Commentary Magazine


The Voice from the Whirlwind

The power of Job’s unflinching argument, in the biblical book that bears his name, has rarely failed to move readers, but the structure of the book has been a perennial puzzle. It begins, as we all recall, with a seemingly naive tale: Job is an impeccably God-fearing man, happy in his children and in his abundant possessions. Unbeknownst to him, in the celestial assembly the Adversary—despite the translations, not yet a mythological Satan—challenges God to test the disinterestedness of Job’s piety by afflicting him. When Job, in rapid succession, has been bereft of all his various flocks and servants and then of all his children, and is stricken from head to foot with itching sores, he refuses his wife’s urging that he curse God and die but instead sits down in the dust in mournful resignation.

At this point, the prose of the frame-story switches into altogether remarkable poetry. The poetic Job begins by wishing he had never been born. Then, in three long rounds of debate, he confronts the three friends who have come with all the assurance of conventional wisdom to inform him that his suffering is certain evidence of his having done evil. Job consistently refuses to compromise the honesty of his conscientious perception of his own life, and in refuting the friends’ charges he repeatedly inveighs against God’s crushing unfairness. Eventually, the Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind, mainly to show how presumptuous this human critic of divine justice has been. Job concedes; the prose frame-story then clicks shut by restoring to Job health, wealth, and prestige, at the same time symmetrically providing him with another set of children.

This ending has troubled many readers over the centuries. Even if we put aside the closing of the folk-tale frame, so alien to later sensibilities in its schematic doubling of lost property and its simple replacement of lost lives, the Voice from the Whirlwind (or, more properly, Storm) has seemed to some a rather exasperating answer to Job’s anguished questions.

The common objection to what is clearly intended as a grand climax of the poetic argument runs along the following lines: the Voice’s answer is no answer at all but an attempt to overwhelm poor Job by an act of cosmic bullying. Job, in his sense of outrage over undeserved suffering, has been pleading for simple justice. God ignores the issue of justice, not deigning to explain why innocent children should perish, decent men and women writhe in affliction, and instead sarcastically asks Job how good he is at hurling lightning bolts, making the sun rise and set, causing rain to fall, fixing limits to the breakers of the sea. The clear implication is that if you can’t begin to play in God’s league, you should not have the nerve to ask questions about the rules of the game.

Some modern commentators have tried to get around such objections by arguing that the very inadequacy of the solution to the problem of theodicy at the end of Job is a testimony to the integrity of the book and the profundity with which the questions have been raised. There is, in other words, no neat way to reconcile ethical monotheism with the fundamental fact that countless innocents suffer terrible fates through human cruelty, blind circumstance, natural disaster, disease, and genetic mishap. Rather than attempt a pat answer, then, the Job poet was wise enough to imply that there could be no real answer, and that the sufferer would have to be content with God’s sheer willingness to express His concern for His creatures. This reading of the Voice from the Whirlwind is up to a point plausible, but it may glide too easily over the fact that God’s speeches at the end have, after all, a specific content which is articulated with great care and to the details of which we are presumably meant to attend carefully.

It has also been suggested that the “solution” to Job’s dilemma is in the essential act of revelation itself, whatever we think about what is said. (Robert Gordis is one intelligent spokesman for this view.) That does seem a very biblical idea. Job never doubts God’s existence but, precisely because he assumes in biblical fashion that God must be responsible for everything that happens in the world, he repeatedly wants to know why God now remains hidden, why He does not come out and confront the person on whom He has inflicted such acute suffering. The moment the Voice begins to address Job out of the storm, Job already has his answer: that, despite appearances to the contrary, God cares enough about man to reveal Himself to humankind, to give man some intimation of the order and direction of His creation.

This proposal about the importance of revelation at the end brings us a little closer, I think, to the actual intent of the two climactic divine discourses. What needs to be emphasized, however, considerably more than has been done is the essential role poetry plays in the imaginative realization of revelation. If the poetry of Job—at least when its often problematic text is fully intelligible—looms above all other biblical poetry in virtuosity and sheer expressive power, the culminating poem that God speaks out of the storm soars beyond everything that has preceded it in the book, the poet having wrought a poetic idiom even richer and more awesome than the one he gave Job. Through this pushing of poetic expression toward its own upper limits, the concluding speech helps us see the panorama of creation, as perhaps we could do only through poetry, with the eyes of God.

I realize that this assertion may sound either hazily mystical or effusively hyperbolic, but what I am referring to is an aspect of the book that seems to have been knowingly designed by the poet and that to a large extent can be grasped, as I shall try to show, through close analytic attention to formal features of the poem. The entire speech from the storm is not only an effectively structured poem in itself but is finely calculated as a climactic development of images, ideas, and themes that appear in different and sometimes antithetical contexts earlier in the poetic argument.

