Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 4 – Robert Alter

February 13, 2014

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.

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.

See Intro in first post.


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, we recall, began by setting out the binary opposition between day and night, light and darkness, and then proceeded through an intensifying series of wishes that the light be swallowed up by darkness.

The opening verset of God’s speech summons Job as someone who “darkens 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, giver, “man,” which also occurs at the beginning of Job’s first poem — “the night that said, A man has been conceived.”

It is as though God were implying: you called yourself man, giver, now gird up your loins like a man and see if you can face the truth. Job, the Voice from the Whirl wind 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 19-20:

Where is the way light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
That you might take it to its home,
and understand the paths to its house?

Job in Chapter 3 prayed for cloud and darkness to envelop the day he was born. Cloud and deep mist reappear here in a startlingly new context, as the matinal  [vocab: relating to or taking place in the morning.] blanket over the primordial seas, as the swaddling bands of creation (verse 9). Job wanted “death’s shadow (tzalmdvet) to cover his existence; here that term appears as part of large cosmic picture not to be perceived with mere human eyes: Have the gates of death been laid bare to you, / and the gates of death’s shadow 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 the Friends. Job in the ascending spirals of his pain-driven rhetoric sought 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, one recalls, tried to conjure up an eternal starless night:

Let its twilight stars go dark,
let it hope for light in vain,
and let it not see the eyelids of the dawn


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 that is also, it should be observed, a counter image to 3:9:

When the morning stars sang together,
 and 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 began with a triumphant cry on the night of conception — a cry Job wanted to wish away — and proceeded 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 implies not biological filiation but something like “celestial company” – takes this back beyond Chapter 3 to the frame-story. There, of course, it was the Adversary who was the prominent and sinister member of “the sons of God.”

The discordant note he represented 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 folktale he has chosen to use.

There is a second set of key images in the first movement of God’s speech that harks back to Job’s initial poem, namely, 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 was 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 wanted shut on him forever, the Voice from the Whirlwind invokes a cosmic womb and cosmic doors to a very different purpose:

Who hedged the sea with double 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 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 ins 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 only clear allusion in the poem to God’s doing battle, verse 23, is projected forward in time to an indefinite, perhaps vaguely apocalyptic future.) 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. One usage that might throw some light on our line from Job is this verse in Psalms (139:13):

“For You created my innermost parts,
wove me [or hedged me around] in my mother’s womb.”

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 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 violent 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. When the poem moves on — as I have suggested, in an implicitly narrative movement — from cosmogony to meteorology, birth imagery 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, sounds ,quite like Eliphaz’s words to Job in Chapter 15. The crucial difference is that instead of being a rhetorical ploy in a petty contest of supposed longevity, 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 below 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 begot the drops of dew?
From whose belly did the ice come forth,
To the frost of the heavens who gave birth?

In each of these two lines we are carried forward from agent (fat her) or agency (belly) to the active process of procreation (begot, 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 haunted 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 chunk 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 this ice imagery: “Water congeals like stone, / and 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-harp 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 just observed in verses 28-30, which themselves capped a whole sequence on snow and rain that began with verse.

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 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 saltwater 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.

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 couching 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 seeks out food, / from afar his eyes look down. // His chicks lap up blood; / where the slain are, there he is” (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 God. 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 non-moral 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 carryover 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 was 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) and 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 mountain goats’ birth time,
do you mark the calving of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to term
and know their birthing time?
They crouch, burst forth with their babes,
their young they push out to the world.
Their offspring batten, grow big in the wild,
they go out and do not return.

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, one recalls, he cursed the night of his conception by saying, “Let it not enter 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 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 made her forgetful of wisdom,
and he did not allot her insight

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  1. […] Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 4 – Robert Alter […]

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