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339. Job 33:14-18, The First Way God Speaks To Humans, Essay One

14 “Indeed God speaks once,
Or twice, yet no one notices it.
15 In a dream, a vision of the night,
When sound sleep falls on men,
While they slumber in their beds,
16 Then He opens the ears of men,
And seals their instruction,
17 That He may turn man aside from his conduct,
And keep man from pride;
18 He keeps back his soul from the pit,
And his life from passing over into Sheol.

 

As mentioned, Elihu will try to bring Job out of his rather cramped, in Elihu’s view, way of seeing God. Elihu does so by describing how God speaks to humans. The mysterious language that follows reminds us of Eliphaz’s account in 4:12-17; if we look closely, we see that Elihu seems to borrow not just Eliphaz’s general concept of dreams and visions but some of his actual language. He again shows that he has been listening to both sides in the debate. He begins in verse 14:

 

    “Because God speaks in one way; in two ways, but they (humans) don’t perceive it."

 

The point of significance is that Elihu believes God speaks (the common dabar) in one or two ways (i.e., a multitude of ways), though people don’t see or recognize it (shur, 16x/10x Job, “regard/ behold/see/perceive”). The verb shur is a favorite word of Elihu, appearing six times in his speeches. We also note, in passing, that two of its non-Joban appearances are in the Balaam narrative (Numbers 23:9; 24:17), another interesting overlap between the Book of Job and that alluring story in Numbers. We imagine, perhaps, that these friends of Job from the East might have been part of some kind of international guild of prophets or wise men, using similar language to describe what they see.

 

Verse 15 tells us the first way that God speaks.  

 

    “In a dream, a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on humans, while he is slumbering on his

     bed.”

 

The language of dreams (chalom) and visions (chizzayon) of the night (laylah) comes from Eliphaz in Job 4:13, though one word is different. There Eliphaz spoke of God’s word “stealing” (ganab in passive) on him “In thoughts (saiph) and visions (chizzayon) of the night (laylah).” The phrase “when deep sleep (tardemah) falls (naphal) on humans (anashim)” of 33:15 is a direct quote of 4:13. Eliphaz’s words in that context not only made a deep impression on us; they also affected Elihu.

 

We are now in the realm of the mysterious. Humans don’t just fall asleep, but they enter into tardemah, the divine-induced, anesthetic-like deep sleep of the Adam before the Scripture’s first recorded surgery (Genesis 2:21). Elihu heightens the mystery by his unique last clause: “when humans are in tenumah on the bed.” Tenumah is a rare noun (5x/3x Proverbs) derived from the nearly-equally rare verb num (6x), which is used  to describe the experience of being drowsy or sinking into sleep. It appears twice in Psalm 121:3, 4:  “the one who keeps you will neither slumber (num) nor sleep (the common yashen).

 

Tenumah, thus, occupies the same linguistic field as num, though it is noun and therefore is best rendered “slumber” or “slumberings.” Proverbs uses the word in a critical sense; the lazy person says, “A little sleep (shenah), a little slumber (tenumah), a little folding of the hands” (Proverbs 6:10). Though the first two-thirds of verse 15 is derived directly from Eliphaz’s first speech in 4:13, the last phrase is Elihu’s own. It is a fully unnecessary phrase, and it seems to impair slightly the terse rhythm of the preceding verses, but it is Elihu giving his own twist on Eliphaz’s words. God speaks to humans in the deepest, darkest, quietest moments of life.

 

Just as Eliphaz’s words grew in eloquence as the tension involved in his vision became palpable, so Elihu’s eloquence seems now to grow in verse 16, though the last phrase is unclear. Literally we have:

 

    “Then God opens the ears of humans, and in their instruction/discipline, he seals them." 

 

Eyes closed, ears opened. The word for “open” is the common galah (185x/8x Job).  Again, just as with shur in verse 14, galah will play an important role for Elihu as his speeches unfold. I will argue below that it is the central verb that actually pries open Job’s understanding in 36:10, 15 so that he possibly to can see his distress in a new light.  

 

It is in the deep darkness, when divinely-induced sleep falls on humans, that God opens the ears. The second clause has caused no end of scholarly debate. I gave a literal rendering above, where the verb chatham (27x/5x Job, “to seal up a bag/make a mark”) appears with the hapax mosar, a noun obviously derived from the verb yasar, “to discipline/instruct.” The KJV and traditional translations read, “sealeth their instruction.”

 

But what might the phrase “to seal their instruction” mean? I think it has a meaning suggesting that God makes secure in the dream one of two things: either a message of learning or of discipline. It is a phrase meant to suggest not necessarily the clarity but the security of the message. God communicates in this way.

Yet, most scholars, and translations, adopt a different but similarly-looking Hebrew verb that translates as “terrify.” Then the “instruction” would be a “warning,” since  you usually don’t terrify people with instruction. I think there are too many linguistic leaps you have to make to get to a “terrify them with warnings”-type of translation, and thus I prefer to stick to the traditional reading. God not only opens, but God seals. That is a comforting thought for Elihu.