2010-10-31 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Lesley Misrahi
31st October 2010
Readings: Psalm 139, Psalm 88,
Job 38 4-7, 8-11, 16-18, 39-41, Job 40:15-17, 19, 22-24, Job 41:10-11,
(referenced/quoted later in sermon)
This is the third of our sermons looking at Bible and Ecology, following the book of that name by Richard Bauckham. Although, traditionally, our relationship to the natural universe is explored through the creation narratives in Genesis, Bauckham says that to get a balanced view of what the whole Bible says, we need to take a broader view and see what attitudes to creation are revealed in other biblical scriptures. So today we leave the book of Genesis and turn to Job.
It might seem strange to think about Job when we want to discuss Creation. Last week at the weekend away we touched briefly on Brueggeman’s scheme for interpreting the Old Testament scriptures: that they basically comprise Israel’s core testimony about God, but also there is a strand of counter testimony. The core testimony is that if God’s people remain faithful to God, obeying all the commandments, then they will be prosperous and happy. If they disobey God, they will have conflict and will lose the promised land.
We saw that last week in Psalm 139:
“You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.”
But there is another thread that we hear in the Hebrew Scriptures. We heard it last weekend in Psalm 88:
“I am desperate, your wrath has swept over me… O Lord why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”’
Many of us have felt like that over the years, some more often than not. Job is a story which addresses the question of why do the innocent suffer. For it is true that a body of people, who live generously and avoid wasting money on unnecessary things, that strives to maintain relationships and to deal honestly, that does not gamble and not to overvalue material wealth will, as a whole, taken over generations, be prosperous and content. You can see this with the Dutch Mennonites and the Quakers.
But it doesn’t seem to work quite like that for individuals. This is a problem that every religion has to deal with if it believes in a god who is loving or at least just. The story of Job is a fable set in the time of the patriarchs and it seeks to address this question. Job, the righteous, rich man is seen to lose everything that constitutes wealth in his society – his flocks and herds and his many sons and daughters. Finally his health is affected.
Christians who are feeling that God has abandoned them or is even against them are often recommended to read the book of Job, as I was.
So then, imagine the suffering Christian reading through Job. First of all there’s God having a kind of bet with Satan that Job is not a good man only because he’s prosperous. Is my situation some sort of test like that? Then there are pages and pages to plough through of Job’s three friends insisting that he must have done something wrong because God doesn’t do things without a cause. These are punctuated by Job reiterating that he has lived blamelessly and calling for some way to put his case before God (that sounds better). Let’s skip some more of this stuff and then the young man Elihu saying that God is just and Job is too proud to listen to him.
At last after 37 chapters – a section headed “The voice of God”. Now, some answers for Job and perhaps for me.
So God answers Job out of the whirlwind. ”Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” ?
Job 38:4-7 (NIV)
4 ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone –
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
So here is God, the cosmic architect – building by a careful design that Job never knew anything about. But God is making Job face the reality of his own insignificance.
He goes on to question what Job knows about the control of the sea – a great symbol of chaos in the ancient world:
Job 38:8-11 (NIV)
8 ‘Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, “This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt”?
God goes on to point out that Job knows nothing about the dawn, which limits the wickedness that goes on in darkness and he asks about Job’s knowledge of the underworld.
Job 38:16-18 (NIV)
16 ‘Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.
God continues in the same heavily ironic vein to question Job’s understanding of light and darkness, of good and bad weather, controlling the stars. Job must be cringing by this time and the questioning of him may seem brutal, but God does not seem to be angry and the poetry shows the huge sweep of God’s imagination and power, in keeping in check all these powerful elements, in ways he cannot imagine. His only response must be humility before these majesties of the Cosmos.
These days we might say, “No I don’t know that, but I can look it up on Wikipedia.” Humanity as a whole does know a great deal more than could be known in the time of Job. But we don’t all know it by any means.
This reminds me of an argument I had with my Mum and Dad one day when I was a teenager. I happened to mention the limitation of the human brain and they both immediately declared that No the human brain isn’t limited. Maybe I remember it because they were both on the same side for once or because it didn’t seem to be rationally possible that any physical structure could be limitless.
