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396. Job 38:31-33, The Constellations

 

31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,

Or loose the cords of Orion?

32 Can you lead forth a constellation in its season,

And guide the Bear with her satellites?

33 Do you know the ordinances of the heavens,

Or fix their rule over the earth?

 

We went from desolate land (v 27) to questions of the origins of rain and ice (vv 28-230) and now to the heavenly regions. In this passage God will ask Job about his proficiency in controlling some constellations in the sky. Note that some of the rare vocabulary of constellations in this passage repeats an earlier one in Job (9:8-10):

 

    8 who alone stretched out the heavens

        and trampled the waves of the Sea

    9 who made the Bear and Orion,

       the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;

    10 who does great things beyond understanding,

        and marvelous things without number.

 

Three specialized terms that are used in both passages are kimah (3x, “Pleiades”),  kesil (4x, “Orion”) and ayish (2x, “Bear/Arcturus”). The specificity of God’s words, and the rarity of the words, indicates that God is referring directly to Job’s earlier passage. God is asking Job whether he controls certain astral phenomena. Not only does God know the answer already, but Job has admitted nearly 30 chapters previously that God made all these things, and that they are an example of God’s power in the universe.  

 

Perhaps someone might say, ‘Well, in Job 38 God asks Job about his ability to “bind” and “open” these constellations (meaning “to control” them) but not about creating them.’ But that, in my mind, is a quibble. Job has conceded the point nearly 30 chapters previously that God so dramatically makes in 38:31-32. It would be analogous to me as expert witness admitting to the defense attorney under examination that I hadn’t had a chance to review XXX documents and then, under cross-examination, the District Attorney asking me, with dramatic sweep of the arm in the direction of the jury, 

 

    “Dr Long, Have you had a chance to review XXX documents?”  

 

It might play well for the jury, but it hardly gets us closer to truth. 

 

God’s literary method in verse 31 mimics that of verses 15, 16, 17, and 22 where verbs appear in the first and last positions of the sentence. The two verbs of verse 31 are common but rather unexpected. God asks Job whether he can “bind” (qashar, 44x) certain constellations and then “loose” (pathach, 148x) others. Qashar is most familiar to us from the historical books (16x total appearances in II Kings and II Chronicles) for suggesting the language of conspiracy. If people conspire to do things, they “bind” themselves in a league. But other things can also be “bound,” and qashar’s two other appearances in Job speak of binding wild oxen (39:10) or binding Behemoth (40:29 (Heb)/41:5 (Eng)).  

 

Qashar is contrasted with pathach, “to open/loose” at the end of the verse. What the two verbs suggest is that God, rather than Job, controls the movements of these bodies. Job would have no argument with this statement. He, as well as God, knows that he can’t “bind” or “loose” these constellations. There are a couple of hapaxes in verse 31 that should be noted. First, Job is asked whether he can bind the ma’adannah of the Pleiades.  

 

Many scholars, and the BDB, suggest it derives from the verb anad (2x), which means to “bind” or “tie” something (Job 31:36; Proverbs 6:21). But it could only be so derived if there was some metathesis (transposition of consonants) in view here. But others suggest that it is really a synonym for maadan in I Samuel 15:32, where Samuel comes upon Agag “with delight/delicately/cautiously” (maadan) before hewing him to pieces. This has led to various translations of ma’adannah with meanings as diverse as “cluster/bands/movement/sweet influence.” We might give a start at the last suggestion, but it was adopted by the KJV, and several later versions, so that verse 31 reads in the KJV:

 

    “Can you bind the sweet influences of Pleiades?”

 

The standard translation now is to see ma’adannah referring to the “cluster” of stars of the Pleiades though, to be sure, it has taken us quite a while to get there. Difficult also is the hapax mashekah to describe something about Orion. This has been easier to solve, since the noun is probably derived from the verb mashak, “to pull/drag,” and thus points to something that “pulls”— a cord or belt. Thus, the meaning of the verse 31 would be:

 

    “Can you bind together the cluster of the Pleiades or loosen Orion’s belt?”

