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398. Job 38:39-39:30, Seven Strophes on the Beasts

 

The second half of God’s first speech focuses on about a dozen animals, their birth and habits, and on Job’s knowledge either of their habits or ability to control their lives or movements. If 38:1-38 was intended to show Job his ignorance of celestial phenomena, 38:39-39:30 are designed to show Job his shortcomings with terrestrial life. What is interesting in the list of animals over the next 33 verses is what is absent:  there is no mention of fish of the sea, domesticated animals or God’s most special “animal”—humans. The focus in these seven strophes is on several wild animals and a few soaring birds. Our outline for this section is as follows:

 

38:39-41, The Lion and the Raven

39:1-4, The Mountain Goat (Ibex)

39:5-8, The Wild Ass (Onager)

39:9-12, The Wild Ox 

39:13-18, The Ostrich

39:19-25, The War Horse

39:26-30, The Eagle and Hawk

 

38:39-41, The Mountain Lion and the Raven

 

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,

Or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,

40 When they crouch in their dens

And lie in wait in their lair?

41 Who prepares for the raven its nourishment

When its young cry to God

And wander about without food?

 

Though the question of verse 39-40 is a relatively simple one (“Do you supply food for the lions?”), it is worded with more poetic elegance than that. In addition, two words for lion are used, which happen to be two of the five used for lion by Eliphaz in his first speech (4:10-11). Literally, we have (vv 38-39):

 

    “Will you hunt the prey for the lion? Will you fill the appetite of the young lions when they crouch

     in their lairs and dwell in their dens lying in wait?”

 

The verb for for hunting (tsud, 18x) begins this section. It only means “to hunt,” and so we don’t have to reach far for a meaning. Its most memorable early three appearances in the Bible are in Genesis 27, where Isaac sends his son Esau out to the field to “hunt game” (tsud tsayid is the felicitous phrase of 27:5). In Job 38:39 it is hunting for “prey” (tereph, 23x), which is derived from the verb taraph, meaning “to tear/rend.” Job is asked whether he spends his time hunting prey for the lion (labiy, 14x), which many versions render as “lioness,” but ever since Eliphaz dazzled us with his vocabulary skill on lions in 4:10-11, we aren’t really sure which is a lioness, which a young lion, which a fierce lion, etc. Thankfully, God isn’t giving Job a vocabulary test here, but simply mentioning two kinds of lion (the other is kephir, 32x) which Job doesn’t feed.

 

The second question of verse 38 asks the same thing, but with the unusual phrase “the appetite (literally “the being/life”) of lions.” Though Job isn’t asked here whether he “satisfies” them (the verb would be saba, as in 38:27), the actual verb used (the common male, “fill”) means just about the same thing.  


Verse 40 then does something that we will see repeatedly in the next chapter— it gives us more details about the life of these creatures. Perhaps this is just to show God’s knowledge and Job’s ignorance, but it functions to provide us with a more complete biblical natural history than we have hitherto seen. In this case the lions “crouch” (shachath, 21x, “crouch/stoop/bow down”) in their “lairs” (meonah, 10x) and “dwell” (the common verb yashab) in their “dens” (sukkah, 31x) lying in wait for it (ereb, 2x, obviously derived from arab, 41x).  

 

We go slowly with all the words not simply because many of them have appeared previously in Job but because they aren’t the only words that could be chosen to express the idea. For example, the concept of stooping/lying down/crouching/bowing down is also captured by the similar verb shachah as well as the notable verb rabats, which unforgettably entered our field of vision when God told Cain that “sin is lying/crouching (rabats) at your door” (Genesis 4:7). In Job 38 God uses the word shachach, which also appeared in 9:13 when Job spoke of the mythological helpers of Rahab “crouching” or “stooping” under the anger of God. We see the lions crouching. Are they ready to spring on their prey?  Are they famished and are just stooping in exhaustion?


They are in their meonah, a word obviously derived from maon, and meaning “refuge/den/dwelling place.” We have seen it in 37:8, in Elihu’s mouth. Elihu also used the second word for dwelling place (sukkah, literally “tent/booth”) in the eye-catching phrase of 36:29, which talked about thunderings in the divine sukkah or “pavilion.”  

 

But most interesting is the way that God skillfully closes this verse and links it with the next. These lions crouch in their dens, waiting for the prey which God supplies. They “lie in wait,” which is expressed through the word ereb, which only appears elsewhere in 37:8. The word ereb is placed in parallel construction with meonah in the first half of the verse.  Thus in this passage it may have the dual meaning of a place to dwell and the idea of lying in wait (ereb from arab, 41x, “to lie in wait/ambush”). We can just see the lion perched there, lying in wait in his dwelling place to pounce on the prey while God uses one word to capture both. 

 

Even more interesting, however, is that this rare word ereb becomes the word linking verse 40-41. At first there appears to be little connection between young lions lying in wait in verse 40 and the ravens in verse 41. Until, that is, we realize that the Hebrew word for “raven” is spelled identically, but pointed differently, to erab/arab. It is oreb. Thus, all of a sudden, verse 41 makes sense.

 

    “Who provides its prey for the raven (oreb) when its young ones cry out to God and wander about

     without food?”

 

The concept of “prey” is the same, though God uses the noun form of the verb “hunt” (tsud) of verse 39 to express the idea of “prey” (tsayid). Rather than a usual verb for “provide”, we have the common verb kun, which usually is better rendered as “establish” or “make firm,” though it can mean “to prepare” (Genesis 43:25; Exodus 23:20, etc). Again, we have the touching little detail of the vulnerability of these creatures, as its young ones cry out (it is a cry to God, according to God), and wander about (taah, 50x) looking for food. One of the early memorable appearances of the verb taah in the Bible is in Gen 37:15, where Joseph was “wandering” around looking for his brothers.  

 

God provides for vulnerable creatures that are either soaring overhead and lying in their dens. Job doesn’t do that. Job can’t do that. God’s description of these two creatures (three different words:  labiy, kephir, oreb) shows not only God’s merciful provision for them, but God’s understanding of their ways. It almost makes us want to ask, ‘If God is so aware of the ways of lesser creatures, does He also know the inner movements and mind of the human creature?’