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92. Returning to Job 9:5–12, Essay One

5 he who removes mountains, and they do not know it,
    when he overturns them in his anger;
6 who shakes the earth out of its place,
    and its pillars tremble;
7 who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
    who seals up the stars;
8 who alone stretched out the heavens
    and trampled the waves of the Sea;
9 who made the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10 who does great things beyond understanding,
    and marvelous things without number.
11 Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;
    he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
12 He snatches away; who can stop him?
    Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’


Though I hinted above that Job’s speech on the power of God in these verses is fascinating, what I didn’t mention is whether the tone of this speech is one of wonder or frustration. There is a little of both in these verses, and it may be entirely consistent with Job’s religious sentiments at this point both to be awed by the mighty power of God and more than a little frustrated by it. If we see both of these happening in verses 5–12, we understand better the complex mix of Job’s emotions.


Job begins by recounting a great display of divine power. He uses at least half a dozen participles in the next several verses to emphasize the active work of God in creation and destruction.  Verse 5 is surprisingly hard to translate even though the meaning is clear: “God removes (atheq) mountains from their place and they don’t know; which are overturned (haphak) in his anger.” If we had to characterize Job’s tone here it would probably be one of frustration or even anger. Rather than God’s gloriously creating mountains, God is seen as removing them. Note the contrast in tone and words with Psalm 65:6.  In the latter verse, we have “(God) who established (kun) the mountains (har in both verses) with his strength" (koach, the same verb as in Job 9:4 to describe God’s generic potency). You wonder whether Job is reflecting on the sentiment in this Psalm by saying—‘I am more impressed by the way God removes mountains…or God’s destructive capability…that is what I have experienced.’ God is the great destabilizer.  


The verb atheq only appears 9x in the Bible, and it can be translated several different, even incompatible. ways in those appearances. Yet, in each of its three appearances in Job (also 14:18; 18:4), it is best rendered “move” or “remove.” Do you normally begin your catalogue of divine wonders by talking about God’s ability to remove mountains? The phrase that follows, “And they don’t know” is alluring. It could stress the suddenness of it all—that is, the mountains are removed with no warning—or it could be a slight echo of Bildad’s use of the term in 8:9.  Bildad said that we are from yesterday and just don’t know (anything).  Here the mountains would likewise be the ignorant ones. We should note that the word for “know” (yada) is a Joban favorite, appearing already in verse 2 of this speech, and also in verses 21, 28.  


The second half of the verse has God “overturning” (haphak) the mountains in the divine anger. Haphak (94x) has a few different meanings, but they all relate to overturning, changing or turning.  A parallel usage to Job 9:5 is in Genesis 19:25, 29, where God “overturned” or “destroyed” the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet it also appears 9x in Leviticus 13 in connection with the leper’s hair “turning” white as evidence of the presence of the disease (e.g., Leviticus 13:3, 4). In Job 9, however, God is overturning mountains in the divine anger (aph). We will not go wrong if we see this phrase as Job’s reading the divine attributes through his personal experience. Job doesn’t have to say explicitly, ‘Hey, friends, I am mentioning these characteristics of God because they reflect the dislocation of my own experience.’ What he is doing is clear.


It is significant that when Job describes God’s anchor emotion in creation/destruction of the world a few verses later it is also “anger” (aph, verse 13) that he mentions.  Anger is behind God’s actions since the beginning of time.


Lest we thought that images of instability would quickly be left behind, Job continues in verse 6 with more images of destruction:


     “He shakes (ragaz) the earth from its place; its pillars tremble (palats).” 


Though ragaz is a relatively common verb (41x) to describe “trembling” or “quaking,” it only appears here and 12:6 (with a different sense) in Job. Yet Job’s favorite word from this root is rogez, with five of the seven Biblical appearances of this word in Job. So far we have seen it, in one instance, describing the “turmoil” or “trouble” that comes upon Job once the friends are getting ready to speak (3:26).  


Verse 6 is more dramatic than verse 5, where only the mountains were being removed.  Now we have the entire earth trembling. The verb in the second half of the verse (palats) is a hapax, which most scholars, because of poetic parallelism, translate similarly to ragaz.  In addition, the noun form pallatsuth appears 4x with the meaning of “shuddering” or “horror” (e.g., Job 21:6). Normally, however, when one seeks verbs for “tremble” one can find them in charad (39x, with the most visual appearance in Genesis 27:33, where Isaac “trembles” greatly when he realizes he has been deceived) or raad (4x, already in Job 4:14) or arats (15x).  


Most visual from verse 6 is the notion of the earth shuddering upon its pillars (ammud). Though the most frequent use of ammud in the Bible is to describe the divine pillar of fire or cloud, or the pillars in the Tabernacle construction of Exodus 25-40, a few Biblical passages talk about the pillars of heaven (i.e., the pillars supporting the heavens, Job 26:11) or the pillars on which God has founded the earth (Psalm 75:3).  The most memorable literary parallel to the pillars here is in Book I of the Odyssey, where Homer, describing Atlas, says:


            ὅς τε θαλάσσης πάσης βένθεα οἶδεν, ἔχει δέ τε κίονας αὐτὸς

            μακράς, αἳ γαῖάν τε καὶ οὐρανὸν ἀμφὶς ἔχουσιν,


OR     “Who knows the depths of every sea, and himself holds the great pillars, which 

            themselves hold up the earth and the heaven” (Odyssey 1, 52-54).


I suppose that if these lines from the Odyssey were read to a group of unsuspecting religious folks, almost all would say they were from the Bible.  


Continuing the Catalogue of Ambiguous Divine Virtues


The catalogue of God’s slightly ambiguous actions continues. Verses 7–8 read, 


            “Who speaks to the sun, and it doesn’t rise; and he seals up the stars. He stretches out the               heavens by himself and walks on the waves of the sea.”   


The language is unusual at a few points. Instead of the common term for sun (shemesh, 134x), Job uses the rare word cheres, one of whose other three appearances can be rendered “itch” (Deuteronomy 28:27). A second unusual word here is bamah (v 8, 102x), made unusual not because of few appearances in the Bible but for its meaning of “wave” here. Normally it is rendered “high place” in the Bible, and that usage describes the places where people set up unapproved altars for worshipping Yahweh. But here it is “wave” or, as some scholars would have, “the back of the sea”—perhaps considering the sea as having a living mythic body. I think the reason for Job’s use of bamah here is straightforward: Bildad has hijacked the usual word for “heap” or “wave” (gal) and rendered it toxic in 8:17. Job has to find another word.


A few comments about the flow of the ideas here are appropriate.  In every other appearance of the phrase “the sun rises” in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have shemesh zarach.  In this case it is the cheres that does the rising.  Or, in the language of Job 9, God commands/speaks to (amar) the sun and it doesn’t rise.  Since this doesn’t seem to have happened often since the beginning of time, one wonders what Job is talking about. 


Nor is the second part of the verse pellucid:  “He seals up (chatham) the stars.”  Usually when chatham (27x) appears in the Bible it describes the practice of sealing documents in order to ensure that signatures aren’t tampered with (e.g., Jeremiah 32:10, 11, 14, 44). This sense of “securing” or “shutting up” something lies behind Job’s request that his sins be “sealed up” (chatham) in a bag (Job 14:17). Thus, it not only suggests the securing of something but also the hiding away of that thing. When God then “seals up” the stars, God is probably “hiding their light”. . just as preventing the sun from rising would hide the light of the sun.  Even if we get to a clear meaning, we have no idea what it means other than to say that it points to God’s destructive power over nature, a power that probably could be unleashed at any time.

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