The Creation, unfathomable mystery

A passionate quest for meaning inhabits the long meditations and arguments of the book of Job. Job is in revolt against a God who has taken away his possessions and his children, his health and his dignity. Job is in torment, and his friends try to comfort him...and to defend God’s justice. For Job’s friends, everything can be explained: Job’s misfortunes are necessarily the consequences of his sin, and his suffering is a painful corrective, but a useful one...

Everything can be explained...No, not at all, says God, for it is God in person who enters on the scene to confound Job’s friends. Without even alluding to it, God tosses aside their one-size-fits-all theology. Here we see that God is God, and we ourselves are totally creatures, creatures dumbfounded at the immensity of the Creation. In chapters 38 to 42, a whole panorama of creatures, great and strange, passes in parade before us, some disposed to be intelligent, others wild, incomprehensible and even frightening.

The wonders of the world form a fascinating procession, beginning with the starry sky and going to the depths of the oceans. The coastline protects the solid earth against the raging ocean, and this is reassuring. But why does it rain in the desert? This rain is lost to the cultivated land, which keeps us alive... The horse pawing the ground and leaping with exultation is exciting, but it makes us think of war and battlefields . . . And of the eagle mounting so nobly into the air, verse 39,30 says “where the slain are, there it is”. The world is disturbing, chaotic, in particular the animal world with its wild asses and oxen, ungovernable and dangerous, and even the incredible foolishness of the ostrich which, we are told, lays its eggs on the sand and leaves them in places where anyone at all might step on them... Fortunately there is some humour in all this.

But it is scathing humour nevertheless, because a provocation is hurled at us: who do you think you are, man (or woman), who do you think you are to judge your Creator? You know everything, don’t you? You have understood everything? You are acquainted with it all, even though your life is so short, pathetic compared to the history of the universe! You watch over all, even though your little world is nothing in the unimaginable reaches of infinite space!

In what way can this naturalist’s panorama be an answer to Job’s torments? How does it bring comfort to this righteous man who is unhappy and in revolt? Let us say that, as so often in the Bible, this answer is greater than the question and therefore may look as though it misses the question... God may not have shown that God is just, but certainly has shown that God is God. God puts things back in place and puts Job back in his place. Job’s place, the place of the human, is alongside the other creatures, somewhere in the varied fabric of the works of God. The human being is a creature, and not the Creator. And a creature is not the judge of its Creator.

The human creature is nowhere near the centre in this picture of the Creation. We find him or her placed discreetly right beside this sort of monstrous hippopotamus called Behemoth: “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you” (40,15). The human being is no better than the animals. Ironically, the hierarchy is even turned upside down: “the first of the great acts of God” is the flattering description, not of the human being, but of Behemoth (40,19), and the “king over all that are proud” is not the human either, but Leviathan (41,26).

No other Bible passage, it seems to me, shows in such a sustained way how disconcerted are human beings face to face with created reality around them, in which they participate. Here we are at the other extreme from the domination which is expressed in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8. Job 38 to 42, out of all the Scriptures, administers a lesson in humility which is clearly applicable today.

Our contemporary concept of scientific progress, for instance, shows undeniable affinity with the message of Job 38- 42. More than ever, science is reflecting on the limits of its grasp; it seeks to understand better what it does not know and cannot know. Our knowledge is in no way a perfect imprint of reality; rather, it is a partial approach, a distorting mirror, an incomplete instruction; in the life sciences it may even be the tragic paradox of a biology that destroys the object to which it is consecrated. Fundamentally, the Creation is still a mystery and is accessible to us only through admiration of its creatures and worship of the Creator.

In a much more concrete way, the ecological crisis confronts us with everything we do not know about the normal life cycles of the planet. The greenhouse effect and climate change are a dramatic surprise, showing that universal equilibria of which we had no precise idea have been upset. The disappearance of 50 to 100 living species a day represents an enormous loss of forms, of life strategies, of links in the chains of ecosystems and a considerable potential for all sorts of uses. So many species are becoming extinct, never having been studied or even known!

What consequences should we draw? No such consequences as in our situation today are contained in Job 38-42, of course, but the ones we can draw are legitimately derived from this Bible passage, because they translate the vision of the Creation and the Creator which is the vision of the text. I shall mention three:

  1. Non-human creatures have an intrinsic value, that is, they are to be preserved and respected quite apart from human interests. This principle has already been largely accepted with regard to animal protection; some jurists are working to formulate wider applications of it to protect species and habitats.
  2. The mystery of Creation and the limits of our knowledge call for caution. No prospecting without respecting what we encounter! And the principle of taking precautions is fundamental in our relations with the environment.
  3. The impressive structures of connection, in the last chapters of the book of Job, between the individual and the universe, between the events of a life at the concrete level on one hand and cosmic space-time on the other, can serve as a model for us: today as long ago, one’s inward faith should open up to the encounter with the immensity and diversity of the living and cosmic world around us.

Otto Schäfer