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265. Job 28:1-11, The Diligent Search for Precious Metals
1 “Surely there is a mine for silver
And a place where they refine gold.
2 “Iron is taken from the dust,
And copper is smelted from rock.
3 Man puts an end to darkness,
And to the farthest limit he searches out
The rock in gloom and deep shadow.
4 He sinks a shaft far from habitation,
Forgotten by the foot;
They hang and swing to and fro far from men.
5 The earth, from it comes food,
And underneath it is turned up as fire.
6 Its rocks are the source of sapphires,
And its dust contains gold.
7 The path no bird of prey knows,
Nor has the falcon’s eye caught sight of it.
8 The proud beasts have not trodden it,
Nor has the fierce lion passed over it.
9 He puts his hand on the flint;
He overturns the mountains at the base.
10 He hews out channels through the rocks,
And his eye sees anything precious.
11 He dams up the streams from flowing,
And what is hidden he brings out to the light.
Many translations of 28:1 begin with a strong assertion, such as the NRSV or NASB’s “Surely there is a mine for silver.” Others just begin with a declarative thought: “There is a mine for silver.” Only the Jewish Publication Society’s translation from about a century ago captures what I think is the tone at the opening of v 1: “For there is a mine for silver. . .”
At first glance (and maybe even second glance) there appears little reason to worry about how to begin this chapter. But careful attention to the single Hebrew word kiy, which begins the chapter, gives the chapter an air of sophisticated nonchalance and distance that is just what the reader needs at this point. That is, kiy is a conjunction in Hebrew grammar, usually translated “because” or “for.” I prefer the translation of “Because there is a mine of silver…” Horrified readers say, ‘What do you mean, starting the sentence with a causal phrase?’ In English a causal phrase means that you are tying the phrase to something previously said. But in Job 28 there is no previous idea to which it is tied.
My point is this is a brilliant literary device used by the author to give a tone of deliberate coolness to a roiling debate. It is as if a fight has broken out, people have stopped it and while everyone is in a state of emotional unrest a person jauntily strides into the group and say, “Isn’t the Van Gogh exhibit just amazing?” People at first look at you as if you are a bit daft, but then the point of your approach becomes clear. By pointing to a different subject matter, you are taking attention away from the ugly scene in front of you.
The kiy that begins 28:1 functions in this way. Communication breakdown has happened. No one seems to know how to restore order, much less meaning to the discussion. Why not have a break that starts with: “Because there is a mine for silver. . .”? We are now in a completely different world.
If we understand the kiy in this way, the rest of verse 1 is fairly straightforward:
“Because there is a mine for silver and a place for refining gold. . .”
The word rendered “mine” (motsa, 27x) is literally a “going out” place. Derived from the common verb yatsa (“to go/come out”), motsa’s translation depends on the noun to which it is attached. It can be a “starting” place (Numbers 33:2) or what “proceeds” out of one’s lips (Numbers 30:12). Here it is a place from which silver “proceeds,” which has to be a mine. It is the only place in the Bible where motsa is so rendered in English.
The parallel phrase is alliterative: refining gold is zahab zaqaq. Though the verb zaqaq only appears 7x, it can refer to refining of silver (I Chronicles 29:4) or gold (here and I Chronicles 28:18) or the distillation (i.e., “refinement”) of water (Job 36:27). It may also be used metaphorically in probably the most memorable use of zaqaq in the Bible (Psalm 12:6):
“The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure (tahar), like silver in an earthen furnace,
in an earthen furnace, purified (zaqaq is verb) seven times.”
With seven words, the narrator of Job 28:1 has taken us from an inconclusive and rancorous debate to a ruminative state where we are thinking of a never-never land where precious metals are extracted from the earth. Once he has us, he will just keep running with this story.