Alter is working alone, the way a poet or novelist does, and the versions he produces carry the authority of imagination, of literature, rather than of religion. In his eyes, this is not a demotion but an elevation. Only if we approach the Bible as a work of literature, Alter believes, can we understand the full subtlety and intelligence of its stories. As he writes in his pioneering book The Art of Biblical Narrative: “As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with, show a surprising subtlety and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness. … The paradoxical truth may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.”
Nature for the Job poet is not a Newtonian clock operating with automatic mechanism: 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 did prisoners “hear not the taskmaster’s voice” (3:18), and only there was “the slave free of his master” (3:19). 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, / and the unager’s reins who loosed, // whose home I made in the steppes, / his dwelling-place flats of salt? // He scoffs at the bustling city, / the driver’s shouts he does not hear” (39:5-7).
The way in which these various antitheses between Chapter 3 and chapters 38-39 are elaborately pointed may suggest why some of the subsequent major movements in Job’s poetic argument are not also alluded to here. In part, the reason might have been a problem of technical feasibility: it is manageable enough to reverse the key-terms and images and themes of one rich poem at the beginning in another poem at the end, but it might have become unwieldy to introduce into the conclusion allusions to a whole series of intervening poems.
More substantively, however, 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.
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 that 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 hawk that will bring us back in an envelope structure to the initial picture of wild creatures caring for their young:
Do you give might to the horse,
do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make his roar like locusts –
his splendid snort is terror.
He churns up the valley exulting,
in power goes out to the clash of arms.
He scoffs at fear and is undaunted,
turns not back from the sword.
Over him rattles the quiver,
the blade, the javelin, and the spear.
With clamor and clatter he swallows the ground,
and ignores the trumpets sound.
At the trumpet he says, “Aha, “
and from afar he scents the fray,
the thunder of captains, the shouts.
The passage is a rich interweave of heightening maneuvers and narrative developments between versets and between lines, as the warhorse 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 that 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 by elaborating these two climactically focused images of the poem’s vision of nature.
There has been a certain amount of quite unnecessary confusion among commentators as to whether the subject of the second discourse is in fact zoology or mythology. Many have argued that the two beasts in question are nothing more than the hippopotamus and the crocodile. Others, like Marvin Pope in his philologically painstaking though somewhat sketchy treatment of Job,4 have claimed that both are mythological monsters.
“Leviathan” in fact appears in Chapter 3 as a mythological entity, and the word is clearly cognate with the Ugaritic Lotan, a kind of sea dragon. The argument for mythology is shakier for Behemoth because there is no extra-biblical evidence of the term as a mythological designation, and all the other occurrences within the Bible would seem to be as a generic term for perfectly naturalistic grass-eating beasts of the field, including an earlier use of the term in Job itself (12:7).
The either/or rigidity of the debate over Behemoth and Leviathan quickly dissolves if we note that these two culminating images of the speech from the storm reflect the distinctive poetic logic for the development of meanings that we have been observing on both small scale and large in biblical poetry. The movement 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 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 (in fact, 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.
To put this question in historical perspective, the very distinction we as moderns make between mythology and zoology would not have been so clear-cut for the ancient imagination. The Job poet and his audience, after all, lived in an era before zoos, and exotic beasts like the ones described in Chapters 40-41 were not part of an easily accessible and observable reality. The borderlines, then, between fabled report, immemorial myth, and natural history would tend to blur, and the poet creatively exploits this blur in his climactic evocation of the two amphibious beasts that are at once part of the natural world and beyond it.
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 hippopotami could actually be captured is not important, for the 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, pray: the power in his loins,
the virile strength in his belly’s muscles.
He makes his tail stand like a cedar,
his balls’ sinews twine together.
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 definition of the crocodile is exceptionally striking in its sustained force, in keeping with its role as the culmination of this long, impressive demonstration of God’s searching vision contrasted to man blind view.
I shall translate the last twenty-two 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 the Hebrew text of 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 with the tightest seal.
8 Each touches against the next,
no breath can come between them.
9 Each sticks fast to the next,
locked together, they will not part.
10 His sneezes shoot out light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of dawn.
11 Firebrands leap from his mouth,
sparks of fire fly into the air.
12 From his nostrils smoke comes out,
like a boiling vat on brushwood.
13 His breath kindles coals,
and flame comes out of his mouth.
14 Strength abides in his neck,
and before him power 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 a nether millstone.
17 When he rears up, the gods are frightened,
when he crashes down, they cringe.
18 Who overtakes him with sword, it will not avail,
nor spear nor dart nor lance.
19 Iron he deems as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.
20 No arrow can make him flee,
slingstones for him turn to straw.
21 Missiles* are deemed as straw,
and he mocks the javelin’s clatter.
22 Beneath him, jagged shards,
he draws a harrow over the mud.
23 He makes the deep boil like a pot,
turns sea to an ointment pan.
24 Behind him glistens a wake,
he makes the deep seem hoary.
25 He has no match on earth,
made as he is without fear.
26 All that is lofty he can see.
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.
This representation, moreover, of the fire-breathing beast is strangely reminiscent of the description of the God of battles in 2 Samuel 22 and elsewhere in biblical poetry.’ 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 fact, the remarkable and celebrated phrase “eyelids of the dawn, which Job in Chapter 3 wanted never to be seen again, recurs here to characterize the light flashing from the crocodile’s eyes.
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 13-24), 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 25-32).
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 time 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 he did 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 poetry was an instrument for probing, against the stream of the Friends’ platitudes, the depths of his own 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-Leviathan 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 deity (40:2, 4-5) merely confessed that he could not hope to contend with God and would 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 the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eyes have seen You.