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Job describes a saguaro

Talking Tumamoc Trash

Three poems by Russell Long

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It's a saguaro, my friends                    


photograph by Paul Mirocha


I'd been enjoying Paul Mirocha's photograph of a saguaro for a couple of years when suddenly it hit me. The spectacular cactus in his photo was growing right out of the rock! And what an extraordinary perspective. From the top down! Paul had really emphasized the phenomenon. A green plant issuing right out of solid rock! Wow!

I asked Paul and sure enough, he had actually set up a ladder to give himself and his camera a bird's eye view.

Another bell rang in my head. I thought I remembered some verse from the Bible about a plant growing out of a rock. But maybe I was imagining it? Did that verse really exist? And if it did, which verse was it?

Ah, the wonders of digital searching! I soon had my verse. It is from the Book of Job, chapter 8, verse 17.

Now if all you know is the King James version, you will be puzzled because KJ reads:

His roots are wrapped about the heap, and seeth the place of stones.

Please. Where exactly does that say that a plant grew out of a rock?

The scholars of the King James worked from the original Hebrew and they were pretty good Hebraicists. But Job is a very tough book, full of linguistic mysteries. Challenged and inspired, generations of subsequent scholars have tried to understand it better. They were certainly dissatisfied with chapter 8 of KJ’s Job and they used Biblical and linguistic tools not available to the KJ scholars of the 17th century.

Let's have a look at their problem.

Here, in all its splendor and clarity, is the King James version of Job 8, verses 11-17.

11: Can the rush grow up without mire? can the flag grow without water?
12: Whilst it is yet in his greenness, and not cut down, it withereth before any other herb.
13: So are the paths of all that forget God; and the hypocrite's hope shall perish:
14: Whose hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be a spider's web.
15: He shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand: he shall hold it fast, but it shall not endure.
16: He is green before the sun, and his branch shooteth forth in his garden.
17: His roots are wrapped about the heap, and seeth the place of stones.

And here is a 1917 translation of 11 & 12, two fairly easy verses (Jewish Publication Society).

11- Can papyrus thrive without marsh?
            Can rushes grow without water?
12- While still tender, not yet plucked,
            They would wither before any other grass.

Modern scholars now agree that Job speaks of two plants. The first, of verses 11 & 12, is not special. Many plants need an abundant and ready supply of water. Without it, they do simply withereth and dieth. The second is cryptically described by verses 16 & 17. Cryptically? Some biochemistry is easier to understand!

About twenty years ago, I studied Job for a few months and learned of many English translations and interpretations. I own about ten of them. The most impressive is that of Moses Buttenweiser (1862–1939)(http://books.google.com/books/about/Book_of_Job.html?id=Jnc6mgEACAAJ), whose native language was German. Soon after getting his PhD in 1896, Buttenweiser, a Bavarian, came to the USA and took up a professorship at The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He became a master of English, and produced signal English translations of two very difficult books of the Bible: Psalms and Job. Buttenweiser brought to his task a deep knowledge of classical Greek, Hebrew and its cognate languages such as Assyrian, Syriac and Arabic. His translations cast great light on the riddles of these books, and that is certainly true of his insights into our verses of Job.

Buttenweiser translates (p.103) 16 & 17 thus:

Though he blossoms in the sun,
            And his shoots spread over his garden,
Though his roots wind round the rocks,
            And penetrate the stones;

At last we have the roots-in-rocks image. And I will soon tell you how Buttenweiser came to it. But there is more.

Robert Gordis (1965, The Book of God and Man; a Study of Job) offers a worthy version that leans heavily on Buttenweiser:

(And here is the other plant:)
it is fresh even under the hot sun,
            as its shoots spread beyond its garden.
Even over a stone heap the roots are entwined,
            as it cleaves its way among rocks.

Gordis gets a bit carried away with a few extra words that make for pretty verses but that the Hebrew does not justify, namely "hot", "beyond", and "Even over." They don't mangle the sense of the Hebrew but neither are they found in it.

