Job 38:1-11, 34-41
The context for any passage in the book of Job has to begin with chapter 1, which establishes Job’s excellent character (1:1-5), acknowledged even by God (1:8). But God permitted “the satan”, one of the heavenly minions, to test Job by taking away his wealth, his family (1:13-21), and finally his health (2:1-10).
NOTE: The satan of the book of Job is not the same as the diabolical Satan of the New Testament. The satan of the book of Job is one of the heavenly minions.
The intervening chapters (2:11 – 37:24) are composed largely of conversations between Job and his friends. The pattern throughout those chapters is that Job’s friends, who were convinced that God prospers the innocent and punishes the guilty, tried to convince Job that he must be guilty of some terrible sin and should repent. Job, however, refused to acknowledge his sin, because he believed himself to be innocent—a fact that we, as the readers of the first chapter, know to be true.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT is a lengthy speech by Elihu (chapters 32-37), who rebuked Job’s friends because “there was no answer in the mouth of these three men” (32:5)—and rebuked Job for declaring his righteousness and contending against God (chapter 33)—and proclaimed God’s justice (chapter 34)—and condemned self-righteousness (chapter 35)—and exalted God’s goodness (chapters 36-37).
While we might expect Job, in chapter 38, to answer Elihu, chapters 38-41 constitute God’s answer to Job. The book will conclude with Job being humbled but satisfied (42:1-6)—his friends humiliated for having made false charges against Job (42:7-9)—and Job’s wealth, family, and health being restored (42:10-17).
In the introduction of the exegesis for Job 1:1 – 2:1-20, I said that the book of Job raises a number of questions, such as “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (1:9)—and “Why does God permit suffering?”—and “Why do good people suffer and bad people prosper?” I noted that this book raises these questions, which is different from saying that it answers them.
God’s response to Job is all questions—not the ones mentioned above, but questions that God presents to Job as a way of dealing with the questions that Job has been raising. “God is paying Job the greatest compliment that a teacher can give a student. Instead of giving him answers, God only asks questions. Instead of stating conclusions, God presents only the facts. Induction, not deduction is God’s method of teaching…. God shows how much He cares for His creation by refusing to violate Job’s freedom or insult his intelligence. He gives him assorted facts and counts upon him to make the connections” (McKenna).
JOB 38:1-3. THEN YAHWEH ANSWERED JOB OUT OF THE WHIRLWIND
1Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind (Hebrew: searah),
2“Who is this who darkens counsel
by words without knowledge?
3Brace yourself like a man (Hebrew: geber),
for I will question you, then you answer me!”
“Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind“ (searah) (v. 1). This is the first time since the prologue that God has been referred to by the proper name, Yahweh (see Exodus 6:2-3).
Yahweh’s answer was directed personally to Job—not to Job’s friends. It should seem amazing that God would speak directly to a person, but that is the way that God does it over and over again throughout both Old and New Testaments.
Yahweh answers Job “out of the searah“—the whirlwind or windstorm. Earlier, Job feared that God would crush him “with a storm” (9:17)—or that God would overwhelm him with God’s great power (9:3, 32-35; 23:6, 15-16)—but it is not Yahweh’s purpose to crush or to overwhelm Job, but to enlighten him. “That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God” (Andersen, 269).
God reveals himself in many ways. He revealed himself to Jacob by a ladder on which “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). He revealed himself to Moses in “a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush…and (the bush) was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). He made himself known through the law and the prophets. He makes himself known through the gift of his Son—and through the scriptures. He makes himself known through the brilliant preacher—and the humble servant. We can never anticipate how God will make himself known to us—but we can be sure that he is using many methods to make it possible for us to know him. Often, God makes himself known through the tempestuous experiences that turn our lives upside down, just as he made himself known to Job.
“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (v. 2). Thus begin the questions that Yahweh addresses to Job. These questions are hardly what Job was expecting—or wanting. What he wanted was an opportunity to address God directly—to know the specific charges against him—to plead his case so that he might win justice. What he gets instead is a series of questions that he cannot answer—but which will contribute nevertheless to his enlightenment.
Job’s counsel or understanding is darkened—rendered incapable of shedding light on the subject—because he speaks “words without knowledge.” Here Yahweh counts Job as ignorant rather than evil. He doesn’t characterize Job’s words as sinful. God’s purpose is not to condemn Job, but to enlighten him.
“Brace yourself like a man“ (geber) (v. 3a). To gird up one’s loins is to pull up the bottom of the robe and tuck it into the belt. The purpose is to free the person from the constraints of tight clothing—to enable the person to move freely, to work or to fight without stricture.
The word geber suggests something more than an ordinary man. Yahweh is challenging Job to gird up his loins like a manly man—a man of action—a doer—a warrior. He invites Job to prepare for confrontation.
“for I will question you, then you answer me” (v. 3b). Earlier, Job challenged God, “Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and you answer me” (13:22). In that case, Job wanted God to account for Job’s iniquities and sins (13:23)—to make it clear to Job why he was suffering.
But now Yahweh turns the tables on Job, telling Job that Yahweh will do the questioning and Job will do the answering.
