Lecture 30: God and Animate Nature
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: God and Animate Nature
We are now looking at the speeches of God. We have seen where God speaks of his control over inanimate nature, the forces that maintain order and stability in the world and the forces that are chaotic, but which God uses to give life to the world.
I. God and Animate Nature
Now we are going to look at what God has to say about animate nature, the animals. We are going to try to determine how this relates to the problem of Job. It all goes back to what we were talking about in the last lecture, the fact that the world is full of wilderness that the ancients viewed as chaotic, as deadly, as something to be pushed back; but that God actually cares for, loves, sustains and controls.
A. Predators and scavengers
We begin in chapter 38, verses 39-41: “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket? Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?”
He begins with predators and birds that eat carrion. The predator of course here is the lion. We speak of the lion as king of the beasts. For them, the lion was the epitome of the ferocity, the danger, the wildness of the wilderness. We can see this, for example, in how Eliphaz speaks of lions. Way back in Job chapter 4 when Eliphaz first begins his speaking, in verses 10 and 11 Eliphaz says: “The lions may roar and growl, yet the teeth of the great lions are broken. The lion perishes for lack of prey and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.”
Eliphaz looks upon lions as something to be destroyed. He wants their teeth to be broken. He wants them to starve to death. He wants the lioness to be separated from her cubs. He wants them to die because he considers them to be nothing but danger, nothing but deadly and vile and something to be avoided or killed.
God, however, feeds the lions. He is the one who gives them their life. This is a remarkable thing to read in an ancient text, that God cares about them, that he nurtures them, that he keeps them alive. The point here is, as we begin to get into the whole discussion, what people regard as things that are so bad they simply must be destroyed, God regards as something worth having and something that he preserves and keeps alive.
B. Mountain goats and deer
He then moves on in chapter 39, verses 1-4: “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch over the doe bear her fawn? Do you count the months till they bear? Do you know the time they give birth? They crouch down and bring forth their young, their labor pains are ended. Their young thrive and grow in the wilds; they leave and do not return.”
Having spoken of predator, he now speaks of prey. He speaks of the wild goats and the deer. He speaks of them especially when they are in a very vulnerable condition, when they are pregnant, when they are bearing their young. Here you have these beautiful animals who live way out in the wilderness, out there with all the lions and all the wolves and all the other dangerous creatures. Not only do they have that danger to contend with, but the females have to bear their young and then have to bring their young up so that they too can survive.
What does God say? God says, “I am there. I watch over the doe when she bears her young. I am there all the months of her gestation. When they crouch down to give birth, I’m the one who sees to it that they survive. I am keeping all of these animals well. I am keeping them alive. I am protecting them.”
What is God saying here? He is saying, “No matter how much danger there is in the wilderness, no matter how vulnerable a creature might be, God can protect it, God can care for it.”
C. The wild donkey and the wild ox
He then comes to the wild donkey and the wild ox in chapter 39, verses 5-12: “Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied his ropes? I gave it the wasteland as its home, the salt flats as its habitat. It laughs at the commotion in town, it does not hear a driver’s shout. It ranges the hills for its pasture and it searches for any green thing. Will the wild ox consent to serve you? Will it stay by your manger at night? Can you hold it to the furrow with a harness? Will it till the valleys behind you? Will you rely on its great strength? Will you leave your heavy work to it? Can you trust it to haul your grain and bring it to your threshing floor?”
Here we have two animals that people see as domesticated, the donkey and the ox. Of course people will take these animals and they will feed them, they will take them to food troughs and the animals will eat. They will put burdens on their backs. They will put a yoke on their necks and use them to plow the field. So they are beasts who will serve humanity.
But here God is speaking of donkeys and oxen who do not serve humans. He speaks of how the wild donkey looks at human civilization and laughs at it. He is glad that he is not domesticated. He is glad that he does not have to spend his whole life serving human beings. No matter how hard Job tries, he couldn’t domesticate the wild ox.
What is the point that God is making here? The idea is that again, from the ancient near eastern perspective, life can only flourish where there is civilization. Remember the Mesopotamians thought kingship and civilization came down from heaven and wherever that exists, there is life. Wherever it does not exist, there is chaos and death. Same thing with the Egyptian red land.
But here these animals could be domestic animals, but they are not and they are doing just fine. They live in the wilderness, they live without any human rules and they thrive.
