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271. Interpreting Job 28:12-13
Let’s begin, then, with the question that begins this section and is nearly repeated in verse 20:
“But where can wisdom (chokmah) be found, and where is the place of understanding (binah)?"
Wisdom is what is most needed to extricate the participants from their conversational logjam. Yet the framing of the question in verse 12 makes us pause. Is there really a “place” (Hebrew maqom) where wisdom “can be found?” Not until the end of the chapter will we discover that wisdom is not so much in a location as it is an orientation to life, but here, because of the “search mode” of verses 1-11, the verb “find” and noun “place” are used.
“Wisdom” is put here in parallelism with “understanding,” a pairing that also appears in the Book of Proverbs (1:2; 4:5, 7; 9:10). It is interesting that in Proverbs 4:5, 7 a verb paired with chokmah and binah is the 85x-occuring qanah, “to get” or, in many instances, “to buy.” At this point wisdom will be portrayed as a kind of commodity that has its “price,” and for the acquisition of which one must lay out money or something else of great value.
If miners could find precious metals after diligent search in nearly-inaccessible regions, we might think that wisdom will likewise yield up her longitude and latitude. But the discouraging news comes back in verse 13: Humans don’t know the value (something that wasn’t asked in the question of v 12) or location of wisdom. The first phrase might best be rendered, “Humans don’t know its valuation/price.” The crucial term to understand is erek (33x). Derived from the verb arak, which usually means to “arrange” something, such as furniture in the Tabernacle or troops in preparation for battle, erek appears disproportionately in Leviticus 27 (21x). In that context it emphasizes, in part, the valuation assessed on humans, animals or land when various kinds of vows are made. This usage in Leviticus 27 is reflected in other passages (Leviticus 5:15, 18; II Kings 12:4; 23:35).
The location of wisdom is unknown; as verse 13 says, “it its not found (using matsa, the same verb as in verse 12) in the land of the living.” The dual notions of value and location, then, will be the focus of the rest of the stanza.