The back and forth discourse between Job and his “friends” throughout chapters 3-37 is a narrative that discusses the inner workings of, and implicitly affirms, a theology of omnipotence and meticulous providence. This is expressed through the traditional dueteronomistic, proverbial (or God-blesses-the-good-and-punishes-the-bad) wisdom of Israel.
Job throughout these discourses pushes this wisdom to its limits, showing its faults, failings and inability to apply in his case – but he does not breakout of it. Job demands answers within that framework – Job wants some sort of hearing (before a god he knows he could not hope to defend himself against) for the mere chance of pleading his innocence.
In chapter 38 God shows up and extends to Job two lengthy speeches. What is fascinating is that God refuses to take responsibility for Job’s predicament. God barely recognises it as a situation. What takes place when God speaks is an extended zoological celebration.
For Job, no doubt, it is a real matter of “if this is the answer, what on earth did I ask!?”
God, in chapters 38-41, (bearing an utterly different manner to the God met in the generic ancient folk tale utilised for the wider, more fascinating, narrative) marvels at creation – at the unpredictable cosmos, at the chaotically-contingent-yet-ordered world that is continually bursting with novelty, beauty and danger.
Traditionally these divine monologues have been understood in terms of a theology of omnipotence, “evidence” of unilateral divine power and authority. In response it, in essence, puts to Job the “proper” questions: Who are you to question God? Do you not know how powerful and uncontainable God is? Look at everything, do you really want to challenge this God? God is understood as wholly other and in turn not bound by our questions and conceptions of justice that warrant a rather withering divine response to these lengthy human tirade.
Thankfully alternative readings of these poetic discourses exist, that aim not the defend a potential divine muscle flex but that pick up what can rightly be seen as an alternative, unequivocally nature oriented, theology. God clearly does not answer Job’s questions – Why has this happened? Aren’t you going to do about it? Can I make my case? Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper? etc. – God makes no such attempt to validate the proverbial/dueteronomistic wisdom and theology of Israel.
What if we see God’s speeches as a disclosure of previously ignored divine preoccupations?
God has been busy all along facilitating the enlivening and growth of the creation. God has been moving, playing, hovering over a world full of vibrant and glorious wonder.
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them. (39:1-4)
What if this is an invitation to look at creation – and really see it?
The poem of Job has been seen as an extended commentary on Genesis 1, perhaps then Job is being reoriented in such a way that he begins to understand what it means for a human to be made in the imago dei.
What if God is here re-orienting Job’s theology and view of the world?
God may, in essence, be saying: “Bad shit happens, there is nothing that can be done about that. This god you have been screaming at is an anthropomorphised/anthropocentric idol and an abstraction. God is found when you are rightly related to creation. You are imaging God when you get past yourself and take responsibility for it.”
Catherine Keller observes that when God speaks,
Job sees not just creatures but creator: “but now my eyes see you.” Yet there is no trace, no beard or backside, of a personal God who might be thus “seen.” What Job “sees” in the vision of God is only the creatures. To “see” God is to see creation… The creation is God’s visible body – the all that spills forth so chaotically, so creatively, so procreatively from “the womb…”
Thinking contextually the above makes sense. Israel, at the time Job is finalised, is living under the shadow of exile and empire. With the order empire brings comes a reactionary manipulation, fear and desire to control an inherently chaotic and unpredictable creation.
Israel, living in that thought world, takes it up – in some camps it has no doubt internalised this same chaotic creation-ophobic empire. Carol Newsom thus asks,
Did the poet link demoralisation to denaturalisation: the loss of the promise land to the loss of the cosmos?
Additionally, given the utter pain of exile – the unbearable suffering of losing everything conceivable that Israel had undergone – an anthropomorphised/anthropocentric god makes perfect sense. Israel’s pain is all it could see. We might, and should, note this as related to Job 3 in which Job forsakes, curses, and wishes the undoing of creation itself – it has been disavowed (Job 3 reflects and riffs on Gen. 1, continuing that connection).
