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397. Job 38:34-38, More Meteorological Phenomena
34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
So that an abundance of water will cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings that they may go
And say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the innermost being
Or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who can count the clouds by wisdom,
Or tip the water jars of the heavens,
38 When the dust hardens into a mass
And the clods stick together?
God's rhetoric reaches rare heights here. Though sometimes the text is seemingly opaque, such as in verse 38, and sometimes we have a hard time figuring out the flow of the verses, such as why verse 36 takes us from the clouds to the innermost being of people and then back to the clouds again (in v 37), in other instances this passage presents such stunning images to make us stop in our tracks. Their purpose seems to show Job his lack, not of understanding or knowledge, but of power. Job cannot control the rain and the lightning. That is what verse 34 suggests. We sometimes have the vague feeling that God has covered this ground already, what with discussions of treasuries of snow and hail (vv 22-24) or cleaving a channel for the flood of rain on the earth (vv 25-27) or talking about the distribution of light (v 24) or even discussing the origins of the rain and ice (vv 28-30), but the picture is no less attractive.
Clouds are front and center here. This may be because they functioned so beautifully for Elihu in describing God’s greatness and thereby gave God a "talking point." Two words for “clouds” that Elihu repeatedly used are shachaq in 35:5; 36:28; 37:18, 21 and ab in 36:29; 37:11, 16. God is a God who controls the clouds, loading them with moisture (37:11), balancing them in perfect harmony (37:16). Thus, the author can’t let God finish the first part of the divine speech in Job 38 without some reference to clouds. It aids God in showing Job's powerlessness.
Let’s make a few comments about the flow, language and difficulty of verses 34-38. In a style familiar to us from verses 15, 16, 17, 22, 31 and 32, God starts and ends verse 34 with verbs. Here the verbs are the common rum (“to lift up”) and kasah (“to cover”). The meaning is crystalline. God asks Job if Job has the authority to lift up his voice to the clouds (ab, 32x) or to command them so that “an abundance of water” might cover him. Can Job make it rain? Of course not.
The word rendered “abundance” is the rare shiphah (6x) which elsewhere appeared in Job (22:11) to mean “a multitude.” It can be a “company” of people (II Kings 9:17). Its masculine form, the hapax shepha, appears in Deuteronomy 33:19 also in connection with a multitude, this time of waters. The rain, obviously, is in view but since the point of the passage is to slip in the word for “clouds,” the author does everything he can not to use the common word for “rain,” which has already appeared in Job 38.
Well, now that rain has been mentioned, though not with the word matar, God goes on to mention lightning, though with a different word than was previously used. Previously God had spoken of lightning using or, “light” (v 24) or the rare chaziz, “lightning” (v 25) but now it is baraq (21x), which appeared previously on Zophar’s lips (20:25) to describe the “glittering point” of a sword. It appears in the plural in the beautiful verse 35:
“Can you send forth lightnings, so that they walk/go and so that they say to you 'Here we are!'"
The verse is dramatic for three reasons. First, it uses both the simple, but powerful, verb “send out” (shalach), which can cover everything from “stretching out” one’s hand (Genesis 3:22) to “sending out” a raven or a dove from the ark (Genesis 8:7, 8) to sending out angels or plagues or any manner of things. Second, God uses the simple verb halak, "to walk", to describe the movement of the lightning. It is reminiscent of the "And they walk" (halak), which characterized the life of humans in Job 14:20. Third, our passage uses that most Hebrew of exclamations, “Here we are!” at the end. When God calls people in the Scriptures, their proper response is “Here am I” (Isaiah 6:8) or “Speak Lord, for your servant hears” (I Samuel 3:5, 6). It is meant to describe a person’s alacrity or readiness to perform service without reservation. God knows that the lightnings obey Him without reservation; they stand at the ready, eager to do the divine bidding. Can Job speak with the same authority? The six Hebrew words comprising verse 35 present a mini-world of loveliness and elegance.
But then, perhaps awed by his own performance in verse 35, God slips into obscurity. Two rare words appear in verse 36, but a typical translation is:
“Who has placed wisdom in the innermost parts? Or who has given understanding to the mind?”
