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417. Continuing on the Terrifying Leviathan
31 “He makes the depths boil like a pot;
He makes the sea like a jar of ointment.
32 Behind him he makes a wake to shine;
One would think the deep to be gray-haired.
Verses 31-32 describe Leviathan’s graceful movement. Our picture of Leviathan’s body and terror-inducing qualities is now complete. The poetry is of unmatched beauty, even if we can’t fully understand one of the images in verse 31.
“He makes the deep boil as a pot; he makes the sea as a seething mixture/ointment pot."
Verse 31 begins with a rare verb: rathach (3x, “to boil/seethe”). As has been noted in my earlier treatment of this chapter, the author gives us many words beginning with the same letters as a sort of alliterative feast, to add to the substance of what is being said. We had the l-a sound in lappid, lahat, lahab. Then we had the k-e/i sound with the kedud, kidod, kidon. The proliferation of ch sounds was just illustrated. Now, we pick up on another verb beginning with r-a after just studying the rare verb raphad (“spread/make one’s bed”), which possibly had a byform of rabad. Like many words in Job, rathach only appears in Job and in one other place outside of Job. It is almost as if there is a specialized Job vocabulary, and then a vocabulary of “Job and one other place,” though I don’t think anyone has done a study on that one.
In this case rathach first appeared in Job 30:27, where Job complained about the treatment he received at the hands of people of lesser social status. He said there, “My inward parts boil (rathach) and aren’t silent; days of affliction come near.” Its other appearance (Ezekiel 24:5) is what one might call the locus classicus on “boiling” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Ezekiel was told to set a pot on a fire and make the water boil, symbolizing the imminent judgment on the people. But three words are used to capture it: the hapax noun form of rathach (in this case rethach, “boiling”), then the verb rathach, and finally another verb for boiling, bashal. Unlike so many verbs or nouns that appear a few times in the Bible, the meaning of “boil” for rathach is pretty clear.
Leviathan’s mere presence makes “the deep” (metsolah) boil “like a pot” (sir). Both of these words are familiar in the Bible, thought the word tehom to describe “the deep” is more prevalent than metsolah. For example, Psalm 36:16 talks about God’s “judgments” which are “like the great deep” (tehom). Metsolah appears 11x in the Bible and was first and most memorably presented in Miriam’s song of Exodus 15, where the Egyptians are described as going down “in the great deep” (metsolah). It is derived from the noun tsulah which, surprisingly, is a hapax (Isaiah 44:27).
Whereas the translation of “boil” (rathach) and “deep/depths” (metsolah) are uncontroverted, the sir can either be a pot, as here, or “thorn bush,” though the former is more frequently attested. The three-word phrase to begin verse 31 is etched in our mind: “He makes the sea boil like a pot”—i.e., Leviathan’s movements cut through the sea and leave boiling, foaming or bubbling in its wake.
The second half repeats the idea, though we aren’t sure how his “placing/making” the water “like an ointment pot” (merqachah, 2x) is similar to making the deep boil. Merqachah appears also in Ezekiel 24, which is surprising in that the only other use of the verb “boil” was also in Ezekiel 24. Some literary dependence is probably in view. Ezekiel likewise uses the same verbal method as with “boiling,” using the noun and verb form of the rare word to emphasize the vehemence of the activity. With respect to merqachah, we have (Ezekiel 24:10):
“Heap up the logs, kindle the fire;
boil the meat well, mix (raqach) the spices (merqachah) well."
Thus, in Ezekiel 24 we have no reference to an ointment pot, which has led some scholars to render the merqachah in Job 41:31 as a “seething mixture.” We would love to be clear on the image, and especially on the apparent process of burning ointments in ancient Israel.
After catching our breath with the beauty of verse 31, we are then treated to verse 32:
“He makes a path shine in his wake; one would think the deep to be white-haired.”
We see the majestic Leviathan slicing through the waters, with the resulting wake deeper than that left by the most powerful of engine-driven boats in our day. This is reminiscent of God’s movements as described by the Psalmist: “In the sea was your way; your path was in the waters” (Psalm 77:19), even though the words used in Job differ completely from those in the Psalm. Note the presence of the suggestive verb or, “to shine,” in Job 41:32. We see not just a path sliced in the water but the shining residue or traces of Leviathan’s movement.
