Commentary on Job 38:1-11
God’s two responses to Job don’t answer the questions Job asked in his long and painful speeches, and neither do they defend God from Job’s brutally honest accusations. But they do reveal one of the deep mysteries of the cosmos. And maybe that’s enough for Job.
The story begins when Job loses everything for no apparent reason. According to the narrator and God, Job had been nothing but an upstanding and pious person (Job 1:1, 8), and God’s conversation with the divine accuser produced no evidence that Job was harboring any evil secrets (Job 1:6-12). When God took everything from Job, it was simply to see if Job would curse God (Job 2:5). The introduction to the book of Job thus asks a complex question: does Job only love God because God has blessed him with abundant possessions and a harmonious family life, or will he freely praise God in the absence of all these things (Job 1:9-11)?
The question shifts when Job starts to dialogue with his well-meaning friends. Job starts the conversation by issuing one of the most painful cries in the entire Bible—a beautiful and heartbreaking poem that imagines the un-creation of the world, echoing Genesis 1 (“that day—let there be darkness!”; Job 3:4; see also Genesis 1:3). Job questions both the order of the cosmos and the existence of divine justice because he did not deserve any of the tragedies that befell him and his family. In a world devoid of order and justice, Job declares that he would rather not have been born, and that the creation of an unjust, disordered world is an injustice in itself (Job 3:20-26). What kind of a God would preside over such an abomination?
Job’s friends respond with the kind of pious consolations that we all mutter when visiting the bereaved. They are, at least at first, respectful and kind (Job 2:11-13; 4:1-6). But above all, they seek to justify their preconceived notions of a just God (Job 5:12-16; 8:3) and an orderly cosmos (Job 4:7), which leaves them casting about for a clear and reasonable cause for all of Job’s misfortunes. They wonder about Job’s children’s potential sins (Job 8:4) and encourage Job to admit his own probable shortcomings and throw his case at the mercy of the divine judge (Job 5:8; 8:5-7), because he can grow from the discipline of God (Job 5:17-21). Job doesn’t know everything (Job 8:8-10), so he should submit to the wisdom of the ages past, curated by his faithful companions.
Job’s responses are filled to the brim with caustic honesty (Job 6:14). After denying his friends’ accusations, he wonders about taking God to court—because in a courtroom, a judge might listen carefully to the testimony of each witness and attempt to reach an impartial verdict (Job 23:1-12). Job hopes that God might be found guilty of cosmic injustice and disorder. Yet the only court of law that might try God is the divine courtroom itself, where God is the judge and the accuser (Job 9:15-19). Job even goes so far as to deny that there is any divine justice at all—something unheard of in any other ancient Near Eastern text (Job 9:22). While thinking about the impossibility of taking God to court, Job begins to dream about a divine intermediary that would arbitrate between Job and God, defending Job from God’s punishing attacks in the meantime; this would allow Job to speak to God face to face, and perhaps receive a response (Job 9:32-35; 16:18-22; 19:25-27).
Eventually, God does respond to Job face to face, but it is not quite what Job wanted. The encounter begins with a whirlwind (Job 38:1), a dangerous disturbance in the natural world that often presages a divine appearance, and is often taken to represent divine judgment (see also Exodus 19:16; Isaiah 29:6; 66:15; Jeremiah 4:13; Nahum 1:3). God tells Job to get ready for combat (Job 38:3a), which Job had anticipated (Job 9:17). But then God unexpectedly clarifies that the confrontation will be about knowledge, not physical feats of strength (“I will ask you and you will make me understand”; Job 38:3b). Many have read the divine speeches as the arrogant boasting of a bully who won’t be challenged, but as Kathleen O’Connor points out, God does engage with Job concerning the beauty of creation throughout the encounter—suggesting that God is not acting as a bully, but rather as “a deity who is wild, beautiful, free, and deeply upsetting.”1
Job’s accusations in Job 3-27 focused on God’s ordering of the cosmos and God’s sense of justice: as Choon-Leong Seow has pointed out, God’s two responses seem to be deeply connected to Job’s first lament in Job 3, and they take each of Job’s main accusations in turn.2 God’s first speech (Job 38:1-40:2) addresses the order of the cosmos, and God’s second speech addresses the issue of justice (Job 40:6-41:34). Instead of the friend’s simple apologetic justifications, however, God’s response changes the terms of the entire conversation.
