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402. Job 39:13-18, The Ostrich


13 “The ostriches’ wings flap joyously

With the pinion and plumage of love,

14 For she abandons her eggs to the earth

And warms them in the dust,

15 And she forgets that a foot may crush them,

Or that a wild beast may trample them.

16 She treats her young cruelly, as if they were not hers;

Though her labor be in vain, she is unconcerned;

17 Because God has made her forget wisdom,

And has not given her a share of understanding.

18 When she lifts herself on high,

She laughs at the horse and his rider.


At least three of the six verses on the ostrich give us significant translation difficulties. In addition, we are not sure exactly which animal/bird we are dealing with here, though all the sources tell us it is “ostrich.” The word describing it, renen, is a hapax, and is likely derived from the kind of cry made by the bird (ranan is to “give a shout/piercing cry”) rather than some other kind of animal/bird we can identify. When the English word “ostrich” again appears in the Bible (Lamentations 4:3), a new and unrelated hapax appears, yaen, which may or may not be derived from the verb anah, “to answer.”   


Yet, when we actually look at the ways the ostrich is described in these verses, we are stunned at the specificity and insight of the author/God. As hinted above, it is almost as if the author here had a “natural history guide”-type document available to him in describing the creatures in God’s first speech. This would complement my proposed document, which I semi-seriously characterized as more like a discarded schoolboy workbook or tablet that Eliphaz had available to him in 4:10-11 where he gave us five different words describing various kinds of lions.  

Verse 13 is one of the three verses that give us translation headaches. Let’s try first a literal rendering:


    “The wings of the ostrich are joyful/beat delightfully, if pinions and feathers of the stork.”


Well, obviously we have to work with this a bit. The conjunction in the middle of the verse is the  

common im, usually translated “if,” but also allowing the meaning of “surely” or “or” or “except/but.” If we go with the last meaning, we would have a contrast between two birds: the ostrich and stork. This is probably a good approach, since those birds have a superficial similarity with long and thin legs, wide midsections and skinny necks. 


Then, we don’t know exactly what the verb alas (3x, here rendered “are joyful/beat joyfully”) means. In its other two appearances it can mean “to delight” (Proverbs 7:18) or “rejoice/enjoy” (Job 20:18). But since wings are the subject of the verse, it makes sense to see the verb alas connected with wings as well as its root concept of being joyful.  Hence, the translation suggested is “beat joyfully,” though we really don’t know if that is what the text says. In passing we note that the verbs alaz and alats, seemingly related to alas, also occupy the verbal space of “rejoicing/exulting.”


Finally, the last phrase has occasioned lots of debate. Many scholars, including Clines, see the final word (notsah, 4x) not meaning “plumage” but being a different form of the word for “falcon” (nets). A contrast would then be between the ostrich and two other kinds of birds. I will stay with “pinions and feathers/plumage.” In order for the standard translation of the sentence to make sense, we have to add the words, not in the text, “not like,” so that there is a note of contrast between the wings of the ostrich and the stork. After all, the latter can use wings to fly, but the former can’t get off the ground.  The word for “stork” is eye-catching: chasidah. It is the feminine form of the noun chasid, meaning “pious.” Perhaps all that standing around in shallow water made people think the bird was praying. . .perhaps people thought that it treated its young in a respectful and pious fashion…who knows?  So after all this verse 13 yields:


    “The wings of the ostrich flap joyously, but not like the feathers and plumage of the stork."


Phew. You kind of wish that God would have had mercy on us and said it a bit more directly, but, as Isaiah assures us, the divine ways are not human ways.  


Now we turn to characteristics or actions of the ostrich. Verse 14 is clearer:


    “For she leaves/forsakes her eggs in/to the earth and upon the dust she warms them/lets them 



We have run into the common verb azab (“to leave/forsake”) as recently as verse 11. Emphasized here is the unusual way that the ostrich incubates the eggs (betsah, 6x, with two appearances in both Isaiah 59:5 and Deuteronomy 22:6) of its young. The translation can either be that the ostrich leaves them “in” the ground or “to/on” the ground. Emphasized here, however, is the latter, since the “warming” (chamam, 13x/2x Job) seems to happen through the rays of the sun rather than because of their being buried in the earth. Her natural inclination to leave/forsake her eggs will get her into trouble, but that is just the way of the ostrich. 