And "fresh" is not quite right, nor is "cleaves its way." In contrast, Buttenweiser writes "blossoms" and "penetrate." We look at these two pairs of words in a moment, but first we need to look at how Buttenweiser, followed by Gordis, corrects KJ‘s phrase: "the place of stones."

Buttenweiser points out that word 'place' comes from reading the Hebrew word beth as 'house'. Well, it is spelled and pronounced exactly that way. And beth in Hebrew usually does mean ‘house of’, often meant figuratively as ‘place of’. But not here. Buttenweiser finds its meaning in the Hebrew contraction of baynat, the feminine of bayn — 'between' — written and pronounced beth (“bayt” to an English ear). So this part means 'between the stones', that is, 'cracks in the rocks'.

And what about 'cleaves' or 'penetrates'? Buttenweiser (p 178-9) points out that the verb is not 'to behold' (nor 'to take hold', nor 'seeth') but 'to pierce.' Aha! There you go. 'Penetrates' it must be.

As to "The roots are entangled with a heap of stones", we can have no problem. Anyone who has ever pulled a plant out of stony soil, knows how apt this phrase is! Job must have known something about plants.

But three Hebrew words still need attention, and it has to come from an ecologist — evidently our scholars had never seen a saguaro. First is ratov, which they render 'fresh' or 'blossoms.' Not quite. Ratov carries the sense of 'humid' or 'full of water'. The Bible uses it as the opposite of 'wither' in verse 12. Do you know a plain English word that is the opposite of wither or of wilted? "Unwilted"? Surely 'turgid' is too clinical (and titillating). I gave up and just settled on 'full of water'. That is what ratov means and, by the way, that describes a saguaro's insides, too.

Word 2, yonakto is translated as his (or its) “shoots” by both Buttenweiser and Gordis. Forgive my biologist's eye, but shoots form stems and leaves, not roots. 'Shoots' is not right. And tendrils, the word chosen by Marvin Pope for The Anchor Bible, won't do either. 'Tendrils' are grasping things for vines and climbing plants. The Hebrew word yonakto evokes the suckling of an infant (Hebrew verb, yanok, to suck milk from the breast). Indeed, roots and rootlets suck water and minerals from the earth. It is their mother. No one can doubt that Job intends them, not shoots.

And finally comes 'garden'. The Hebrew is gan and that sure does mean garden in modern Hebrew. But Job is describing a wild plant, not a plant growing in a garden. Moreover, gan is used elsewhere in the Bible in a different sense, one that does fit a wild plant.

In Numbers (24:6), we read "ganoth alei nahar." The meaning is "galleries of riparian foliage." No doubt the context in Numbers is nature and its landscapes. We did not plant that foliage in any garden; "God planted..." occurs right in the middle of the verse. Just as the word ‘galleries’ here carries its ecological meaning rather than ‘a place where works of art are displayed’, so gan means 'habitat' rather than 'garden'.

The image is sharp and clear. This plant's rootlets are spreading out over its habitat. And that is a perfect description of what Director William A. Cannon found in 1911 (The root habits of desert plants), when he dug up saguaro root systems at the beginning of Tumamoc's continuing saguaro research effort. Saguaros spread their roots over large areas far from their stems. That way, the shallow roots can take advantage of the monsoon rains that quickly run off and hardly penetrate the soil.

And so, at last, we arrive at an ecologically informed, modern translation:

It is full of water in the sun
            its rootlets spread out over its habitat
Its roots are entangled with a heap of stones
            penetrating cracks in the rocks.

Doesn't that sound like a saguaro?

Please don't remind me that there are no saguaros in Israel or the entire Old World for that matter. I know that. And please don’t point out that there is nothing in Job about spines, or ribs, or glorious,
creamy-white flowers.

Nah, just fageddabout it !!   Because Job 8 (16 & 17) sounds like a saguaro to me.

—— Michael Rosenzweig