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403. Job 39:19-25, The War Horse

 

19 “Do you give the horse his might?

Do you clothe his neck with a mane?

20 Do you make him leap like the locust?

His majestic snorting is terrible.

21 He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength;

He goes out to meet the weapons.

22 He laughs at fear and is not dismayed;

And he does not turn back from the sword.

23 The quiver rattles against him,

The flashing spear and javelin.

24 With shaking and rage he races over the ground,

And he does not stand still at the voice of the trumpet.

25 As often as the trumpet sounds he says, ‘Aha!’

And he scents the battle from afar,

And the thunder of the captains and the war cry.

 

Though the presentation of the ostrich was striking, the language of three of its six verses was difficult and even unclear at points. The same can’t be said about these seven verses on the war horse. Granted, a few words are hard to translate (the ramah of verse 19 or where the quiver is located in verse 23), but in these verses God reaches the pinnacle of His poetic power. The combination of alliteration, vivid metaphor and the piling up of the language of battle serve to bring the reader right into the conflict alongside the pawing, speeding and war-hungry horse.  

 

Before turning to the horse (sus), it might be useful to summarize the words used since 38:38 to describe the animals. We have had two for lions (labiy; kephir), one for the raven (oreb), two in describing either the wild goat or its hind (yael; ayallah), two to describe the wild ass (pere; arod), and one each to describe the wild ox (reem), ostrich (renen) and stork (chasidah). Along the way we mentioned how the wild ox/ass terminology differs from the words describing the domesticated ox and ass (shur; chamor of Isaiah 1:3) or the ostrich of Job differs in form from that of Lamentations (yaen). Due attention to these words will get us about one-sixth of the way to mastery of the complex animal terminology of Scripture.

 

As we turn to the war horse (sus) in verse 19 we immediately see a balanced poetic parallelism, with the each of the verbs, “to give” (natan) and “to clothe” (labash), beginning a phrase of three words. 

 

   “Have you given the horse strength?  Have you clothed his neck with XXX?”

 

The word for “strength” is geburah (61x/42x Job) which emphasizes mostly human, but occasionally divine or animal, might. The root, g-b-r, is the root for “male” or “warrior.” At first we are a bit surprised that God doesn’t use koach (125x, 21x in Job; “strength/might”), since it appears more frequently in Job than geburah and has just appeared in 39:11 to describe the strength of the wild ox, but koach shows up two verses later, an indication that these two terms are true synonyms. The concept of “might” expressed through geburah slowly begins to shade off into what often results with those who have might—pride or haughtiness—and the root for that is g-b-h or g-a-h.   

 

The word rendered XXX is ramah, a hapax that has been rendered as variously as “mane” or “thunder” or “vibration/quivering/fierceness.” The “thunder” translation derives from the similarity of the word ramah to raam (6x, “to thunder/thunder,” a word that will appear a few verses later—v 25). Most translators stick with the traditional “mane,” though some try to bridge the gap between these two suggestions and have a “quivering mane,” though it isn’t clear what that would look like. God’s two questions here assume a “No” answer.

 

Undaunted, God continues with a third question and then a vivid description in verse 20:

 

    “Can you frighten him/make him jump like a locust? His majestic snorting stakes terror/is                     terrible."

 

Since Clines suggests the translation of “quiver” for the verb in the first half of the verse (raash, 30x), we have a potentially humorous translation that includes a quivering neck in verse 19, quivering locusts in verse 20 and then a quiver (with arrows) in verse 23. That would be much too cute and would distract us from the signs of Hebrew eloquence that are not far to seek. I don’t follow it.  

 

The first indication of eloquence is in the use of r-a-type words. We have ramah (19), raash (20), ranah (23), raash (24), raam (25). It is hard to keep them straight and, since two of them are hapaxes and one is used metaphorically, they are sometimes hard to translate, but the insistent Hebrew sounds of r-a flood over us as we read. We have the word “rah-rah” in English to capture the sound of cheering on the team or a competitor; we might see the presence of this similar sound in Hebrew as functioning to “cheer on” the war horse as it snorts and then speeds off into battle.

