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252. Job 26:6-7, Now That We Have Started…

6 "Sheol is naked before God,
    and Abaddon has no covering.
7 He stretches out Zaphon over the void,
    and hangs the earth upon nothing.


The five words of verse 5 have ensorcelled us. Under the earth the shades are writhing or trembling or giving birth to a new creation.  Unexpected is also the first word of verse 6: “Naked” (arom). We fall silent.


    “Naked is Sheol before him; there is no covering for Abaddon.”  


6/16 appearances of arom are in Job. The word is always connected with vulnerability. For example, after his personal disasters, Job twice says that he was “naked” (Job 1:21). Eliphaz accuses Job of taking clothes from the naked (22:6). Job responds by saying, twice, that those oppressed by the wicked (not himself) are exposed to nakedness, with no covering in the cold (24:7, 10). Thus, when Sheol is said here to be arom, we imagine Sheol, like Job’s oppressed poor, as having no covering, no way of escaping the searching eyes of God.


The word “Abaddon” (5x/3x Job) is used in parallelism to Sheol. We are never told much about this place in the Hebrew Scriptures, but its name is suggestive of death, since the Hebrew word for “perish” or “destroy” is abad.  In putting the two words in parallel construction here, Job is entering more deeply into the thought world of Psalm 88, which also formed the background for the previous verse. Psalm 88:11 says, 


    “Shall your mercy (chesed) be recounted in Sheol, your faithfulness (amunah) in Abandon?"


Hmm. . . Job has given us two signals that the thought world of Psalm 88 is suffusing his thoughts here. Since that Psalm presents a scene of unremitting and terminal bleakness, we wonder if Job likewise will go down that route.


But unlike the dreary words of Psalm 88, Job’s soliloquy here is not about himself or his faith. He is telling creation’s story. What is striking about the reference to Sheol’s nakedness or exposure to God is that it can be read as a response to Eliphaz’s charge in 22:13-14. Eliphaz had argued there that Job practiced wicked and immoral behavior, detailed in 22:5-11, because God couldn’t see what was going on. God was hidden in a bank of clouds, ignorant of what is happening on earth. Therefore Job believed he could act with impunity.


Job will have none of that idea, even though the clouds will enter the picture in full force a few verses later. But for now, there is a straight shot from the divine eye to Sheol’s place. Sheol lies naked before God. Nothing occludes the divine vision. Take that, Eliphaz!


Now that we know God can see through the universe, however it is conceived at this point, Job can move to other acts of God’s creativity. Using a verb and, perhaps, a concept derived from 9:8, he says in 26:7:


    “He stretched out (natah is verb) the North over the Chaos/Empty Space; he hangs the earth

    upon absolutely nothing.”


In 9:8 he had said, “Who stretches out (natah) the heavens by himself/alone.” One gets the picture from 9:8 that the heavens are something like a garment or tent, covering the realm above the earth. Genesis 1:6 had talked about God’s “making” (asah) a firmament (raqia) in the middle of the heavens, a thought that seems quite compatible with 9:8. Yet, in 26:7, despite the “stretching out” (natah) that takes place, nothing is said about heavens as a tent or garments. 


In 26:7 God is stretching out the North, the tsaphon. We don’t know if the North is meant to be either a garment or tent-like surface and therefore stretched out across the vast heavens, or is meant to be just a place, like a throne room. If the former, then unlike a circus tent, where poles rise up from the floor every 50’ or so to keep the billowy tent from crashing down, nothing is mentioned as holding up the divine North.  Pillars (amud) are mentioned in verse 11, but they are never mentioned as the support beams for the stretched out North of verse 7.  If the latter, the reference to North is simply to a place, the divine abode or throne room. We know that there is a tradition, reflected in Psalm 48:2, of Jerusalem’s location in the “sides” (yerekah) of the North (tsaphon), and such a tradition may have been compatible with locating the divine throne room also in the “North.”  


God stretches out the North, then, perhaps the special place of the divine abode, but it is not “in the heavens” as in 9:8 but “over/upon the void.” This “void/empty space” is none other than half of the “without form and void” (tohuvabohu) of Genesis 1:2. Here we only have the word tohu (20x); bohu only appears twice outside of Genesis 1:2, once in conjunction with tohu (Jeremiah 4:23) and once by itself. We wonder whether tohu, without the friendly accompaniment of bohu, likewise felt naked like Sheol in verse 7. 


Tohu by itself, along with its tohuvabohu connection, carries with it the idea of chaos or empty space. We have seen it twice previously in Job, once to describe the nothingness preceding death of the wandering caravans of 6:18, and once to describe a trackless waste in the wilderness (12:24), a thought that might have been cribbed from Psalm 107:40. So the word carries with it the idea of vast emptiness. God stretched out the North in this vast emptiness of space. Rather than first creating the heavens and the earth, this cosmology has God first stretching out the North in the vast space. God had a blank canvas—we now have two versions of where He drew the first stroke of the divine pen.

Once God has finished stretching out the North over the Empty Space, he is ready for a new challenge. The next creative act is described as “hanging” (talah) the earth upon beli-mah. The last phrase is unique in the Bible, and literally means “nothing what.”  God is presented as not fashioning the earth but “hanging” the earth, suspending it with no cord, with no connection to the stretched out North, but letting it sit or float in awesome fulness right in the middle.  


Hanging (talah, 28x) is usually a very practical, and deadly, activity in Scripture. Ever since the Pharaoh’s baker was hanged in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 40:19, 22), the verb has primarily been used to describe a mode of execution. The verb is beloved of the Book of Esther (9x), where people seem regularly to be facing the gallows. The brilliant and sad description of the death of Absalom would not have been complete had the author eliminated the scene of Absalom’s hanging (talah) between heaven and earth, suspended by his hair from the branch of a mighty oak (II Samuel 18:10). But people aren’t the only thing that can be hanged in Scripture.  In the plaintive opening verses of Psalm 137, the author talks about the exiles as “hanging up” (talah) their lyres on the trees of Babylon as they wept for their land (137:2).   


But here we have a life-giving, rather than life-taking, use of talah. God hangs the earth al-beli-mah, “on absolutely nothing.” How does that work? Many 19th century commentators on this passage, living in the heyday of modern science or, to use Shakespeare’s felicitous phrase “vaunt(ing) in their youthful sap” (Sonnet 15), rushed in to say that this verse perfectly anticipated modern science’s view of how the earth actually “hangs” in space. Maybe so, but now we mostly marvel at the literary sophistication of these few words. So suggestive were they that John Milton picked up on them:


    “And earth self-balanced from her center hung” (PL, vii, 242).


Though Job has only used 20 words or so to describe the wonders of creation so far in 26:5-7, we feel that we have just been given a universe of new meaning.

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