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400. Job 39:5-8, The Wild Ass/Onager


5 “Who sent out the wild donkey free?

And who loosed the bonds of the swift donkey,

6 To whom I gave the wilderness for a home

And the salt land for his dwelling place?

7 He scorns the tumult of the city,

The shoutings of the driver he does not hear.

8 He explores the mountains for his pasture

And searches after every green thing.


God continues the divine description of another wild animal here: the wild ass/donkey or onager. Though two Hebrew words are used to describe it (pere, 10x, and the hapax arod), most scholars would say that only one animal is in view. Hebrew has an abundance of words to describe animals, domesticated and wild. The first word selected here, pere, made a more dramatic Scriptural entrance than most words for animals in that Ishmael was likened to one. But what does it mean that Ishmael was called a “wild ass of a man” (Genesis 16:12)? Our first inclination is to equate that with wildness or uncouthness, but other uses of pere emphasize solitary life (Hosea 8:9) or freedom in living in the wilderness (Jeremiah 2:24). Job has a disproportionate share of its appearances (4x), but its uses are either neutral (6:5; 11:12) or ambiguous (24:5). God stays in the realm of wild animals as He questions Job, presumably because Job will have had little experience of their habits.  


What is stressed in this section, however, is what one might call the mystery of their wildness. They live in the wilderness, making the salt lands their dwelling place. Who could have imagined that there would be creatures delighting in these waste places (v 6)? Who would have imagined that the city or town, the hub of human life and society would be “laughed at” (v 7) by these creatures? What is stressed here is not so much Job’s ignorance or powerlessness, as in other places, but simply the seeming strangeness of animals delighting in situations that would be oppressive, or fatal, to humans.


Some scholars seem inclined to try to draw deeper theological lessons from the presentation of these wild animals. One might argue, for example, that God is the one who gives the wild ass its home and freedom; thus, God is the source of human freedom. But I don’t think this kind of argument works here. God is just picking up on interesting features of the animal world and presenting them to Job. Later in the chapter God will return to the technique of Job 38—i.e., quizzing Job on his powerlessness with respect to the war horse and the soaring hawks, but here God backs off from that more confrontational method.

Yet, God’s question in verse 5, which is supposed to be a rhetorical question (thus producing an obvious answer), has been answered in two ways by scholars. Here is the question:


    “Who has set free the wild ass; who has loosed the bonds of the wild ass?”


The construction of the verse is familiar to us now: though starting with an interrogative (miy, “who”?), it quickly then begins  and ends with verbs (shalach, “send out” and pathach, “to open/loose”). The subject is the freedom of the wild ass as it roams the steppes. Who has set it free/loosed its bonds?  Well, of course. . .er. . .hmm. . .

Clines goes with “No one!” while other scholars scream “God!” The issue has to do with how deeply one wants to look at the phenomena of nature as either constantly watched over by God or mostly “on their own” in the rough and tumble of life. I think the best answer to the question is, “Not you, Job!” Rather than focusing on the divine power, these sections seem to be interested both in anthropologically-based observations and a demonstration of Job’s comparative weakness or lack of knowledge.


With this as introduction, one then can read these verses rather quickly. The language of verse 5, just quoted, is reminiscent of the “freedom” and “bonds” language of Job 3:17-19. In that passage, where Job was thinking of how pleasant a life in Sheol would be, he speaks of the “freedom” (chophshi, 17x) enjoyed by prisoners (asir, 12x). Here, God speaks of the “freedom” (also chophshi) of the wild asses, who are loosed from their “bonds” (moser, 11x). Both asir/moser derive from the verb asar, “to bind/imprison” (70x). Perhaps God has found Job’s rumination about Sheol helpful for framing His portrait of the wild ass.


These pere/arod dwell in inhospitable climes, described either as the “steppe” or “desert plain” (arabah, 60x) or, more strikingly, a “salt land” (melechah, 3x). That the latter is a most unattractive location can be seen by a reference to it in Psalm 107:34, where one of things God does is to turn the “rivers into a desert” and the “fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.” The moral dimension of Psalm 107:34 is completely lacking in Job 39:6.


Job 39:7-8 give us as a sort of little bonus. We already have a description of the mysterious wild ass, but now we are told that they “scorn” (sachaq, 36x, “to laugh at”) the life of the city. The verb sachaq is obviously the same verb as tsachaq, also “to laugh at” (13x), which plays a major role in the announcement of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:12, 13, 15 (twice)). So, in a curious sort of way, we might see Job 39:5-8 as a gentle riff on the patriarchal story, referring both to the birth of Isaac and the character of Ishmael.  


But here the pere/arod laughs at the “tumult” (hamon, 83x) of the town (qiryah, 29x).  The word rendered “tumult” has a delightful variety of similar translations, such as the “murmur” or “roar” or “tumult” or “multitude” or “crowd” or “abundance.” It connotes the concept of activity, which contrasts with the life of the wild ass. Then a delightful little detail is dropped in. Because of the freedom of life in the steppe and the salt land, the wild ass doesn’t have to hear and obey the shout (teshuah, 4x) of the “taskmaster/driver” (from the verb nagas, to “drive/oppress”).  


Verse 8 concludes this vignette on the wild ass. Scholars differ on whether the first word, the actual form is yethur, is either a hapax noun describing the place where the wild ass lives (the “ranges” of hills) or is a verbal form, derived from tur, which means “to seek/spy out.” The meaning isn’t hugely affected; in both instances the wild ass would be back in his beloved steppes or salt lands seeking food. We don’t get the impression, as some scholars might argue, that the life in the salt lands is what you might call the price the wild ox pays for not being domesticated. No judgment is made on the wisdom of their choice or the difficulty of their life. I think that the concept of its life of freedom is the important theme.

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