The second clause of verse 32 is no less eloquent. It picks up on a verb used three times in five verses (vv 27, 29, 32), chashab, “to think/consider/deem/to be accounted as.” The verb gives an air of studied reflection or rumination to the verse, as if one is contemplating the white wake left by Leviathan from a distance and then concluding, “the deep has white hair.” The regular word for “deep” (tehom) appears here, and the word for “white hair” is sebah (19x). The latter appears 5x in the stories of the Patriarchs, where it either means “good old age” (Genesis 15:15; 25:8) or “gray/white hairs” (Genesis 44:29, 31). It is quite a poet who can make the sea come alive, or seem to do so, because of the graceful movements of Leviathan through it. We are left in silence, as this magnificent, and formidable, creature disappears into the farthest reaches of the ocean.
Verses 32-33 summarize the treatment of Leviathan. Those from a Protestant religious tradition resonate quickly with the dominant translation of the first clause of verse 33:
“On earth is not his equal. . .”
We can almost hear Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in the background. The Hebrew is a bit rougher. Instead of the usual word for earth is a Joban favorite: “dust” (aphar. 110x/26x Job). The verb for “be like” (moshel, 3x) is derived from a word (mashal) that has the same spelling as the verb “rule over” (mashal), even though it is clear that mashal here points more to the literary device of the simile or something that is “like” something else. Thus, the literal translation is, “There is not on the dust similar to/like him.”
The second clause is even more difficult. Literally we think we have, “Which is made without fear,” which is rendered by Clines, “a creature born to know no fear.” The form of the common verb “make” (asah) is problematic; most see it as a passive participle. The word for “fear” is the rare chath (5x), derived from the rather common verb chathath (“to shatter/dismay”). As in many other instances, Job eschews the simple word (in this case, derived from yare) for the less common one.
But the fearlessness of Leviathan, which might seem to be admirable, is qualified in verse 34:
“He looks out at every thing that is elevated/high; he is the king over all the proud."
The high/lofty/elevated things here are gaboah, 37x, one of the numerous words beginning with g-a or g-b to describe something high/mighty/proud. Gaboah appears with a synonym gibah in Jeremiah 2:20 and Isaiah 30:25. Leviathan is the king, not of anything beginning with “g-b” but of the “sons of shachats.” The noun shachats only appears one other time in the Bible—in Job 28:8 to describe the “proud” beasts that don’t know the way to the valuable mines deep in the earth.
Our description of Leviathan is complete. No moral judgment is placed on him; no indication is explicitly given that God warred with this creature in the primeval times. We are also given no indication that he should be a lesson to Job (e.g., “avoid pride”), yet it is interesting that words ending both of God’s speeches (Job 39:30 and 41:34) have an eeriness to them if applied to Job. Recall the human “corpses” or challalim in 39:30. Though it is three words from the end of the verse, it no doubt was ringing in Job's ears as God finished the first divine speech. Perhaps the “pride” of shachats (41:34, the final word) is also not simply to be applied to Leviathan, but also to “proud” humans. We don’t know. It is left deliciously ambiguous. We can say, however, that the word for “pride” in 41:34 is rare—it is only used elsewhere in Job 28:8, to describe the “pride” of beasts. The g-a/g-b root is generally used for words describing human pride.
Leviathan, in sum, is simply a unique, glorious, powerful creature which God has made. The questions in 41:1-7 left no doubt that God controls or is more powerful than Leviathan, but the lesson Job is supposed to draw from the long and eloquent presentation of Leviathan isn’t clear. Is this God’s way of answering Job’s questions? Making Job marvel at the divine handiwork? Wearing him out? Warning him against pride?
These words about Leviathan will not only have the effect of ending God’s speeches and the debate as a whole, but it will prepare the way for Job’s final words in 42:1-6. Job certainly “gives up” in these verses, but whether Job is returning to faith, or departing from it, now becomes an urgent question.