Note that no mention is made about the strangeness of this process or the wondrous wisdom of God in allowing such diversity among the creatures. Observations alone guide the poet. A precise translation of the verb chamam here is difficult. The form of the verb suggests that we should render it, “she warms them on the dust,” as if the ostrich actually is sitting on them, but that can’t be right because of the crushing of the eggs in the next verse.  So, we have to supply a slightly different translation—“lets them warm”—in order for things to make sense.


Verse 15 describes the unfortunate result of this “forsaking” or “leaving” of the eggs. It is a fairly straightforward verse:


    “She forgets that a foot may crush them or that a beast of the field may break them.


All the action here is with the verbs:  zur (translated “crush”) and dush (translated “break”). Zur only appears elsewhere in Isaiah 1:6 and Judges 6:38. In the latter instance it refers to Gideon’s “crushing/squeezing out” water in the morning from the fleece he placed out dry the previous evening. In Isaiah 1:6 zur refers to wounds of the people that have not been “squeezed/pressed out/closed up.” Note the frequent overlap of God’s first speech in Job 38-39 with Isaiah 1. They both have references to oxen and asses, though using different words; the rare word for manger/crib (ebus) appears in both (Job 39:9; Isaiah 1:3); now there is the overlap with the rare verb zur.  


Dush appears much more frequently (14x) and can mean to “thresh” (wheat, Deuteronomy 25:4; II Kings 13:7) but also means “to trample” (Isaiah 25:10: Habakkuk 3:12), which obviously is meant here. Verse 15 suggests that the ostrich’s practice of abandoning her eggs to the earth/dust makes it more likely that they will end up being destroyed either purposely or inadvertently by predators. Rather than attributing this to animal instinct, the author interestingly points to the ostrich’s “forgetting” the ways of nature, as if its continual laying out of its young reflects a continual pattern of forgetting.  Hmm. Maybe the way of the ostrich is, ‘Oops, I forgot again.  Twenty more of my young were crushed. . .I’ll have to start making a list to remind myself not to do this. . .’


Verse 16 reflects more on this unusual practice of leaving/abandoning the young. The words of this verse are almost impenetrable at points, even though most translations give a fluency that doesn’t even encourage the reader to pause. Literally, we have 


    “He treats the young harshly to not/none to her in vain is her labor without fear."


Huh? First we are confused by a reference to “he” for the ostrich when the feminine has previously been used, but we elide that difficulty quickly by saying “she” and recognizing that the Book of Job often has its own grammar. Treating the young harshly is a defensible translation of the verb qashach followed by the noun for “sons.” The only other place where an ostrich is referred to (Lamentations 4:3, though with different word for “ostrich”) also has the interesting reference to cruelty or harshness. There the ostrich has “grown fierce/cruel” (akzar, 4x, two of which are in Job). The phrase “to not/none to her” is usually rendered, “as if they were not her’s,” a translation that both can, with difficulty, be extracted from the words and makes sense in the context of the passage. That is, abandoning them on the ground makes it look like she is treating her young as if they didn’t belong to her. 


We need to put a colon or some kind of punctuation mark in the middle so that the last part is a separate thought. But it still confuses us. The word for “labor” is yegia (16x), which we have just seen five verses previously to describe the labor of the wild ox. Thus, the meaning of the word generally takes us away from the experience of child-bearing or incubation of eggs and into the world of toil and the results of toil (produce, product).  


This meaning, however, gives us difficulties here. Why would her labor be in vain unless it is her abandoning/leaving her eggs that is referred to? For, there can be no more empty gesture than placing your eggs out on the dust where, according to one study, about 90% of the eggs are destroyed or taken away by predators. We need to read the yegia, then, in connection with the practice just described and not some kind of “toil/work” that the ostrich does beyond this.  


