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246. Understanding Job 25:2-6
2 “Dominion and awe belong to Him
Who establishes peace in His heights.
3 Is there any number to His troops?
And upon whom does His light not rise?
4 How then can a man be just with God?
Or how can he be clean who is born of woman?
5 If even the moon has no brightness
And the stars are not pure in His sight,
6 How much less man, that maggot,
And the son of man, that worm!”
Just because Bildad is brief here doesn’t mean that everything is easy to translate. Yet there really is only one small translation difficulty —and we encounter it right off the bat in verse 2. I have given the NASB translation above; the NRSV has “Dominion and fear are with God.” The problem is, as I will show below, that “dominion and fear” never elsewhere appear in the Bible together, and it isn’t crystal clear at first what it means. The Hebrew words mashal (81x, “dominion”) and pachad (49x for noun; 25x for verb in same spelling, “fear” or “dread") are familiar, though mashal only appears here in Job. A full one-fifth of appearances of pachad as a noun, however, are in Job. Ever since Job “feared a great fear” (using both verb and noun forms of pachad) in 3:25, fear and deep dread has been a constant companion stalking Job in the book.
Though we naturally think of the word mashal and the concept of dominion as uniquely belonging to God, we are surprised to learn that the first sixteen appearances of it in the Bible relate to human, natural or other control or management of things, from the stars over creation (Genesis 1:11) to Joseph over his family (Genesis 37:8). It isn’t really until the Psalms that God takes over the word (e.g., 22:28; 59:13; 89:9), leading to our current (mis)conception that dominion is predicated only of God in the Bible. Yet in Job 25:2 it definitely is predicated of God.
On the other hand, fear, pachad, is a basic human emotion in the Bible. Terror (emah) and dread (pachad) fell on people after the incident at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:16); God will lay the dread (pachad) and fear (yirah) of his people on the surrounding nations (Deuteronomy 2:25; 11:25); people often are said to feel the “dread/fear” of the Lord (II Chronicles 17:10; 19:7, etc). So, what can it mean to say that “dominion and “fear” are with him? There is no doubt that the “him” of verse 2 is “God,” even though Job often seems to delight in giving us unspecified subjects and objects.
Scholars have therefore scrambled to find a suitable translation for this seeming hendiadys. Might the “fear” be a “fear induced by God,” while the dominion is certainly God’s own dominion? The best alternative might be to render the first few words of 25:2 as the “Dominion of dread” or “A rule that inspires fear.” As mentioned, this is the only place in the Bible where these two words, mashal/pachad, appear joined. Let’s just assume that “a rule that inspires fear” is what Bildad meant.
The second clause of verse 2 tries to specify this glory or dominion or rule more precisely.
“He imposes/makes peace in the heights/high places.”
Because the next verse also talks about God’s powers or forces, it is most natural to read “high places” as pointing to God’s abode, rather than the “high places” of the earth where foreign deities are worshipped. It certainly is not theologically incorrect to attribute God’s power and peace reaching even to these latter places, but that doesn’t seem warranted here. But if we stay in heaven, so to speak, we see God imposing some kind of order in heaven. We aren’t told anything more here. In Job 26 we will be introduced to a cosmology that differs somewhat from Genesis 1, a cosmology that implicates other forces than simply God’s word and obedient natural forces of Genesis 1, and so the phrase about bringing peace in the high places may adumbrate that idea. We wonder for a moment if it was difficult for God to establish order, and we wonder if more glory attaches to God based on the difficulty or ease of the struggle to establish order.
Verse 3 continues the theme of the heavenly glory. Two rhetorical questions are posed. First we have, “Is there any number/limit to his troops?” The word for “troops” (gedud, 33x) is unexpected. We normally have either tsaba (more than 480x) or chayil (224x) to capture the notion of troops or armies. Job has used gedud in 19:12 to describe the “troops” of God that had overwhelmed him; perhaps Bildad is gently trying to respond to Job’s fervor by suggesting that God’s troops are without number. Hmm…you wonder whether that would exacerbate rather than ameliorate Job’s anxiety?
The second question is suggestive and powerful,
“And on whom does his light not rise?”
The expected answer, of course, is “no one!” but the combination of the words “rise” (qum) and “light” (or) makes us think of other Biblical passages where the two are combined to stress the glory of God’s power. One example, Is 60:1, says: “Arise (qum), shine for your light (or) has come; and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Bildad wonders “upon whom has the light not risen,” while Isaiah tells us that the light has risen..upon you. Other verses in Isaiah, especially 58:8 or 40:26, emphasize either the light or the majesty of God breaking forth in the world. So well does Bildad play the “majesty card” here in these few verses that we might even hear an adumbration of some of God’s language of self-description in Job 38.