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How are the resources of poetry marshaled in the divine speech to give us an intimation of that omniscient perspective? Some preliminary remarks on the progression of the concluding poem may help indicate where it means to take us. The structure of the poem is expansive and associative, but it also reflects the sequential and focusing strategies of development that are generally characteristic of biblical poetry. After the two brief opening lines in which the Lord challenges Job (38:2-3), the poem leads us through the following movements: cosmogony (38:4-21), meteorology (38:22-38), zoology (38:39-39:30). This sequence is implicitly narrative: first God creates the world, then He sets in motion upon it an intricate interplay of snow and rain and lightning and winds, and in this setting He looks after the baffling variety of wild creatures that live on the earth.

God’s first discourse is followed at the beginning of Chapter 40 by a brief exchange between a reprimanding Lord and a humbled Job (40:1-5), and then the beginning of the second discourse, which again challenges Job to gird up his loins and see if he can really contend with God (40: 6-13). In the second discourse, we continue with the zoological interests that take up the last half of the first discourse. In accordance, however, with the impulse of heightening and focusing that informs so much of biblical poetry, the second discourse is not a rapid poetic catalogue of animals like the last half of the first discourse, but instead an elaborate depiction of just two exotic beasts, the hippopotamus and the crocodile, who are rendered, moreover, in the hyperbolic terms of mythology as Behemoth and Leviathan.

Biblical poetry in general, let me propose, exhibits two underlying principles of organization, generated by the two most prevalent patterns of relation between the parallel utterances that typically define each line of verse. There is often narrative progression from the first half of the line to the second; still more commonly, one encounters an intensification or focusing of assertion between the parallel members, images, acts, and ideas, which get stronger, sharper, more concrete, more specific as they are repeated in approximate synonymity. These two patterns of semantic movement within the line are very often projected forward through a sequence of lines, and so become structuring principles in the poem. God’s speech instructively embodies both structural patterns, first progression and then intensification.

In order to understand how the concluding poem in Job works so remarkably as a “revelation,” in both the ordinary and the theological senses of the term, it is important to see in detail how its language and imagery flow directly out of the poetic argument that has preceded. I shall quote in full the first two movements of cosmogony and meteorology, then refer without full citation to the naturalistic zoology before attending to the mythopoeic zoology at the end. (The translations throughout are my own.)

2 Who is this darkening counsel
      in words without knowledge?

3 Gird up your loins like a man,
      I’ll ask you, and you may inform Me.

4 Where were you when I founded earth?
      Tell, if you know understanding.

5 Who set its measures, do you know?
      Or who stretched the line upon it?

6 In what were its bases sunk,
      or who laid its cornerstone,

7 When the morning stars sang together,
      all the sons of God shouted for joy?

8 Hedged the sea in with doors,
      when it gushed forth from the womb,

9 When I made cloud its clothing,
      deep mist its swaddling bands,

10 Placed on it breakers as My limit,
      set up bolt and doors.

11 I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
      here halt the surge of your waves.”

12 Did you ever muster the morning,
      appoint dawn to its place,

13 To seize the corners of the earth,
      that the wicked be shaken from it?

14 It turns like sealing clay
      till fixed like [the hues of] a garment.*1

15 Their light is withheld from the wicked,
      the upraised arm is broken.

16 Have you come to the depths of the sea,
      at the ends of the deep walked about?

17 Have the gates of death been shown you,
      the gates of gloom have you seen?

18 Can you take in the breadth of the earth?
      Tell, if you know it all.

19 Where is the way light dwells,
      and darkness, where is its place,

20 That you may take it to its home,
      understand the paths to its house?

21 You know, for you were then born,
      the number of your days is great.

22 Have you come into the storehouse of snows,
      the storehouse of hail have you seen,

23 Which I set aside for time of strife,
      the day of war and battle?

24 By what way is the west wind2 spread,
      the east wind whipped across earth?

25 Who cut the torrent a channel,
      a way for the thunderstorm?

26 To rain upon land without man,
      wilderness without human soul,

27 To sate the wild wasteland,
      and make the grass sprout there?

28 Does the rain have a father,
      or who sired the drops of dew?

29 From whose belly did the ice come forth,
      to the frost of heaven who gave birth?

30 Like stone water congeals,
      the face of the deep locks hard.

31 Can you tie bands to the Pleiades,
      or loose Orion’s reins?

32 Can you bring out Mazarot in season,
      conduct the Bear with its cubs?

33 Do you know the laws of the heavens,
      can you fix their rule on earth?

34 Can you lift your voice to the cloud,
      and the water-spate covers you?

35 Can you order the lightning to go,
      make it say, “Here I am”?

36 Who put wisdom in the hidden parts,*
      who gave the mind understanding?

37 Who told the heavens in wisdom,
      the bottles of the heavens who tipped down?

38 When dust melts to a mass,
      and clods clump together.

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At the very beginning of the poetic argument in the book of Job, the great death-wish poem that takes up all of Chapter 3, we enter the world of Job’s inner torment. Now these first thirty-seven lines of God’s response to Job constitute a brilliantly pointed reversal, in structure, image, and theme, of that initial poem of Job’s. Perhaps the best way to sense the special weight of the disputation is to observe that it is cast in the form of a clash between two modes of poetry, one kind spoken by man and, however memorable, appropriate to his creaturely condition, the other the kind of verse a poet of genius could persuasively imagine God speaking.

