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273. Job 28:14-19, Wisdom’s Unknown Location and Incomparable Value, Essay Two


17 “Gold or glass cannot equal it,
Nor can it be exchanged for articles of fine gold.
18 Coral and crystal are not to be mentioned;
And the acquisition of wisdom is above that of pearls.
19 The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it,
Nor can it be valued in pure gold.


Now that the precious gems have been mentioned, we return to a mention of gold in verse 17.  


    “Gold (zahab) and glass (zekokith) can’t be valued with it (verb is arak again) 

    and vessels of fine gold (paz, fourth word for gold) can’t be exchanged for it.”


We really wish we knew what the author was talking about. We don’t really know how paz (9x) differs from other kinds of gold; we are just reduced to rendering it as “fine gold” or “pure gold.” Even though the word zekokith means “glass” in contemporary Hebrew, we don’t know what the hapax zekokith really means in this context. No doubt the word is derived from the verb zakak, which we saw in 9:30; 15:15 and 25:5, and which means “to be pure/clean.” What is “clean?” Well, glass, especially if you have applied some Windex to it—that seems to be the reasoning process behind the translation, though we don’t really know. And we have no idea of the quality or consistency of this “glass.” The new word for “exchange” here is temurah (6x), derived from mur, which means, appropriately, to “exchange” (e.g., Leviticus 27:10).  


Our ignorance deepens, even as our excitement grows, in verse 18. We have three more precious gems given here, ramoth (2x), gabbish (hapax) and panin (6x). To show how difficult it is even to come up with a modern translation for some of these, much less to know if the modern word would have corresponded to the ancient article, we need only to look at the other passage where ramoth appears (Ezekiel 27:16). The latter passage describes the various goods which Tyre in her heyday exchanged with nearby cities. Listed here, among other things, are “corals (ramoth) and rubies.”  Most versions render ramoth as “coral” in both instances, but we need only to look at the BDB, which cautions us in the following words:  “From ra’am, something high (ra’am means to exalt or be high) in value; i.e., perhaps coral.” So, we don’t know.


The mystery deepens with gabbish, a hapax. Clines goes through the various alternatives that are suggested: from “jasper” to “crystal” to “pearls” to “alabaster.” It is a wonderful verbal tour. The NRSV and NASB opt for “crystal,” though the meaning is uncertain. Finally, most scholars agree that panin are “rubies,” though the BDB gives the lead definition as “corals” (ah, but what happened to our ramoth?), and different translations have, for panin, “pearls” or “rubies” or “jewels” or “corals.” To make things more interesting, the Ezekiel 27:16 passage spoke also of other gems that the City of Tyre exchanged, including kadkod (2x), which is normally translated “rubies” (but what about the panin?) even though it sometimes is rendered “agate.” But “rubies” seems to be the consensus for kadkod.  


Of course, we are not supposed to get hung up in the names of precious gems in Job 28:18. What is important is the comparison between these valuable things and wisdom. But even the comparison language in verse 18 isn’t clear to us. The verb zakar, in the first part, means “to remember.”  Perhaps it is used because of similarity in sound to the previous verse’s zekokith, but it has to mean something like “compare” here. Just as we stretched the meaning of arak from “arrange” to “compare” in an earlier verse, so the seemingly obvious meaning here is that these precious stones can’t be compared in value with wisdom—it just would be nice if the author had actually said that. 


Compounding our problems is the appearance of meshek at the beginning of the second clause of verse 18. It is almost universally translated as “price,” so that the parallelism of thought can, like snow-fed rivers, flow unimpeded. But meshek’s meaning really can’t be stretched that far. Meshek is derived from the fairly common verb mashak (36x), which means to “draw up/drag” or “extend” or “defer” or “prolong.” “Continue (mashak) your lovingkindness to those who know you” (Psalm 36:10; see Psalm 109:12).  Its first appearance is in the Joseph story, and it is used to describe how the passing traders “drew up” Joseph from the pit (Genesis 37:28).  


Thus, meshek must come from that meaning universe. It’s only other appearance is in Psalm 126:6, where the loyal pilgrim carries/lifts up (nasa) his meshek of seed. Ah, perhaps we have an opening. This word in Psalm 126 has been variously translated, either as something “precious” (i.e., the result of something “drawn up/dragged up) or as the object itself that holds the dragged-up seed (i.e., a “bag/pouch.”). This is the key to Clines’ “re-reading” of meshek in Job 28:18. The verse would then list two precious stones (usually rendered as coral and crystal) which can’t be “recalled” (i.e., compared with wisdom), and then conclude with a thought in apposition— 'and a pouch/bag of wisdom (is more valuable than) rubies (or whatever the panin are).' We need not torment ourselves any further. Let’s just say that something like what I have just given is the approximate meaning of Job 28:18.


We return to slightly more familiar ground in the concluding verse of this section (v 19):

    “The topaz of Ethiopia can’t be compared to it; neither shall it be valued with pure gold.”


Several points call for mention. First, we have the return of two verbs previously used here to express comparison:  arak, salahArak appeared in verse 17, when wisdom was being compared to gold (zahab) and glass (zekokith); salah, though with really stretched meaning, appeared in verse 16, where comparisons were made with “pure/fine gold” (using kethem for “pure/fine gold”).  


Our word rendered “topaz” is pitdah (4x), whose meaning is uncertain. Twice this precious stone is mentioned as being set in the high priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:17; 39:10) and once it is listed with the jewels of Tyre which we previously discussed (Ezekiel 28:13).  But here is where the history of gemology comes in, a history that few people know well and I even less than those few.  


The OED guides us through the evolution of the word “topaz” in English. It tells us that the English word “topaz” was used to describe, without distinguishing, several highly valued precious stones of antiquity. It might have been the yellow sapphire or corundum; according to Pliny, it might correspond to what we now call chrysolite. But then, its more “modern” use began to appear in the 14th century to describe a “fluro-silicate of aluminum, usually in prismatic crystals, transparent and lustrous, yellow, white, pale blue  or pale green. . .”  Thus, the translation “topaz” is itself a cipher, though it probably means the latter of the OED’s definitions. Perhaps trying to avoid the problem, pitdah was increasingly translated as “peridot,” a term not in people’s vocabulary but somehow reassuring. Realizing this, the term now is increasingly rendered as “olivine.” We can only wonder how pitdah will be rendered in 2050.


Let’s think of the pitdah of Cush/Ethiopia in similar ways to the kethem of Ophir. It is a possibly unique and most valuable product from those respective regions. Wisdom can’t be compared with it. Our nice catalogue in verses 11-19 concludes with the phrase kethem tahor, or “pure precious gold.” We already had mention of the kethem of Ophir; now we are told that some kind of kethem is tahor or ‘pure.’ Thus, we have at least five types of gold mentioned in these verses:  zahab, kethem, paz, segor, and kethem tahor. They sure sound pretty alluring, but we are rather clueless as to what they really mean. This passage is Exhibit A illustrating to us our relative ignorance of the world we spend so much time trying to illumine.