The human brain contains trillions of neurons and a great deal of computing power. Peter can tell you all about that. But still no human being can know all human knowledge. Even what is in all our computers does not tell us all about the universe. Those who delve into its mysteries tend to become more humble before the awesome complexity of the Universe.
There are theories saying that we can never know all about the Universe, because that would entail knowing where each atom and electron and proton and quark is at any given time. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a mathematical law which basically says if we know where an electron is, we don’t know when it was there and vice versa. In other words complete knowledge is a human impossibility. So we could say that God is the one who transcends the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But even then, if we found some way of getting round the principle, we would still find more layers of stuff we don’t know. God is not just the God of the gaps, providing an explanation for what we don’t yet understand.
God hasn’t finished with Job. He then moves on and asks Job to consider ten selected animals and birds. The questions are pretty much the same: does Job know, can he understand; can he control? But there is also whether Job can provide for these creatures, as God does. He starts with carnivores:
Job 38:39-41 (NIV)
39 ‘Do you hunt the prey for the lioness
and satisfy the hunger of the lions
40 when they crouch in their dens
or lie in wait in a thicket?
41 Who provides food for the raven
when its young cry out to God
and wander about for lack of food?
We often assume that knowledge means power and yet we can make deadly assumptions about the animal world. I heard last week that by the beginning of the 20th century, the large herds of antelopes and other big herbivores in Southern Africa were being wiped out through shooting and the encroachment of farming. So in many game reserves a policy of killing off all the top predators – lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, wild dogs and crocodiles, for instance, was put into practice. But the herds did not recover and it was realized that removing predators affects the whole eco-system. We may be uncomfortable with the idea of God supplying prey for the lions. It summons up ideas of “Nature red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson put it. But in the wild, predators don’t have any pride about what they catch. They just go for the easiest meal – the confused or abandoned young one which would not have survived or the old or injured animal. They don’t attack the breeding adults in their prime. But if the old and injured survive longer than they might, it means less food for all when the rains are delayed.
In Job, the words ascribed to God are closely observed descriptions of the way animals behave and especially how they care for their young. They are almost entirely descriptions of wild animals, stressing that their lives are completely independent of humankind and are not subject to human will:
“Is the wild ox willing to serve you; will he spend the night by your crib?”
The exception might seem to be the horse:
Job 39:19-25 (NIV)
19 ‘Do you give the horse its strength
or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
20 Do you make it leap like a locust,
striking terror with its proud snorting?
21 It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength,
and charges into the fray.
22 It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing;
it does not shy away from the sword.
23 The quiver rattles against its side,
along with the flashing spear and lance.
24 In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground;
it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
25 At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, “Aha!”
It catches the scent of battle from afar,
the shout of commanders and the battle cry.
But this is a war horse – a stallion whose natural instincts are to fight. Humans could not force him to fight. The poetry makes it very clear that this is an independent being. There is no rider in this stanza; if it were not for the weapons rattling on his back, this could be a poetic description of the stallion going out to meet another horse challenging his dominance.
Some commentators see metaphors in these passages which apply to human beings, using them to underline humanity’s superiority to the animal kingdom. The commentary in my Harper’s study Bible, for instance says:
“Underlying God’s comments here is his divine compassion toward the inferior creatures on the planet; he takes tender care of them. Therefore Job has no reason for charging God with unkindness toward him. Later The hawk and the eagle function by the natural power and instinct given them by God… Shall not humankind, the highest of God’s creation confess their own weakness and ignorance and give glory to the one who has made them?”
I don’t think that it’s that complicated at all. This comes from the mindset that God could not be concerned about anything that isn’t to do with humanity. But there are no humans in all this vivid picture of the natural world. The seas and skies and land require no intervention from Job – even if he were able to affect them. Even closer to home, there is a whole section of the animal kingdom which goes its way without intervention by humanity. Not only does God care for each of these creatures – none of it for human benefit, but in the vivid descriptions of their independence and uniqueness, it is clear that God also loves them as he does humanity.
So not only is Job lacking in knowledge and power – humanity is not the only focus of God’s creation. He is just a created being, looked after by God amongst other created beings, which are not there for his benefit.