The poem of Chapter 3 advances through a process of focusing in and in—or to shift metaphors, a relentless drilling inward toward the unbearable core of Job’s suffering, which he imagines can be blotted out by extinction alone. The external world—dawn and sunlight and starry night—exists in these lines only to be cancelled. Job’s first poem is a powerful, evocative, authentic expression of man’s essential, virtually ineluctable egotism: the anguished speaker has seen, so he feels, all too much, and he wants now to see nothing at all, to be enveloped in the blackness of the womb/tomb, enclosed by dark doors that will remain shut forever.

In direct contrast to all this withdrawal inward and turning out of lights, God’s poem is a demonstration of the energizing power of panoramic vision. Instead of the death wish, it affirms from line to line the splendor and vastness of life, beginning with a cluster of arresting images of the world’s creation and going on to God’s sustaining of the world in the forces of nature and in the variety of the animal kingdom. Instead of a constant focusing inward toward darkness, this poem progresses through a grand sweeping movement that carries us over the length and breadth of the created world, from sea to sky to the unimaginable recesses where snow and winds are stored, to the lonely wastes and craggy heights where only the grass or the wildest of animals lives,

In Job’s initial poem, various elements of the larger world are introduced only as reflectors or rhetorical tokens of his suffering. Here, when the world is seen through God’s eyes, each item is evoked for its own sake, each existing thing having its own intrinsic and often strange beauty. In Chapter 3, Job wants to reduce time to nothing and contract space to the small dark compass of the locked womb. God’s poem, by contrast, moves through aeons from creation to the inanimate forces of nature to the teeming life on earth and, spatially, in a series of metonymic links, from the uninhabited wasteland (verse 26) to the mountain habitat of the lion and the gazelle (the end of Chapter 38 and the beginning of Chapter 39) and the steppes where the wild ass roams.

This general turning of Job’s first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks. Job’s initial poem begins by setting out the binary opposition between day and night, light and darkness, and then proceeds through an intensifying series of wishes that the light be swallowed up by darkness. By contrast, the opening verset of God’s speech summons Job as someone “darkening counsel,” and the emphatic and repeated play with images of light and darkness in the subsequent lines makes it clear that this initial characterization of Job is a direct critique of his first speech and all that follows from it. (The allusion here to the poem in Chapter 3 is reinforced by the term God uses at the beginning of the second line in addressing Job, géver, “man,” which also occurs at the beginning of Job’s first poem when he curses “the night that said, ‘A man is conceived!’” It is as though God were implying: you called yourself man, géver, now gird up your loins like a man and see if you can face the truth.) Job, the Voice from the Whirlwind suggests, has gotten things entirely skewed in regard to the basic ontological constituents of light and darkness. The two in fact exist in a delicate and powerful dialectic beyond the ken of man, and the balance between them is part of the unfathomable beauty of creation. This point is intimated in many of the first thirty-seven lines of the poem and made explicit in verses 19 and 20: “Where is the way light dwells, / and darkness, where is its place, // That you may take it to its home, / understand the paths to its house?”

Job in Chapter 3 prays for cloud and darkness to envelop the day he was born. Cloud and deep mist reappear here in a startlingly new context, as the matutinal blanket over the primordial seas, as the swaddling bands of creation (verse 9). Job wants “gloom” (tzalmávet) to cover his existence; here that term appears as part of a large cosmic picture not to be perceived with mere human eyes: “Have the gates of death been shown you, / the gates of gloom have you seen?” (verse 17). In the one explicitly moral point of theodicy made by the Voice from the Whirlwind (verses 12-15), the diurnal rhythm of light succeeding darkness is taken as both emblem and instrument of God’s ferreting out of evildoers—an idea not present to the “Ecclesiastean” vision of Chapter 3, where evil and oppression are merely part of the anguished and futile cyclical movement of life.

It is not surprising that this particular passage should be terse and a little cryptic, for whatever God means to suggest about bringing wrongdoing to light, He is not invoking the simple moral calculus used so unquestioningly by Job’s friends. Job in the ascending spirals of his pain-driven rhetoric seeks to summon all forms of darkness to eclipse forever the sun and moon and stars. In response God asks him whether he has any notion of what it means in amplitude and moral power to be able to muster the dawn (verse 12) and set the constellations in their regular motion (verses 31-33).

