Lecture 31: The Powers above Nature
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: The Powers above Nature
We are now in the middle of the speeches of God. We have thus far seen how God has spoken of inanimate nature, the creation of the earth and the stars and the moon; and how God has spoken of animate nature, the animals. Through it all God showed that he knows how to handle chaos. God is the one who sets a boundary for the sea, so that it should not overflow and flood the earth and lead to destruction and end of life. God is the one who controls and cares for the wild animals. He cares for the predators and he cares for the prey.
I. God Has Shown That He Controls the Chaotic Powers of the Cosmos.
All the forces that the Ancient Near Eastern people thought of as chaotic, as forces of wilderness, as forces of death, God watches over, God handles and
controls. God knows how to deal with chaos.
We now get into God’s handling of powers that are above nature, things that are not of this world, but are greater than this world, outside this world, things that human beings cannot control at all. This will take up the next two major portions of God’s speech – his discussion of Behemoth and his discussion of Leviathan.
II. The Duty of the Kings to Uphold Justice
Before we do that we need to get a sense of what all this would mean to an Ancient Near Eastern person. In the Ancient Near East, in addition to having very clear sense of the nature of civilization and city and king, over against wilderness, they had a very clear sense of the duties of those who were in authority, especially kings. Throughout the Ancient Near East they had a very high concept of justice and that it was the absolute duty of those who had power to uphold justice, to protect those who were weak and powerless and to curb evil wherever they found it. That is not to say that all of the kings lived up to this, by no means. But it was the ideal that they held to and it was a fairly universal concept.
A. Teachings in Egypt by Ptahhotep
We can look at this by seeing certain teachings from the Egyptians. We will begin with a wisdom text from Ancient Egypt. This is from very, very early in Egypt, what we call the old kingdom; and it is a wisdom text known as “The Teaching of Ptahhotep.” This is a series of lessons, very similar to Proverbs, in which the teacher gives all kinds of instructions on how people should live and how they should deal with others and how they should function within their status in society; how they should fulfill the role that is allotted to them.
Here is what he says about people with power: “If you are a man who leads, whose authority reaches wide, you should do outstanding things. Remember the day that comes after. No strife will occur in the midst of honors; but where the crocodile enters, hatred arises.” Of course, he is being more or less metaphorical again; but he is saying, “You need to be sure that evil is held in check.” He goes on: “If you are a man who leads, listen calmly to the speech of one who pleads. Don’t stop him from emptying his body of that which he planned to tell. A man in distress wants to pour out his heart more than that his case be won.”
Here he makes the point that if you are in leadership, if you have power and someone comes to you and they are in distress, someone has been afflicting
them, you need to hear them out. You need to listen to them. You may not in the end feel that their case is right, but it is very important as a person in authority, that you listen to what they have to say.
B. Teachings in Egypt of the “Eloquent Peasant”
There is yet more that we can look at from Ancient Egypt. There is a text known as the “Eloquent Peasant.” The “Eloquent Peasant” concerns a peasant who is minding his own business, on a journey, and an aristocrat basically takes advantage of him, takes his goods, pushes him off the road, abuses him; and this peasant has had everything taken from him.
So he goes to a magistrate to plead for justice and this peasant turns out to be very eloquent. He gives very learned discourses on justice; and the magistrate is so taken that he has the peasant come back again and again and give one speech after another because he just wants to listen to him. Finally, at the end of the story the magistrate does grant the peasant’s wish and gives him justice.
We can take a few excerpts from the speech of the “Eloquent Peasant” to get a sense of how they felt about leadership and rulership in the Ancient World. The Peasant says: “Let me make your name in this land according to all good rules, a leader free of greed, great man free of baseness, destroyer of falsehood, creator of rightness, who comes at the voice of the caller. When I speak, may you hear.
Do justice, Oh praised one, who is praised by the praised. Remove my grief, I am burdened. Examine me, I am in need.”
Here is this peasant speaking to this magistrate and he gives him all of these high titles and says, “If you will just do what is right, you will be a great man, you will be a destroyer of falsehood.” And he says, “Be a person who listens when people are abused, when people are oppressed, and come to their rescue. Use your authority for good.”
We can see some other excerpts from the speech of the “Eloquent Peasant.” He goes on in his third discourse: “High steward, my lord, you are Ra, Lord of Sky, with your courtiers. Men’s sustenance is from you as from the flood. You are Hapi who makes green the fields.” I should say here, first he calls him “Ra.” Ra is the high god of the Egyptians, so he is really praising the magistrate, saying “you are like the high god.” When he says “you are Hapi,” that is the name of the Egyptian god of inundation, the god who causes the Nile to flood and it was the flood waters that then allowed the land to sprout and to feed the people. So when he says “you are Hapi,” he says “you are the god who gives abundance to all the people.” Again, he is flattering this magistrate because he wants the magistrate to take up his case.
He says then, “Punish the robbers, save the sufferer. Be not a flood against the pleader. Heed eternity’s coming. Desire to last. As it is said, ‘Doing justice is
breath for the nose.’ Punish him who should be punished and none will be equal to your rectitude. Does the hand balance deflect? Does the stand balance tilt?”
We should pause right there. Of course he is talking about a pair of scales and he is saying, “Don’t be like an unbalanced pair of scales that is unfair, be balanced, be fair, give justice.” He says, “Does Thoth show favor, so that you may do wrong?” Thoth is another one of the Egyptian gods. He is the Egyptian god of scribes, who would record everything. So of course that too would have a place in the courts and in justice. “Does Thoth show favor so that you may do wrong? Be equal to these three. If the three show favor, then may you show favor.” In other words, if these gods, Ra, Hapi and Thoth are unjust, well I guess you can be unjust. Of course his point is, that is not the case. “Answer not good with evil. Put not one thing in place of another.” He is pleading for the magistrate to do what a magistrate ought to do, enact justice, protect the poor, protect the oppressed and take care of them in their need.
We can look at one more short excerpt from The “Eloquent Peasant” from his eighth discourse. He simply says: “Speak justice, do justice, for it is mighty, it is great, it endures, its worth is tried. It leads one to reverence.” It is a very straightforward appeal. He simply tells the magistrate, “Your duty is very simple,
to execute justice. When people do wrong and when they oppress others, when they rob from others, you need to make it right.”
C. Teachings in Mesopotamia
The “Eloquent Peasant” is perhaps one of the most beautiful and powerful statements on justice in The Ancient World, but it is by no means the only one.
We also have from Mesopotamia from the area of the Assyrians, a prayer by the King Ashurbanipal. He makes a prayer to the god Shamash, who is the god of the sun. He is asking Shamash, first of all to enable him to be just and then secondly for the god himself to be just.
Here is what Ashurbanipal prays in his prayer to Shamash: “Judge his case, make decisions for him for wellbeing. May it be appointed for him that he may walk safely in the light of your rising. May he constantly shepherd over your peoples whom you gave him, in justice and the temple which he set up and in which he caused you to dwell, in joyousness. May his heart be elated, his spirit rejoice, be sated with life.”
Ashurbanipal the King is calling on Shamash the god to protect him, to hold him up in the face of all his adversities, etc; but he specifically says that he, the king, “will shepherd your people with justice.” He is in effect vowing to the god that he will behave with justice.
We have pretty well throughout the Ancient Near East, both from Mesopotamia and from Egypt, this strong notion that it is the duty of kings to execute justice and also that it is the way of gods to execute justice.
D. Kingship ideal of Psalm 101
We have pretty much the same thing in the Bible. Psalm 101 is a psalm of David. It appears to be a psalm composed for his successor, Solomon, and it is a prayer for Solomon’s wellbeing as he assumes kingship. It is kind of similar to the prayer of Ashurbanipal. Here is what the psalm says, Psalm 101: “I will sing of your love and justice. To you, Lord, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life. When will you come to me? I will conduct the affairs of my house with a blameless heart. I will not look with approval on anything that is vile. I hate what faithless people do, I will have no part in it. The perverse of heart shall be far from me. I will have nothing to do with what is evil. Whoever slanders their neighbor in secret, I will put to silence. Whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, I will not tolerate. My eyes will be on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me. The one whose walk is blameless will minister to me. No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house. No one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence. Every morning I will put to silence all the wicked in the land. I will cut off every evildoer from the city of the Lord.”
Here in this prayer of David he makes a vow to God and many of the things are things that pretty much any devout person could do, in which he is promising to try to lead a blameless life, to conduct the affairs of his household with integrity. But many of the things he promises are things that only a king or a high magistrate could do. He will watch over, he says, the faithful in the land. He says that no one who practices deceit will have a place in his administration, which he calls his “house.” He says he will cut off every evildoer from the city. Again, that is only someone who has a high level of authority could do. So it seems that David makes this promise to God and then in effect, leaves it as a vow for the Kings of Israel to take before God, that they will execute justice in the land, that they will be fair, that they will be just in how they treat people.
