‘The Skies, Hard as a Molten Mirror’? – Job 37:18 (Synopsis)

This is a synopsis of our main conclusions on this passage until a fuller treatment can be given.

Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?
(Job 37:18, NRSV)
תַּרְקִיעַ עִמּוֹ לִשְׁחָקִים חֲזָקִים כִּרְאִי מוּצָק

This passage is consistently used as one of the primary supporting texts for the ‘sky is a solid vault’ concept, and understandably so. The context of this passage is greatly important. It is a lengthy description of a storm which culminates with the theophany of God from the midst of an intense storm or tornado (seʿārâ, 38:1). Verse 15 speaks of God “causing the light of his cloud to shine forth.” The next two verses continue:

Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect, 17 you whose garments are hot when the earth is still because of the south wind? (NRSV)

Strikingly, our verse comes immediately after that verse, in which the clouds of the sky were the intense focus, as well as other quite local atmospheric phenomena, namely the hot blasting wind from the desert. A couple verses later we have this:

21 Now, no one can look on the light when it is bright in the skies, when the wind has passed and cleared them. 22 Out of the north comes golden splendor; around God is awesome majesty. (NRSV)

This passage is best dealt with carefully and at length, but the synopsis of my interpretation is two fold:

  1. Where the NRSV translated v 18 as: ‘spread out the skies,’ we can be virtually certain, from the context, that the Hebrew word here references in fact ‘the cloud strewn skies’ or simply ‘the clouds’.1 As for 18a then, it probably describes God as spreading out the clouds across the sky.
  2. The word ḥzk in 18b, the point of the comparison, does not indicate hardness, but rather, in taking our cue from the context of verses 15, 21 and 22, something like ‘overwhelming’ or ‘brilliant’.

The word ḥzk of course can mean more than hard. In general it can refer to anything that is strong or forceful. Thus the following can all be described as חזק (ḥzk) or as חזק מאד (very ḥzk):

  • A wind (Ex 10:19, 1 Kgs 19:11)
  • The sound of a shofar (Ex 19:16)
  • A famine (Gen 41:57, 1 Kgs 18:2)

Clearly, these things are not described as being ‘hard,’ but as forceful or as superlative in some native sense.

It is the brilliancy of the light in the cloud-strewn sky that is the focus in those adjacent verses, brilliant enough so that “man cannot look at them” (v. 21). This light is so splendorous that it is likened to God’s own glory.

It is difficult to know with any certainty what the intent was of the comparison to a brazen mirror, but I suggest that the point of comparison resides not in the type of substance of the mirror, but in the type of reflection that object gives off. This comparison might have stemmed from the brilliant skies having a brownish tint due to the hot south wind (v. 17) kicking up dust into the skies. The blowing of this hot desert (think: Negev) wind was, after all, the last description Elihu had given immediately prior.

We should also be careful to not read too much into the fact that this was described as a ‘brazen’ mirror. Since this is unusual for us moderns, our attention is drawn to the word ‘brazen’ and then to that substance in particular. But this expression might have just been a common way of saying ‘mirror’ for them, with the adjective ‘bronze’ serving to differentiate between other kinds of ‘reflectors’ (רְאִי), such as a body of water.

A proposed rendering of this verse, according to these points, is then:

Can you, with him, spread out the clouds, overwhelming (in their brilliance), like a [reflection (?) from] a brazen mirror?

  1. The Hebrew word is šĕḥāqîm. We will have more to say on this in the non-synopsis version. Until then see our article on Prov 8:28 for a short discussion of this word, as its meaning comes up prominently in that passage as well. 

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