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light. Job tries to conjure up an eternal starless night: “May its twilight stars go dark, / may it hope for light and find none, / may it not see the eyelids of the dawn” (3:9). God, near the beginning of His first discourse, evokes the moment when creation was completed in an image that has become justly famous in its own right but which is also, it should be observed, a counterimage to 3:9. “When the morning stars sang together, / all the sons of God shouted for joy” (verse 7). That is, instead of a night with no twilight stars, with no glimmer of dawn, the morning stars of creation exult. The emphasis in this line on song and shouts of joy also takes us back to the poem of Chapter 3, which begins with a triumphant cry on the night of conception—a cry Job wants to wish away—and proceeds to a prayer that no joyous exclamation come into that night (3:7).

Finally, the vestigially mythological “sons of God”—with the semantic breadth in Hebrew of “son,” this does not imply biological filiation but something like “celestial company”—takes us back beyond Chapter 3 to the frame-story. There, of course, it is the Adversary who is the prominent and sinister member of “the sons of God.” The discordant note he represents has been expunged here in this heavenly chorus of creation. What I am pointing to is not one of those contradictions of sources on which biblical scholarship has too often thrived, but a culminating moment in which the vision of the poet transcends the limited terms of the folk tale he has chosen to use.

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There is a second set of key images in the first movement of God’s speech that harks back to Job’s initial poem, and that is the imagery of physical generation and birth. Since this imagery, unlike light and darkness, which are literal substances of creation, is imposed metaphorically by the poet as a way of shaping the material, it provides even clearer evidence of how the poem in Chapter 38 is purposefully articulated as a grand reversal of the poem in Chapter 3. Job’s first speech begins with birth and conception and circles back on the belly or womb where he would like to be enclosed, where he imagines the fate of the dead fetus as the happiest of human lots. Against those “doors of the belly” (3:10) that Job wants shut on him forever, the Voice from the Whirlwind invokes a cosmic womb and cosmic doors to a very different purpose: “[He] hedged the sea in with doors, / when it gushed forth from the womb” (verse 8). This figuration of setting limits to the primal sea as closing doors on a gushing womb produces a high tension of meaning absent from Job’s unequivocal death wish. The doors are closed and bolted (verse 10) so that the flood will not engulf the earth, but nevertheless the waves surge, the womb of all things pulsates, something is born—a sense made clear in the incipiently narrative development of the womb image into the next line (verse 9), where in a metaphor unique in biblical poetry the primordial mists over the surface of the deep are called swaddling bands.

One might note that in the anticipations of this passage in Job’s speech (e.g., 9:4-9) there are allusions to the Canaanite cosmogonic myth of a triumph by force over an archaic sea monster, while in God’s own words that martial story is set aside, or at the very least left in the distant background, so that the cosmogony can be rendered instead in terms of procreation. What we are invited to imagine in this fashion is creation not as the laying low of a foe but as the damming up and channeling of powers nevertheless allowed to remain active.

The poet uses a rather unexpected verb, “to hedge in,” in order to characterize this activity of holding back the womb of the sea, and that is a double allusion, to God’s protective “hedging round” of Job mentioned in the frame-story, and to Job’s bitter complaint toward the end of his first poem of having been “hedged in” by God. The verb, in its various conjugations, is nowhere else in the Bible used for the closing of doors but generally suggests a shading or sheltering act, as with a wing or canopy. The Creator, that is, at the end of Job, is actively blocking off, bolting in, the surge of the sea, but the word carries after it a long train of associations having to do with protection and nurture, so that the negative sense of the verb in Chapter 3 is in a way combined with the positive sense in which the frame-story uses it. What results is a virtual oxymoron, expressing a paradoxical feeling that God’s creation involves a necessary holding in check of destructive forces and a sustaining of those same forces because they are also forces of life. One sees in a single compact phrase how the terms of God’s poetry—which is to say, ultimately, His imagination of the world—transcend the terms of Job’s poetry and that of the friends.

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When the poem moves on—as I have suggested, in an implicitly narrative movement—from cosmogony to meteorology, birth imagery is once more introduced. First Job is challenged sarcastically, “You know, for you were then born” (verse 21), which, in addition to the ultimate allusion to the beginning of the poem in Chapter 3 where Job rues the day of his birth, sounds quite like Eliphaz’s words to Job in Chapter 15 (“Were you the first man born?”). The crucial difference is that instead of being a rhetorical ploy, this address is set against a background of cosmic uterine pulsations and leads into a thick cluster of birth images a few lines down (verses 28-29), so that we quickly grasp the ontological contrast between Job, a man born of woman in time, and the principle of generation infinitely larger than man that informs nature.

The two lines that articulate this principle richly develop the implications of the birth imagery in a characteristically biblical fashion:

Does the rain have a father,
    or who sired the drops of dew?
From whose belly did the ice come forth,
    to the frost of heaven who gave birth?

