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378. Job 37:1-13, My Heart Trembles at God’s Greatness

 

1 “At this also my heart trembles,

And leaps from its place.

2 Listen closely to the thunder of His voice,

And the rumbling that goes out from His mouth.

3 Under the whole heaven He lets it loose,

And His lightning to the ends of the earth.

4 After it, a voice roars;

He thunders with His majestic voice,

And He does not restrain the lightnings when His voice is heard.

5 God thunders with His voice wondrously,

Doing great things which we cannot comprehend.

6 For to the snow He says, ‘Fall on the earth,’

And to the downpour and the rain, ‘Be strong.’

7 He seals the hand of every man,

That all men may know His work.

8 Then the beast goes into its lair

And remains in its den.

9 Out of the south comes the storm,

And out of the north the cold.

10 From the breath of God ice is made,

And the expanse of the waters is frozen.

11 Also with moisture He loads the thick cloud;

He disperses the cloud of His lightning.

12 It changes direction, turning around by His guidance,

That it may do whatever He commands it

On the face of the inhabited earth.

13 Whether for correction, or for His world,

Or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.

 

We have just read that the “noise/thunder (rea) announces (nagad is verb) God (36:33).” This news or announcement is overwhelming for Elihu. We never thought that Elihu, a confident and loquacious young man, had it in him to be overwhelmed. Yet that is how Job 37 begins. Rumblings are heard, no doubt the sound of thunder. But these rumblings betoken the sounds of the divine stirring, a stirring that will finally give Job something of what he requested (an audience with God). I say “something” of what Job had asked for because God will respond to Job in an unexpected way. Yet, before we get to that appearance of God, we need to hear even more words about not just the weather but how God informs and commands meteorological phenomena. In this passage Elihu will point to three of those phenomena:  a) thunder (vv 1-5); b) snow and rain (vv 6-8) and c) the whirlwind (vv 9-11).  These all are ordered or controlled by God, who uses them for “correction, for his land, or for love” (v 13). 

 

a) Job 37:1-5, The Thunder

 

When Elihu spoke to Job and the three friends in Job 32-36, he did so with measured and confident tones. He reiterated some of the friends’ themes but dropped some of their more ghoulish references to the modes of the death of the wicked. His major contributions so far have been two. First, he put the judgment of God in the context of God’s instructional purposes. That is, God may bring fetters and afflictions to kings, but it is only because God wants to instruct them (36:10)—to teach them to turn from their prideful ways and serve God in pleasantness and prosperity (36:11). Second, he applied these instructional purposes to Job in his condition. God is trying to lure or woo Job out of his distress by the instrumentality of distress so that Job will experience freedom and the broad spaces of life (36:15-16). We might have expected that Elihu, after his skillful performance, would simply have withdrawn and said something to the effect, ‘Well, folks, here is God!’ or ‘I have enjoyed being the warm-up act for God!’

 

But he doesn’t do that.  Or, alternatively, he introduces God in his peroration (36:22-37:24) with such loquacity that we are beginning to think, ‘I hope this isn’t an introduction that is longer than the main act!’ Thankfully, God will get center stage for four long chapters (Job 38-41).

 

His words in 37:1, except for the first two, are crystal clear. The clear words are:

 

    “My heart trembles (charad) and jumps (nathar) from its place.” 

 

The first two words are aph-lezoth or, literally, “certainly to this.” It has generally been translated “at this,” pointing thus to the argument just completed. If we were to render the aph, however, as “also,” Elihu would be directing us to what follows. In this case we really don’t have to make a decision since both the previous and following verses deal with God’s manifestation in the weather.

 

The verb for “tremble” (charad, 39x) only appears twice in Job: here and in 11:19, where it means “to be afraid” or “to disturb.” Thankfully, it doesn’t have a huge range of meaning in the Bible. Words from “tremble” to “quake” to “make afraid/frighten” capture its meaning. In one place it seems best rendered as “to be concerned for/careful for” (II Kings 4:13), but that is a minority reading. Charad’s most memorable appearance for me is in Genesis 27:33 where Isaac, upon realizing how he had been duped by Rebekah and Jacob, reacted to the deception by “trembling violently” (charad). In Job 37, Elihu seems overcome by what he has said and will say about God.

 

The heart’s “jumping” from its place is an unusual phrase. The verb nathar (8x) elsewhere appears in Leviticus 11:21, describing insects that walk on all fours and “leap” (nathar) on the ground. Elsewhere nathar has a less dramatic meaning, something to the effect of “startling” (Habakkuk 3:4) or “to be loosed/set free” (Psalm 105:20; 146:7). We all know the feelings Elihu describes in 37:1; we just have trouble with the words.

 

The drama continues in verse 2, beginning with the double use of shama (“to listen):

 

    “Listen attentively to the noise of his voice; and the groaning that goes forth from his mouth."

