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391. Job 38:16-18, Job’s Authority Under the Earth
16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you understood the expanse of the earth?
Tell Me, if you know all this.
God returns to clarity in this section, and the language is rhythmic, strong and deeply imaginative. Verses 16 and 17 both begin and end with verbs, verbs whose commonness belies their power here. Verse 18 also begins with a verb, but the familiar refrain at the end of verse 18 (see verse 4) ends the pattern. Some scholars, led by Prof Carol Newsom, have pointed out that this and subsequent passages almost sound like a travelogue. Verbs of movement, and nouns of ways and places, give us the sense that we are being exposed to the wonders of the ancient world, even though the purpose of the tour is not so Job can cross another thing off his bucket list but to show Job his puniness and insignificance. The flow of these three verses seems to be from the underground waters (v 16), to the gates of death (v 17), to the breadth of the earth (v 18). We are a bit hazy here, and we imagine that a person diligently trying to “write down” God’s words must have been a little confused, too, since God would be describing phenomena hitherto unknown to humans.
Verse 16 says, literally,
“Have you come to the springs of the sea? In searching out the great deep, have you walked around?”
Whereas verses 12-15 explored Job’s knowledge of astral phenomena (especially if we follow the route of interpreting the rasha as “Dog Star”), here God seemingly wants to bring Job down to the nether world. We have the faintest echo of the world of Odyssey XI.10ff here, especially the notion that Odysseus and his crew come to the uttermost parts of the Ocean and then gradually descend into Hades to visit the shades of the dead. There is one hapax in 38:16, nebek, which all render as “springs,” in the first clause. But the second clause is suggestive, including the Joban favorite term cheqer (12x/7x Job, noun form of chaqar, 27x/5x Job, “to search out”), the Genesis 1 term for “the deep” (tehom), and Job’s use of the simple verb for “walking” (halak) in the hithpael to suggest a “going back and forth” or “walking around” (see also the Satan’s movements in 1:7; 2:2; also Job 14:20, though not in hithpael). But the larger point here seems to be the implication God wants Job to draw from this verse. If you haven’t been able to explore the depths of physical nature, how can you possibly understand MY depths or MY thoughts?
Where else hasn’t Job toured? Verse 17 speaks about the realm of death as if it were a city or enclosed space. As with verse 16 we have verbs in the first and last position of the verse, acting as an inclusio or “sandwich” for the ideas in the middle. Literally, then:
“Have been uncovered for you the gates of death? and the gates of the shadow
of death have you seen?”
We have seen “doors” (deleth) earlier in this chapter, doors which confined the seas (v 8) when they were threatening to burst their bounds. But here we have the very common shaar (“gate”) appearing twice. Its earliest appearances in Genesis suggest that shaar could be gates to one’s property but were, more frequently, the entry points to a town or city (Genesis 19:1; 22:17; 23:10, 18). Earlier we had a reference to the “King of Terrors” (18:14); presumably his dominion is not far from these gates of death, but it would have been helpful had we had a map of where we are being led.
We have no idea where we are, in heaven or earth or under the earth, but the important Joban word “shadow of death” (tsalmaveth, 18x/9x Job) in verse 17 catches our attention. This was the place where Job, in his despair, wanted to go (10:21-22). He wanted darkness and the shadow of death (tsalmaveth) to redeem the day of his birth (3:5). For Job it was a place of comfort, apart from God, where he would finally find some peace. But here, God simply asks whether Job has “seen” (the common raah) the gates of tsalmaveth. The question both shows God’s knowledge and Job’s ignorance. Job has no experience of what he says he longs for.
Having taken a verbal tour of the deep, the springs of the sea, death and the shadow of death, God then seemingly shifts to the surface of the earth in verse 18, though some see the erets in verse 18 as pointing to the underworld. He asks Job if he has ever “comprehended” or “considered diligently” (the common verb bin, in the hithpael) the extent (rachab) of the earth. While God’s immediate point may be to highlight the contrast between breadth (of earth) and depth (under earth), the more interesting reference may be to Elihu’s most illuminating insight in 36:16. We recall that Elihu urged Job to see his suffering in the light of God’s purpose to lure or woo him into the wide spaces of life, spaces which I interpreted as “freedom” in our twenty-first century way of speaking. Elihu had used the word rachab to capture that new understanding for Job. Might God subtly be referring back to Elihu’s words, trying to nullify their effect by showing Job that he has never searched out the wide spaces of the earth, much less any other kind of wide space?
Then, as if to give the reader a mini-break about halfway through Job 38, God repeats the thought of verse 4: “Tell me (nagad), if you know (yada).” Yada appears for the sixth time in the chapter (vv 2, 3, 4, 5, 12, 18). Earlier Job had said that if it was a contest of strength, he would be no match for God (9:19); now God is subtly trying to say that if it is a matter of knowledge, which Job thinks he is interested in, there really is also no contest.