The last two Hebrew words of verse 16 are “without fear.” What could it mean to say that “Her labor is in vain, without fear. . .”? The most reasonable suggestion that has been made is that she has no fear of this happening (the destruction of her young) probably because she is not only a bit foolish but also pit-bull dumb.  This conclusion would fit well with the words of the following verse (verse 17), which says, with the only reference to God in this section:


    “Because God has made her forget wisdom; and has not apportioned understanding to her."

This is the only “intervention” of God into the affairs of the ostrich and it seems like a pretty mild intervention. God makes her “forget” (nashah, 6x) wisdom. Zophar used the verb in a harsh manner in 11:6 to suggest that God had “forgotten” some of Job’s sin—i.e., had not even punished him severely enough. The more common verb for forgetting, which may be related to this one in form, is shakach (103x), which we just saw in verse 15.  


Of more interest in this verse is the return of traditional wisdom terminology, in this case the two important words chokmah and binah. Though binah only appears 38x in the Bible, nine of these are in Job, with four of them on God’s lips (38:4, 36; 39:17, 26).  Noteworthy is the connection of binah with chokmah also in 38:36, a verse we felt was either misplaced or needed a great deal of interpretation to make sense in that context.  It shows that God, too, is committed to the wisdom tradition virtues of wisdom and understanding.  


It would be asking too much of the text to expect it to yield an answer to the question of why God had not given the ostrich this understanding. It isn’t as if we can argue that at one time the ostrich had it but God deprived it of understanding or that God might have some kind of secret design in view by so hiding wisdom and understanding from the ostrich. It is almost as if the writer/editor of this part of Job decided to add a reference to God in the “natural history report” that underlies this text just as one might gently editorialize and mention the magnificent wisdom or power of God in creating the Grand Canyon when reading a more secular geological description of it.

The same should be said about the verb chalaq (65x, “apportion/divide/share”) in the second clause.  There are foolish creatures out there, creatures to whom God hasn’t given a “share” of understanding. But no suggestion is made that Job ought to apply this to himself and conclude that he is unwise. We are fully focused on the ways of the ostrich.


The final verse on the ostrich (verse 18) is likewise confusing. We think it has to do with when the ostrich decides to dash off for whatever reason. When this happens, all of nature is awed because of her swiftness of foot. That might then lie behind the curious reference to her laughing at/scorning the horse and its rider. She might laugh at them because she is moving much faster than they are. . .’Slowpoke,’ she says, guffawing.  


That, indeed, is the most common way of reading this verse.  But we can only get there by doing some damage to the first clause of verse 18. Literally, we have:


    “In the time of its rising she is dirty/raises up (?); she chuckles at the horse and its rider."


We are confused by the first clause because the first words are clear (“time” and “in rising;” the latter from the verb rum, “to rise up”) but then we have the rare verb mara (2x). In its only other appearance (Zephaniah 3:1) it seems to suggest something that is rebellious or dirty or polluted (the verb appears there in parallel construction with gaal, “to be stained/defiled”). But that won’t work here, which is probably why the BDB says that its meaning is “dubious.”  


The word seems to have both “rebellion/bitterness” in it as well as, possibly, “to rise up,” which has led most translators to talk about “spreading her plumes aloft” (Clines) or “spread(ing) her feathers to run” (NIV). Others are more cautious than the NIV, just emphasizing the time when she “lifteth up herself on high” (KJV) or “raises her wings on high” (Jewish).  But the inclination is strong to add the note of her running with the wings aloft, something like a woman lifting her flowing skirts to vault a mud puddle, because the second half of the verse has her laughing at the horse and rider. ‘Why would she do so,’ the argument runs, ‘unless she was outpacing them?’


In any case, we are glad for the presentation of the ostrich’s incubation techniques here. Job certainly wouldn’t have known about it, and it is a striking feature of creation. If not exactly a humanist, God is showing Himself a competent natural scientist.