D. The ostrich
The next animal is the ostrich. What the text says about the ostrich, to us may be kind of meaningless; but in fact, it is one of the most astonishing statements in the book. Here it is in verses 13-18: “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, though they cannot compare with the wings and feathers of the stork. She lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them. She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers. She cares not that her labor was in vain, for God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense. Yet when she spreads her feathers up to run, she laughs at horse and rider.”
So, the ostrich. What does the text say about the ostrich? Well, she lays her eggs right out on the ground. They are not hidden, they are not high up in the air, they are not in a cave or something like that. They are just right out there on the surface of the ground. Then she runs off. There they are, exposed to be taken by anyone, to be destroyed by anyone; and the ostrich doesn’t care. In fact, God says in effect, the ostrich is a really stupid bird. The ostrich has no wisdom. It would be wisdom to do something to protect your eggs, to hide them, to put rocks around them or something. But the ostrich doesn’t do anything like that at all and yet, she thrives, she is strong, she is independent and when she sees horses and riders, she laughs, meaning she doesn’t care anything about civilization and human and tamed animals. She is happy in her strength and in her freedom.
What is really astonishing about the ostrich? Here is an animal that thrives with no wisdom. God has said she has no wisdom. Yet she is doing great, she is
thriving, she is happy, she is free.
Remember, for the ancient world the idea is that wisdom and civilization and order are absolutely essential to life. God says, “I can maintain life and actually have creatures that do great who are absolutely without wisdom, who show no wisdom in their behavior.”
This is something that is astonishing to the ancient sage, the ancient wisdom reader. What do the ancients think about wisdom? They thought it something
that even the animals need to survive. Again, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. The ant gathers up grain in summer and stores it for winter.” That’s great, and it is a lesson for us; but in fact, God can allow life to thrive in the complete absence of wisdom and that is astonishing.
E. The horse
Then we come to an animal that is domesticated, the horse, in verses 19-25: “Do you give the horse his strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength and charges into the fray. It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against its side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground. It cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds. At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’ It catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.”
Here is the one animal that God mentions that is a domestic animal. Notice the context in which he describes this animal, it is human warfare. This is a horse, but he is not just a horse that people ride to get around or a plow horse or something like that. This is a war horse. He is himself a terrifying instrument of war. A rider can be on him with a lance and can chase away a whole troop of infantrymen. So the horse is a ferocious, powerful animal that can go against the very worst that humanity and civilization has to offer, namely warfare.
The point is, civilization and humanity may use the horse, but they can’t give it its strength. Its strength comes from God. So even where human society and
civilization has power and strength, the ultimate symbol of human power, the horse, is a work of God and gets all its strength from God. Again, God is going against the ancient near eastern ideal of the order of civilization.
F. The hawk and the eagle
God’s speech on the natural world ends with verses 26-30, talking about the birds of prey. Verse 26: “Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings toward the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high? It dwells on a cliff and stays there at night; a rocky crag is its stronghold. From there it looks for food; its eyes detect it from afar. Its young ones feast on blood, and where the slain are, there it is.” You may notice there a saying that Jesus actually quoted.
Here we have the portrait of the eagle, the greatest of the birds of prey. He began with the lion, the great land creature of prey; and he ends with the eagles, the great birds of prey. The eagles have powers that we humans cannot imagine. We don’t know what it is to fly and to soar to the heights they can go to. We don’t know what it is to be able to have their vision and see a little rabbit from so far in the sky and to be able to sweep down and pluck it off the ground. God has made them to be dangerous predators. God gave them their gifts. God gave them this ability and God manages it all. They are magnificently equipped by God and are part of the glory of God’s good earth. What God is saying, over against the ancient near eastern ideology, is, “You know what? I think the natural world is pretty fantastic! All of these things that you see as chaos and as out of control, depend upon me and thrive because I provide for them and are things that I glory in, things that I control, things that I manage, things that I care about.”
II. God as the Ruler of the Natural World
A. The world is more complex than Job and his friends allow for
What does the text tell us about God and the natural world? How does it relate to the problem of the book of Job? The point of this text is not simply that God is wise and powerful. It is not simply to berate Job. Rather, the world is much more complex than Job and his three friends allowed for. They thought that the whole world could be summed up in the simple basic precepts of wisdom, and again what I am calling type 2 wisdom. Do good and you will thrive; do evil and you will be destroyed. God manages this, God manages the order and the world, and that is all there is to it.
B. Type 2 wisdom does not explain everything about how God manages the world
Second, the wisdom that guides Job and his friends is what I call second level wisdom. It shows itself in the moral and theological principles that govern human life. Of itself, it is valid, but it is not the only kind of wisdom and it does not explain everything. God can maintain a different kind of order, one that depends upon God alone and this is what I call the third level of wisdom.