 

God moves to more constellations in verse 32, again using the method of placing verbs in first and last place of the sentence. This time it is the common verb yatsa (“to come out”) at the beginning and the less frequent nachah (39x, “to lead/guide”) at the end.  

 

    “Have you brought out the Mazzaroth in its season; can you lead the Bear and its cubs?"

 

In this verse we have God simply presenting two more constellations and asking if Job “leads” them or “makes them come out.” That is clear enough.  

 

But the first constellation has confused interpreters almost since it was penned. Clines gives nearly a dozen suggestions that have been made to translate the hapax Mazzaroth in verse 32. Many think it is the same word as the mazzaroth of II Kings 23:5. In the latter passage King Josiah is described as deposing idolatrous priests who had made sacrifices to Baal, the sun, the moon, the constellations (mazzaroth) and all the hosts of heaven. If the two concepts are identical, then God would simply be asking Job in 38:32 whether he has ability to bring out or lead out constellations in general.  “Bringing out” probably suggests making them appear in the night sky. I have rendered the second half of the sentence as “Can you lead the Bear and its cubs,” though there now rages a micro-debate about whether the ayish is indeed the Bear. Clines suggests that ayish refers to Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. 

 

I will leave that debate to the specialists while only commenting on the verb nachah, “to lead/guide.” Thankfully it is a verb with very few meanings; it has previously appeared in Job 12:23, where its meaning must be to “lead away” (in judgment), and Job 31:18, where Job describes how he has “guided/led” the widows through his righteous judgments.

 

Since God already knows that Job has nothing to do with binding or loosing the Pleiades or Orion, He also must know that Job can’t bring out the Mazzaroth or lead/guide the Bear with its lesser stars. God concludes this short section on the constellations by stepping back and asking a more generic question of Job in verse 33:

 

    “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens; can you place/arrange their dominion in the earth?"

 

The meaning of verse 33 seems clear enough. It points to Job’s ignorance of the more general subject of what one might call the “laws of the heavenly bodies,” bodies which also exercise a dominion (because they affect the light or weather, or maybe even the moods of people) on earth. Yet a few points ought to be made about the language and its meaning. For the eighth time in this chapter, God employs the verb yada (“to know,” vv 2, 3, 4, 5, 12, 18, 21, 33), mostly to show Job what he doesn’t know. In this case Job is ignorant of the “laws/ordinance” (chuqqah, 105x) of heavens. Chuqqah is the feminine form of the even more common choq (126x, see 28:26; 31:10). As mentioned earlier, choq is one of the eight terms used in Psalm 119 to describe the “law” of God, but here it points to something other than Israel’s Torah. Chuqqah/choq suggests an orderly creation, which runs counter to Job’s allegations throughout the book that there really is no order, at least in the moral realm.

 

That order is on God’s mind in verse 33 is confirmed by the second clause of that verse, which uses the common verb sim (“to put/place”) to talk about God’s “arrangement” or “placement” of their “dominion” in the earth. But there are two problems with the little word mishtar, rendered “dominion.” First it is a hapax, though we think it is derived from the noun shoter (25x), which appears 5x in Exodus 5 to describe a “foreman” of the children of Israel.  Beyond Exodus it then mostly appears in Deuteronomy and Chronicles to describe an “officer” of the people. Thus, we are on solid grounds for seeing mishtar’s field of meaning relating to a realm or act of authority. But the second difficulty is that its suffix is the masculine singular, which gives it a literal translation of “its authority” or “its dominion,” when the ordinances (plural) are in view. As with so many other grammatical constructions in Job, where singulars are taken as plurals or passives are rendered active, let’s conclude that we have “their dominion” (i.e., the rule of the ordinances of the heavens) on earth. Verse 33, then, closes a literarily powerful section, even though Job never would have contested the ideas God mentions or answered anything other than a resounding  "No!" to the divine questions.