Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Job responds to his troubles by wishing he had never been born (Job 3).

October 21, 2012

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Job responds to his troubles by wishing he had never been born (Job 3).

But Job doesn’t get a visit from the portly, comforting Clarence the angel. Instead, at the end of the book, the One who appears to Job is none other than the Creator of the cosmos, the LORD God Almighty!1 And God doesn’t come to comfort Job. Instead, God lays into Job, lecturing him from the center of a cyclone:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements– surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

God does not address Job’s situation or Job’s questions about justice. God does not even acknowledge Job’s suffering. Instead, God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, beginning with the foundation of the earth, and the birth of the Sea. God spends a lot of time “where the wild things are,” describing all kinds of fierce and untamed creatures — lions, mountain goats, deer, wild donkeys and oxen, ostriches, eagles — and two primordial chaos monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan.

These speeches of God at the end of the book of Job leave many readers dissatisfied. We want God to tell Job about the wager with the Satan. We want God to apologize for all of Job’s suffering. We want God to be at least, well, comforting. Instead, in the words of William Safire: “It’s as if God appears in a tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Because I’m God, That’s Why.'”2

This is not the answer that Job (or we) expected from God. And yet, these speeches of YHWH cannot easily be dismissed. Like a fierce summer thunderstorm, they are beautiful, fascinating, and more than a little terrifying. The images and creatures described in the divine speeches grip our imaginations and introduce us to a world much, much bigger than ourselves.

What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is
scattered upon the earth?
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? (38:24-27)

In this long catalog of creatures terrestrial and celestial, there is one glaring omission: human beings have almost no place in the divine speeches. In fact, as the above passage makes clear, God sends rain on the wilderness, devoid of human beings. In the arid climate of the Near East, God is profligate with that most precious of resources, sending rain on a land where no person will see it, no person benefit from it.

In the divine speeches, God paints a picture of a world that is wild and beautiful and free. The wild donkey scorns the tumult of the city, that quintessential human habitation (39:5-8). The wild ox, unlike its domestic cousins, will not plow Job’s fields or bring in his harvest (39:9-12; cf. 1:3). And that fiercest of creatures, the sea monster Leviathan, laughs scornfully at any human effort to tame it or capture it (41:29).

The world, as God describes it in the divine speeches, is not made for human beings; neither is it entirely safe for human beings. In it are creatures wild and free, and God takes special delight in those creatures that are outside the boundaries of human existence, outside the control of human beings.

Freedom does not equal chaos, however. God gives a place in creation to the Sea, that ancient symbol of chaos, but God also sets limits for it: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (38:11 ESV). God establishes the dawn, and sets limits for human wickedness (38:12-13). God provides for all God’s creatures (38:39-41). In his anguish, Job had tried to un-create the world (3:1-10). In the divine speeches, God re-establishes order and celebrates the beauty and freedom of creation: stars and sea monsters, lion and raven, antelope and ostrich, horse and hawk.

But what does all this have to do with Job’s situation or with Job’s suffering?

In the world of the prologue (the world Job describes in chapter 29), Job was the center of his universe, sitting in judgment at the city gate, surrounded by family and possessions and admired by one and all. Job thought that the world ran by a strict system of retributive justice: the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished. And Job was the most righteous person of all, as God himself acknowledges (1:8).

After all the troubles come on Job, his friends continue to hold to the doctrine of retributive justice: because Job suffers, he must have done something to deserve it. Job himself knows that this isn’t true. His world has descended into chaos, but he still holds to his integrity and calls on God to answer him.

God’s answer breaks open Job’s world and expands his vision to include places and creatures Job never imagined in his former life. God speaks of freedom and grace rather than reward and retribution. God gives his creatures the freedom to be who they’re created to be, wild and beautiful. God also maintains order by placing limits on forces that could plunge the world into chaos: the Sea, Leviathan, even human wickedness.3

The world is not centered on human beings, according to the divine speeches. It is not an entirely safe or predictable world, but it is beautiful and good nonetheless. And God invites Job to live in that wild and beautiful world.

There’s one more thing to note, you see, about the divine speeches. For all God’s silence concerning human beings, God gives humanity, in Job, a singular place in creation. Job is the only passenger on this grand tour of the cosmos, and through it, God invites him (and us) to see the world from a God’s-eye point of view and to delight in its beauty and freedom as God does.

Is this an adequate response to Job’s suffering? It is not, in a conventional sense, very comforting. God would probably fail a present-day pastoral care class. Nonetheless, these speeches of God at the end of the book of Job accomplish something profound. They move Job out of his endless cycle of grief into life again. They enable him to live freely in a world full of heartbreaking suffering and heart-stopping beauty, and to do so in a way that reflects God’s own care for the world. We will read about this response of Job and the end of his story next week.

1 Note that the name YHWH is used of God in the prologue (chapters 1-2), epilogue (chapter 42), and divine speeches (chapters 38-41) of Job. This book that never refers to Israelite history or the land of Israel nevertheless identifies the God of Israel as the God with whom Job is in relationship.
2 William Safire, The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics (New York: Random House, 1992), 22.
3 For more discussion of these themes of freedom and boundaries in the book of Job, see my book, Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), or my article “Of Stars and Sea Monsters,” in Word & World 31/4 (Fall 2011): 357-366.