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266.  Job 28:2-3, Extracting Precious Metals

After the author begins with a kind of “Somewhere in this favored land”-type of opening verse, he continues that same tone in verse 2.


    “Iron is taken from the dust, and bronze is is taken from stone.”


There is no preposition for “from” (mem) before the eben (“stone”) in the second half of the verse. Literally it runs, “and stone is refined (tsuq) bronze.” We need to supply something for meaning to be clear. Rather than taking this as two different processes, Clines puts the second clause in apposition to the first, with “rock/stone” parallel to “iron”: “rock that will be poured out as copper.” Iron, thus, is the "rock" in view.  


Biblical Hebrew has more verbs than it really needs to describe the process of smelting (also tsaraph; sig/sug) ; here we have the rare tsuq (3x), which also appears in Job 29:6 and Isaiah 26:16. In the former it is used in the more general sense of “pouring out.” It compares Job’s past blessedness with rocks “pouring out” (tsuq) streams or channels of oil. The Isaiah passage uses the verb more figuratively to describe “pouring out” a prayer to God. Job 28:1 spoke of the existence of precious metals; now we see them in the process of formation. Most scholars and versions render the word aphar (“dust”) as “earth.” It makes the translation sound cleaner or more elegant, but the word, in fact, is “dust.”


We enter into a different kind of speaking in verse 3. Rather than listing more elements or precious metals, the author turns to the diligent search that humans perform to get them. This verse is crucial in the development of the poem’s ideas: humans will industriously search for metals, metals they can find, but humans don’t realize that they won’t be able to find wisdom, despite their earnest search. As verses 3-11 develop we actually see two themes emerge:  diligent search for precious metals and the remoteness of these elements. Verse 3 reads:


      “Humans/the miner puts an end to darkness; and he searches out even to the

       utter limits: stone, then deep darkness, and then the shadow of death.”


Many take the last clause, consisting of three words, to modify the “utter limits” or “furthest bounds” (taklith, 5x, from kalah, a common verb meaning “to exhaust/come to the end/finish”) of the previous clause, so that it then would say that humans search out the “furthest bound (for) stones of thick darkness and of the shadow of death.” This does’t make much sense to me; I see these three words as indicating deeper and deeper prospecting into the murky darkness. Let’s look at it.


The “putting an end” of darkness employs the common Hebrew verb sim (“to put/place”). What this suggests to me is that the miner, who wants the precious metals of verses 1-2, will go deeply into the dark bowels of the earth, bringing his light with him in quest for these metals. Putting an end to the darkness is an elegant way of saying that those nether regions of the world, which never have seen light, are now bathed in the light of the miners’ candles or lamps. Light is overcoming the darkness.  


The second clause emphasizes the extent of the human search for these metals. We have the usual word for “diligent search" (chaqar, 27x/6x Job), but rather than it being the investigation of  whether a person is a false prophet (chaqar, Deuteronomy 13:14) or the searching out of the land for settlement (chaqar, Judges 18:2), here it is the searching out of the utter limits or furthest extent of the underground universe. The Hebrew literally reads, “and to every limit he searches out..” We have already seen the rare word for “limit” (taklith, 5x) both in 11:7 and 26:10.  Zophar testily asked Job in the former passage whether he could find the “limits” (taklith) of the Almighty.  In the latter Job spoke rather eloquently about some creative action of God that takes place at the boundary or limit (taklith) of the heavenly waters. God has to contend with the heavenly limits; the miners explore the absolute limits of human performance underground. Lest we forget, however, this isn’t just the ancient equivalent of a strong-man competition. They are driven by economics—the quest for gold, silver, copper—and not by a place in the ancient equivalent of the Guinness Book of World Records.  


This explanation leaves the final three words of the verse (“stone, deep darkness, shadow of death”) hanging.  In the Mechon-Hebrew online text, they are placed after a colon, whereas the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia has no colon. In any case, they are seemingly hanging there after the two clear thoughts just discussed. I see them as further reflections on the search theme of this verse. First the search is into stone, then it confronts darkness (ophel, 9x/6x Job; choshek, the usual word for “darkness” appears earlier in the verse), and finally the terrifying shadow of death (tsalmaveth, 18x/9x Job). I think this captures the miners’ feelings as they gradually bring light into the extreme nether regions. Stone…check, then inky and forbidding darkness…check, but finally the most awesome depths of darkness, where one is so enveloped by the darkness as to feel that one is utterly cut off from life…check. Seen in this light, “searching” is not simply a pleasant activity for economic gain; it is one fraught with danger and the fear of being swallowed up in the darkness.