God begins with a very common ancient Near Eastern motif: that the divine beings built the cosmos just like an architect builds an impressive building, such as a temple. God laid the foundation of the cosmos (Job 38:4) and measured everything carefully with tools (verse 5), expertly laying cornerstones and sinking massive pillars down to the bedrock to keep the cosmos from shifting unpredictably (verse 6). At the laying of the foundation, all the angelic beings sang in celebration—what a dramatic and moving image (verse 7)!
The metaphor of “God as a divine architect of the cosmos” is one of the oldest found in the written record. It occurs elsewhere in the Bible (see also Proverbs 8:22-31), but it can be found in Sumerian texts written not long after the origins of writing itself—and thousands of years before Job was written. Typically, this metaphor communicates the unimpeachable craftsmanship of the cosmos and its unquestionable order. But in Job 38:8-11, YHWH introduces a new character and a new motif into the old metaphor that upends its well-worn meaning.
In verses 8-9, YHWH is suddenly imaged as a mother giving birth to the sea and quickly making clothes for it out of the clouds and swaddling it in the deep, beautiful colors of the night sky. In ancient Near Eastern literature, the sea was often imagined to be a chaotic monster who threatened the stability and order of the cosmos (see also Psalms 74:13-14; 89:10-14; and the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish).3 The gods were often understood to have engaged in mortal combat with such monsters to defend the cosmos. But here, YHWH births the source of chaos and nurtures it. Chaos exists as a part of God’s ordered cosmos, even a treasured part of it: yet God has prescribed limits for it, making a sort of playpen for the powerful infant to exercise its chaotic powers without endangering the stability of the world (verses 10-11).
There are as many interpretations of this text as there are people on the planet, but here is mine: God explains to Job that the universe necessarily contains chaos within it. The unpredictability of life is not evil, nor is it evidence of God’s disorder or failures. Rather, the image of God giving birth and nurturing the sea-monster underscores the generativity of chaos as an integral part of God’s cosmos. That is, life is a process of expanding and unfolding and growth, but it also must include death and receding and collapsing. Growth and decay are two sides of the same coin. For growth to occur, some things must fail. For there to be new orders, the old orders must tumble. For there to be space for new life, some things must die. Like a garden transitioning from summer to winter vegetables, newness and change requires overturning and seeming disorder.
This does not deny the existence of moral evil—God admits that it exists in the same speech (verses 12-15). But chaos isn’t exactly the same as immorality: the chaos of lightning strikes, for example, are a natural and necessary part of the world’s construction, and aren’t supposed to be understood as judgment (except in rare cases, like 1 Kings 18). God has sewn chaos into the fabric of the cosmos on purpose—not to punish us or terrorize us, but because this is the necessary condition of life itself, and without it none of us would exist. Nature needs disorder for its order to function. Without the seemingly chaotic patterns of weather and animal life and even bacteria and viruses, we wouldn’t have a chance of survival. And yet, those same chaotic forces can, at times, threaten our very existence.
This is a mystery. It is not explained or defended; God merely asserts it. The world, full of beauty and creativity and danger, seems not to have been constructed merely for human consumption. The story is bigger than us, and none of us are the main characters (see Job 38:12-39:30). God does not so much answer Job’s questions as re-frame them and offer Job a new way to see the world in which his grief and his experiences are not the end or the entirety of the story.
In God’s second divine speech (Job 40:6-41:34), God describes two chaos monsters living at the core of the earth with admiration, even wonder: Behemoth (Job 40:15-24) and Leviathan (Job 41:1-34). And in one of the only references to human beings in the content of the divine speeches, God tells Job to observe Behemoth “which I made just as I made you” (Job 40:15). Perhaps God is subtly pointing out that humans are chaos monsters, too: we are unpredictable and unscripted, and our own freedom can generate abundant life—or bring about terrible destruction and suffering.
The divine speeches do not answer Job’s questions—or ours, most likely. But they give us a glimpse of the deepest and richest of all of God’s storehouses of knowledge. Lest we imagine that the divine speeches exist to stop us from asking any more questions, God seems intent on engaging Job in an actual dialogue, and doesn’t let Job’s mealy mouthed response to the first divine speech end the conversation (Job 40:1-5). In that same way, I hope we find in God’s speeches an invitation to engage in an ongoing dialogue with God and with each other about order, justice, and the structure of creation itself.
- Kathleen O’Connor, “Wild Raging Creativity: The Scene in the Whirlwind,” in A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick Miller, edited by Nancy Bowens and Brent Strawn (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 171-179; 173.
- Choon-Leong Seow, Job 1-21: Interpretation and Commentary, Illuminations (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 100-104.
- Carol Newsom, The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 244.