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404. Job 39:26-30, The Hawk and the Eagle


26 “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars,

Stretching his wings toward the south?

27 Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up

And makes his nest on high?

28 On the cliff he dwells and lodges,

Upon the rocky crag, an inaccessible place.

29 From there he spies out food;

His eyes see it from afar.

30 His young ones also suck up blood;

And where the slain are, there is he.”

The last five verses of this chapter, though not seemingly an afterthought like Job 31:38-40, at least are a little anticlimactic after the enormously impressive description of the war horse. We have two more birds described here but they differ from the ostrich of verses 13-18 in that they both get off the ground. Truth be told, we aren’t exactly sure what the nets (v 26) and nesher (v 27) are. The BDB cautiously just calls the former a “bird of prey” that may be a falcon or a hawk. The latter is usually rendered “eagle,” though a trend in scholarship is to see it as the “vulture,” though most scholars say it can mean one or the other. The nets only appears three other times in the Bible, and two of those are in lists of unclean birds and animals (Leviticus 11:16; Deuteronomy 14:15). We have no way of knowing whether the author of Job was familiar with the classification of clean/unclean animals in those two chapters; it would ironically add to the grandeur of the passage if even the unclean animals are mentioned by God.


Again, there is no mention of God’s directing their flight or their eating habits; the birds are mentioned to show that Job doesn’t, by his wisdom, control their flight or their menu selections. Verses 26-27 should be read as complementary to each other:


    “Do hawks fly by your wisdom/understanding, as he spreads his wings towards the south?

     Does the eagle mount up at your word/command and make its nest on high?”


You would think that God, as well as Job, would be bored by this time with the same type of question that has been God’s staple for two chapters. Perhaps that is why this is the final strophe of God’s first speech. He, too, needs a break. As with several other strophes, God employs wisdom tradition language. Job’s bin (wisdom/understanding) doesn’t really contribute to the flight of the hawk. The notion of its spreading (the common parash) its wings to the south reflects the normal practice of seasonal migration. Job’s wisdom can’t produce it; it seems that the birds have an innate awareness of this. Note that the text doesn’t say that God “gave” this ability to the birds; the point is to show Job, which he no doubt already believes, that he can’t make them fly by his own understanding. One lexical note: the verb for “fly” here is the hapax abar; we have no idea why the simpler verb uph didn’t appear.  

A similar thought is expressed in verse 27, though here it is the nesher (26x, this is the “eagle” of the famous passage in Isaiah 40:31) who makes its nest on high. It also acts independently of Job’s wisdom or Job’s command. Leading many scholars to translate the word nesher here with “vulture” are the last three verses of the chapter (vv 28-30), where the nesher’s habits are described. These habits lead to their first calmly sitting on the rock, then spying out prey and then, in one of the more ghoulish verses of the Scripture, bringing back the prey so that the young will suck its blood. It isn’t the sucking of blood, however that is ghoulish; the last clause gives us more specificity about the prey:  they are chalalim, human corpses. Let’s look at a translation of vv 28-30:


    “It dwells and settles down in the rock—on the crags of the rock and its stronghold. From there

     it searches diligently for prey; they behold it from afar. Then the young suck up the blood; where      the corpses are, there they are.”


The two verbs describing its lodging on the rock are familiar (shakan/lun). The first finds its home in the religious sphere, where God is said to shakan or “make a tabernacle” among the people, while the second is a typical word for lodging or staying the night at an inn or other place. The word for “rock” appears twice (sela), but the arresting phrase is, literally, “upon the tooth of the rock.” Our birds lodge there and in the “stronghold” (matsud, 25x). This is such a vivid and memorable description: we all have seen an eagle’s aerie or osprey’s nest perched in inaccessibly high places, either of trees or rocks. We can imagine its “lodging” in the “teeth” of the rocks.  


But the eagle/vulture doesn’t just reside there in smug and blissful contemplation of nature. She must, literally, “dig out” (a favorite Joban word chaphar, 22x/4x Job) or diligently search for meals (okel, from the common verb for eating, akal), but she observes (the common nabat) the prey from far off (the familiar, by now, rachoq).   


Then, in verse 30, she strikes. But we are spared the gory details. Like a murder that takes place off camera, where we only see the results, so here we only see the young “sucking up” (the hapax ala) blood. The form of the verb is so unusual that many scholars have suggested that it is a defective form of the verb for drinking or swallowing. The result is the same. The young (the rare word ephroach, 4x, from the verb parach, “to bud/sprout”) feed on the blood of the carrion/prey.

Finally, we have the cryptic clause at the end, literally rendered, “and where the slain are, there she is.” We note immediately its similarity in wording and flow with statement of Jesus (“Where there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather,” Matthew 24:28). Clines and others have pointed out that the word for “slain” is the verb chalal (93x), a verb that can also mean “to profane,” but whenever it refers to something that is slain, it always is a human (e.g., Numbers 19:16; Deuteronomy 21:3, etc). What we thought at the beginning of the verse was simply a meal of animal carcasses is now, possibly, a feeding on the remains of humans. We close this first speech with an eerie question: “Does God in the divine wisdom provide the rotting corpses of humans for the delight of vultures?” But our author isn’t worried about our possible qualms. He has given quite enough examples of Job’s ignorance and inability for one speech. Now, we have a little conversation between God and Job before God turns to the second divine monologue.

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