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390. Job 38:12-15, Job’s Authority in Cosmological Matters
12 “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning,
And caused the dawn to know its place,
13 That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It is changed like clay under the seal;
And they stand forth like a garment.
15 From the wicked their light is withheld,
And the uplifted arm is broken.
Before looking at this passage, we should recall that one of the unexpected emphases of 38:1-11 was on knowledge. This idea really doesn’t come out very clearly in most English translations, but the common verb yada appears in verses 2, 3, 4, 5. “Who makes counsel dark by words without knowledge?” (v 2). “Make me know” (v 3). “Declare, if you have knowledge” (v 4). “Who placed its measurements, if you know?” (v 5). God hammers away insistently on subjects on which Job has no knowledge.
This is, no doubt, an example of God’s clever rhetorical strategy: by pointing out vast areas in which Job has no knowledge, God would like to convince the reader that Job is, in reality, an ignorant person. Yet, God never deigns to question Job on areas of Job’s expertise—i.e., his own pain. As I have gotten older, I have found that conversations are more productive for me if they are based on knowledge, i.e., on what a person has actually learned through study or experience, rather than simply on conjecture or on ignorance. Yet God’s method is a good one if the goal is to try to undermine the credibility, or weaken the resolve, of the person you are attacking.
As we turn to this and the next section (vv 16-18), we find that the emphasis on knowledge continues. In verse 12 God will ask Job if he caused the dawn to “know” its place (yada). In verse 18 God will repeat the refrain from verse 4: “Declare, if you have knowledge” (yada). To Job this must just have sounded like yada, yada, yada. . .
God’s barrage of questions in verses 4-11 is tempered in this and the next sections, as God seemingly focuses on one area per section: Job’s authority in cosmological (vv 12-15) and subterranean (vv 16-18) areas. Alas, we had hoped that confusing language would have been confined to the mortals who spoke in Job, but here we will see that God has also caught the same unclarity disease. Though there are some clear spots in verses 12-15, many of the words border on opaqueness. Even the textual tradition isn’t clear on the reading of “evil” (rasha) in verses 13 and 15. As a result, there now is a scholarly approach to verses 12-15 that would like to see the word “evil” stand for various cosmological forces, such as the Dog-Star, rather than human villains. Clines, following Driver and others, adopts this approach. Welcome, once again, to the Book of Job.
Verse 12, however, is tolerably clear:
“Have you commanded the morning as long as you have lived? Have you made the dawn know its place?”
Whereas the questions in verses 4-11 focused mostly on the broad contours of the creation of the universe and the sea, here God turns attention to more specific cosmological issues. Does Job have the authority to “command” (the common tsavah) the morning (i.e., to tell the sun to rise?). Verse 12’s first word is, literally, “From your days,” which all interpret to mean “as long as you have lived.” We might take this as either a snide or honest concession of God just to confine His questions to the time of Job’s existence, rather than continuing to point out the obvious truth that Job wasn’t there at the creation of the earth (verse 4).
The second half of the verse just reprises the first. “Morning” becomes “dawn” (shachar, 25x/3x Job) and “commanding” becomes setting the dawn in order so that it knows its place. We are obviously in the realm of the skies or the heavens, and that is why verse 13, which is really a continuation of the thought of verse 12, has bedeviled interpreters:
“so that it might seize the ends of the earth and the wicked be shaken from it.”
The verse is both alluring and repelling. It allures because of the strangely suggestive appearance of the common verb achaz, “to seize” (68x) in the first clause. The subject of the “seize” appears to be the dawn or the morning of verse 12, but the grammar would allow it to refer to Job. Even if we maintain the traditional reading, however, achaz is still suggestive. How might the morning “seize” the ends of the earth? The obvious answer is that it does so by “springing” upon the darkness, dispelling it and then flooding the world with light. That this can be called “seizing” the “wings” or “ends” or “skirts” or “fringes” of the earth (various translations of kanaph, the usual word for “wings”) is highly suggestive in the light of the appearance of shabar (“shatter”) in verse 10. God has “shattered his law” to make the sea stay confined within its bounds; now the morning itself has to “grab/seize” the farthest parts of the earth in order for light to shine. This may have been an effortless activity of God, but the verbs tend to belie it; we have, if not warfare, a struggle for God and the forces of nature to take hold of the world each day.
