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376. Job 36:29-30, From Rains to the Thunder and Lightning
29 “Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,
The thundering of His pavilion?
30 Behold, He spreads His lightning about Him,
And He covers the depths of the sea.
Now that the rains have been mysteriously described, Elihu moves in an equally mysterious way to consider the lightning and thunder. Verse 29 is unforgettable, though I have never seen it on a list of anyone’s favorite verses:
“Is there anyone, certainly, who understands the spreading of the clouds; the dramatic sound
from his pavilion?”
What can this mean? Sometimes as interpreters we are tempted to throw up our hands and say, ‘Who can understand the dramatic sounds of the words?’ Here we seem to move away from water/rain and move to clouds (ab, 32x). The question is put in a way that reminds us we are working with wisdom tradition teachers. Yes, only they would ask about “understanding” (the common bin) the spreading of the clouds. We think of Elihu’s question here as almost a prelude to the catechism that the Great Wisdom Teacher, God, will use when he asks Job a number of questions about what he understands, beginning in Job 38.
Note here that Elihu asks about the “spreading” (miphras, 2x) of the clouds. The noun miphras is clearly derived from the verb paras (67x), “to spread out,” which also appears in the next verse. God is now said to be one who spreads the clouds and the light (v 30).
We pause for another second because the action generally associated with clouds, light(ning) and rain is not clearly presented here. Rain falls—at least in the experience of most people. Lightning flashes. But here it is rain or a vapor or a mist that either is withdrawn from or up or out of something and then distills or refines or drops (vv 27-28). Then we will have clouds spreading out (a fairly clear concept), but we will also have the light/lightning “spreading out” and then God “covering” the “roots” of the sea (v 30). We are entranced, even as we feel we are being drawn deeper into a world of sounds and sights that we have never really heard or seen.
Elihu’s question in verse 29 is rhetorical. No one, really, understands the the spreading of his clouds. But even more captivating is the second clause, namely, “the thundering/sound of/from his pavilion/canopy.” The word for “sound/thundering” is teshuah (4x), which elsewhere is rendered “crying/shouting” (Job 39:7) or “noise” (Isaiah 22:2) or “shouts” (Zechariah 4:7). So, some kind of noise is emitting from the divine sukkah. A sukkah is a booth or tent, something which one sets up either for protection from weather or in obedience to a divine command to live in, as in the Festival of Booths. But it has a range of translations, from “booth” to “canopy” to “pavilion” to “tent” to “shelter” to “tabernacle.” We are utterly intrigued by the notion that some kind of loud noise comes from the divine “canopy.” Who can really understand it? Elihu is bringing us deeper into the mystery of God, and he seems to be proclaiming that mystery as the foundation of our lives.
The mysterious interaction with the weather concludes in verse 30, where he says:
“Lo, he spreads his light upon it; and he covers the roots of the sea.”
Note that the first two words, hen and paras, are among the words that he repeats in this section (hen also in vv 22, 26; paras/miphras also in v 29). Perhaps the desire for repetition leads Elihu into unclarity, because we rarely speak of light or lightning as being “spread” upon anything. Normally we say that lightning “flashes” or “lightens up” the sky. But here it “spreads upon it.” The “it” may refer to the “sea” in the next clause; because “it” is also a masculine (i.e., “him) as well as a neuter ending, it may refer to God’s spreading out light over himself. Doesn’t the Psalmist (104:2) say,
“Who covers/wraps himself with light (or, same as in 36:29) as with a garment”?
The final clause is as fascinating as the thunder emanating from God’s pavilion or canopy. God “covers” (kasah, 152x) the sea here; in verse 32 he will also “cover” (kasah) his hands with lightning (or vice-versa); kasah is on our list of repeated words. But we literally have God covering “the roots” (shoresh, 33x) of the sea. Again, shoresh is a word appearing disproportionately frequently in Job (9x). Bildad uses it unskillfully and even laughably twice (8:17; 18:16), but usually Job uses the word (13:27; 14:8; 19:28). Perhaps Elihu is gently responding to Job’s use of shoresh in 29:19, where Job proudly said that he spread out his roots (shoresh) to the waters (i.e., his influence was very great). By saying that God covers the “roots” and not merely the “depths” of the sea, Elihu may gently be saying that God is the one who uniquely can spread the divine influence, through weather or word, throughout the creation and, of course, into Job’s life.