Commentary on Job 38:1-11
God’s speech from the whirlwind is a long time coming.
Job and his friends have been engaged in an extended, exhausting poetic dialogue about the nature of Job’s suffering and God’s justice (or lack thereof), in which Job repeatedly expresses the desire to see God face to face and to put God on trial (Job 13:15, 20, 24; compare with Job 31:35-37). Job desired this encounter, but he also feared it:
If I summoned him to court and he answered me,
I do not believe he would listen to my voice.
Surely he will crush me with a whirlwind
And multiply my wounds without cause. (Job 9:16-17)
When God appears, it is in a whirlwind, as Job predicted. But is Job crushed? This appearance dignifies the dialogue and answers Job’s demand for a hearing. Job has provoked God into a revelation, which suggests that Job’s insistence on his own righteousness and accusation against God has been in some sense successful. Now it is the deity’s prerogative to offer a defense.
But it is a strange defense. Readers may find God blustering. This tone is a signature of the disputation form, which is marked by withering take-downs of the opponent and satirical questions such as the ones that emblazon this passage. In Job 38:2-3 we hear God’s opening challenge to Job: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? / Gird up your loins like a man, / I will question you, and you shall declare to me.”
The Hebrew word for knowing (yada) is repeated four times in Job 28:2-5 in different forms, though the wordplay is not visible in English: “words without knowledge (daat)”, “You shall declare to me (wehodieni)”, “If you have understanding (yadata)”, “surely you know (teda).” This repetition ironically reiterates God’s main challenge to Job. Without a full understanding of God or of the workings of the world, how could Job’s case stand? The missing knowledge, though, is not an insufficient understanding of justice. Rather, God sidesteps Job’s questions about justice altogether in favor of imaginative descriptions that are cosmological and meteorological (and later in Job 38-42, they will be zoological as well).
The Divine Architect
The first description, of God as a builder (Job 38:4-7), contrasts Job’s limited understanding with the depth of God’s wisdom and skill. The poet draws on a familiar image of God setting the world’s foundations (for example Psalms 24:2, 89:11; Isaiah 48:13; Zechariah 12:1, etc.) and elaborates it with details that portray God as architect and builder of a great house: God measures, stretches the line, sinks the bases, and lays the cornerstone. All of the images work on the reader to imagine God acting with foresight and meticulous design, overseeing the plan with precision, and executing the construction with physical power. This world is imagined in a state of excavation, as in the preparatory stages of building a house, when the site is deconstructed in order to ensure a steady foundation.
The Divine Midwife
In the second description (Job 38:8-11), God will be imagined as a midwife. This imagery continues to emphasize that God’s creative work is beyond human knowledge, shifting here to God’s containment of the sea: “Or who shut in the sea with doors…?”
The sea is the traditional symbol of primordial chaos, a hostile force that the creator God must defeat (for example Psalm 74:13-14; 89:9-13; Isaiah 51:9-10) or circumscribe (Psalm 104:5-9; Proverbs 8:29; Jeremiah 5:22). One thinks of relentlessly lapping waves, the pulse of shifting tides, torrential rains and storms that flood, the visual magnitude of a body of water that stretches beyond sight to the apparent edge of the world. It is this seemingly insurmountable, capricious force that God subdues in order to make space for an orderly creation on the land (compare with Genesis 1:6-10). God orders these primal oceanic forces, sets for them bounds, bars, and doors, making them subject to divine ordinance.
But the poet surprises us, coupling this with imagery of birth: the sea is a baby. God is imagined as a midwife, helping the sea to be born (it “burst[s] out from the womb”). Birth, too, is a watery event of inexorable power. At birth, the midwife’s presence is a combination of comfort and advocacy.
The reader imagines God with the strong and supportive hands of an older woman, helping the mother bring her infant through the treacherous channels of birth. It is not the only time God is imagined as a midwife (for example Psalm 22:9-10). Then, perhaps with gentleness and compassion, God clothes the infant sea, swaddles it with clouds and darkness, and speaks to it in a tone of parental discipline: “Thus far you shall come, and no farther, / and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). This is tenderness coupled with power, as any caregiver who has swaddled a screaming infant knows: soothing comes, but only after a mighty wrestling.
Poetry and imagination
Both of these images are creative treatments of traditional language, drawn out in surprising ways. The effect is disorienting: a clear answer to Job’s questions about justice is nowhere in sight. Indeed, humans and their concerns have no place in these speeches (unlike, for example Psalm 104). Instead, the reader must wrestle with dazzling, provocative images that reimagine God as an engineer of the cosmos and midwife to the elements. The poems do what good art can: reframe the conversation with arresting, alternatively imagined possibilities.
The poem models a stance toward the world: consider the creation, remember what you’ve heard from tradition. These descriptions of the natural world suggest that as the imagination engages the world, a new kind of knowledge or transcendence is reached. This radical reorientation asks for submission to a mysterious order that exceeds human concerns. The divine vantage exposes the limits of human knowledge and capacity, and provides a compelling reason for Job’s continued piety: Job — in wonder, or bewilderment, or perhaps both — ultimately retracts his case (40:3-5; 42:1-6).