C. The sages wrongly thought that their system explained everything
Third, the sages wrongly thought that their system was all encompassing, that all of life, all of theology and all of creation was under the domain of their
conception of wisdom. In such a construct, there is no paradoxical truth, there are no counterintuitive ideas. There is no enigma beyond explanation and there is no possibility of thriving, of surviving and doing well apart from the precepts of proverbial wisdom.
A good example of conventional wisdom again is the proverb about the ants, Proverbs 34:24 and 25: “They are profoundly wise. They store up food in
summer.” It is not that their system is wrong. It is a good thing that the ants store up their food in summer. It is a good thing for a young man to learn wisdom. It is a good thing for a person to know that sexual promiscuity is destructive. It is a good thing to know that you can’t be lazy. It is a good thing to know that there has to be order in society and that people cannot run wild and that wickedness cannot be allowed to thrive. All of those things are good, but they don’t explain everything.
There are parts of the world that are outside of this. There is a whole animal kingdom out there that can thrive without wisdom at all, whose lives are violent, or who live in great danger, or who simply get by with no wisdom at all. And yet, they all thrive, they all live, God cares for them all.
D. The ostrich is an example of an animal that thrives without wisdom
Again, the great example here is the ostrich, an animal that thrives though it is without wisdom. So God speaks of a cosmos that is inherently dangerous,
seemingly disordered, but in which wild creatures flourish because God wills it.
E. God’s speech answers the theology of the night spirit
In addition, God’s speech answers the demonic theology of the night spirit. In the demonic theology the universe and all that it contains are abhorrent to God. Remember, the night spirit and then as it was later elaborated by Eliphaz and Bildad, simply said that God despises everything, even the angels are impure in his sight. He considers heaven itself to be foul. He looks down on earth and certainly on human beings and considers them all to be disgusting, or as Bildad says, maggots and worms.
However, in contrast to this, and despite the savage power God ascribes to nature, God has no contempt for any of these animals. He does not despise them. In fact, going back to Genesis 1:31, God considers it all to be very good and he has no interest in destroying it. In fact, he does what only He could do, he manages it and he protects it.
What do we have here? We haven’t come to the full answer yet. I will tell you that because we still have two really important creatures to come – Behemoth
and Leviathan. God is not done yet. There is a lot more for him to say.
However, he has answered something very important in the problem of evil. The problem of evil states, to put it simply, the world is out of control. There is just so much violence in the world; there is so much wrongdoing; there is so much bloodshed; there is so much disorder. If you will, people even are so uncivilized. Where is God?
God is saying, “You know what? I control uncivilized things all the time. I control uncivilized things every moment, every hour of the day when I feed the lions and the eagles and the falcons and I protect the deer and when I allow the ostrich to run free.” God is saying, “The chaos of the world is not something I am unfamiliar with. I know how to manage it.”
As an application of this, we can quickly think of how often we think of our world as chaotic and out of control. I am old enough now to look back and see many periods of time when people would look and say, “the world has completely fallen apart” or ”the world is about to blow up.” We can remember when there was the great standoff between the Soviet Union and The United States and everyone was sure it was only a matter of time before the whole world was blown up in a nuclear holocaust. We can remember times of social upheaval. We have times of social upheaval now. We have times in which there is violence all around us. There are terrorists. There is upheaval in terms of social and sexual morality in our world today. Today, as I speak right now of The United States, our politics have never been more polarized and more filled with anger and acrimony; and people say it is all chaotic, it’s out of control.
What God would say from the speech here is, “I have been handling out of control ever since the world came into existence. I know how to handle chaos.”
F. This argument alone is enough for Job
This argument alone is enough for Job. In chapter 40, verses 3-5, Job responds: “Then Job answered the Lord: ‘I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more.’”
I would suggest to you that this is not just Job being overwhelmed. Again, the point of God’s speeches is not, “Hey, Job, I’m powerful, you’re not!” Job already
knew that. So it’s not just that Job is overwhelmed by the power of God and says, “Oh, my goodness, I’d better just shut my mouth!” I think Job gets the point. I think he understands. He thought the world was out of control. He now knows God knows what to do with chaos. God knows how to handle it from generation to generation; and surprisingly, for all the chaos and all the wars and all the upheaval that has gone on in the world from the beginning, we are still here. God has not let the earth perish and he is telling Job he knows what he is doing.
Let’s close with that and we will pick up next lecture as he continues to speak now of the powers that are above nature.