 

Though the verb raash in the question of verse 20 is usually rendered “frighten/shake/quake,” and in its other 29 appearances it is often used to describe the “quaking” of the earth (Judges 5:4; II Samuel 22:8), we know that locusts don’t “quake” when they move. That is why most suggest “leap” or “jump” to capture the raash, even though there are other good verbs for “leap/jump” (e.g., “then will the lame man leap (dalag) like a deer,” Isaiah 35:6) in Hebrew. But our author/God is just getting warmed up with metaphorical use of language. Let’s see this as the first one in this passage.  

 

The words describing locusts are surprisingly diverse in the Bible when we, in English, barely could name more than one type. Thank the Prophet Joel for that. In Joel 1 we are introduced to at least four species of this creature.  But Job only uses arbeh (24x), possibly because of the euphonious echo of the word for “steppe” (arabah) a few verses previously (verse 6). Job can’t make the horse jump like a locust, to be sure, but now the poet has skillfully embedded in our mind the notion that the alacrity of the horse might be likened to the leaping of the locust. We read on. . .

 

Before the horse begins to move, it snorts. The word for “snorting” is nachar, which only elsewhere appears in Jeremiah 8:16, also describing the snorting of horses. But this majestic snorting strikes terror (emah, 17x). The word emah lives in the neighborhood with pachad, “fear” in Exodus 15:6, and thrice occurs elsewhere in Job connected with the verb “to scare/terrify/make afraid” (baath; 9:34; 13:21; 33:7). In 33:7 Elihu says, with quite a sense of self-importance, “Lo, my terror (emah) shall not make you afraid (baath).”

 

Though we might have wondered up until this point whether the horse was a domesticated or war horse, the terrible snorting removes all doubt. It is ready for war.  We see that especially in verse 21, where the horse’s preparation and then process is described:

 

    “He digs into the ground, and rejoices in strength; and goes out into the meeting of weapons/the      clash of arms. . .”

 

To be noted is that the verb “to dig” (chaphar, 22x/4x Job) is placed in the plural here.  It makes no sense, of course, but is another indication of what I would call Job’s “fluid grammar.” More important is the metaphor suggested by chaphar. More than a third of its appearances are in Genesis, especially Genesis 26 (vv 15, 18, etc), where Isaac is described as digging (chaphar) wells. The Egyptians frantically dug around (chaphar) in the soil for fresh water after Moses had commanded the water of the Nile to turn to blood (Exodus 7:24). Thus it is a word reflecting diligent activity and deep digging. With only a moment’s reflection we can understand its potency in verse 21. We see the horse not merely “pawing” at the ground, as most translations have it, but figuratively digging up the ground with the depth of a well as it prepares for the joyous battle encounter. 

 

And that note of joy follows immediately. Rather than using a verb with the r-n-n root, which the author has previously used, God uses the sus root for “rejoice,” a root pronounced identically to the word for horse, sus. The sus sus, the “horse rejoices.” It is fun to suss out this meaning. He rejoices in his strength (koach), the usual word for “strength” in the Book of Job. But then, after digging deep in the soil, so deep that one might think that the horse is digging its own grave, it enters the fray. But, surprisingly, the verb used to describe this movement is the common yatsa, “to go out.” More vivid verbs were no doubt at God’s disposal, but the understated yatsa might be just what we need while we are still absorbed in the “digging” and “rejoicing” sus.

 

The horse goes out, literally, for the “meeting” (the common verb qara) of arms. The word for “arms” (nesheq, 10x) is show-stopping because in its noun form it always means “weapons” (Job 20:24), but it is derived from the 35x-occurring verb meaning “to kiss.” We have the curious placement, then, of words for “meeting” and then “weapons” or “kiss,” perhaps reflecting the uncertainty that not only was felt in antiquity but also today that when one gets real close to another person or situation, it may unleash either a kiss or an attack.  


