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255. Job 26:12-14, Finishing Up God’s Angry Work
12 By his power he stilled the Sea;
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.
13 By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
14 These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?”
God’s work doesn’t stop when He has astonished the pillars of the earth. In verse 12, using a verb hard to translate (a regular habit now), Job says that God raga’ the sea with the divine strength (koach). Job was a person with no koach in 26:2, but God has no lack of it here. But what does God actually do with the sea? The verb raga' is confusing. The BDB entry has two contrary meanings: to stir up or to quiet down. Perhaps impressed by this unlikelihood, Clines gives the matter some thought and comes up with what he says are five different verbs all spelled the same way. That is a bit too much for most of us to bear, and so we have to make a choice between the stir up/calm down. The context is determinative for me. God is in the process of making pillars tremble; He no doubt is doing the similar things now to the sea. In Isaiah 51:15 and Jeremiah 31:35, God is said also to raga’ the sea, and in both instances it makes most sense to see God stirring it up. So, let’s go with that translation. God makes the pillars tremble; God stirs up the sea.
Then, God directs the divine power at the mythological sea monster Rahab, whose helpers he was said to have tamed in 9:13. Interesting about 9:13 is the fact that God did this in the divine anger (aph), a parallel concept to that of the divine rebuke (gearah) in 26:11. In 26:12, however, God crushes/smites (machats, 14x) Rahab. Though the verb machats is unexpected here (Eliphaz has used it once previously in 5:18), its meaning is clear. It is best translated “shatter” in Psalm 68:21, 23 and Psalm 18:38. Its most vivid appearance is in Judges 5:26, where Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite “shattered/split” (machats) the head of Sisera with her hammer. This is the kind of treatment that Rahab now receives at the hand of God.
But note that God is doing this “with understanding” (tebunah). Tebunah is a great word to connect the “power” (koach) tradition of the mighty acts of God in creation and deliverance with the wisdom tradition’s language of prudence, understanding and wisdom. It isn’t merely with power that God can shatter; He also does so with understanding. Tebunah appears 42x in the Bible, but nearly half (19x) of them are in Proverbs; it is one of the most prized and praised attributes of God and people. The Psalms know that God made the heavens with divine wisdom (tebunah, Psalm 136:6); here however, God shatters things with wisdom. Both God’s koach and tebunah are evident in the creative and destructive management of the world.
The opening verb of verse 13 likewise confuses us. Shiphrah is also a hapax, and has been rendered in three somewhat incompatible ways: 1) garnish or adorn or make beautiful; 2) become bright; 3) become serene or calm or clear. One might see options 2 and 3 as somewhat related. The KJV, perhaps taking its cue from the fact that the sh-ph-r consonants elsewhere mean “beautiful” (Genesis 49:21), as well as from the use of the noun shaphrah in Psalm 16:6, which probably means “beautiful” or “goodly” (referring to the Psalmist’s heritage), thus translates it “garnish” here. “By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens.”
But that translation hasn’t won widespread approval. Clines renders the word ruach here not as “spirit,” its usual meaning, but “wind,” so we have that God makes the heavens clear by his wind—as if a gust of wind just cleared out all those thick clouds of a few verses ago. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation emphasizes the serenity of the heavens after the divine breath sweeps through. Our first inclination here is to want to continue with metaphors of destruction, both because of the trembling pillars before and the pierced serpent, which will follow quickly, but is hard to get a destructive metaphor out of shiphrah. Perhaps the best we can do is to see this as a sort of divine “break” after shattering Rahab (v 12) and before piercing the serpent (v 13). Maybe God is, so to speak, just breathing deeply and clearing out the heavens before the next destructive divine activity commences.
But that destructive activity comes right away. Using the multi-purpose common verb chalal, whose meaning stretches from “to begin” to “to profane” to, as here, “pierce,” Job finishes this verse with “His hand pierced the fleeing serpent.” No doubt another mythological creature is in view. Perhaps aware of what was happening to Rahab, the serpent (the common nahash) decided to hightail it out of there, with the adjective bariach, 3x, coming from the verb barach, “to flee.” The language and thought is similar to that of Isaiah 27:1, though interestingly enough, that verse is placed in the future. In that (future) day, God will visit (paqad) the great and mighty divine sword on “Leviathan the fleeing serpent.” It is the same phrase as in Job 26:13, but later in Isaiah 27:1 Leviathan is also called an aqallathon serpent. Aqallathon, also a hapax, is usually translated “twisted,” because it is derived from a hapax verb, aqal, apparently meaning “to twist” or “be crooked.” This has led some scholars to render the bariach in Job 26:13 as “twisting” or “crooked” serpent, though I don’t follow them. The histrionics on that day for Isaiah will be even more than in Job’s apparently past day—for God will also slay (harag) the deep sea monster (tannin, Isaiah 27:1).
All this is in the past for Job, and these signs of destructive divine power and understanding are to be held in tandem with the more calm acts of hanging the earth in the void and drawing a circle on the face of the waters. But now Job is ready to conclude this brief but potent foray into the scope of divine power. Verse 14 is remarkably suggestive. It is almost as if Job is saying, ‘Do you think all this is great? Well, let me tell you. . .’
“These are simply the fringes/outskirts (qatsah) of his ways; and what a (small) whisper word is heard from him. Who really can understand the thunder of his mighty deeds?”
The point of this concluding verse would be that even though God’s power is super-impressive in the creation, destruction and taming of unruly creatures, this is just a taste or whisper of the divine power. The divine power is so much greater than the acts we see around us or which the sacred texts narrate. Qatsah (34x) derives from the word qatseh, which means a “border” or “end” of something. Translations of it in 26:14 have ranged from the “fringes” or “outskirts” I just provided to “edges” or “ends” of the divine ways. The point seems to be that Job is just narrating a little of the rather small works of God.
These acts are simply a whisper (shemets, only appearing elsewhere in Job 4:12, to describe the faintness of the divine message to Eliphaz) of God. I rendered it “whisper word” because the common word for “word” (dabar) follows after shemets. If, then, we have read things correctly, the final question functions as a sort of silencer in the debate. What would we do if we really saw the divine power unleashed? Job is no doubt a believer, still, in the divine power, despite that fact that he hasn’t seen evidence of it in his life of late.
But there may be something somewhat sinister in the last question. Job may actually be taunting God a bit, as if to say, ‘Well, why don’t you really show your power in this instance, God?’ Job’s words, then, would present an eloquent contrast between the divine abilities in creating and destroying things and God’s seeming powerlessness in this instance. Read it this way, Job would be baiting God, luring God to intervene into a mess that Job is convinced that God has created. Nothing will happen on this front for 11 more chapters, but when God actually appears and speaks in Job 38, God enters like gangbusters. Perhaps God then will have fallen into the Joban trap.