Resources: Climate change and the purposes of God

Bible study: Notes on Job 38–39

Posted in: Climate change and the purposes of God, Theology
Resource type: Bible studies and reflections

Anyone who has thought about the message of this baffling and extraordinary book will have wrestled with the two speeches God makes near the end. This isn’t the place to unpack them in detail, but one of the writer’s aims is to deliver a broadside against an anthropocentric view of the world. Here are a few thoughts on the first of God’s speeches.

Sheep

The first speech begins with a tour of the marvels of the cosmos and then shifts (in 38:39) to animals and birds. Most of the questions God asks in this section are about wild creatures of which people then had very limited knowledge. (They lived not only BC but BA – Before Attenborough.) When Job is asked “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does? Can you number the months that they fulfil?” the third question is about the gestation periods of these animals. I like to picture Job in the Mastermind chair with that intimidating spotlight on him, and God firing the questions – and Job can only say “Pass”!

I imagine him wishing he could move on from general knowledge to his specialist subject – probably sheep. He breeds sheep, so of course he knows their gestation period: 145 days. Or camels – he’s also good on camels (dromedaries anyway): 13 months. Donkeys? Yes, he could do donkeys – 12 months on average… But mountain goats? Job knows them only as distant silhouettes on a craggy skyline.

And that’s the whole point of God’s questions. They take us out of our comfort zone to “where the wild things are”. They remind us of the existence of animals and birds which seem pointless from a utilitarian human perspective, and whose behaviour makes little sense to us, perhaps even repels us in some cases – the sequence begins and ends with predators (38:39 and 39:26-30), and includes the apparent wastefulness of nature embodied in the habits of the ostrich (though some other ground-nesting bird might be in view, 39:13-18). These thumbnail sketches of wild creatures are meant to lift the reader out of an anthropocentric rut, bringing home the fact that much of creation is of no obvious use to human beings.

This theme also comes out in 38:25‑27; God governs the world in such a way as “to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass”. In other words, God cares for and sustains parts of the earth where no human beings live. So how can it all be there for our benefit?

We may have a unique status and a special role in creation (as Gen 1 and Ps 8 tell us), but it would be a big mistake to argue from that that it all exists solely, or even primarily, for our sake. It exists first and foremost for God, and has a value all of its own in his sight. In fact God’s description of all this glorious diversity and wildness in this speech is shot through with divine delight. In short, the world-view here is not anthropocentric, but theocentric (and we could add that in the NT it becomes Christocentric – ‘all things were created through him and for him’, Col 1:16).

John J. Bimson, Trinity College, Bristol.

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