Job is speechless but God goes on to challenge Job to assume a mantle of power and to punish the proud and wicked. Of course Job lacks the power to rule even the human world.
God continues with a description of the great land monster Behemoth.
Job 40:15-17, 19; 22-24 (NIV)
15 ‘Look at Behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
16 What strength it has in its loins,
what power in the muscles of its belly!
17 Its tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.
19 It ranks first among the works of God,
yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.
22 The lotuses conceal it in their shadow;
the poplars by the stream surround it.
23 A raging river does not alarm it;
it is secure, though the Jordan should surge against its mouth.
24 Can anyone capture it by the eyes,
or trap it and pierce its nose?
To us it seems like a hippopotamus – but this is more than any hippo we’ve seen on the documentaries. It is huge and not to be captured. At that time, the hippo was native to the Nile river in Egypt and there was much interaction with Israel. Though sometimes given the form of a God, it’s likeness was also worn as an amulet. But there are also pictures surviving to this day of Egyptian hippo hunts. It seems as if the writer of Job is using the form of the hippopotamus to indicate something much more.
Together with Behemoth goes Leviathan, who seems to be a great water monster modelled on the crocodile, but what crocodile was ever like this?
Job 41:1-3; 13-15; 18-21; 31-34 (NIV)
1 Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
2 Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
3 Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
13 Who can strip off its outer coat?
Who can penetrate its double coat of armour[a]?
14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with its fearsome teeth?
15 Its back has rows of shields
tightly sealed together;
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
31 It makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron
and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
32 It leaves a glistening wake behind it;
one would think the deep had white hair.
33 Nothing on earth is its equal –
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.
These two monsters are supreme over land and water. This is not a return to the previous description of animals. These are mythical beasts of great strength – they cannot be wounded or subdued. Leviathan is found in Canaanite mythology as a personification of chaos. Here he is also king of all the forces of arrogance and evil that defy the creator.
One of the reasons people so frequently give for not believing in, or following, God is “Why should God allow so much evil in the world?” The book of Job asserts that yes, there is evil in the world, but, just as we heard that God contained the proud waves that would burst their banks, so God limits the forces of chaos and evil personified as Leviathan and Behemoth. Not only has God restrained everything that works against God in Creation, but Job 41 implies that eventually God will destroy them.
Job 41:10-11 (NIV)
10 No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me?
11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.
Isaiah 27:1 explicitly says that at the end of time, God will destroy Leviathan.
By the end of God’s speech about Leviathan, Job has been thoroughly put in his place. Not only does he not understand the world and how it was made, he has been shown that God loves other creatures as much as humanity and provides for them as well. Job has neither the wisdom nor power even to rule humans, let alone the forces of the Cosmos. He may complain about evil in the world but is entirely ignorant of how God strives to force back and eventually overcome the forces of chaos.
The message is that Job is simply a part of a creation he does not understand and over which he can claim no lordship or control. For us, whose power and knowledge have grown since those days, the implication is that if humans aspire to godlike creative power and challenge the divine order, then they share the arrogance of Leviathan and join the proud, over whom Leviathan is king.
I can’t finish there without telling the happy ending. Job’s honour was vindicated and he regained his health fortune – with even more flocks and herds than he had before. And once again he has seven sons and three daughters. So what has changed? This time, instead of the sons having feasts in turn in each others houses and inviting their sisters, the emphasis is much more on Job’s daughters. They are each named (names for women are not common in the Hebrew Scriptures) and Job defies convention by allowing them to inherit as well as their brothers. It is as if in seeing his place as just another creature in creation, he has also recognized that all humans are made in God’s image – perhaps why there is an emphasis on the beauty of the daughters. Sadly, we don’t hear anything about Mrs Job, who also lost her prosperity and all her children originally and then may have had the task of producing another seven sons and three daughters. But perhaps that’s to ask too much of an ancient patriarchy.
We’ve learnt that God’s answer to why the innocent suffer is not a detailed explanation of God’s purposes and plans – we could not possibly comprehend it all. It is to be reminded that we are simply a small part of God’s creation, a part about which God cares, no doubt, but part of the community of created beings, who are not less important. Our task is to respect them, to accept that God is working ultimately for our good and join the divine resistance of the forces of chaos and destruction.