JOB 38:4-7 WHERE WERE YOU?
4“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if you have understanding.
5Who determined its measures, if you know?
Or who stretched the line on it?
6Whereupon were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
7when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
These verses picture a grand architectural work in progress—the creation of the earth. Yahweh makes no mention of the rest of creation at this point—the sun, moon, and stars—the constellations and galaxies—the white dwarf stars and the black holes—the novas and the supernovas—the vastness of space. The earth is just one small part of the created order, but it will serve adequately to show Job his limited understanding.
Job was not a party to the decisions about the earth’s measurements—not even Adam and Eve were present to witness those early decisions. Job had no part in stretching a line upon the earth to insure that the foundations would run true. Job had not seen the foundations sunk or its cornerstone laid. That whole process is a mystery to Job. He knows only that which the scriptures reveal about the creation.
“Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (vv. 6b-7). Laying a cornerstone signifies the beginning of construction. Cornerstones were laid with great care, because their placement made possible a straight and level foundation.
The laying of the cornerstone of a significant building was an occasion for celebration. “The laying of a temple’s foundations and the placing of the capstone were liturgical occasions when musicians and singers praised God, and the people joined in shouts of blessing and praise” (Newsom).
The morning star is the planet Venus—the brightest object in the sky other than the sun or moon. When it arises in early morning, it dominates the sky—a brilliant diamond on a black field, surrounded by smaller diamonds that are the other stars.
Here Yahweh portrays the morning star and all its companions singing together as a choir in praise of the earthly creation. The rest of the heavenly beings (“sons of God”) join them in their chorus—perhaps antiphonally, with the morning stars singing from one part of the heavens and the heavenly beings answering from another part.
This is lovely poetic imagery, of course, but its purpose is to remind Job that he cannot begin to plumb the depths of God’s wisdom and knowledge.
JOB 38:8-11. WHO SHUT UP THE SEA WITH DOORS?
8“Or who shut up the sea with doors,
when it broke forth from the womb,
9when I made clouds its garment,
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10marked out for it my bound,
set bars and doors,
11and said, ‘Here you may come, but no further.
Here your proud waves shall be stayed?’”
These verses shift the metaphor from the creation of the earth to the taming of the seas.
For the Hebrew people, the Mediterranean Sea was the great sea. They were accustomed to plying its waters to and from the various Israelites cities along the coast—and to and from Egypt in the south and Phoenicia and Syria in the north. Some ships would go even further—to Greece and beyond. They knew what it was to get caught in a storm at sea, where waves would rise up as high as the masts of their ships. They knew what it was to be afraid—to doubt that they would survive.
Anyone who has experienced a serious storm at sea cannot help but be awed by the forces of nature at work within such a storm. The amount of energy expended by such a storm is beyond calculation. People have no power to defang such a storm, and sailors caught in such a storm are hard pressed to defend themselves against the storm’s fury. They often think of storms at sea as a malevolent force that threatens their very lives.
But Yahweh here portrays the sea as a baby emerging from the womb. Yahweh makes a garment of clouds to clothe the sea—and uses the darkness as a swaddling band. A swaddling band is a cloth or blanket that is used to wrap a baby. It both envelops the baby and restricts the baby’s movements. The picture, then, is of Yahweh using clouds and darkness to clothe and to restrain the seas.
Verses 10-11 further portray Yahweh as setting limits on the seas—prescribing boundaries beyond which the seas cannot go. Anyone who lives along an ocean shore will probably think of those boundaries as tentative, because the seas have a way of eroding shorelines and going where they have never gone before—but only as far as Yahweh allows them to go.
But the point of these verses is not the power of the seas but the power of Yahweh. It was Yahweh who created the seas and Yahweh who sets their limits.
What about that, Job? Were you there when that happened? Did you see it? Can you understand it? Could you have done something remotely as grand? Can you set limits on the violent seas? If not, who are you to be seeking a one-on-one confrontation with the Almighty to present your case and to seek vindication?
JOB 38:12-33. MORE QUESTIONS
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, probably because (1) they continue to ask questions similar to those above and (2) the people who developed the lectionary were trying to establish a compact reading that would be manageable as one of four readings in a worship service.
JOB 38:34-38. CAN YOU LIFT UP YOUR VOICE TO THE CLOUDS?
34“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
That abundance of waters may cover you?
35Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are?’
36Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? (Hebrew: tuhot)
Or who has given understanding to the mind? (Hebrew: sekwi)
37Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can pour out the bottles of the sky,
38when the dust runs into a mass,
and the clods of earth stick together?”
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover you?” (v. 34). Yahweh shifts from the earth to the skies. Earlier, Elihu noted that “God is great” (36:26)—”For he draws up the drops of water, which distill in rain from his vapor, which the skies pour down and which drop on man abundantly” (36:27-28).
Now Yahweh asks if Job can speak to the clouds and get them to drop their rain? Can he order the clouds to break the drought?
“Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go?“ (v. 35a). Earlier, Elihu noted that God ” covers his hands with the lightning, and commands it to strike the mark… He sends it forth under the whole sky, and his lightning to the ends of the earth” (36:32; 37:3).