But here the meaning is crystalline. The horse, which has deeply dug into the earth, now is joyful and goes forth for the battle. I like the phrase “clash of arms” to capture the meaning of the more literal, and prosaic, “meeting of weapons.”  

 

We continue on with the war horse’s process in verse 22. Whereas the wild ass mocked or scorned (sachaq) the tumult of the city (verse 7), the war horse will now mock or laugh at (sachaq) fear. Verse 22 says:

 

    “He mocks at fear and isn’t dismayed; he doesn’t turn back from the sword.”

 

When you look directly at a horse you think it may be smiling; no doubt that common human experience is behind the horse’s laughing in this verse. Fear (pachad) is not part of his vocabulary; he isn’t dismayed (chathath, 51x).  The verb chathath made five appearances in Deuteronomy and Joshua (Deuteronomy 1:21; 31:8; Joshua 1:9; 8:1; 10:25), and its appearance was always in connection with the advice not to be fearful or dismayed. Job uses the verb 4x, most vividly in 7:14, where Job complains that God “frightens” (chathath) him with dreams. But our horse here isn’t dismayed; he seeks the clash of weapons and won’t turn back (the common shub) from the sword (the common chereb). He is deliriously delighted with the prospect of battle.

 

An unforgettable picture of the horse is presented in verse 23, even though there is some disagreement as to its precise translation. Here the emphasis is on the horse’s accouterments rather than its confident or mocking attitude:

 

    “A quiver rattles upon him, as well as the glittering spear and javelin.”

 

The translation is made difficult because the only verb in the sentence is a hapax, ranan, chiming in beautifully with the four other r-a sounds in this passage but difficult to render in English. If the verb is to be rendered “to rattle,” as most agree, then the picture seems to be that the quiver, full of arrows, makes its rattling noise as it strikes the horse’s back while the horse prances into battle.  Clines, however, following the distinguished Jewish scholar Robert Gordis, has argued that the first clause means “a quiverful of arrows whistles past it,” as if the author is describing the actual conflict and the meeting of arms. This would be consistent with the “meeting of weapons” at the end of verse 22, but normally when quivers and arrows are described in battle scenes (especially in Homer’s Iliad), it is the quiver of arrows on a person or animal.

 

Verse 23 gives us a few rare words. In addition to the hapax ranan, we have the ashpah (“quiver,” 6x) and the kidon (“javelin,” 9x). Though the horse may be ready to jump into battle, its rider (who, curiously, is not mentioned) has to be prepared for the encounter. Quivers and gleaming spears and javelins complete the description. The most memorable use of the word ashpah in the Bible is in Psalm 127:5, where a person is blessed whose “quiver” (i.e., home) is full of sons. The javelin (kidon) is often paired with another weapon (such as the “bow” of Jeremiah 6:23; 50:42); it was the weapon of choice of Goliath (I Samuel 17:6, 45) though it availed him not at all.   

 

As if we haven’t had enough eloquence so far in the description of the war horse, verse 24 gives us even more. A literal rendering is:

 

    “With trembling and tumult he drinks up the ground; he doesn’t trust himself to stand still at the

     sound of the horn.”

 

I have tried to capture the alliteration of the Hebrew in the first clause (raash/rogez). Our war horse, richly caparisoned and accoutered, which has already gone out to battle, now rushes forward even more. We never have the actual battle scene described—that is, we have no screaming warriors, dust flying, blood gushing, corpses with curious rictus on the ground—but our focus remains on the war horse.

 

Our alliterations with the “r”-sound continue. We have just seen the verb form raash (“to leap” in 39:20); now the noun form, also spelled raash, appears. The noun occupies the meaning field of “earthquake” or “shaking” or “rattling” or “trembling” or “commotion.” Here it is not a trembling of fear but of rattling or rumbling as the combined sounds of weapons clattering, dust and stone scattered and cry by horse and rider fill the air. Though raash only appears 17x in the Bible, one of its appearances is in Job 41:29/21 (Eng/Heb) where Leviathan is said to “laugh (sachaq) at the rattling (raash) of the javelin (kidon).” Each of the three words in that half-verse plays a significant role in God’s first speech in Job 39. The horse “laughs” at fear (sachaq, 39:22); the glittering spear and javelin (kidon) bounce on the horse (39:23).  