In each of these two lines we are carried forward from agent (father) or agency (belly) to the active process of procreation (sired, gave birth—in the Hebrew, two different conjugations of the same verb). Between the first line and the second, what amounts to a biological focusing of the birth image is carried out as we go from the father, the inseminator who is the proximate cause of birth, to the mother, in whose body the actual birth is enacted. The interlinear parallelism of this couplet also plays brilliantly with the two opposed states of water, first liquid and falling or condensing, then frozen. In the first line, the flaunted inapplicability of the birth imagery is a result of multiplicity: how could one imagine anyone fathering the countless millions of raindrops or dewdrops? In the second line, the incongruity—which is to say, the chasm between man’s small world and God’s vast world—is a more shocking one (still another intensifying development) as the poet’s language forces us to imagine the unimaginable, great hunks of ice coming out of the womb. Figurative language is used here to show the limits of figuration itself, which, in the argumentative thrust of the poem, means the limits of the human imagination.

The immediately following line (verse 30) is a focusing development of this ice imagery: “Like stone water congeals, / the face of the deep locks hard.” The tension of opposites that is at the heart of God’s vision of the world is strongly felt here: fluid and stone-hard solid, white-frozen surface and watery depths. Having reached this point, the poet lays aside birth imagery, and after three lines devoted to the stars concludes the whole meteorological segment with a focusing development of the phenomena of natural precipitation we have just observed in verses 28-30, which themselves cap a whole sequence on snow and rain that begins with verse 22. There remains, of course, an implicit connection between fructification or birth and rain, as anyone living in the Near Eastern climate and topography would be readily aware, and as verse 27 reminds us quite naturalistically and verse 28 reminds us by a sort of riddling paradox (no one is the father of the rain, but the rain is the father of life). In any case, the concluding four lines of our segment—putting aside verse 36, whose meaning is uncertain—offer an image of downpour on parched land that is, at least by implication, a final turn of the screw in the poetic rejoinder to Chapter 3. In Job’s initial poem the only water anywhere in evidence is the salt water of tears (3:24), and clouds are mentioned only as a means to cover up the light. It is surely appropriate that God should now challenge Job to make lightning leap from the thickness of the cloud, and that in His cosmic realm, as against Job’s rhetorical realm, the meaning of clouds is not darkness but a source of water to renew the earth with life.

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The rest of God’s speech—the second half of the first discourse and virtually all of the second discourse—is then devoted to a poetic panorama of the animal life that covers the earth. The sequence of beasts, like the movement of the poem through space via metonymic links, is loosely associative but also instructive: lion, raven, mountain goat and gazelle, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk, and eagle. The first two and the last two creatures in the sequence are beasts of prey whose native fierceness in effect frames the wildness of the whole catalogue. The sequence begins, that is, with an image of the lion crouching in ambush for its prey (38:39-40), determined to sate its keen appetite; and the sequence closes with this striking evocation of the eagle seeking food for its brood: “From there [the mountain crag] he spies out food, / from afar his eyes discern. // His fledglings gulp blood; / wherever the slain are, there is he” (39:29-30).

This concluding poem in Job is probably one of the most unsentimental poetic treatments of the animal world in the Western literary tradition and, at least at first thought, a little surprising coming from the mouth of the Lord. But the violence and, even more, the peculiar beauty of violence, are precisely the point of God’s visionary rejoinder to Job. The animal realm is a nonmoral realm, but the sharp paradoxes it embodies make us see the inadequacy of any merely human moral calculus—not only that of the friends, learned by rote, but even Job’s, spoken out of the integrity of suffering. In the animal kingdom, the tender care for one’s young may well mean their gulping the blood of freshly slain creatures. It is a daily rite of sustaining life that defies all moralizing anthropomorphic interpretation. And yet, the series of rhetorical questions to Job suggests, God’s providence looks after each of these strange, fierce, inaccessible creatures. There is an underlying continuity between this representation of the animal world and the picture of inanimate nature in 38:2-38, with its sense of terrific power abiding in the natural world, fructification and destruction as alternative aspects of the same imponderable forces.

That continuity is reinforced by the carry-over of images of procreation from the cosmogonic and meteorological sections of the poem to the zoological section. In the two former instances, as we just saw, the language of parturition and progeny is first metaphoric and then both metaphoric and heavily ironic; among the animals, it becomes quite literal. The raven at the beginning of this section (38:41), the eagle at the end, are seen striving to fulfill the needs of their young. Immediately after the raven, the birth process and early growth of the mountain goat and gazelle are given detailed attention:

Do you know the time when the mountain goat
    gives birth,
        do you mark the birth pangs of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to
    term,
        do you know the time when they give birth?
They couch, they push out their young,
    in the throes of labor.
Their offspring batten, grow large in the wild,
        go off and do not return.

