Commentary on Job 38:1-11
The book of Job, like the lament psalms, serves to keep us honest.
There are biblical texts, taken in isolation from the canon as a whole, that can be used to support or “prove” that God guarantees success to the righteous and destruction to the wicked, even in this life; but taken in isolation from the canon such texts are in fact not biblical at all.
The Bible is not a random collection of religious maxims (take one or two, as needed), but a story with a beginning, a center, and a trajectory, apart from which particular texts cannot be properly understood and do not properly function as authoritative Scripture. And within the Bible’s broad trajectory we find texts like Job, the laments, and, say, the cross (!) that disallow reading biblical faith as a “dress for success” religion.
But doesn’t Job, with its massive compilation of complaints about the injustice of it all, finally get fixed when we come to our text — that is, God’s “answer,” as it is titled by many commentators? True, Job 38-42 might offer an answer (perhaps better, a response), but it is not the answer. Questions will remain!
Linked with Jesus’ stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41), the lectionary apparently intends to focus here on verses 8-11 and the rhetorical question, “Who shut in the sea with doors?” — playing against the ubiquitous ancient Near Eastern mythic image of the sea as the symbol of chaos. The symbol still works, of course: Who will not cower at the power of the sea as it devours land, ships, people, and even its own fishy creatures in the hurricanes and tsunamis that seem to lurk every more frequently on our horizons?
Job 38 begins God’s response to Job’s laments and to the overblown certainty of Job’s “friends,” inviting them and the readers of the book into a much more complex, interesting, puzzling, and diverse world than they had hitherto imagined. Job and his friends want to focus their attention on the meaning of individual suffering (certainly understandable for Job!), but God invites Job to see himself and his anxieties within the matrix of a wonderfully made yet finally unfathomable creation (unfathomable to humans, at least).
In other words, Job is not finally a book about divine pastoral care, but about divine perspective and human wonder. Neither Job nor we will find in God’s creation or in God’s words an “answer” to human suffering. Rather, as Dan Simundson writes, “Job is advised to recognize human limits and trust that God will take care of what Job and others cannot know or do.”1
In today’s lectionary, the First Reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel seem to have as their common theme: “Chaos is mine, saith the Lord!” Unlike the world of ancient myth (and the world as we know it?), where the chaos waters rage and threaten the order that makes life possible — threatening, therefore, even the realm of the creation deities — chaos, in our texts, has been or is being tamed by a benign God who, in the end, means all God’s creatures well. In the process, capital-C Chaos becomes merely “chaos” — a real power that retains a place in God’s world, but one now “fenced in,” become part of God’s ordered creation.2
Interestingly, Job 38 does in the ancient world something like what chaos science attempts to do in our own — nothing less than to comprehend chaos and even put it to use.3 Chaos does not thereby lose its elemental force, neither then nor now, but it becomes more or less understandable (if not easily predictable), either through the efforts of mathematical science or the power of a benign deity.
So what will we preach? Our people remain, like Job, in a world that certainly feels like chaos, terrorized passengers in Jesus’ boat, and the preacher can no more give them easy answers than God does to Job. Some might be led to wonder at and even delight in the sheer wildness of God’s creation, but eventually their own suffering or that of their loved ones will bring them down out of the clouds. Some might find a certain measure of comfort in the recognition that neither Newtonian nor Deuteronomistic theories of cause and effect are adequate to explain (and thus to tame or eliminate) human suffering. Unfair suffering is as awe-full and unpredictable as the creation itself, but, as a given part of creation everywhere, it is not an aberration in the world God has made.
But that explanation — even though perhaps true — will not provide the personal deliverance we, Job, and the lament psalmists need and demand. There is real pain, and we want a real response. For Job, this comes when God at last shows up (“now my eye sees you”; 42:5), offering the comfort of a personal Other with whom to weather the storm. Jesus too “shows up” — by waking up! — and rebukes the storm as only God can do (making the story a powerful Christological confession).
Jesus’ rebuking has an eschatological character, not just pacifying the environment for now, but promising and bringing in a future where neither chaos nor even death can separate us from God’s love. That recognition will take us to another chaos moment, the “showing up” of God in the terror of Jesus’ cross — where Jesus does not explain our suffering, but participates in it, even takes it on himself, and only in that way providing us at last a secure “port in the storm.”
1Daniel Simundson, “Job: Passages: Job 38:1-18,” in Enter the Bible, at http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=38 (accessed March 8, 2012).
2See Kathryn Schifferdecker, Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 142-143.
3See, for example, James Gleick, “Chaos,” at http://www.chaosmatrix.org/library/chaos/science/bstchaos.html (accessed March 8, 2012).