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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Job 38


Job 38:1 to Job 42:6

The Book of Job, set within the framework of a story Prologue and Epilogue, reaches its conclusion in a series of discourses placed by the author in the mouth of God himself. It is correct to say that it is "conclusion" rather than "climax." The latter term which is often used to describe these speeches, like an alternate term "denouement" carries too much the sense of literary development according to contemporary standards. The problem in regarding these speeches as a climax to the book, moreover, is that they simply do not include climactic material. We come to them with a high sense of expectancy and often are disappointed. We look for a final answer to the questions that have swarmed perplexingly in the discussion and there are no answers here. Ehhu gives far more solutions than does the Lord.

This is not to say that the speeches are lacking in content or significance. But the meaning is to be found along two lines : first, not in what God says but in that he speaks at all, and second, in that he poses questions rather than gives answers.

The structure of the speeches is fairly simple. First, following an introductory summons (Job 38:1-3) there is a series of questions drawn from the order of creation, including natural phenomena and animal life (Job 38:4 to Job 40:2). To this Job makes short answer (Job 40:3-5). There follows another speech, with its own introductory summons (Job 40:6-14), dealing with two matters of evidence. Behemoth and Leviathan (Job 40:15 to Job 41:34). To this Job again gives answer (Job 42:1-6).

Verses 1-3

Introductory Summons (38:1-3)

The poet now brings into the discussion the last participant, who has the final word. It is "the Lord," named with the ancient name which carries overtones of Covenant relationship and love. The Lord "answered" Job out of the storm ("whirlwind"). As indicated in the comment on chapter 37, it is conceivable that the author meant the reader to imagine a great storm approaching, at the end of which, rather than in its midst, God speaks. It is not amiss, then, to say that the words of the Lord begin after the storm of the discussion, and are somewhat parallel to the "still small voice" of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:12). At any rate, it is not necessary to imagine the following speech shouted over the thundering of a storm.

Job has repeatedly demanded a hearing with God (see Job 13:3; Job 13:22; Job 23:3-9). The tables are now turned, for God demands a hearing. God speaks, but speaks to ask his own questions. The first of these questions points to the confusion caused by the recent discussion. "Who is this . . . ?" may refer to Job, rather than to Elihu, since the following verse is plainly addressed to Job, For this reason many feel that Elihu’s speeches are a later addition and that the words of the Lord were originally placed just after Job’s closing words in chapter 31 . It must be granted that the effect would be dramatic, but it should also be said that the logical connection is not so strong as in the present arrangement. Moreover, it is not impossible that the first question of the Lord refers to Elihu. Certainly the question condemns all of the discussion which has confused the fact that there is a "counsel" or purpose in God’s ordering of life. Job has given the alternatives : either let God question and he will answer, or let him speak and God answer. The Lord chooses the first and calls Job to a contest of strength, addressing him as a "hero" (a more literal translation than "man") who wishes to enter argument with the Divine.

The Wonders of Creation (38:4-40:2)

The regular strophic structure of the English translation in the Revised Standard Version reflects the generally even measures of the poem as it unfolds, pointing, one after the other, to the majestic mysteries of creation. It was perhaps typical of the times that in the last century these elements of creation were often regarded as rational evidences of God’s existence and rule. Of course the opposite is true: they are not proofs which will convince Job’s reason; they are demonstrations in the physical sphere of the limitations of his reason, the multiplicity of mystery which meets him on every side. It is interesting to contrast these chapters with Job’s avowal of innocence in chapter 31 . There he lists the evidence as he sees it: his own experience. Here God opens the doors on a mass of evidence which cannot be controlled by man.

The list begins with the most general evidence, that is, the fact of creation itself (Job 38:4-7). The image is that of the architect’s construction (see the parallel in Proverbs 8:22-31, where the "wisdom" of God is the architectural workman). Job’s assumption that he has wisdom is refuted by the fact that he was not present when "wisdom" wrought its principles into the structure of the world. Although "the morning stars" and "the sons of God" (here angelic beings) saluted the birth of creation with songs of joy and praise. Job was not there (compare the angelic song at the moment when the new creation is born, Luke 2:13-14).

