmen approaches the ridiculous. Even the gods dare not engage Leviathan in battle ( 41:9 (MT 41:1 )). Although difficult, vv. 10–12 (MT 2–4) may represent God's indication that none can withstand Leviathan, the creature's arrogant boast, and God's decision not to silence such boasting. Leviathan boasts only about his own domain, unlike Job.

( 41:13–24 (MT 41:5–16 ))

The description of Leviathan begins with its skin, resembling an impenetrable coat of mail, and moves from this general panoramic view to a close-up of the face, neck, and chest. Power and beauty combine to make this creature godlike; it has eyes like the dawn which emit a beam of light, and breathes fire like a dragon. The association of fire and smoke with the gods (cf. Ps 18:8 (MT 9)) is a common feature of ancient lore.

( 41:25–34 (MT 17–26))

Before this awesome creature the gods cower, especially when it surfaces so that its impenetrable shield becomes visible. Weapons of war bounce off like harmless straw (sword, spear, dart, javelin, arrows, iron and bronze clubs). Laughter links this powerful creature with the wild ass, ostrich, and warhorse, but Leviathan's ability to distance itself in raging water, disappearing in its white wake, makes it king over all the proud. In 40:11b YHWH challenged Job to ‘look on all who are proud and abase them’; here Leviathan ‘looks on all that are proud’ ( 41:34 (MT 26)).

( 42:1–6 )

The exact meaning of Job's response to YHWH's discourse is unclear, perhaps intentionally so. He certainly acknowledges YHWH's power, but that is not new. Job also quotes YHWH twice ( 42:3a , 4 ) and responds to each citation; he concedes that he has spoken without understanding, but his second concession is capable of several interpretations. In fact, even his statement in v. 5 is ambiguous. Does he say that his previous knowledge of YHWH was second-hand (obtained through a rumour) or that he has just now really listened, in obedience to the divine command to hear, so that he is prepared to understand the meaning of the theophany, a seeing also? The next verse has built-in problems. The verb mā᾽as requires an object but has none, as has occurred earlier in the book; likewise, weniḥamtî῾al may carry opposite meanings. The range of interpretation includes, among others, the following possibilities: (1) ‘Therefore I despise myself and repent upon dust and ashes’; (2) ‘Therefore I retract my words and repent of dust and ashes’; (3) ‘Therefore I reject and forswear dust and ashes’; (4) ‘Therefore I retract my words and have changed my mind concerning dust and ashes’; and (5) ‘Therefore I retract my words and I am comforted concerning dust and ashes’. The first translation implies humiliation; the second and third refer to symbols of mourning; and the fourth and fifth signify the human condition (Newsom 1996: 629). Some interpreters think the remark carries heavy irony; Job conceals his rebellion to the end. Others believe that he abandons his lawsuit, acknowledges his finitude, and finds comfort in the simple fact of having come before God and survived, his own stated condition for full vindication (cf. 13:16 ).

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