(39:1-4)

The emphasis on time here in conjunction with the evocation of birth brings us back in still another strong antithesis to Job’s wish in Chapter 3 that he could wipe out his birth. There he curses the night of his conception by saying, “Let it not come into the number of months” (3:6). Here, in God’s poem, that same phrase (with the minor morphological shift in the Hebrew of “number” from noun to verb) recurs as an instance of how time becomes a medium of fruition under the watchful gaze of the divine Maker of natural order. Reproduction and nurturing are the very essence of a constantly self-renewing creation as the poet imagines it. But even the universal principle of generation is not free from uncanny contradiction, as the strange case of the ostrich (39:13-18) suggests. That peculiar bird, at least according to the ornithological lore on which the poet drew, abandons her eggs in the dirt, unmindful of the danger that they may be trampled underfoot by wild beasts, “For God deprived her of wisdom, / gave her no share of understanding” (13:17). Nature for the Job poet is not a Newtonian clock operating with automatic mechanisms. The impulse to reproduce and nurture life depends upon God’s imbuing each of His creatures with the instinct or “wisdom” to carry it out properly. If the universal Provider of life chooses in any case to withhold His understanding—as Job himself is said to lack wisdom and understanding—things can go awry.

In both structure and thematic assertion, Chapters 38-41 are a great diastolic movement, responding to the systolic movement of Chapter 3. The poetics of suffering in Chapter 3 seeks to contract the whole world to a point of extinction, and it generates a chain of images of enclosure and restriction. The poetics of providential vision in the speech from the storm conjures up horizon after expanding horizon, each populated with a new form of life. Thus, in the second segment of the zoological panorama (38:5-12, though in fact cued by 38:4), we see a parade of animals moving outward into the wild, far beyond the yokes and reins of man: first the young of the mountain goats and gazelles, heading out into the open, then the onager and the wild ox that will never be led into a furrow. In Chapter 3, only in the grave do prisoners “no longer hear the taskmaster’s voice” (3:17) and only there is “the slave free of his master” (3:18). But this, God’s rejoinder implies, is a civilization-bound, hobbled perception of reality, for nature abounds in images of freedom: “Who set the wild ass free, / who undid the bonds of the onager, // Whose home I made in the steppes, / his dwelling-place the salt land? // He scoffs at the bustle of the city, / the shouts of the taskmaster he does not hear” (39:5-7).

God chooses for His response to Job the arena of creation, not the court of justice, the latter being the most insistent recurrent metaphor in Job’s argument after Chapter 3. And it is, moreover, a creation that barely reflects the presence of man, a creation where human concepts of justice have no purchase. We are accustomed to think of the radicalism of the challenge to God in the book of Job, but it should be recognized that, against the norms of biblical literature, God’s response is no less radical than the challenge. Elsewhere in the Bible, man is the crown of creation, little lower than the angels, expressly fashioned to rule over nature. Perhaps that is why there is so little descriptive nature poetry in the Bible: the natural world is of scant interest in itself; it engages a poet’s imagination only insofar as it reflects man’s place in the scheme of things or serves his purposes. But in the uniquely vivid descriptive poetry of Job 38-41, the natural world is valuable for itself, and man, far from standing at its center, is present only by implication, peripherally and impotently, in this welter of fathomless forces and untamable beasts.

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The most elaborately described as well as the most arresting member of the bestiary in the first discourse is the war horse. Few readers of the poem would want to give up these splendid lines, though some have wondered what this evocation of the snorting stallion has to do with Job’s predicament. Indeed, some have suspected that the vignette of the war horse, like the clearly related portraits of the hippopotamus and the crocodile in the next two chapters, is really a sort of descriptive set-piece which the poet brought in because he knew he could do it so well. It seems to me on the contrary that all three beasts are intrinsically connected with the vision of creation that is God’s response to Job’s questioning.

The stallion enters the poem through a verbal clue: if the foolish ostrich only had wisdom, we are told, it would soar into the sky and “scoff at the horse and its rider” (39:18). This moves us directly into a consideration of the horse, which occupies the penultimate position in the first bestiary before the concluding image of the eagle that will bring us back to the initial picture of wild creatures caring for their young:

Do you give the horse his might,
    do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make him shake like locusts,
    his majestic snorting—terror?
He churns up the valley, exults in power,
    goes out toward the weapons.
He scoffs at fear, is undismayed,
    turns not back from the sword.
Arrows by the quiverful rattle past him,
    the flash of spear and lance.
With clamor and clatter he swallows up ground,
    swerves not at the trumpet’s blast.
As the trumpet sounds, he says, “Aha!”
    From afar he sniffs battle,
        the roaring of captains, their shouts.

(39:19-25)

The passage is a rich interweave of heightening maneuvers and narrative developments between versets and between lines, as the war horse itself is the vivid climactic image of the story the poet has to tell about the animal kingdom—before, that is, Behemoth and Leviathan, who, as we shall see, are a climax beyond the climax. In other words, we perceive the stallion narratively, first snorting and pawing the ground, then dashing into the thick of battle; and we see, for example, his whole body aquiver in a first verset, then a startling focus in the second verset on his nostrils snorting terror. The stallion is a concrete embodiment of contradictions held in high tension, in keeping with the whole vision of nature that has preceded. Though fiercer than the onager and the wild ox, he allows his great power to be subjected to the uses of man; yet, as he is described, he gives the virtual impression of joining in battle of his own free will, for his own pleasure.

