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253. Job 26:8-10, Continuing Job’s Creation’s Story
8 He binds up the waters in his thick clouds,
and the cloud is not torn open by them.
9 He covers the face of the full moon,
and spreads over it his cloud.
10 He has described a circle on the face of the waters,
at the boundary between light and darkness.
If the previous three verses were awe-inspiring in their scope, despite being unclear on a detail here or there, the next three verses, replete with thrones and clouds are, ahem, more “nebulous.” What makes them so are the clouds that now are seemingly everywhere, of verbs of rare meaning that are pressed into action, of pictures drawn that we can’t quite picture. We ought to be accustomed to this manner of writing/speaking in Job: just when we think we have established clarity, our interpretive world is destabilized. But still we are a bit disappointed. We would love to get through a text in Job without wondering what really is going on.
So, in verse 8, Job introduces the clouds. Verse 6 had told us that Sheol was naked before God, giving us the impression of clear, unimpeded divine vision from the North to the (underground?) location of Sheol and Abaddon. But now things change. Verse 8 begins:
“He binds up/wraps up the waters in his clouds (ab).”
Two words for clouds will appear in this verse: ab (32x) and anan (89x). Scholars try to tease out differences between them, often calling the former “thick clouds” and the latter “clouds,” but I am not convinced. Like Joni Mitchell, I have to say that I’ve looked at (the words for) clouds from both sides now but, in the final analysis, I really don’t know clouds at all. It isn’t the clouds, however, that make us read slowly here but the verb tsarar, rendered “bind/wrap up.” Tsarar is a rather common verb (52x) that is the verb form of the common noun tsar (111x), which is an enemy or adversary. Thus, one of the leading meanings of the verb tsarar is to “vex” or “show hostility,” which is normally what enemies try to do to you. Yet, in one or two instances it can mean to “bind” or “wrap,” and that has to be the meaning here.
Tsarar is used identically in another wisdom literature text, Proverbs 30:4, a richly allusive verse that says, in part,
“Who has ascended to the heavens? Who has descended? Who has gathered (asaph, the
the typical word for gathering) the wind in his fists? Who has bound (tsarar) the waters in a garment?”
Two comments on Proverbs 30:4. The translation of “bind” or “wrap” for tsarar is reasonable because of the parallelism between asaph/tsarar. Second, and more interesting, this passage specifically tells us that it isn’t Solomonic. It is derived from otherwise unknown sayings of “Agur son of Jakeh” (30:1). The alternative tradition reflected in Job 26:8 and Proverbs 30 suggests that many other “texts” or traditions could have been floating “out there,” used by the authors at their convenience. One of these traditions might have been a “binding” one (tsarar), where clouds are described this way before they let loose their waters.
The second half of verse 8 then falls easily into place,
“And the clouds (anan) are not yet cleaved (baqa) under them.”
Though the “under them” isn’t crystal clear, it probably suggests that the waters are still gathered in the clouds, not yet releasing their mass to the areas below or “under them.” Whereas reflection on tsarar took us away from the dominant tradition in Israel as described in Genesis 1, the presence of baqa deposits us squarely back in the Genesis tradition. Baqa appears 51x, and is almost always used of dividing things (e.g., the sea, Nehemiah 9:11), dashing them to pieces (e.g., II Chronicles 25:12) or cleaving/bursting things (such as wineskins in Job 32:19). It is a visually appropriate verb to use here. Clouds gather, become pent up, and then have to burst. But I say the verb baqa takes us back to the mainstream Genesis tradition because that is the word used in Genesis 7:11 to describe the “bursting” of the heavenly clouds (“fountains” in Genesis) in the waters of the Great Flood.
Job never tells us how the presence of thick clouds in 26:8 is compatible with Sheol lying naked/exposed to God (i.e., one would think that clouds block vision). He just continues with cloud imagery in verse 9,
“He covers the face of his throne and spreads his clouds over it.”
The straightforward translation masks one significant and one minor problem. The first is with the verb that begins the verse. Just as the tsarar in verse 8 made us pause before seeing the Proverbs 30 parallel, so the piel form of the common verb achaz (the form is unique in the Bible) for the first verb gives us pause. Achaz never elsewhere means “cover,” as I have translated it. I translated it thus because everyone else does, but I will change that translation soon. Achaz appears 68x and means “grab, seize, take possession, take hold of.” It is a verb of taking possession of an object or of apprehending a person. But that doesn’t “fit” here, in the minds of most scholars. So, they cover their faces in shame and render it as “cover.” Even Clines, whose linguistic observations are unmatched, simply says that it is usually rendered “seize” but here normally translated “cover.” So he posits the existence of a second verb spelled the same way that must mean “cover.” Really now. . .
So, Job may be playing with us, as he often does, but I will try to keep the meaning of “seize.” Actually, it seems to make sense to me if we render it, “He grabs/seizes his throne (face of his throne) and spreads his clouds over it.” We don’t know if these are the waterlogged clouds of the previous verse or new clouds, but God seems to find a use for them on his throne.
Yet, the second verb of verse 9 also gives us pause. It is a hapax, parshez, a verb obviously meant to be the same as parash, the 67x-appearing verb that means “to scatter/extend/spread out.” I think what happened is that the final “zed” of achaz somehow became distributed to the next verb, being placed on its end, to make a non-Hebrew sounding verb parshez. But “spreading” is in view here, and parash must be the underlying verb. Now we see why scholars have wanted to translate the achaz as “cover”—to keep the parallelism with the second verb of the verse. Yet, not every verse has to express parallelism; here I see two consecutive actions in view. First God takes hold of the divine throne, and then he covers it with clouds. We don’t know, however, if the clouds are meant to lend an air of mystery to the divine presence or just to provide a fluffy surface for the divine derriere.
Verses 8-9 are all about clouds, clouds holding water, clouds spread out on the divine throne. But verse 10 takes us elsewhere though we are not sure where we are being taken. We think we still are in the upper realm of the universe, but the first two words, consisting of one hapax and one word used in an unusual way, make us pause. Let’s get a translation out there:
“He inscribed a circle/vault on the face of the waters, on the boundary of light and darkness."
Though we don’t know at first what is being said in these ten Hebrew words, they send a slight chill up the spine. The first word, choq, is probably a noun here, but is ultimately related to the verb for carving, chaqaq. Normally in the Bible it means “statute” (i.e., something that is “carved out” or “carved on stone”), but its broader range of meanings includes an allotment or a portion. If we want to emend it to the verb form haqaq, we have a neat enough meaning: “God “carved/inscribed” a chag. Oops, the word chag is also a hapax, perhaps derived from the verb chug, which probably means to draw a circle. The noun form, also spelled chug (3x) has already been used by Eliphaz in 22:14 to describe the circuit or vault of heaven, where God resides and walks around. So, I rather like the translation I have given above, though it is far from clear what it means. As with many verses in Job, the meaning may be in the sound: choq/chag.
We are probably to imagine a kind of vaulted dome in the heavens, perhaps not too different from a tent or garment stretched out. Just as God “divided” the day and night in Genesis 1, so God seems to be concerned about some kind of division here, though Job uses the rather rare word taklith (5x) to describe the end or the border between the light and darkness. It is almost as if we imagine a heavenly realm split up, with a boundary drawn between the light and the darkness. How this relates to the divine throne, to clouds covering that throne or to the bursting of clouds, which will some day no doubt drop rain, is unclear. I think, however, that Job 26:8-10 can provide all the fodder needed for creative minds pursuing their doctorates in animation to develop their next-level sci-fi thriller.