Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]
After the two introductory chapters in the book of Job, the voice of God goes silent.
Job laments in chapter 3. Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, along with Job, engage in a round-robin series of speeches (Job 4-27), culminating in Job’s lengthy defense in chapters 29-31. A new friend, Elihu, appears and offers his theological analysis in 32-37, and throughout all of this, despite Job’s dogged requests, God remains silent.
The silence God ends with Job 38-41, that much is for sure, but the precise meaning of these speeches has befuddled readers. The puzzlement for interpreters stems both from what is absent in the speeches as well as what is present. Throughout the book, Job has rooted his speeches in legal metaphors, with repeated requests that Yahweh provide Job with “an indictment written by my adversary” (Job 31:35b). Job’s assumption, so it seems, is that if God cannot produce a list of charges against him, then the friends have been proven incorrect and God unjust. Yet surprisingly, the speeches of God seem to have very little to do with the complaints issued by Job. In fact, the speeches seem to have little to do with Job altogether.
Rather than legal metaphors, images from nature, both animate and inanimate, comprise the speeches. In the opening verse of Job 38-41, Yahweh appears not as a judge, but instead speaks to Job “out of the whirlwind.” Yahweh does not issue an indictment, as Job had anticipated, but commands Job to “gird up his loins.” Although “girding up loins” can refer to military preparations for battle (2 Samuel 22:40), the term can also allude to preparations for a difficult task (Jeremiah 1:17). It is the latter that seems in view in Job 38:3.
There are some interpreters who understand the onslaught of questions in Job 38-39 as something akin to a “verbal beat down,” a verbal chastisement for what they perceive as Job’s mistaken (and misguided) bravado earlier in the book. Such a reading fails in understanding the nature of wisdom and the wisdom of nature in these speeches, and worse yet, such a reading misconstrues God as a tyrant unwilling to be engaged. The rhetorical questions regarding nature are not intended as punitive but instead as educative. After all, Job is a wisdom book meant for instruction. Job is asked to gird up his loins to do the hard work of reorienting his view of God and the world under God’s care.
The key to understanding the series of questions posed by God in verses 4-41 is the question directed at Job in verse 2: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” The word “counsel” typically refers to planning, and in this instance, the plans of God. Job has repeatedly suggested that the world seems disorderly, that God has “taken his hand off the wheel,” so to speak. Yet rather than confirming that the world is a disorderly place, the questions directed at Job affirm that not only does the world operate in an orderly fashion but that God is the author of that order.
The speeches of God in Job 38 recall and employ all elements of the cosmos in the argumentation, from the very depths of the earth (“foundations,” verse 4) to the heights of the heavens (verses 31-33). In each instance, God announces that the elements of creation have been positioned exactly as intended.
For some, God has established certain boundaries. God closed the doors on the unruly sea to ensure that it remains as intended (verse 8) and created storehouses for rain, ice, and snow (verses 22, 28, 34). For others, God declares that he has created the pathways that ensure that the world is regulated and orderly. The pathways of night and day (verses 12, 19) have been established as have been the ways of the heavens, the Pleiades, Orion, and the Mazzaroth (verses 31-34). This tour de force of nature is not a matter of one-upmanship, but an assurance by God that the world remains ordered and imbued with a certain sense of wisdom (verses 36-37).
If, as suggested in my treatment of Job 1-2, the book of Job is about God and not Job, then we must ask what does Job 38 contribute to our theological reflection about God? Job’s complaint was that disorder in his own life implied that creation had run amuck and worse yet, that God had abandoned his just rule over the world. The first speech by God suggests otherwise. Job 38 is not meant to explain what happened to Job in chapters 1-2, but rather to affirm that creation remains ordered by God.
The meteorological and cosmological features of the world confirm that all of creation has been put in place with boundaries established. As seen in Job 40-41, even chaos (that is Behemoth and Leviathan) itself does not go unchecked but instead remains under the watchful eye of God. None of this is a promise that chaos and disaster will not break out, but only that creation is not greater than its Creator.
In the end, mechanistic worldviews prove futile in explaining the complex world in which we live, but through careful consideration of that very same world, our understanding of God is reoriented and our awareness of the same deepened.