In close connection with the general structure of creation there is cited God’s control of "the sea" (vss, 8-11). The imagery is partly to be explained on the basis of the physical sea, always to the Hebrew a symbol of restlessness and dark power, but partly also on the basis of the ancient cosmology in which "the sea" represented the chaotic forces "under the firmament" and "above the firmament" (Genesis 1:6-7), forces which, if unrestrained, could break out in a kind of demonic power to destroy. It is thus of the greatest importance that God should prescribe "bounds for it" and give it a limiting command (see also the individual parallel in God’s limitation on the work of the Satan in Job 1:12; Job 2:6).

The third aspect of creation’s mysteries is the regular return of the dawn, which with its rays casts deep impressions of shadows and turns the earth red (vs. 14). In a powerful image the morning is also seen as shaking out the earth as a cloth is shaken, dispossessing the wicked of their cover of darkness and so breaking "their uplifted arm" or bringing their nocturnal purposes to failure (vss. 13 and 15).

The next figure (vss. 16-18) brings us again to the ancient cosmology, and questions Job concerning his knowledge of things beneath the surface. Does he understand the hidden springs which feed the waters of the earth, does he know anything of Sheol, the place of the dead, or does he even comprehend the fullness of the earth, "all" that God had made? (Genesis 1:31).

In a further reference to the initial act of creation the Lord asks about Job’s knowledge of the origin of light and darkness and of the way to their separate dwellings (vss. 19-20; compare Genesis 1:3-4). The ironic flavor of the questions and challenges in these speeches is particularly evident in verse 21.

Snow and hail are the subjects of the next questions (vss. 22-24). These are thought of poetically as stored up in reserve for God’s use, especially in "the time of trouble." The latter phrase must refer to the effect of hail and snow in turning back Israel’s enemies (see Joshua 10:11; Psalms 68:14). Verse 24 seems to break the pattern, although "fight" may be understood as "lightning," in which case it and "the east wind" would continue the subject of storms.

In the next section (vss. 25-27), where rain is the subject, the term "channel" refers to an open sluiceway from heaven, not to a channel upon earth. The wonder in view is the extraordinary power of a heavy rainfall, and the apparently indiscriminate way the blessings of the rain are distributed. To point to the effect of rain upon a "waste and desolate land" where "there is no man" is at least to remind Job that there are in creation evidences of God’s working and control beyond his knowledge and which are not to be understood in terms of human values.

Several phenomena are grouped in verses 28-30. Job is asked whether he can determine the origin of rain or dew or frost, and whether he can understand such a remarkable feature as ice, when "the waters become hard like stone." Ice was, of course, scarce in the region of Palestine, so that the report of it by travelers or its rare occurrence would be the occasion for marvel.

Job is then queried with reference to the constellations (vss. 31-33), in particular whether he has power to control or even to understand their orderly movements. "The chains of the Pleiades" is a difficult phrase, possibly referring to the grouping of stars which we know by that name (see also Amos 5:8; Job 9:9), but perhaps to some group which seemed to remain constant while "Orion" moved; "the Mazzaroth" and "the Bear" are also probably to be understood as constellations, since the context seems to call for such a meaning. The identification of these various heavenly bodies is not as certain as the English terms "Bear" and "Orion" suggest.

In the last of the references to physical phenomena, the subject of storms and rain is again taken up (vss. 34-38). Job is queried as to his ability to control the rain, which according to the poetic figure is summoned by the voice of God (vs. 34). Similarly a question reveals to him the vast difference between his power and understanding and the power and understanding of God, for whom the lightning acts as an obedient servant (vs. 35). Two key words in verse 36 are difficult to translate (see margin). The Revised Standard Version, by its rendering, preserves the figure of the rain and storm, although the idea that clouds and mist act in somewhat independent wisdom is not altogether in accord with the context. Verse 37 returns to the theme of God’s control of the forces of nature, especially in the strong image of the rain poured out of heaven as from a container in such profusion that the normally dry land is turned to mud.