It would be naive to conclude from these lines that the poet was interested in promoting martial virtues, but the evoked scene of mayhem does convey a sense that a terrible beauty is born and an awesome energy made manifest in the heat of war. These qualities are continuous with the ravening lion who began the bestiary and with the meteorological poetry before it in which lightning leapt from the cloud and the Lord stored up cosmic weapons in the treasure houses of snow and hail.

To be sure, the whole zoological section of the poem is meant to tell Job that God’s tender mercies are over all His creatures, but tonally and imagistically this revelation comes in a great storm rather than in a still, small voice, for the Providence portrayed is over a world that defies comfortable moral categorizings. The most crucial respect in which such defiance makes itself felt is in the immense, imponderable play of power that is seen to inform creation. The world is a constant cycle of life-renewing and nurturing life, but it is also a constant clash of warring forces. This is neither an easy nor a direct answer to the question of why the good man should suffer, but the imposing vision of a harmonious order to which violence is nevertheless intrinsic and where destruction is part of creation is meant to confront Job with the limits of his moral imagination, a moral imagination far more honest but only somewhat less conventional than that of the friends. The strange and wonderful description of the hippopotamus and the crocodile, which after the introductory verses of challenge (40:7-14) takes up all of the second discourse, then makes those limits even more sharply evident.

These two culminating images of the speech from the storm reflect the distinctive poetic logic for the development of meanings that can be observed on both small scale and large in biblical poetry. The movement one so often finds between the two halves of a line from literal to figurative, from verisimilar to hyperbolic, from general assertion to focused concrete image, is precisely the movement that carries us from the catalogue of beasts to Behemoth and Leviathan. The war horse, who is the most striking item in the general catalogue and the one also given the most attention quantitatively (seven lines), is a way-station in the rising line of semantic intensity that terminates in Behemoth and Leviathan. The stallion is a familiar creature but already uncanny in the beauty of the power he represents. From this point, the poet moves on to two exotic animals whose habitat is the banks of the Nile—that is, far removed from the actual experience of the Israelite audience and even farther from that of the fictional auditor, Job, whose homeland is presumably somewhere to the east of Israel. The listener, that is, may have actually glimpsed a war horse or a lion or mountain goat, but the hippopotamus and crocodile are beyond his geographical reach and cultural ken, and he would most likely have heard of them through travelers’ yarns and the fabulation of folklore.

The hippopotamus is given ten lines of vivid description that place him on the border between the natural and the supernatural. Not a single detail is mythological, but everything is rendered with hyperbolic intensity, concluding in the strong assertion that no hook can hold him (the Egyptians used hooked poles to hunt the hippopotamus). The evocation of the crocodile is then accorded thirty-three lines, and it involves a marvelous fusion of precise observation, hyperbole, and mythological heightening of the real reptile, and thus becomes a beautifully appropriate climax to the whole poem.

What is stressed in the description of the hippopotamus is the paradoxical union of pacific nature—he is a herbivore, seen peacefully resting in the shade of lotuses on the riverbank—and terrific power, against which no human sword could prevail. (Thus, whether or not hippopotami could actually be captured is not important, for the poet needs to drive home the point that this awesome beast is both literally and figuratively beyond man’s grasp.) And with strategic effectiveness, the notion of muscular power—bones like bronze, limbs like iron rods—is combined with a striking emphasis on sexual potency, thus extending the images of generation and birth of the first discourse:

Look, his power is in his loins,
    his potency in the muscles of his belly.
He makes his member3 stand like a cedar,
    the sinews of his testicles knit together.

(40:16-17)

_____________

 

Biblical poetry in general, certainly when measured by the standard of Greek epic verse, is not very visual, or rather is visual only in momentary flashes and sudden climactic developments. But the description of the crocodile is exceptionally striking in its sustained visual force, in keeping with its role as the culmination of this long, impressive demonstration of God’s searching vision contrasted to man’s purblind view. I shall translate the last twenty-nine lines of the poem, which follow the initial assertion that Leviathan, like Behemoth, is impervious to every hook and snare and every scheme of being subjected to domestication. The line numbers reflect verse numbers in Chapter 41, beginning with verse 5:

5 Who can uncover his outer garb,
      come into his double mail?
6 Who can pry open the doors of his face,
      all around his teeth is terror.
7 His back is rows of shields,
      closed in a tight seal,
8 One touching the next,
      no breath could come between them.
9 Each cleaves to the next,
      locked together, they will not part.
10 His sneezes flash light,
      his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
11 Firebrands leap from his mouth,
      fiery sparks fly off.
12 From his nostrils smoke comes forth,
      like a boiling pot on brushwood.
13 His breath kindles coals,
      flame comes out of his mouth.
14 Strength dwells in his neck,
      before him violence dances.
15 The folds of his flesh cling together,
      hard-cast, he will not totter.
16 His heart is cast hard as stone,
      cast hard as the nether millstone.
17 When he rears, the gods quail,
      when he crashes down, they cringe.
18 No sword that reached him could stand,
      neither spear, nor dart, nor lance.
19 Iron he deems as straw,
      and bronze as rotten wood.
20 No arrow can make him flee,
      against him, slingstones turn straw.
21 Missiles* are deemed mere straw,
      he mocks the javelin’s clatter.
22 His underside jagged shards,
      he spreads a harrow over mud.
23 He makes the deep seethe like a cauldron,
      he turns sea to an ointment pan.
24 Behind him glistens a wake,
      he makes the depths seem hoary.
25 He has no match on earth,
      made as he is without fear.
26 All that is lofty he sees,
      he is king over all proud beasts.

