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399. Job 39:1-4, The Mountain Goat (Ibex)
39:1 “Do you know the time the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
2 “Can you count the months they fulfill,
Or do you know the time they give birth?
3 They kneel down, they bring forth their young,
They get rid of their labor pains.
4 Their offspring become strong, they grow up in the open field;
They leave and do not return to them.
The implication of the previous section was that God provided prey or food for the lions and ravens. Here the subject changes to that of the process of giving birth. Though no mention is made of God causing the mountain goats to give birth, we get the impression that God also supervises or enables this process. God also reintroduces here the favorite concept of Job 38: knowledge. Does Job “know” the time of their giving birth (39:1, 2; see also Job 38:2, 3, 4, 5, 12, 18, 21, 33)? Job must have been rolling his eyes—‘Here we go again, on knowledge. . .’ Again, God combines a presentation of the physical activity of the animal (giving birth in 39:1-2) with additional knowledge about them (the young go forth and don’t return—39:4). This not only lends the poetry a majestic air but gives the impression that God could have told 100 more things about the raven or mountain goat if given the chance.
The first three words of 39:1 have a euphonious ring to them, ending as they do with similar letters (etta-eth-deth; “you know/season/bring forth”). The animal in question here is the yael or, more specifically, the yael of the rock, with the rare yael (3x) usually being rendered as “wild goat” or “mountain goat” or “ibex.” There is some debate whether the ayallah of verse 1 (generally rendered as “doe” or “hind”) just refers back to the mountain goat or is yet another animal. Most prefer to see it just as the female of the species, the one which actually bears the young.
In addition to using the word “know” twice in this passage, God also uses the literary device of verbs beginning and ending the sentence, which He used so effectively many times in Job 38 (e.g., vv 15, 16, 17, 22, 31, 32 and 34). Here verses 1-3 use that device. So, literally, we have:
“Know you…..preserve/watch over” (v 1);
“Number/count….bring forth” (v 2);
“Bow down….send forth” (v 3).
Verses 1-2 ask the same question twice: whether Job knows anything about the birthing process of the mountain goats. The language of these two verses is a bit more choppy than our elegant translations admit. Literally, we have:
“Do you know the time that the mountain goats of the rock bear? Do you observe/watch the
writhing in the birth pangs of the doe? Do you number the months they fulfill (until birth);
Do you know the season they give birth?”
These four question are really one question, but they allow God to vary His vocabulary, especially using the polysemic verb chul (60x/6x Job), which can mean “to begin” or “to shake/tremble” or “to writhe in pain” or “to give birth” or “to wait patiently/be firm” or “to burst.” Here it means “to give birth.”
Verse 3 describes the birthing process, again using a word for “crouching,” but this time it is not the lying in wait/crouching of the lion seeking its prey but the crouching to give birth. The Hebrew verb is kara, which usually just means “to bow/kneel down” but can elsewhere also point to the birthing process (I Samuel 4:19). In one of the most thickly-worded verses of the book, God says literally in verse 3 (only 5 Hebrew words):
“They crouch and are split open (giving birth to) their young. They send out their band."
While I already mentioned the new word for “crouch,” the most interesting word of the five is the verb palach (5x), which means “to pierce/cut/slice/split.” This verb gives us one of the special thoughts of Job (like God’s “shattering” the law in 38:10) that take us into the violence behind the creation and maintenance of order in the natural world. But the result of this giving birth through splitting open is “sending out” of the young. The two Hebrew words for splitting open/sending are palach/shalach. No doubt the rhyming pattern was one reason for choosing both.
Though it is the offspring of the mountain goats that are “sent out” (shalach), we pause for a moment on the word chebel, rendered “offspring” or “band” as well as what “sent out” might mean. Chebel is a most unexpected word, and it can mean everything from “territory” to “cord” to a “band/group/company” (of prophets, I Samuel 10:5) to “sorrows/labor pains.” As a result of the last translation, almost all scholars and translations render this last phrase as “they deliver their offspring” (Clines) or “their labor pains are ended” (NIV) or “cast their fruit.” This makes sense, too, since verse 3 would then be about the birthing process and verse 4 about the growing process, but “sending out their cords/band/birth pangs” is a strange way of saying that their labor is ended. I’ll agree with the traditional reading primarily because of the good flow it then creates between verses 3 and 4.
Verse 4 then introduces a few confusing words but emphasizes the process of the young mountain goats growing and leaving the parents. First, they “grow strong” and then they “grow in the open fields” and, finally, “they go out and don’t return.” Problematic in this neat translation is that the first verb chalam (30x) almost always means “to have a dream,” though that wouldn’t really fit here. In Isaiah 38:16 it is rendered “get well” or “get strong,” which probably lies behind the reading of “grow strong” here.
The phrase “grow in the open fields” is also unusual, until we realize that there is just a nice play on sounds going on: the two words are r-b (rabah, “become large”) and b-r (bar, “grain/corn). Just the sound is enough to satisfy us. They leave and don’t return. Interesting in this catalogue of animals and their activities is the fact that God’s actual superintendence/guidance isn’t mentioned. It is as if God is just describing the habits of the offspring of the mountain goat without commenting on how they are cared for when they depart. An engaging miniature is presented.