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251. Job 26:5-14, God’s Unsearchable Majesty


5 “The departed spirits tremble

Under the waters and their inhabitants.

6 Naked is Sheol before Him,

And Abaddon has no covering.

7 He stretches out the north over empty space

And hangs the earth on nothing.

8 He wraps up the waters in His clouds,

And the cloud does not burst under them.

9 He obscures the face of the full moon

And spreads His cloud over it.

10 He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters

At the boundary of light and darkness.

11 The pillars of heaven tremble

And are amazed at His rebuke.

12 He quieted the sea with His power,

And by His understanding He shattered Rahab.

13 By His breath the heavens are cleared;

His hand has pierced the fleeing serpent.

14 Behold, these are the fringes of His ways;

And how faint a word we hear of Him!

But His mighty thunder, who can understand?”


We might have been tempted to think that in his growing cynicism towards friends and frustration with God, Job has become an embittered sufferer—even though an eloquent one. Yet, this passage completely dispels the notion of embitterment. Job not only knows the concepts taught in Theology 101 but has so internalized them that he can put the creation story together in a new and stunning way in this passage. Commentators almost universally recognize the arresting literary and theological imagination lying behind these ten verses. These verses show a man who is still deeply embedded in the religious traditions of Israel, even as he gives a distinctive twist to those traditions in this passage. It will presage Job’s growing sense of theological independence in the rest of the book, culminating in what I will call his declaration of freedom—from God—in Job 42.


Unlike his earlier monologues on the divine mystery and glory in 9:4-13 and 12:13-25, this one doesn’t start with God tearing down or removing things. We recall from 9:5 that God “removed” (atheq) mountains and from 12:14 that God broke things down (haras) so that they could not be built (banah). We wonder in passing if Job’s own sense of disorientation or discombobulation contributed to his way of seeing God’s action in the world—destructive rather than creative—in those passages. 


But in Job 26, Job starts in an unusual place, life under the earth, and then returns to the more visible universe. Verse 5 says,


    “The shades of the dead writhe/tremble under the waters, as do those inhabiting them."


We are immediately entranced. This is the only appearance of “shades” (rapha, 8x) in Job. The word suggests the ghosts of those who have died. Isaiah talks about the “spirits of the dead” (rapha, 14:9) and twice refers to “departed spirits” (rapha, 26:14, 19). But the closest parallel to Job’s thought here is probably Psalm 88:10, that most bleak of the Psalms. In his own weakness and pain, the Psalmist cries out, “Do you do wonders for the dead?  Will the dead spirits (rapha) rise and praise you?”  


Job had previously talked about the dead spirits, in Job 3, though he used different language to describe them. Recall that Job’s mini-mental-escape from his pain there consisted of his imagining a trip to Sheol. But rather than seeing bodies writhing or spirits in torment, he imagined kings and princes of the earth in sweet and comfortable conversation with each other. They slept and rested in peace (3:13ff).  


Here, however, the tone is different. Now we have unidentified “shades” (rapha). And these shades chul. Chul is not to be confused with our cool word “chill” today. Not at all. The verb chul (60x) is a multi-purpose verb that can mean everything from “writhe (in pain/childbirth)” to “dance” to “whirl” to “be firm/strong.” One slightly imagines that the BDB dictionary might be combining two distinct words under one dictionary entry. Yet, for our purposes the translation of “writhe in pain” at first seems most appropriate. It then would be used in the same way as Eliphaz used the verb in 15:20 to describe the fate of the wicked. Job would be agreeing with Eliphaz’s thought to this extent—that shades/departed spirits “writhe,” though Job doesn’t mention that their trembling/writhing has anything to do with divine judgment. 


But, on second thought, the word also can be used in the wisdom tradition to describe the pains before giving birth, and this may be more apt here. Wisdom itself twice uses the verb to describe the time before it was “brought forth” chul, Proverbs 8:24, 25. So, the final judgment on chul in Job 26:5 is uncertain. There is no reason to believe that Job is speaking of the pain of judgment here, even though Eliphaz had used the verb in that way. Since the rest of the passage speaks of God’s creative activity, we might see 26:5 as describing the writhing in pains of childbirth. Even the shades get into the act of creation. Quite a concept.


Finally, in verse 5, we don’t really know who the “other inhabitants” are.  Is Job alluding to other residents of the deep waters, such as creatures like the great sea monsters?  Is he pointing to other people who inhabit these nether regions? No clue. But it adds to a growing mystery after only five words. 

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