But verse 13 also repels or, at least, confuses. How does the dawn’s seizing the ends of the earth shake the wicked (rasha) off of it? Defenders of the traditional text often point to 24:13-17, where the nighttime capers of wicked people are catalogued. Even though the language there is far from clear, as has been shown in the commentary above, when there is some clarity it suggests that the thief and adulterer operate at night. We could understand the dawn perhaps scattering the wicked to their lairs, but what does it mean that they are “shaken” (naar, 11x) off the earth? The other appearances of naar may be rendered as “shake off” or “overthrow” or “toss up and down.” Many scholars have made the suggestion that the image that seems to underlie these words is of a tablecloth or rug being shaken out, with the crumbs then scattering. Perhaps that is the picture to be imagined in verse 13, but it doesn’t fit with the cosmological theme or with our experience of the wicked.
We are at first inclined to sink deeper into literary despair with verse 14, a literal reading of which is:
“It is changed/overturned like a clay seal, and it stands as a garment.”
Huh? First, we aren’t sure what the subject is here, but we think it probably is the earth of the previous verse. The verb haphak (94x, 12x Job, “change/overturn”) can mean to “turn” or “turn upside down” or “overthrow” or “to change” or “restore” (to health). The picture seems to be that the earth is transformed by the dawn like clay is transformed when a seal is impressed on it. If this is the case, then we perhaps have a stunning picture of the effect of light’s moving upon the earth each morning. Just as the seal presses down on the clay, leaving its ridges and valleys in the clay, so the dawn reaches to the extremities of the earth, and reveals the ridges and valleys of it.
But the last phrase remains unclear. How does it (the earth?) stand/take its stand (yatsab, 48x) like a garment (lebush)? Perhaps because that question seems unanswerable, many have posited a different verb, also spelled the same way, which means “to tint” or “to dye.” The NRSV reflects this choice, as do Clines and many others, while the NASB goes with “stand forth like a garment,” a thought that is anything but pellucid.
What may lie behind some of the unclear words of these two verses (vv 13-14) is either the literary predecessor or the text of Psalm 102:25-26 (26-27 in Hebrew). Here are those verses, for example, in the NRSV:
“Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.”
The Psalmist celebrates the glory and eternity of God, a God who will give strength to His children, whose strength has been broken in midcourse (102:23). Note the overlap in concepts between Job 38 and Ps 102. Whereas God “long ago” (the word is literally “to the face,” which then morphed into meaning “before” and “long ago”) laid the foundations (yasad), in Job 38 Job is asked if “from his days” (i.e., as long as he has been alive) he has commanded the morning. The concept of “founding” the world, using the same word yasad, is in 38:4. In Ps 102, everything “perishes” and then it wears out (chalaph) like a garment (lebush), which is the same word for “garment” in Job 38:14. The meaning of the verb chalaph often overlaps with haphak (Job 38:14). For example, Jacob accuses Laban of changing (chalaph) his wages ten times (Genesis 31:7, 41). Chalaph can also be used for changing garments (Genesis 35:2; 41:14). Job 38:14 talks about the earth being “changed” (with verb haphak) and garments “standing” (being tinted), but perhaps underlying it is the notion that the heavens are like garments, wearing out and perishing like an old garment.
We had hoped to be taken out of our confusion by the last verse of this section, 38:15, but unfortunately we seem to lose cell phone coverage almost completely here.
“Their light is withheld from the wicked and the high arm is shattered.”
We have the return of the verb shabar (“shatter/break”) which we saw in verse 10. I suppose if the wicked are bounced from the “tablecloth” of the world by the coming of the divine light of dawn, then light may be withheld from them, but it isn’t exactly clear where the wicked go. If they plunge back into darkness, that isn’t necessarily a good thing, since darkness is the place where they do their nefarious activities. In addition, the phrase “high arm” makes little sense. Are we to conceive of the wicked, bouncing up and down in the “tablecloth” before being bounced out by the light of the dawn, raising their arm (in protest? to ask a question?) and then experiencing a fracture? No wonder that Clines and others have retreated to the world of astral constellations, the Dog Star and the “Navigator’s Line joining Sirius to Procyon to Castor and Pollux” (Clines, vol 3, page 1105). Since anything seems to go here, I will leave God speaking His eloquence to a largely unappreciative (because uncomprehending) audience. All we know is that Job doesn’t seem to have authority to command the rising of the dawn and its attendant showering of light on the world. Job probably already knew this without God’s having asked him the question.