Now Yahweh asks if Job can do the same. Can he assemble the lightning bolts into a formation, like a battalion of soldiers, and send them forth into battle? (v. 35a).
“Do they report to you, ‘Here we are?'” (v. 35b). When Job calls their names, will the lightning bolts acknowledge his authority and answer, “Present for duty, sir!” Will they eagerly serve his bidding and obey his orders?
“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? (Hebrew: tuhot—the ibis) Or who has given understanding to the mind?” (sekwi—the cock) (v. 36). A number of scholars would translate this verse, “Who has put wisdom in the ibis or given understanding to the cock” (Hartley, 503; Balentine, 657; Newsom).
The ibis is a beautiful long-necked wading bird that was considered sacred in Egypt. People attributed to it power to discern and to announce changes in weather. The cock (or rooster) announces the coming of the new day and the coming of rain with its cock-a-doodle-do.
Job, who gave the ibis and cock the wisdom to know when the weather is changing? Can you answer that? Was it you? Probably not!
“Who can number the clouds by wisdom?“ (v. 37a). Who can count the clouds? Some clouds hide in the far reaches of the sky, wispy and almost imperceptible. Others hang heavy and black above the earth. Often clouds move quickly across the sky, and one cloud will join another cloud to form a larger cloud—or a large cloud will split to form two clouds. We can see only those clouds within a few miles of our location, and in the dark of night not even those—but there are clouds over each of the continents and each of the oceans. Who can count all those clouds, Job? Who has that kind of wisdom? Is it you, Job? Probably not!
“Or who can pour out the bottles of the sky” (v. 37b). Those many clouds are like waterskins. They are precious, because they carry water to water crops and refresh wells and sustain life: human life, animal life, and vegetation. Without these waterskins, life on earth would quickly disappear.
Who filled those waterskins with water, Job? Did you? Who put those waterskins in the sky? Did you? Can you reach into the sky and tilt these waterskins so that they will drop their water where it is needed, Job? Probably not!
“when the dust runs into a mass, and the clods of earth stick together?” (v. 38). You have seen dust run into a mass, Job! You have seen hard clods cling together so that they are more like rock than soil. When it is dry like that, the farmer is helpless. There is always danger that the wind will blow away the topsoil that has turned to dust. The hard clods will break the farmer’s plow if he tries to plow the fields.
When a drought like that threatens to suck the life out of the earth, can you bring water from the skies to settle the dust and to soften the hard ground, Job? Probably not!
JOB 38:39-41. CAN YOU HUNT THE PREY FOR THE LIONESS?
39“Can you hunt the prey for the lioness,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40when they crouch in their dens,
and lie in wait in the thicket?
41Who provides for the raven his prey,
when his young ones cry to God,
and wander for lack of food?”
These verses belong at the beginning of chapter 39 rather than at the end of chapter 38. They introduce a series of questions about animals: Lions (38:39-40; ravens (38:41); mountain goats and deer (39:1-4); the wild ass (39:5-8); the wild ox (39:9-12); the ostrich (39:13-18); the horse (39:19-25); and the hawk (39:26-30).
“Can you hunt the prey for the lioness, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, and lie in wait in the thicket?” (vv. 39-40). Lions are large carnivorous animals and require a great deal to eat. An adult male will weigh 350-550 pounds (160-250 kg.) and can eat 75 pounds (35 kg.) of meat at a sitting (although a lion that has eaten to its fill will rest for several days before hunting again).
Lions are found in many parts of Africa and Asia. The population of lions today is surely much smaller than in Job’s day, because humans have encroached on lion habitat and the habitat of animals on which lion’s feed. However, even today, it would be difficult to count the number of lions on the face of the earth.
So what about it, Job? Do you know how many lions there are? Do you know where they can be found? Are you familiar with their dens and coverts? Can you find prey for them? Can you feed their young? Probably not!
“Who provides for the raven his prey, when his young ones cry to God, and wander for lack of food?” (v. 41). Ravens are large members of the crow family. They will eat nearly anything—seeds, fruit, rodents—even carrion. But it would be hard for a human to feed them, because they tend to build their nests high on cliffs or in trees.
How about the ravens, Job? Can you locate their nests? Can you provide them with food? Can you feed their young? Probably not!
The questions that Yahweh asks Job are intended “not to demean Job but to glorify God” (Alden, 380).
As noted above, verses 39-41 belong at the beginning chapter 39 instead of at the end of chapter 38. Chapter 39 includes a long list of questions about various animals.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Alden, Robert L., New American Commentary: Job, Vol. 11 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Andersen, Francis I., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Job, Vol. 13 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, no date)
Balentine, Samuel E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Job (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2006
Hartley, John E., New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Interpretation Commentary: Job (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985)
McKenna, David L., The Preacher’s Commentary: Job (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
Murphy, Roland E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Newsom, Carol A., The New Interpreters Bible: Job, Psalms, and 1 & 2 Maccabees, Vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Wilson, Gerald H., New International Biblical Commentary: Job (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan