The Book of Job - Lesson 29

The Ancient Perspective on Nature

People in ancient Mesopotamia lived in constant fear of the chaos, danger, ferocity of nature and they valued subduing, controlling and pushing back nature. Wilderness was something to be tamed and pushed back by civilization. In the Gilgamesh epic poem, Enkidu is transformed into a civilized man who protects the domestic animals from the wild animals. In Egypt, there were gods of the Black Land and gods of the Red Land. God sees everything in the world as entirely under his control.

Duane Garrett
The Book of Job
Lesson 29
Watching Now
The Ancient Perspective on Nature

I. Rousseau's View of the Nobility of the Savage and the Goodness of Wilderness

A. Highly urbanized environment

B. Shrinking wilderness

C. Vanishing Species

II. Ancient Mesopotamians Believed Civilization was a Gift From Heaven to Push Back the Wilderness [Akkadian is the language, Gilgamesh, Uruk, Enkidu]

A. Quote from Gilgamesh Tablet 1

B. Quote from Gilgamesh Tablet 2

III. Egyptian Concept of Nature and Civilization [Set, Osiris, Amun-Ra, Horus, maat]

IV. Job and His Friends Come From a Conventional Wisdom in Which Human Society and Order are Good

V. Violent Creatures Represent Evil and Chaos and are Outside This Order

VI. God Describes a Creation That is not Exclusively Anthropocentric

Class Resources
  • When you see what you would describe as evil and injustice in the world, how does that affect your view of God? When someone is suffering, do you assume that it’s because they are getting what they deserve? This lecture gives you an overview of book of Job by describing his situation, how he interacts with his friends and God, and what we can learn about how God is managing the world.

  • Because there is nothing specific in the text that tells you when the book of Job was written, the sections in Job that allude to other passages of scripture give you some helpful clues. The structure of the book of Job focuses your attention on the main subject of the book which is God’s wisdom.

  • Other cultures in the ancient near east created literature with themes that are similar to the book of Job. The book of Job is unique because of his character and the answer that the book provides for the situation he is in.

  • Job is one of the wisdom books of the Old Testament. It covers more “advanced” topics than Proverbs and uses a variety of literary genres and allusions to other Biblical passages to explain and illustrate profound truths about God’s nature and his involvement in the world.

  • There is limited information in the book of Job about its geographical and historical background. However, it can be helpful to understand general information about the geography and history of the area to give you a context for reading and studying the book of Job. The author of the book of Job was a Hebrew poet who had an extensive vocabulary. Being uncertain about history and geography is good because the message is timeless.

  • Job contains literary elements that are similar to what you find in other Biblical books that are Apocalyptic. These elements include depictions of events in heaven and on earth, the emphasis on specific numbers and persevering in your faith in God, the references to mythological animals and God’s supernatural control of all events. 

  • Satan appears before God with an accusation against Job. Even though Job is described as, “upright and blameless,” Satan accuses Job of serving God only because Job is prosperous. God allows Satan to take away Job’s possessions, children and health. The remainder of the book is the dialogue of Job and his friends attempting to determine why this is happening.

  • Job curses the day he was born. When you carefully examine what he is saying, you realize that it is more intense than just saying that he wished he had never lived.

  • Eliphaz begins tactfully in his remarks to Job. He did not intend to do harm. However, he thinks God is causing Job to suffer because of a sin Job committed. He speaks accurately of the justice of God, but in Job’s case he misapplies it. He also gives a message he received from the, “night spirit.”

  • Eliphaz considers the message of the, “night spirit” a revelation from God. However, at it’s core, this message is inconsistent with God’s attitude toward Job, and creation in general.

  • Job’s theological worldview has fallen apart because he knows he doesn’t deserve to suffer. Eliphaz calls Job to repent. Job responds questioning why he is suffering, because according to his worldview, he hasn’t done anything to deserve it.   

  • Bildad is direct is his rebuke and admonition of Job. He uses metaphors to get his point across.

  • When Job’s friends describe God as all powerful in an attempt to comfort Job, he becomes terrified because he sees God as causing his suffering and there is nothing that can stop it.

  • Zophar assumes that Job is being punished because he sinned and accuses him of mocking God. Job's three friends move from tactful suggestions to open hostility. As Job is searching for answers, he becomes disappointed in his friends.

  • Job agrees with his friends that God is causing his suffering, but disagrees with them about why it’s happening. Job believes that God will eventually vindicate him.

  • Eliphaz appeals to the night spirit and the tradition of the elders to tell Job that he is a babbling and blaspheming fool.

  • Job begins by criticizing what his friends are saying to him and then professes his faith in God. Bildad responds harshly to Job.

  • Even though Job’s friends have criticized him, he has grown in his faith in God. Job is worn out and begs for compassion. When he gets nothing but contempt and hostility instead, he confesses his faith and hope in God. The messianic theology of Job is different from any other book of the Bible.  

  • Zophar uses metaphors that are found in other passages of scripture as well as Job’s own words to accuse Job of being wicked. However, Zophar made a serious error, which we need to avoid in our lives.

  • Job continues to wrestle with the presence of evil in the world and the apparent injustice of God. 

  • Eliphaz attacks Job as being wicked by twisting the meaning of what Job has said previously. The irony is that Job will be reconciled to God and will pray for Eliphaz.

  • Job wants to lay out his case before God by claiming his innocence. Job says that God is hidden and does as he chooses, but that God neither judges the guilty nor helps the righteous. Bildad responds by contrasting God’s holiness and human lowliness.

  • Job sarcastically thanks the friends for their wise words, which he doesn’t think were wise at all.

  • This is a poem about wisdom that divides the content of the book and points to a deep truth. It is inserted by the author of the book and is not attributed to Job or the friends.

  • The crisis that Job is experiencing is not just the material losses and physical suffering, but also his crisis of faith. He thought he understood what his relationship with God is all about but he feels that God has abandoned him for no apparent reason. Job laments the pain he feels from being disgraced and humiliated.

  • This is the last major statement that Job makes, other than his responses to God that come later. Job is taking a series of oaths that he has not committed any of the sins he mentions. The Bible is distinctive in declaring that all people are created equally, in the image of God. In ancient cultures, some people intrinsically have more value than others because of heritage, wealth, gender, race, etc. God looks on everyone impartially.  

  • Elihu is not mentioned either before or after his speech. He claims to be perfect in knowledge. Elihu thinks that the other three did not convince Job because they did not give a satisfactory answer, but Elihu ends up repeating what they have already said. He thinks that the doctrine of retribution is the answer to Job’s situation. Elihu is a warning to us that we don’t have all the answers.

  • The questions of the book of Job are, “How does God address the problem of evil and why do we serve God? God created a world that is stable and not chaotic. Where there was chaos, God brought in light, shape and beauty. Chaotic forces are necessary for life and God controls them.

  • People in ancient Mesopotamia lived in constant fear of the chaos, danger, ferocity of nature and they valued subduing, controlling and pushing back nature. Wilderness was something to be tamed and pushed back by civilization. In the Gilgamesh epic poem, Enkidu is transformed into a civilized man who protects the domestic animals from the wild animals. In Egypt, there were gods of the Black Land and gods of the Red Land. God sees everything in the world as entirely under his control.

  • God’s care for the animals and how this relates to the problem of Job. All of the things that we see as chaos, and out of control depend on God and thrive because he provides for them and things that he manages and glories in. God describes nature as good, unlike the night spirit that describes it with contempt and loathing. God knows how to manage the chaotic elements of creation.

  • The societies of the Ancient Near East had a high concept of justice. It was the duty of the rulers to uphold justice and protect the powerless. If you are a man who leads, you need to make sure that evil is held in check. Listen to people who come to you with a grievance. God is asking Job if he comprehends what it means to bring justice to the world. It involves both power and wisdom.

  • Behemoth is the plural form of a Hebrew word that refers to animals in general also specifically to wild animals. In Job, it’s also used as a metaphor representing the composite forces of the powers of the earth that are against God.

  • Behemoth is a dangerous power that God must reckon with. Some people think this is an allusion to animals that God created in Genesis 1:24. “Lady Wisdom” is the wisdom that God built into creation. Behemoth is dangerous and a force to be reckoned with, not the embodiment of good behavior. One aspect of principalities and powers is forces outside of the world we can see. In Revelation, God protects people from the fury and wrath of the beast, which is an oppressive power that seeks to take the place of God.  

  • Job 41 describes Leviathan. Leviathan is not a natural animal like a crocodile. Sometimes Leviathan refers to a large sea creature, and sometimes death, chaos and the embodiment of evil. Satan is present at the first of the book but he is never mentioned again. In order for God to deal with evil in the world, he must defeat Leviathan.

  • Leviathan is a ferocious creature that no human can subdue. God is saying that he is willing to oppose Leviathan and  is not frightened of Leviathan or intimidated by his boasting. God is the one who will defeat this enemy who seems unbeatable to humans. God tells Job that he will deal with Leviathan but God doesn’t tell him how he will do it. Job embraced God’s answer even though Job didn’t know how God would deal with evil.

  • Job announces that he has changed his outlook on evil, God’s governance of the world and his own suffering. Job knew that God is all-powerful. Now Job knows something more about how God uses his power. Should God be merciful to people who will still be evil? Eschatological is an event that can only happen by a work of God. Emergence of divine power within the historical context. Job admits that he didn’t understand the complexity that is involved in God conquering evil. God forgives Job’s three friends because Job interceded for them. God is showing his approval with job by publicly restoring him.

  • Job’s suffering brought him to a new understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world. Job’s hope, and our hope, is in a heavenly redeemer that rose from the dead. Legalism comes about often when people hold to essential teachings but they don’t know God. They substitute the rules for relationship.

  • Job mentions composite animals similar to those described in other apocalyptic passages. Job had faith that God would do a work of salvation but didn’t understand everything that Jesus would do. There is a hidden plan of God to redeem people and conquer evil that is a major theme in apocryphal books and also in Job.

  • Job tells us about the heavenly mediator. Prior to his afflictions, Job’s life was almost god-like because he was relatively free of suffering. Job through his affliction, faces the problem of evil and the enormity of suffering in the human race. Even though some people commit evil and violent acts, Job describes them in pitiful terms.

  • Should virtue, or piety, be disinterested? If it’s not done for it’s own sake, is it real? Job’s love for God is not disinterested, but it is real.

If God is good and powerful, why do you see suffering in the world? Why do you serve God even when you experience suffering? How do you respond to others when they ask these questions? How have you answered them for yourself? These are such important questions that the entire book of Job is devoted discussing only these issues in the context of the perspective of the experiences of one person. 

The theme of the book of Job is timeless and singular. There are clues about its geographical and historical setting but nothing in the book itself that identifies the place or time of its writing. However, the setting is irrelevant because the questions that are addressed in the Book of Job are ones that people have asked in all cultures, throughout time. It would be distracting and even limiting to frame the dialogue in a specific time or culture. There are enough clues in the text to give you a general idea of the culture and time it was written in to help you understand the logic and metaphors used by the main characters in their dialogue. 

The complete book of Job is composed of the dialogue of Job, his friends and God regarding the issues of God's goodness, his power, and evil in the world. No historical events. No other personal, corporate or theological issues. Since these questions are central to your understanding of God's character and how he works in the world around us throughout history, the book of Job compels you to consider this question deeply and exhaustively. The point is that by the end of the book, you can understand and articulate who God is and how he works in your life and in the world. 

The value of this class is that Dr. Garrett helps you understand what the text means, the historical and theological implications, and how you apply it to your life. Dr. Garrett's knowledge of the Bible, understanding of the Hebrew language and background in Ancient Near Eastern history and culture inform his insights into the message of the book and what it means to you. He is skilled at explaining technical linguistic and theological issues in a way that helps you comprehend them and see how they apply to your life. Whether you are just beginning in your study of the Bible or you have had training at an advanced academic level, studying the Book of Job with Dr. Garrett has the potential change the way you understand God and also how you live each day. 

Recommended Books

The Book of Job: A Biblical Answer to Pain - Student Guide

The Book of Job: A Biblical Answer to Pain - Student Guide

This Student's Guide is for the class on The Book of Job in BiblicalTraining.org. It contains the outlines to the lectures, a summary of each point, and reflection...

The Book of Job: A Biblical Answer to Pain - Student Guide


We are right in the middle of the speeches of God, but at this point we are going to step away from them just for a moment to get a little background information. So for today’s lecture we are not going to be looking at a text. We are going to be looking at how the ancient near eastern people thought about life and the world, and how it relates to God’s speech.

I. Rousseau’s View of the Nobility of the Savage and the Goodness of Wilderness

It has to do with how we view nature. We in the modern west have kind of adopted Rousseau’s ideal of nature as noble and beautiful, something we want to preserve. We have picked up the idea of the noble savage and we have picked up the idea that nature in all of its wildness with its wolves and its lions, is something beautiful that needs to be protected.

A. Highly urbanized environment

Of course, there is truth in that. There are reasons we hold to the view that we do. We live in a highly urbanized environment where getting away from people and seeing nature as it really is, is increasingly difficult to do. Thus, we treasure it.

B. Shrinking wilderness

We live in a world with a shrinking wilderness where there are fewer and fewer places you can go and really get away from civilization, places where wild life as it was meant to be lived still exists. And so we treasure it.

C. Vanishing Species

We are in a world of vanishing species and naturally we do not want to see the species of the world eliminated and so we treasure the wild things and the wild places of the earth.

In the ancient world it was not so. They had no difficulty finding wild places. In fact, the wild places were usually right outside their front door. They lived in a world where lions and wolves were a present reality, where bears weren’t something you snapped pictures of, bears were something that would take your head off. They lived in constant fear of the chaos of nature, the danger of nature, the ferocity of nature. For them, the subduing of nature, the controlling of it, pushing it back was what they valued more than anything else. Wilderness was something to be tamed. Civilization was something to be promoted.

II. Ancient Mesopotamia Believed Civilization was a Gift From Heaven to Push Back the Wilderness

For example, in ancient Mesopotamia they believed that kingship and civilization came down from the gods and were gifts from heaven and that kingship and civilization together pushed back savagery and pushed back the wilderness, enabling the human race to thrive.

We have many examples of this. A very good example is The Epoch of Gilgamesh. The Epoch of Gilgamesh is one of the most ancient stories that we possess. It is a poem that was written in Acadian. It is from the region of Mesopotamia, around Babylon and Nineveh, that general area. A very, very ancient poem and it concerns a king by the name of Gilgamesh. He is a king of Uruk. He has a friend and his friend is Enkidu. Enkidu enters the story as a wild savage man, he is a person of the wilderness. There is nothing civilized about him at all. In fact, he is so wild, he is so uncivilized, that the animals can get along with him. He is one of the animals. He behaves like the animals and the animals will come near him because they do not regard him as a human.

However, Enkidu will be civilized. Interestingly, the way he is civilized is by a woman. He encounters a harlot. He has a sexual relation with the harlot and is
bound to her; and as soon as he does that, all the animals turn from him. They won’t have anything to do with him anymore; and from that point on he has to be a human being, he cannot any longer be an animal.

A. Quote from Gilgamesh Tablet 1

Here is what The Epoch of Gilgamesh says relative to our text, relative to Job: “The harlot said to Enkidu, ‘You are beautiful, Enkidu. You ought to become like a god. Why do you gallop around the wilderness with the wild beasts? Come, let me bring you into Uruk coven, to the holy temple, to the residence of Anu and Ishtar, the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection, who struts his power over people like a wild bull.’ What she kept saying found favor with him. Becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend. Enkidu spoke to the harlot: ‘Come, Shamhut, take me away with you to the sacred holy temple, the residence of Anu and Ishtar, the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection, but who struts his power over people like a wild bull. I will challenge him. Let me shout out in Uruk, ‘I am the mighty one. Lead me in and I will change the order of things. He whose strength is mightiest is the one born in the wilderness.’ Shamhut said to Enkidu, ‘Come, let us go, that he may see your face. I will lead you to Gilgamesh. I know where he will be. Look about, Enkidu, inside Uruk coven, where the people show off in skirted finery, where every day is a day for some festival, where the lyre and the drum play continually, where harlots stand about prettily, exuding voluptuousness, full of laughter; and on the couch of night the sheets are spread. Enkidu, you who do not know how to live, I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of extreme feelings. Look at him. Gaze at his face. He is a handsome youth with freshness. His entire body exudes voluptuousness. He has mightier strength than you without sleeping day or night. Enkidu, it is your wrong thoughts you must change. It is Gilgamesh whom Shamhut loves and Anu, Enril and Lau have enlarged his mind.’”

Let’s pause right there. This is the end of one tablet of Gilgamesh. Notice beyond the fact that Enkidu is being civilized by Shamhut the harlot, Enkidu begins as a wild man of the wilderness and he thinks of the wilderness as his strength; but Shamhut says, “No, Gilgamesh is actually more powerful than you. He is a king of a city. He is a mighty man who knows the ways of the cities.” Notice how she describes the city. She describes it as a glorious place where there are constant festivals, where people wear glorious clothing and everybody has a good time.

So the value and beauty of civilization is being put over against the wilderness background of Enkidu.

B. Quote from Gilgamesh Tablet 2

The story goes on. “They placed food in front of him. They placed beer in front of him. Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food and of drinking beer. He had not been taught. The harlot spoke to Enkidu saying, ‘Eat the food, Enkidu. It is the way one lives. Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.’ Enkidu ate the food until he was sated. He drank the beer, seven jugs, and became expansive and sang with joy. He was elated and his face glowed. He splashed his shaggy body with water and rubbed himself with oil and turned into a human. He put on some clothing and became like a warrior. He took up his weapon and chased lions, so the shepherds could eat. He routed the wolves and chased the lions. With Enkidu as their guard, the herders could lie down.”

Of course there is a great deal more to the story than this. Ultimately Gilgamesh and Enkidu have a little fight, but they stop and they become close friends and they go off and they have adventures together. Finally, Enkidu is killed and Gilgamesh mourns for him. The story ends telling us lessons of human mortality.

What I want to get across to you from this is how the civilizing of Enkidu is described. First of all, what had he been eating? Apparently just whatever the
bears eat. But now he learns to eat bread and to drink beer and to enjoy what it is to be a human being in a city. He becomes powerful and he takes up human weapons instead of fighting like an animal. Then at the end of the text we read, what does he do? He goes off and he chases away the lions so that the shepherds and their sheep would be safe. So he has clearly become the civilized man who protects domestic animals from the wild animals. He is pushing back the wilderness and pushing back the wild animals.

III. Egyptian Concept of Nature and Civilization

In Egyptian thought we have something that is similar. We don’t have a text that says it as beautifully as Gilgamesh does, but they had a very clear understanding of civilization in Egypt.

I mentioned earlier when I gave the geography of Egypt, the Nile Valley, the Country of Egypt was essentially 500 miles long and 5 miles wide, except for the delta, which of course is wider. The Egyptians called that “the black land.” Black land because when The Nile would flood, it would bring up silt from Africa and the silt would overflow, go onto the land and that would then be good soil for farming and they would raise all of their crops just as I said, on either side of The Nile. That was their whole country, just a couple of miles on each side of The Nile River. That was the black land, the land that could be farmed, the land that had the alluvial soil. Everything else was red land.

Red land was the land of savagery. Red land was the land of death. It was the land of the god Set. Set is a god in the Egyptian pantheon who is associated with death. He is kind of the closest thing Egyptian mythology has to a devil figure. He ruled the deserts and winds and chaos. He was a murderer. He murdered his brother, Osiris, who was another god.

What we have in Egyptian thinking is, there is civilization. Civilization is the black land. That is where people farm. That is where they dig canals. That is where they sow crops. That is where they keep the wild animals away. You go out into the desert and you encounter jackals, you encounter all kinds of dangerous snakes. You face the heat of the sun. You face thirst. You face death. That is chaos. That is the enemy of civilization, the red land.

More than that, the Egyptians had the ideal of maat. Maat is a word which is kind of hard to translate. It is often translated as something like “justice;” but what it really connotes more is “order.” The Egyptians believed that within civilization you have to have maat. Maat is achieved when you have a strong pharaoh on the throne. He is the one who protects the land from all its enemies. He is the one who keeps the red land at bay. He is the one who sees to it that all of the canals, all of the irrigation canals are maintained. He is the one who sees to it that farmers are not fighting with each other over land. He is the one who sees to it that taxes are collected and the temples are maintained. In other words, he maintains a well ordered society. And it is the duty of every Egyptian to maintain maat, to live themselves in accordance with the rules of order and civilization; to see to it that their families are ordered according to Egyptian tenets of civilization; and that all of society has order according to the Egyptian ideal of civilization.

So in the Egyptian concept, where there is wilderness there is chaos; there is the red land where there is no government, no civilization, no farming, no life, no culture, only wilderness, wild animals, dangerous snakes and death. Within the black land is what is good and right and everyone should treasure civilization and maat.

The important thing for us to get from all this is the idea that the ancient people conceived of nature as dangerous and threatening; and that it was their job to push it back and to keep it at bay.

What we are going to see in God’s speech is how God speaks of nature; and it will be in many ways quite different from the ideology of the ancient near east.

IV. Job and His Friends Come From a Conventional Wisdom in Which Human Society and Order are Good

Job and his friends come from a conventional wisdom in which human society, order, domestication and submission to order are good. There are established structures that every civilized person should adhere to; and those who don’t adhere to them bring about chaos and destruction.

In this model all life thrives when it follows the precepts of order and understood in this way, wisdom.

V. Violent Creatures Represent Evil and Chaos and are Outside This Order

By contrast, violent creatures represent evil and chaos. They are outside of order. So we have seen in Job and you see elsewhere in the Bible where lions, for example, are referred to. Again, for them lions were not zoo creatures or creatures whose existence is endangered and they live in a few little pockets of Africa or something like that. Lions were right outside their door. Lions killed their people and killed their flocks. They did not think of any of this as something good, something that should be preserved. They thought of it as dangerous. The lions and everything else that goes along with the wilderness was outside of the established order and therefore was dangerous and was part of chaos.

Therefore, for the ancient people, wilderness was a lethal place. The lion as an example, was a lethal killer.

VI. God Describes a Creation That is not Exclusively Anthropocentric

When we get to God’s speech we will see something quite different. He describes a creation that is not really centered on the human race. I don’t mean that God denies what Genesis 1 says. I don’t mean that God denies the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, that human beings are God’s final and great creation, or anything like that.

What I mean is, there is a great deal to creation in which humans are not the center. It is not anthropocentric. It is wild. Yet God cares for it. God watches over it. God manages it. So that for all the chaos that people seem to see, what God sees is something that is entirely under his control, that is entirely dependent upon him for life; something that he manages and even that he cares for.

To end this lecture, we will just look at one short, little passage of God’s speech which we have already briefly looked at. Job 38:25-27: “Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland to make it sprout with grass?”

Of course it is talking about the power of God over the forces of the rain; but I want you to notice where he sends this rain. He sends it to a place where no human dwells, to make it sprout grass. So he is not doing this for the sake of people. He is doing it for the sake of the life that it is in the wilderness. What God will say here – and there will be some things in this speech that from the standpoint of how ancient near eastern people thought will be very shocking -- what God will say in this speech essentially is that he cares about the wild places. He manages the wild places. What does that all prove? It proves that God knows how to handle chaos. Where Job thinks, “The world is out of control. Where is God? Why doesn’t he manage things any better?” God will say, “I manage more wildness and more chaos than you can imagine, and it never gets out of control.”

That will take us into our next lecture, the next speech of God.