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389. Job 38:4-11, A Barrage of Questions
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
5 Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
6 On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
7 When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 Or who enclosed the sea with doors
When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb;
9 When I made a cloud its garment
And thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 And I placed boundaries on it
And set a bolt and doors,
11 And I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther;
And here shall your proud waves stop’?
This section begins the nine subsections of Job 38:4-38 that I indicated in an earlier essay. Depending on how you read the text, God poses about four questions in these eight verses. The questions jump from one subject to the next without apparent pattern. God knows the answers to all the questions but nevertheless asks them. If we read between the lines, we may see that the eloquence of the language and remoteness of the subjects broached in the questions may suggest to some that this section is more about God than about Job.
God certainly gives no indication here that He thinks Job’s concerns raised in Job 3-31 are valid or even interesting. In addition, God gives no indication in this or subsequent sections that anything Job has said even registered with God. God seems to be more like the District Attorney mentioned above, whose special skill was either avoiding the expertise of the witness or showing the ignorance of the witness regarding so many other things in life.
The four questions God poses in this section are as follows:
a) Where were you (Job) when I was hard at work creating the world?
b) Who determined the measurements of the world?
c) Do you know how the world holds together?
d) Who gave the sea its limits?
These are not subjects that Job had asked about nor about which he had asserted knowledge. They seem to be an attempt by God to shift the focus of the debate from how God has dealt with Job in this instance to Job’s ignorance of the world and its complexities. The only difficulty with this method is that Job has no problem admitting his ignorance of the world; he has no problem admitting that God can do all things. That isn’t the issue for Job: the issue is why God did or permitted bad things to happen in this instance. We wonder for a fleeting second whether there will be a breakdown in communication between God and Job just like there was between God and the friends. But for now, the floor is God’s. Let’s unpack the divine questions, paying special attention not only to the words used but to the tone, if we can divine it, of the Divine words.
Question 1. Verse 4, more literally than literarily, says:
“Where were you in my founding of the earth? Declare your understanding if you know it/declare if you know/have understanding.”
This is one of God’s clearest questions. It is a “were you there?”-type of question. The word for “where” is the somewhat rare ephoh (10x), but it is derived from the common word for “where” (ay) and the word for “here” (poh). The word rendered “founding” is from the verb yasad (41x, 1x Job) and is a favorite word in the Psalms (9x). Most memorable perhaps is the Psalmist’s statement that God had “established (yasad) strength” in the creation of the world (8:2) or that God has “founded” (yasad) the earth upon the seas” (24:2). The Psalmist can also say that God has “founded” (yasad) the earth forever (78:69).
God’s question is therefore crystalline, but seemingly somewhat irrelevant. God knows the answer (Job wasn’t yet born); Job knows the answer; the answer doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. But one may argue that just as good music sets the tone of an encounter but may take a while to establish its “beat,” so one has to wait to see how God uses the questions before passing judgment on its quality or utility.
Using words derived either from the wisdom tradition (binah-understanding) or God’s earlier words in the chapter (yada-knowledge), God asks Job to declare his understanding. We seemingly will have a discussion based around two of the wisdom tradition’s pillars (yada, binah), but then again God is asking Job to bring understanding. The invitation to speak isn’t followed by Job’s response. Does God pause and wait? Does God just keep barreling on? Is Job already cowed or overwhelmed? We don’t know. The verb nagad (370x, “declare”) appears in 36:9, 33 to refer to God’s declaring the divine work. Now it is Job’s turn to “declare.”
Question 2, in verse 5, now focuses on the who of creation:
“Who placed its measurements, if you know? Or who stretched out the line over it?"
Now we are getting to the actual process of the construction of the earth. This question in verse 5 relates to the stretching out of the divine construction equipment in preparation for making the world. The next question (vv 6-7) relates to the sinking deep of the earth’s foundations. God’s language in these two questions will start to become obscure, but still translatable. The phrase “place measurements” uses the hapax memad, derived from the verb madad (52x) “to measure.” Instead of God simply ‘measuring’ (madad) the prospective boundaries of the world, He “placed a measurement” on it. Same thought. Why does God add the little phrase, “if you know?” at the end of the first clause? It seems not simply superfluous but a bit of a taunt or needling of Job. I see its tone as something like:
’Oh Job, can you help me out on this one? Umm. . .let me see, do you know who made the house of this earth you so comfortably inhabited? Help me out, please, Job, I will be indebted to you.’