Again, the main point here is, throughout the Ancient Near East it is the understanding that those who have power are supposed to take care of the weak and they are supposed to punish evildoers.
E. Genesis 18
We will look at one more text very briefly that relates this to God. We have in the Book of Genesis, chapter 18, where God has come down and is speaking to Abraham. He informs Abraham that Sarah is about to have a son. But then he goes on and he informs him about his plans to go down and visit Sodom. Genesis 18:22 says: “The men turned from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before The Lord. And Abraham stepped forward and said, ‘Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of fifty righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike, you could not possibly do that. Won’t the judge of the whole earth do what is just?’”
Notice he pleads to God to behave with justice, to not take away the righteous with the wicked. The last line of his plea is the most powerful statement of all: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” He expects God to behave with justice, just as people would expect a king to behave with justice.
III. Job Expects God to Act Justly
Why do we explore all of that? We explore it all because this is what is in Job’s mind as he speaks to God, or speaks about God. Job has protested at great length and very eloquently about the suffering of people. He has spoken of the poor and the destitute, how they have their cloaks taken away from them and they sleep in the cold and the rain. He has spoken of the rich people who oppress them, who just seem to get away with it, who never seem to suffer punishment, who live to an old age, who have children, whose children thrive and who have a good life. He says, “Where is God? Where is justice?”
That is the point where we are in the text now. Remember, in the previous speech of God, the previous part of his speech, where God was speaking of the natural world, both inanimate nature and the animals, God was speaking of how he controls the forces of chaos and how God can handle it when everything seems to be in upheaval and there doesn’t seem to be any righteousness, any wisdom, any order, anywhere. God knows what he is doing. But in that part of the speech he is really talking about how he can manage chaos.
IV. God Addresses the Issue of Injustice in the World
Now we come to the specific issue of what to do about justice in the world, what to do about the fact that there is so much injustice? There are so many examples of people who are oppressed, who are afflicted, who suffer through no fault of their own; and evil people who thrive.
God steps up and he confronts Job at the very beginning of this speech in chapter 40:7-14. Here is how I would translate it: “Gird up your loins like a warrior. I will question you and you instruct me. Can it be that you will dismantle my governance of the world? Will you make me out to be wrong so that you can be right? Or do you possess an arm like God’s? Or can you thunder with a voice like his? Adorn yourself with power and height. Dress yourself in splendor and majesty. Spread abroad your furious wrath. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him down. Look on everyone who is proud and humble him and tear down the wicked right where they are. Hide every one of them in the dust. Wrap their faces for the hidden chamber of death. Then I will praise you, that your right hand could bring about your salvation.”
This is of course a very sarcastic statement by God. He is challenging Job and he is saying things like, “Are you so powerful? Are you so strong? Do you have splendor that can shine forth? Can you thunder in majesty?” Of course, the answer is “No.” Job is just a mortal, he is just a physical human being. He can’t do anything like that.
Again, we misread the text if we think God is just browbeating Job, like God is saying, “Hey, I’m big, you’re not. I’m God, you’re not.” That is not really the point. This is really an introduction to the question of God’s justice in the world; and when God challenges Job in this way and asks him, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” he is not really making fun of Job for being a weak mortal. He is saying, “Do you comprehend what it is to execute justice for the whole world? Do you comprehend what would be involved in the decisions you would make? Can you imagine what it would be to have such power? Would you know how to execute it?”
I want you to see that clearly he is speaking of the administration of justice in the world in this passage. He says in verse 8: “Can it be that you will dismantle my governance of the world?” He then says in verse 11: “Spread abroad your furious wrath. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him down.” In verse 12: “Tear down the wicked right where they are.” Clearly we are entering the question of God’s justice and the question of, will God ever deal with all the wickedness and with all the evil that is in the earth?
Again, this is not a case of God browbeating Job, of hitting him over the head with the fact that he is weak and mortal. This is God getting Job to think about all that is involved in this process and what can one do? For example, certainly God could just wipe out all the wicked immediately. But of course, that would be like just killing Sodom with fifty righteous men in it. It would do so much damage, do so much destruction, that life on earth would essentially end. Then, where would we all be?
Taking care of injustice in the world is a complicated matter. It involves power, which God has described; but it also involves wisdom. So this will lead us into God’s secret wisdom and how God must wrestle with these powers of evil that are even above the world.
That is what we will take up next time when we look at God talking about the identity of Behemoth.