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383. Job 37:19-20, Descending into Obscurity Again
19 “Teach us what we shall say to Him;
We cannot arrange our case because of darkness.
20 Shall it be told Him that I would speak?
Or should a man say that he would be swallowed up?
Elihu’s third question (v 18) has clarity, power and specificity. And, of course, it is designed to show Job his smallness and relative lack of knowledge. But then, perhaps satisfied that he has drawn up and presented his catechism to Job, Elihu descends into unclarity in verses 19-20. Let me try to give a literal rendering of both verses, before making a few comments that may enlighten and may obscure:
“Teach us what we should say to him; we shall not arrange before the darkness. Shall it be
recounted to him that I will speak? Or, if a person speaks that he would be swallowed?"
Yep, you got it. Well, in truth, verse 20 especially may be translated a dozen different ways, depending on whether one sees the verbs as present or future tenses, whether the conjunctions are “that” I will speak or “if” I will speak, and whether one thinks that some of the verbs don’t make sense as they are and need to be emended. But what I have given above is one faithful rendering. Elihu continues to address Job in verse 19, probably in a chiding tone. If that is the case, then we might see a continuity in Elihu’s mocking/chiding words in both verse 18-19. The sense would be,
‘Oh, Job, did you help God out in stretching out the skies? Right. . .Yep. . .Ok, well, what then should we say to God, since you were with God in this project? In addition, you have “arranged” (arak, recall its appearance in 13:18. It is also the same verb as in 37:19) your case, maybe you can help us to do the same. . .'
That is how I “hear” Elihu’s tone in verse 19. But the meaning isn’t very clear. Why would Elihu be wanting anyone, much less Job, to tell him what to say to God? And, what does the cryptic final phrase of verse 19 mean? Another rendering of it is “We cannot draw up our case because of our darkness”—i.e., Elihu would be saying that he needs Job’s great wisdom to arrange his words to God. But I don’t think Elihu wants to make a case to God. And “our darkness” may mean “our ignorance,” but it is also conceived of as a place in the Book of Job, the place where Job feels most comfortable (10:21-22).
Now that we don’t know what verse 19 means we can boldly stride into verse 20. The result is even worse. Does Elihu ask whether God should know that he wants to speak? We might be able to coax that meaning from the first clause, but then the second plunges us back into the abyss. Elihu is positing some kind of connection between speaking and being swallowed up. Some versions render it, “Would anyone ask to be swallowed up?” Clines has figuratively thrown up his hands and come up with a different, and rare, definition for baqa at the end of verse 20 (to communicate/be informed), so that his rendering is, “If anyone says anything, will he be better informed?” Even if we were inclined to accept Clines’ suggestion here, we would be left with a meaning problem. Let’s just say that Elihu has put together three impressive questions to Job and that after speaking the questions (with one interlude of unclarity—verse 17), he just recedes into the obscurity in verses 19-20, an obscurity that often accompanies the speakers in Job.