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93. Job 9:5-12, Essay Two

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?’


Verse 8 recounts positive things about God’s creative activity.  We have already spoken about Job’s use of “wave” (bamah); we also have God’s stretching out (natah) of the heavens. The description isn’t nearly as eloquent as in Isaiah 40:22, where God is majestically described as “sitting upon the circle (chug) of the earth.” The earth’s inhabitants appear as grasshoppers. Then, Isaiah continues, “He stretches out (natah, as in Job 9:7) the heavens (shamayim, as in Job 9:7) like a curtain.” The Book of Job will pick up on, but alter, part of the first phrase in Isaiah 40:22  (sitting on the circle of the earth) in 22:14, where Eliphaz talks about God “walking” (halak) on the circle/vault (chug) of the heavens. 


Verse 9 speaks of God’s having made three constellations and then, mysteriously, “the chambers/ rooms (cheder) of the south.”  Much scholarly attention has been given to identifying these three constellations, called in Hebrew ash (usually rendered “the Bear” but sometimes "Aldebaran"), kesil (usually translated “Orion”) and kimah (usually rendered “the Pleiades”). The first two appear together here and in Job 38:31, 32.  But kesil appears with kimah in Amos 5 and is rendered “constellation” in Isaiah 13:10. Kimah only appears here, Job 38 and Amos 5.  


Much might be gained from comparing Hebrew astronomical terminology with that of the (earlier) Chaldeans and (later) Arabs but all that can be said here is that Job mentioned three constellations of the northern (the Bear, Pleiades) and the celestial equator (Orion).   Antiquity knew many constellations, with Ptolemy (2nd century CE) listing 48 of them. Current astronomy lists 88 constellations.  Associated with many of the constellations are also stories, many of which go back to Chaldean, Egyptian, Greek or other mythologies. Because of Israel’s location in the northern hemisphere, the constellations of the southern sky remained mysterious. Thus, when Job talks about the “chambers of the south” in verse 9, he reflects the limited knowledge of the Hebrews regarding the constellations of the southern sky.  


Job’s words in 9:10 are borrowed from Eliphaz in 5:9.


    “(God) does great things that are past searching out, and wonders of which there is no number.” 


Eliphaz spoke these words after urging Job to seek God (5:8). Thus in Job 5 they are meant to be a confidence-booster, an encouragement to Job to see God as able to solve his difficult problems because God does unsearchably great things—things marvelous and without number. God will no doubt bring these great things for Job, too. In Job 9, however, the thought appears to have a more ambiguous meaning. Certainly Job has just listed unambiguously positive things about God (God’s stretching out the heavens, treading on the sea, making the constellations of the skies), but these came in the wake of several affirmations about God that aren’t universally positive (i.e., God as destroyer).  Thus, we might tend to see Job borrowing Eliphaz’s words here also with mixed motives.


That supposition is confirmed when we examine Job 9:11-12.  Verse 11 is arranged in a neat parallelism:  


     “Lo, passes upon me, and I don’t see; and he goes and I don’t perceive him.”  


Whereas Eliphaz was quite confident in Job 5 that Job’s seeking of God will have positive results, Job is not so sure. Throughout the Book of Job, God will be a mysteriously elusive figure for Job. God resists discovery. Perhaps that is how Job is interpreting the eyn cheqer (literally “there is no searching” or “things past finding out”) of 9:10.  The things that lead Elihpaz to wonder only bring frustration to Job. Just when he needs a God actually to attend to specific needs he has an elusive God who just “goes by him.”


But the notion of God’s passing by Job has another meaning. One of the things that had made Eliphaz’s night vision so memorable, eerie but ultimately revelatory was that the spirit before his face didn’t “pass on” but it “stood still” (amad, 5:16).  Even though it was a fear-laden experience for Eliphaz, the fact that the form actually stood still before his eyes enabled him to receive the interpretation of the vision in verses 17-21. Job has no such experience in 9:11; rather God just passes by him and disappears. As if to confirm that Job is directly referring to Eliphaz’s experience, he adds the verb chalaph (28x, usually “to change” or “to vanish” or “pass away”) in the second half of verse 11, the same verb Eliphaz used in describing the prelude to his revelation (4:15). The spirit had apparently “passed by” Eliphaz, but then it stopped (4:16). That will not happen for Job. So powerful is this mini-conversation between Job and Eliphaz on how the divine spirit may “pass by/sweep by” (chalaph), that Zophar picks up on the same verb in 11:10 to describe the mysterious and ultimately unstoppable ways of God.


Before Job explodes with his frustrated vitriol in 9:13, he adds one other thought in 9:12. Literally, we have,


     “Lo God snatches away, and who will make him return it?  Who will say to God, ‘What are you          doing?’”  


Translators often render the second clause as “who can hinder him?” but the verb is shub, whose root meaning is “to return” or “to turn (something) back.” Let's pick up on the “turn back” rendering—“who can turn him back”? That is, who can dissuade God from acting in this snatching/grabbing fashion (chataph, a hapax, but related to chathah, 4x, which means “to take” or “to snatch” and chataph, with a different “t” and meaning “to catch,” as in Judges 21:21; Psalm 10:9) ?  If there was any confusion in the first part of the verse, the second clears it up. “Who can say to God, ‘What are you doing?’” Job is acutely aware of his vulnerability and inability to hold God accountable or require God to respond to his questions or his needs.  


The verb chathaph in 9:12 is much stronger than the verbs Job used in 1:21 to describe this loss. There is was just that the Lord “gave” (natan) and “took” (laqach). Now we have the impression that Job is attributing a more violent act to God. He is ramping up his language even as he is preparing himself for an assault on God’s seemingly inviolable position.  


In summary, we may say that in 9:5–12 Job has sung the glories of the divine creator, but his tune is a mixed one. God’s power is more evident in God’s snatching things away or removing them than in shaping or making them stable. Yet God has also displayed impressive power through stretching out the heavens and making the constellations. Job’s personal experience has no doubt contributed to his understanding of God here. Job’s frustration continues to build, even though he is quite capable of mouthing the predictable platitudes of Israelite theology. Something eventually has to give…Indeed, it will “give” immediately.  

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