 

The horse will move not just with raash but also with rogez (7x/5x Job). We have seen the importance of this word, usually translated “trouble,” for Job in his first speech (3:13, 26). Later Job said that the days are humans are short and full of “turmoil” (14:1, rogez).  Finally, Elihu used the word in 37:2 to presage the coming of God: “listen to the thunder (rogez) of his voice.” Here the word has to emphasize the “turmoil” or “tumult” that accompanies the war horse. It is an unforgettable picture, replete with memorable words.  

 

But even more striking in the first clause is the use of the rare verb gama (2x) to capture the horse’s movements. Gama only appears elsewhere in Genesis 24:17, where it means “to give to drink.” Here the form of the verb is not causative; it is simply “to drink.” With trouble and tumult, with rattling and rage, the horse “drinks up the earth.” A few verses ago we saw him “digging” the earth in preparation for fight (verse 20); now it “drinks” the earth as it speeds across the ground. We usually use the phrase “devour” the ground, but “drink” has a kind of suggestiveness to it, especially in a land not unfamiliar with drought or lack of water. Shakespeare could memorably write, “He seemed in running to devour the way” (Henry IV, Part II, 1.1.53).  

 

Then, in the second half of the verse, we meet an unexpected verb: aman, (108x, usually “to trust/believe/confirm/be firm/support”). Rather than its suggesting some kind of trusting attitude of the horse, we must see it in a unique translation of “being firm” or, in this case, “standing still.” As it rushes off to battle, drinking up the ground, it isn’t “firm,” (i.e., it doesn’t stand still) when it hears the shofar (“war trumpet”).   

 

Over the din of the tumult can be heard the shofar. There is no musical instrument quite so influential or memorable in Jewish history as the shofar. The word appears 72x in the Bible, and describes a ram’s horn that can be used to call an assembly (Exodus 29:16, 19), to invite to worship, or to urge into warfare. The word appears 14x alone in the narrative of Joshua 6, where the shofar blows repeatedly, the people walk around Jericho and shout, and the walls collapse. That is its purpose here in verses 24, 25.

 

The sounding of the shofar is mentioned a second time in verse 25:

 

    “As often as the shofar sounds the horse says ‘Heach!’ From afar he smells the battle, the 

     thunder of the captains and the shouting.”

 

The shofar drives our horse further towards battle. A slightly amusing realization is that in this seven-verse strophe the war horse is portrayed as eager for battle but it never actually gets there! It goes out to meet the foe in verse 20; it drinks up the ground between the lines of battle in verse 24. Here it smells the battle “from afar” (rachoq).  We don’t see it stomping on the heads of hapless warriors or charging at the retreating foe.

 

Also eye-catching is that we hear the horse “speak” (the common verb amar).  But rather than this being Balaam’s Ass redux, we have it just uttering a sound which normally is translated “Ha, ha!” or, in the KJV, “Aha!” but in Hebrew is heach (12x). It is the sound of satisfaction, delight or victory. The horse is in its element.  


Two more comments on language. The first word of the verse is difficult to translate. It is day, which normally means “sufficient” or “enough” (Exodus 36:5, 7), but that won’t work here. It appears in combination with the preposition be, and people have rendered it “sufficient for” or “in exchange for” or, what appears to fit in this case, “as often as.” Frankly, however, it is a bit  difficult to see how we get to “as often as” with biy as its preposition.   

 

Then, more clear, are the final powerful nouns and and verbs of the verse.  We have a mini-alliterative feast with three more “r’s”—rachoq, ruach, raam.  From “far off” (rachoq) our war horse “smells” (ruach) the battle, the “thunder” (raam) of captains and the shouting (teruah, 36x, usually a “shout of joy”). We close one of the more dramatic portraits of Scripture with the noble war horse, reveling in battle, and with the cascading sounds and smells of battle. Not only Job, but we also, have to admit that all this is too wonderful for us.