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375. Job 36:27-30, God’s Work in the Rains and Thunder


27 "For he draws up the drops of water;

    he distills his mist in rain,

28 which the skies pour down

    and drop upon mortals abundantly.

29 Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,

    the thunderings of his pavilion?

30 See, he scatters his lightning around him

    and covers the roots of the sea.


Elihu now turns from an express admiration of God’s greatness in verses 22-26 to a more indirect affirmation of the same by examining God’s presence in the weather. But the words are mysterious and a bit hard to pin down; we might label this passage, “God in the pre-weather” or before the meteorological phenomena with which we are familiar manifest themselves. For even though we have mention of rain or light(ning), we don’t have a sense that we are witnessing the normal cycle of nature.  


The appearance of the rare ed in verse 27, usually translated as “mist” or “vapor,” gives us a clue as to what Elihu may be doing here. The only other appearance of that word is in Genesis 2:6, and there it describes a “mist that arose from the earth and watered all the ground.” Its appearance in Genesis 2:6 ought to make us pause; usually we think of rain or mist coming down and watering the ground; in Genesis 2:6 it rises up to do that. Maybe it is some kind of divinely-appointed liquid or near-liquid watering agent with which we have no familiarity. Elihu may, in a word, be telling his version of this part of the creation story—focusing on the meteorological perspective.  


With that in mind, and with the sense that we may now be entering a confusing but mysterious and alluring realm, let’s begin. Verse 27, more literally than literarily, says:


    “Because he draws drops of water, and distills rain for its mist.”


After giving a double-take, we see that these seven words are crammed with interesting and elusive ideas. The first verb (“draws”, gara, 22x) may mean several things: “to withdraw/take away” (Numbers 36:3, 4, et al); “to limit/hinder/restrain” (Numbers 9:7; Job 15:4, 8); “to deduct” (Leviticus 27:18). The debate over its translation here is between those who think it means that God “draws up” drops of water from the ground or God “draws down” those same drops from above.  


The issue isn’t simply semantic, but has to do with whether we see Elihu echoing the world of the prehistory of Genesis, where waters come both from below and above. Waters coming both from below and above is potently described in the story of the Great Flood. Elihu leaves his view tantalizingly unclear. I tend to read this verse in connection with Genesis 2:6, where the mention of ed/mist was in connection with its rising from the earth.

If we read it this way, God is also drawing up droplets of water, even though the word for “drop” (nataph) only appears one other time in the Bible and is rendered as “gum” or “stacte” in that place (Exodus 30:34). Scholars have hastily papered over that difficulty by suggesting that its rendering as “gum/stacte” is really droplets of gum/stacte. In any case, in verse 27 God is portrayed as drawing away water. We aren’t told where the source of the waters is—whether subterranean pools or a mighty ocean or a third source.  

The second clause is likewise inviting but somewhat opaque. God zaqaq the rain.  Zaqaq only appears 7x, and its six other appearances all are best rendered “refine” or “purify.” God refines (zaqaq) people as gold (Malachi 3:3). Silver (I Chronicles 29:4) and gold (Job 28:1) are refined. How can rain be “refined”? Not sure, but that is why the translation “distill” is often suggested, as if the rain itself is purified through this withdrawing or drawing away process.  


The literal reading of the last word is “for” or “to” an ed and not “from his ed.” That is, rather than rain being distilled “from its mist/vapor” we really have the thought that this rain is being refined or distilled into or to a vapor. We know what neither phrase means, but it is nice to keep our prepositions straight! All we know, then, is that a process perhaps similar to that of Genesis 2:6 is in view as Elihu begins speaking meteorologically. We are fascinated, even though we have no clear mental picture of what is going on.

That fascination continues in verse 28:


    “which the clouds/skies drip/distill/pour down, and drop upon the multitudes of people.”


With his reference to the skies here (shachaq, 21x/4x Elihu), we see that this rain or mist or whatever it is has made it heavenward, to be dropped down onto people.  So, the movement of verses 27-28 may likely be drawing up. . .and then coming down. Shachaq is not the usual word for “cloud”; it is just as frequently translated “skies” while ab, which Elihu mentions in the next verse, is the usual word for “clouds.” Yet we are more comfortable saying that rain falls from “clouds” than “skies.”  


The two verbs in this verse give us pause. The first, nazal (16x), usually points to the process of flowing or the result of it (such as in a stream. See, e.g., Psalm 147:18 for “flow” and Psalm 78:16, 44; Song of Solomon 4:15; Isaiah 44:3 for “streams”), but can also refer to the actual pouring down of rain. A passage similar in structure to Job 36:28 is Isaiah 45:21, where the prophet talks about the clouds (shachaq) pouring down (nazal) righteousness. Thus, we are on solid ground for rendering nazal here as “pour/rain down.” The second verb is the rare raaph (5x). Its two appearances in consecutive verses of Psalm 65:11, 12 solidify its meaning: God’s paths “drip” (raaph) with fatness; it “drips/drops” (raaph) on the pastures of the wilderness. 


Matthew 5 tells us that the rain falls upon the just and the unjust; here the moisture that somehow made it to the skies/clouds now drips/drops/pours down on the multitudes of people. The last phrase might also be translated:  “drops down abundantly on people.” I suppose the result is the same: people become drenched.

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