Everything seems wrong with this verse or the translation. We are in the heavens with the clouds and lightning in verses 34-35, we will be in the clouds again in verse 37, but then we have a potential reference to “inward parts” or “mind” in verse 36. We should still be in the clouds. Faced with this difficulty, Clines and others have decided that the rare words rendered “inward parts” and “mind” really ought to be rendered “the ibis” and the “cock.” Where did that come from? Even if we want to go in that direction, it still takes us away from the clouds, which seems to be a focus of this section.
The two words in question are tuchah, which only appears elsewhere in Psalm 51:6, where it is usually rendered “inward parts” and the hapax sekvi, which looks like no other Hebrew word we know. Clines tells us that tuchoth was a word for “ibis,” a translation that is followed by the generally conservative NIV. Then, if you have one animal in the first part of the verse, you have to find another animal in the second—and “rooster” or “cock” it is. Clines gives 13 different approaches to the word sekvi, ranging from “rooster/cock” to “full moon” or “lightning flashes” to a number of other interesting suggestions.
I prefer to stay in the clouds, and thus I have a problem coming up with a meaning for the verse. Let’s just say that both tuchah and sekvi refer to the inner phenomena of the clouds or lightning, rather than the human heart, leaving that thought purposefully vague.
We only come out of the obscurity in verse 37. The first question is generally understood as:
“Who can number the clouds by wisdom?”
though Clines and others take the rather clear verb saphar (“to count, reckon, number”) in the direction of dispersing, so that the idea behind verse 37 is really the dispersal or spreading of the clouds. But if we thought this was confusing, we just need to finish the verse:
“Or the bottles of heaven who can make lie down?”
The appearance of “bottles” or “jugs” (nebel, 38x) is fully unexpected yet strikingly winsome. It describes the "containers," so to speak, of the rains in heaven, rains that fall on the earth. The verb at the end of verse 37 (shakab, 208x) is, unmistakably, the verb for “lying down.” It appears ten other times in Job; in each instance “lie down” is the right translation (e.g., 3:13; 7:4, 21, etc). But because no one can make sense of the idea of bottles or jugs of heaven lying down, people have increasingly used the verb “tilt” the “waterskins/bottles” of heaven to translate this question. I prefer to give a clear translation, even though its meaning is not especially clear. By making the "bottles lie down," the author/God may be suggesting a cessation of the rains, after they have done their work. Maybe, however, God finds attractive the scrunched up eyes and quizzical expressions of His servants when they say, “Huh?”
We think that God has just about exhausted the subject of rain and that is confirmed by verse 38, confusing at first but beautiful on further reflection. The subject has been rain and clouds, and so we first try to connect the meaning of verse 38 with that subject. Literally, we have:
“When the dust is poured out/hardens in clumps and the clods cling together.”
Well, the concept of dust being poured out (yatsaq, 51x) doesn’t make much sense, but yatsaq, a verb taken from the process of smelting or casting metallic objects, can both mean to "harden" and to "pour out." If we take this rather flexible verb yatsaq to mean the opposite of pouring out, that is “congealing” or “hardening," meaning emerges. Rain happens in verse 34-35 and verse 37. This leads to a "clumping" of the dust, a terrestrial process like the process of casting metal objects. Dust congeals through the rain, turning the soil into balls or other dirt objects.
Yet we might be able to take the somewhat opaque five Hebrew words of verse 38 in a different direction. What if the mutsaq, the middle word, is derived not from yatsaq, which would emphasize the congealing of the dirt, but from tsuq, meaning "to constrain." Then, one reading of this alluring but difficult verse might be:
"Hardening the dust; constraining the clods to cleave."
If the word mutsaq in 38:38 is translated "constrain" or "restrain," it would be a divine echo of that most important word of Elihu in 36:16, where Elihu promised Job that God would lead him into a place "without constraint." It might also hearken back to Elihu's use of it in 37:10, where ice was sent out, and the breadth of the waters was "restrained."
The final words of verse 38 are:
“And the clods cleave.”
This time the word for “clods” is not the result of the “casting” process (mutsaq) but is the rare regeb, which only appears here and Job 21:33. Easier is the verb dabaq, which unquestionably means to “cleave” or “cling.” Its most memorable usage is in Genesis 2:24, where the man and wife are said to “cleave” (dabaq) to one another. But here, if we want to maintain the image of clouds and torrents (in this case the “bottles” of heaven) of rain, we must have the result of that process here: mud or dirty clods. It may not sound impressive on first, or even second reading, but the congealing of dirt is a fitting way to end the dramatic catalog of divine things.