 

Urging the listeners to listen is done with the typical biblical emphatic construction (finite verb and infinitive absolute). But what is to be heard is the rogez of God’s voice.  We have seen rogez (7x/5x Job) twice in Job 3, where Job was trying to get used to the dissonance of his life. He longed for a space where the wicked ceased from their “raging” (rogez, 3:17). Instead of that, however, all he seemed to have in his life was “trouble” (rogez, 3:26). Job also said, memorably, that his days were “full of trouble” (rogez, 14:1). By using the same word in 37:2, might Elihu be trying to suggest that God carries His own brand of “rage/trouble”? Or, is Elihu wondering whether God’s “noise” can redeem the instability of the rogez in Job’s life? Maybe Elihu had an inkling that God’s appearance was going to shake things up more than calm things. Its noise is also called a “groaning” (hegeh) in verse 2. Hegeh (3x) comes from the usual verb for “moaning” or “groaning” (hagah, 25x), though it also points to the guttural or moaning sounds made by a person in meditation. Since its usage here is parallel to rogez, we are thrown back on some kind of mysterious noises announcing God’s advent.

The thought of verse 2 continues in verse 3, where:

 

    “Under the whole heaven they (the noises) come forth/flash; and his lightnings are on/reach to            the ends of the earth.”

 

Now we are back to the thunder and lightning of the previous chapter. Scholars are uncertain whether the verb rendered “come forth” derives from yashar, “to be right/straight” or sharah, “to issue forth/let loose.” Some, including Clines, now suggest it might be derived from a similar-sounding Ugaritic verb meaning to “flash,” so that the lightnings “flash” to the ends or corners of the earth. The last suggestion makes eminent sense, since Ugaritic language and texts were well-known in Palestine well before the advent of the Hebrews in Palestine.

 

Lightning is accompanied by thunder, and so in verse 4 we are back to the thunder, though with different words than before.

 

    “After it (the lightning) a voice/sound roars; he thunders with a majestic voice; and he does not

     delay/supplant them when his voice is heard.”

 

The first two clauses cause no difficulty. The verb for “roar” is shaag (20x, 1x Job) which is usually used to describe a lion’s noise (Judges 14:15; Psalm 22:13; 104:21; Isaiah 5:29; Jeremiah 2:15) but on occasion God can also be said to “roar” (Jeremiah 9:4). The second clause verb, translated here as “thunder,” is raam (13x, 3x Job), and it can elsewhere be rendered as “”be troubled” or “irritate,” but its meaning is clear here. The verb also appears in the next verse, which some scholars have taken as an unintentional repetition or dittography.  

 

We are perplexed, however, by the last clause of verse 3, primarily because we don’t know how to translated the verb aqab (5x, “supplant/delay”). It not only is a rare verb, but its first appearance in the Bible is in Genesis 27:36, just three verses after the dramatic charad (“tremble”) of Genesis 27:33, which we discussed above on 37:1. Jacob’s name is said to be appropriate for him because he “supplanted” (aqab) his brother. But we don’t use the word “supplant” much in English, much less Hebrew, and suggestions for its translation in its other biblical appearances are “assail insidiously” or “restrain” or “stay” or “overreach” or “delay,” none of which makes much sense in Job 37:4. We get the impression that the divine voice is in the thunder; thus if thunder is “delayed,” his voice would not  be heard. Perhaps Elihu is simply providing a brief midrash or, to use jazz terminology, a riff on the Jacob story, with charad and aqab being the two anchor points. This, then, would be Elihu improvising.  

 

But then, after improvisation, he concludes the subsection in verse 5 by returning to the main theme (of verse 4) in the phrase “he thunders (raam) with his voice.” We have:

 

    “God thunders with his voice.  He does marvelously great things, and we don’t know."

 

He continues also with major themes in the Book of Job when he talks about “marvelously great things” or wonders (niphlaoth) which God performs. The word niphlaoth, derived from the verb pala (“to be wonderful,” 71x), also appeared previously on Eliphaz’s (5:9) and Job’s (9:10; 10:16) lips to affirm the divine splendor. Finally, he finishes verse 5 with another mention of a curious but memorable phrase from 36:26, “and we don’t know.” In 36:26 Eliphaz gave a ringing affirmation: God is great, and “we don’t know” (i.e., God is beyond our knowledge). He affirms that thought here in 37:5.

 

Before leaving this subsection, we ought to recognize the subtlety of Elihu’s argument.  What had previously been an emphasis on God’s instructional purposes and the gentle divine luring of Job out of his distress is now changed to a focus on the divine incomprehensibility. God will be beyond our knowing, beyond the capacity of humans to understand. We will discover that God likes this idea of Elihu so much that God makes it the cornerstone of the divine speeches beginning in Job 38. Yet, Elihu makes his point about the divine incomprehensibility by drawing upon his earlier words to Job in 36:16. Elihu's point then would be that God is luring you or enticing you, Job, into a future of freedom but the divine ways in so doing are beyond your comprehension. We are listening to Elihu at his theologically richest point.