Perhaps then the poem of Job is a call back to see the world with new eyes, with the eyes of God. The criticism is obvious then,
- “Quit being so anthropocentric.”
- “Quit thinking you understand how God works.”
- “Quit thinking with the mind of empire.”
God, in many ways, is the perfect character (narratively speaking) to do this calling.
In chapter 38, when God shows up and speaks from a whirlwind (i.e. from the chaos), what God seems to deal with, almost (if not) solely, is the damage Job and Israel have done to themselves and the world in ch. 3 – God reaffirms and blesses creation.
God, in effect, says, “Don’t curse this! Have you ever even looked at it? The whole time you have been ranting and discussing, have you really seen this?” (Of course Job hasn’t, Job 3 sets the trajectory for all the thought to come – it will be creationless.)
It is in this sense that Job (as well as Israel) is being drawn into God so as to see the world with those same eyes, eyes in congruence with Genesis 1. Israel is being re-presented with and re-centred by its God: a God who sees a chaotic deep, the unpredictable Levathian and playfully invites and solicits it in the drama of creation, without a hint of imperial powerfulness.
Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you?
Will it make a covenant with you
to be taken as your servant forever?
Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on leash for your girls?
I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,
or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame. (41:3-5, 12)
Israel, then, is being invited to see the world afresh, to remember its story anew, to not fear the danger and contingency of the world, to remember what it means to bear the imago dei.
It is in this sense we can rightly see, with Keller again, that this divine
whirlwind blows aside Job’s legal model of rights and faults and his image of God the great Patriarch.
God, in Job, breaks out of the role that Job and his friends have assigned. God will not be trapped into the function they assign. God will not be humanity’s omnipotent guarantor of meaning. God, in this sense, having burst out in astronomical and zoological celebration, calls humanity back to the role of imaging what is of chief concern to this God.
This new image of God is one of God as a power for life, balancing the needs of all creatures, not just humans, cherishing freedom, full of fierce love and delight for each thing without regard for its utility, acknowledging the deep interconnectedness of death and life; restraining and nurturing each element in the ecology of all creation.
It is in this way that we should be alert to the shelving of the dueteronomistic god that takes place in Job. That god is denied by God in Job. Keller, again, notes,
The book of Job was driven by an ethical passion. But the change of divine subject changes the subject of ethics: it becomes us. It is not up to God to right our moral wrongs, to fix our injustices and correct our oppressions. That doesn’t happen. To depend on God to intervene, to justify “himself,” to operate as the just patriarch is to abdicate our own moral responsibility for the earth.
The omnipotent, meticulously aware and controlling god of “orthodox” tradition is not who we meet in Job. The God we meet in Job reminds us of what we miss when a not so terrible kind of idolatry (I am thinking specifically of Job, who was never once wiling to pin God down) longs for answers for rather too long a time, meaning we completely lose sight of the world around us that is bursting with life. The God we meet in Job dispels the idea that this God is in control because, as we see, there is simply no answer to Job’s questions – there was never anything God could do. The God we meet in Job demonstrates the divine interests – celebrating and revelling in the sheer magnificence of a wholly contingent world, that exists beyond the scope and control of humanity’s technological and militant engineering capacities and the concerns of those otherwise comfortably placed folks ready to complain about anomalies in the ethical and moral balance they presume.
And yet Job is said to have spoken rightly of God. This is no doubt because he has patently refused the convenience of his associate’s ideologies to numb his pain. It can be no small matter, however, that God does not answer Job’s questions. As such it can also be no small matter that what God does say seems to make sense to Job. Job, perhaps, senses that God is not who he thought God to be, and thus it might just be that Job realises that he has asked mistaken questions of a mistaken vision of God.
It may be then, when we find ourselves asking “if this is answer, then what was the question?” to God’s unmatchable exuberance for the universe in Job, that we need to spend time celebrating that exact thing. It may just be that if God cannot fix the world and our lives for us like some deus ex machina, then it is up to us to create the justice we long for, to bring about the moral conditions we desire, to affirm the contingency and unpredictability of life, and to see, celebrate and protect the creation in which one (like Job) “sees” God.