Job is in deep pain and God may now be starting to toy with him. The second part of the question, where God asks about “stretching out” (the common natah) a “line” (qav, 18x) refers to a measuring cord used in making sure lines were straight and angles were right. Implicit in God’s question is that the world was not only made with care but also with order.
Question 3 runs over two verses, verses 6 and 7, and describes the process of creation. Literally, we have:
“Upon what did its bases/pedestals sink down, or who cast its cornerstone when the stars of
the morning sang as one and all the Sons of God shouted for joy?"
The thought of verse 6 make us slow to a crawl because of the unusual, but vivid, words God choses. We think that because the word for “pedestal/base” (eden) appears 57x in the Bible that its usage must be widespread, but more than 50 of its appearances are in the Tabernacle narrative of Exodus 25-40. The “pedestals” are the “sockets” placed under the “boards” (qeresh, 51x, all of its appearances in Exodus 25-40) on the sides of the Tabernacle. Thus, it is a technical term in construction of this movable shrine. Perhaps we are to see its appearance in Job 38:6 as a suggestive reference to the earth not simply being “founded” on the seas but that it was conceived by God as God’s tabernacle or dwelling place, with the Wilderness Tabernacle being a miniature for the chosen people.
These bases or pedestals “sank down” or “settled” (taba, 10x), a verb of very few meanings. Gates can be “sunk” (taba) into the ground (Lamentations 2:9); a prophet’s feet can be “sunk” (taba) in the mire (Jeremiah 38:6, 22); the officers of Pharaoh “sank” (taba) into the briny waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:4). Note that taba takes an object in its other appearances; we wonder for a minute what the “thing” was into which God sunk the pedestals of creation in Job 38:6.
We aren’t given the luxury of musing on that question because God then rushes ahead to ask about the “casting” or “laying” (yarah, 81x) of the, literally, “stone of its corner” or even the “capstone” (Clines). Whereas taba had a very narrow range of meanings, the same can’t be said for yarah. It can point to the “casting” of lots (Joshua 18:6) or the “casting/setting up” of a pillar as a demarcation line (Genesis 31:51). It can refer to “shooting” arrows (I Samuel 20:37; Psalm 84:7) or "throwing" firebrands (Proverbs 26:18). More than half of its appearances are in connection with teaching or instruction; The noun form of the verb is torah, the law of God. I suppose when you teach you “cast” your word before people. Thus, its appearance pointing to the actual process of casting or firing is a minority usage, with the nearest parallel being Genesis 31:51.
But even though verses 6-7 start out by describing the construction of the world, the more arresting or visual part of the question is in verse 7. While God was sweating it out, laying cornerstones and sinking pedestals, the chorus of angels/Sons of God and the morning stars functioned as a heavenly cheering section. Verse 7 presents a delightful little picture of these heavenly beings shouting/giving a ringing cry/singing (ranan, 54x) and the cries of jubilation (rua, 45x) as the creation process continues. As the pedestals are sunk, their cry rises. Ranan, as we probably expected, finds its home in the Psalms (26x) and often refers to a human cry of joy or praise to God (e.g., Psalm 5:11; 20:5). Here the stars of the morning are crying out “together” or “as one” (yachad). Rua finds its home most naturally in the realm of battle, where the shout or the battle cry or triumph shout rises up to inspire the troops (e.g., Psalm 41:11; 60:8). The stars and angelic figures shout out their approval, admiration, their total delight in the acts of God in creation.
We recall, however, that verses 6-7 contain the third question posed to Job. We are tempted to get lost in the beauty of the description, but what really is at stake here is God’s pointing out another way in which Job is ignorant. Job wasn’t there when creation happened. Job didn’t stretch out the measuring tools. Job doesn’t know anything about the sinking of the foundations and wasn’t present when the splendid chorus praising God was sung by stars and angelic figures.