From the manifold mysteries of the heavens and the earth which have been described in such powerful fashion, the poet turns to the equally mysterious and incomprehensible world of animal life (38:39-39:30). In reducing the scope of the subject he is by no means changing it. Here is the same exuberant marveling before infinite mystery; here is the same deep interest in natural phenomena; and here is the same basic conviction that characterizes the whole speech of the Lord, namely, that in the presence of the order of creation man discovers such boundaries and limits to his reason that he cannot presume to understand the ways of the Almighty, much less call him to account. In the catalogue of illustrations that follows, the primary criterion of selection seems to be the vast irrationality of elements within creation, elements which do not perform at all according to the standards of human reason.

The first question in this group is the most general: whether Job, who has assumed that he has sufficient knowledge to question the Almighty, actually has enough knowledge to carry on a minor part of nature’s services. Can he provide for the young of beast or bird, as God himself does? (See also Psalms 104:21 and Jesus’ words concerning God’s care for his creatures in Matthew 6:26.) The combination of "lion" and "raven" is striking and may be a deliberate desire to cover the whole range of animal life. It has been suggested, however, that the word translated "for the raven" could be rendered "at evening," keeping the single example of the lion (see the parallel in Psalms 104:20-22).

In Job 39:1-4 the Lord again points to Job’s ignorance, this time with reference to the habits of "mountain goats" and "hinds." They act independently of man, who does not have to exercise control over them. The phrase, "can you number," probably means "can you determine the number of," referring not to the lapse of time from conception to birth but to Job’s powerlessness in determining the processes of birth.

Verses 5-8 constitute a dramatic picture of "the wild ass," living in freedom in the wilderness. The point of the image is of course the fact that here is a creature that serves no useful purpose ("he hears not the shouts of the driver"), and so must seem to be an unintelligible part of creation. At least man is not able easily to categorize such elements in God’s world.

Similarly, and even more pointedly, the Lord points Job to "the wild ox" (vss. 9-12; the term was once, through the influence of the Greek translation, wrongly rendered "unicorn"). Once again we are brought face to face with creation in its unintelligibility, for man would not be able to explain satisfactorily why such creatures exist and why such power is expended in vain.

The unintelligible and even irrational side of creation surely comes to focus in the figure of "the ostdch" (vss. 13-18), and the description here emphasizes what is erratic in its behavior. The verses are absent in the Greek translation, but in general they are faithful to the sense of this section (but see the third-person mention of "God" in verse 17). The reference is to the fact that the eggs are often left unguarded before the time of brooding, and to the general ungainliness of the bird itself. Again there appears the incongruity of great strength and speed in such a creature (vs. 18, although the first line includes a conjecture).

The most extended image appears in verses 19-25, where the poet draws a dramatic picture of "the horse." The particular meaning of the image here is the extraordinary behavior of the horse in war. By imphcation it is clear that Job did not so order things, nor can he ever give a rational explanation of such strange activity and such apparently prodigal strength in an animal.

Verses 26-30 seem rather anticlimactic after the drama of the preceding verses, but the ancient poet apparently did not conceive of climactic effect as we do. This first speech of the Lord ends with a fleeting reminder of such inexplicable elements in creation as the migration of a bird and the presence in the world and habits of a predatory bird like the eagle (see the parallel to the last line of vs. 30 in Matthew 24:28).

In preparation for the response of Job there is now a repetition of the questions with which the speech of the Lord began. Job is asked in effect if he wishes to go further with the argument, or whether he wishes to yield (so probably the meaning of the first line of 40:2).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Job 38". "Layman's Bible Commentary".