The power of the crocodile is suggested both through a heightening of the descriptive terms and through a certain narrative movement. First we get the real beast’s awesome teeth and impenetrable armor of scales, then a mythologizing depiction of him breathing smoke and fire and sneezing sparks of light. At the same time, the series of challenging interrogatives that has controlled the rhetoric of the divine discourse from the beginning of Chapter 38 glides into declaratives, starting in verse 7, as the poem moves toward closure.

As elsewhere, the poet works with an exquisite sense of the descriptive needs at hand and of the structural continuities of the poem and the book. The peculiar emphasis on fire and light in the representation of the crocodile takes us back to the cosmic imagery of light in God’s first discourse, to the lightning leaping from the cloud, and beyond that to Job’s initial poem in Chapter 3. In fact, the remarkable and celebrated phrase, “eyelids of the dawn,” which, in Chapter 3, Job wants never to be seen again, recurs here to characterize the light flashing from the crocodile’s eyes.4 This makes us draw a pointed connection and at the same time shows how the poet’s figurative language dares to situate rare beauty in the midst of power and terror and strangeness.

The implicit narrative development of the description takes us from a vision of the head, armor plate, and body of the beast (verses 5-16), to a picture of him rearing up and crashing down, brushing off all assailants, and then churning out of our field of vision, leaving behind a foaming wake that, like his mouth and eyes, shines (verses 17-24). If the language of sea (yam) and deep (tehom, metzulah) rather than of river water predominates in this final segment, that is in part because of the associations of the mythic Lotan with those terms and that habitat, but also because this vocabulary carries us back to the cosmogonic beginning of God’s speech (see in particular 38:16). Job’s merely human vision could not penetrate the secrets of the deep, and now at the end we have before our mind’s eye the magnificent, ungraspable beast who lives in the deep, who is master of all creatures of land and sea, who from his own quite unimaginable perspective “sees” all that is lofty. Leviathan is nature mythologized, for that is the poet’s way of conveying the truly uncanny, the truly inscrutable, in nature; but he remains part of nature, for if not it would make little sense for the poem to conclude, “he is king over all proud beasts.”

_____________

 

By now, I would hope it has become clear what on earth descriptions of a hippopotamus and a crocodile are doing at the end of the Book of Job. Obviously there can be no direct answer to Job’s question as to why, having been a decent and God-fearing man, he should have lost all his sons and daughters, his wealth, and his health. Job’s own poetry is an instrument for probing, against the stream of the friends’ platitudes, the depths of his understandable sense of outrage over what befell him. God’s poetry enables Job to glimpse beyond his human plight an immense world of power and beauty and awesome warring forces. This world is permeated with God’s ordering concern but, as the vividness of the verse makes clear, it presents to the human eye a welter of contradictions, dizzying variety, energies, and entities that man cannot take in.

Job surely does not have the sort of answer he expected, but he has a strong answer of another kind. Now at the end he will no longer presume to want to judge the Creator, having been brought through God’s tremendous poetry to realize that creation can perhaps be sensed but not encompassed by the mind—like that final image of the crocodile already whipping away from our field of vision, leaving behind only a shining wake for us to see. If Job in his first response to the Lord (40:2, 4-5) merely confesses that he cannot hope to contend with God and will henceforth hold his peace, in his second response (42:2-6), after the conclusion of the second divine speech, he humbly admits that he has been presumptuous, has in fact “obscured counsel” about things he did not understand. Referring more specifically to the impact of God’s visionary poem, he announces that he has been vouchsafed a gift of sight—the glimpse of an ungraspable creation surging with the power of its Creator: “By what the ear hears I had heard You, / but now my eyes have seen You.”

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 An asterisk indicates a philological or textual problem in the Hebrew.

2 I follow the new Jewish Publication Society translation here, which cites the Aramaic 'oria as warrant for this rendering. The ordinary sense of the Hebrew 'or is simply “light.”

3 The Hebrew word literally means “tail,” but the context of the two lines makes compelling the suggestion of several commentators that here it is a euphemism for the phallus.

4 Some modern translations render this as “glimmerings of the dawn,” which has the advantage of smoothness, but the Hebrew word in question does elsewhere mean eyelids, and I see no persuasive reason not to read it as a bold metaphor for the first gleam of light.

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