Question 4, in verses 8-11, takes us in a different direction by referring to the limitations God placed on the seas. As the seas threaten to break the bounds that God has set, and roil and try to burst their bonds, the crescendo of the language also rises until in verse 11. God issues a strict command that the waters shall come only so far and no farther. Verse 11 is God at the Divine literary best. Though verses 8-11 are placed in the form of a question (“Who shut up the sea. . .?”), they really function more as a statement of the divine might. I will give a literal translation, one that not always makes sense, and then point out a few interesting verbal features of verses 8-11.
“And who shut in/covered the sea with doors in its breaking out, in its bursting from the womb, when I placed the clouds for its garment and the deep darkness for its swaddling band. . . and
when I shattered for it my limit and placed bars and doors, saying, ‘This far you shall come, and add nothing. Here is set your proud waves.’”
A few of the phrases are roughly expressed in my translation because I wanted to pause over them. First is the verb sakak (24x), translated “shut in/cover.” Though it sometimes can be rendered “incite” (Isaiah 19:2) or “spur” (Isaiah 9:2) people against each other, its normal meaning is to “shelter” (Psalm 5:11) or “cover” something. The “covering” may be seen as an act of protection (Psalm 91:4; 139:13). Job uses the verb in a fascinating way in 10:11, where he talks about God having “covered/knit him together” in the womb. In Job 38:8 the best translation is to "shut in/hem in" the sea.
Though other verbs follow in verses 8-9, the image of “covering” as “shutting in” seems to stretch through verse 9. The sea is “covered” with doors (v 8). A fascinating picture of the sea as trying to burst forth from its womb of confinement is presented in verse 8. The verbs are strong; yatsa is the common verb for “going forth/breaking out” and giach (6x, “burst forth”) is twice elsewhere associated with giving birth (Psalm 22:9, “bringing forth from the womb” and Micah 4:10, “laboring to give birth”). As the world is coming into being God faces one potentially unruly feature, the sea, which threatens to burst not just from the womb but from its confinement.
Yet, God has shut in/covered the sea (v 9). In language of stunning grandeur, God is said to have made garments of clouds and deep darkness. The sea is clothed, as it were, in these two profound envelopes. We have another hapax in verse 9: chathullah. It most likely derives from the verb chathal (2x) which only appears in Ezekiel 16:4 and probably means “to wrap/entwine.” Thus, “swaddling clothes” seems a good choice.
God keeps speaking of the sea in verses 10-11, making us believe that the act of covering or confining the sea took a lot of divine effort. Whereas almost all translations have something like God “prescribing” or “fixing” the boundaries of the roiling sea, the verb is the common shabar, “to break/shatter.” I would like to stay with that meaning, even though it leads to some roughness in translation. The picture in verse 10 would then be that God had to “shatter his statute/limit” over it. Like Moses descending from Sinai, seeing the celebrative disobedience of the people, and shattering the tablets (the same verb, shabar, is used there—Exodus 32:19), so God, seeing the furious power of the water trying to burst forth not just from the womb but beyond all bounds, has to “shatter his chuq” or his “statute/law/limit” to solve the problem.
We are fascinated by what it might mean that God had to “shatter” the “law” (chuq) to bring order to the roiling seas. A little help is provided in what follows: God set “bars” (bariach) and doors (deleth). Maybe this was proving to be a larger task than God had anticipated. . . But ultimately, in verse 11, God triumphs. The majestic words of going only to “here” and then not “adding” (the common verb yasaph) are unforgettable. The “pride” (ga’own, 49x/4x Job) of the waves is simply stopped (literally “put,” shith). Ga’own, which looks like about 20 other words in Biblical Hebrew all having to do with “pride” or “heights” or “majesty,” means “pride” here and 35:14, while its other two appearances in Job are best rendered “majesty” or “glory” (37:4; 40:10).
We are transfixed by the divine words. We have no doubt that we have here not just the Master of the Universe but also of the Hebrew language. The poetry is so good that it almost makes us forget that Job has lodged a complaint against God. Maybe that is the point. . .