Learning About the Cosmos From Job

 how-to-read-job-2The book of Job, as John Walton and Tremper Longman II point out in their recent book How to Read Job, “contains more extensive discussion of the cosmos and God’s role in it than any other book in the Bible with the possible exception of Psalms.” (p. 120) Today we will look specifically at the discussion of the cosmos in the book of Job.

The view of the cosmos presented in Job represents an ancient cosmic geography familiar to the original audience of the book.

From the ancient reader’s perspective the discussions of cosmic geography and the operations of the cosmos do not differ from the opinions affirmed in the rest of the Bible. Furthermore, what we find in Job is basically in line with the thinking of the time throughout the ancient Near East, except with regard to the identity of the controlling deity. (p. 120)

The major distinction between the book of Job and the thinking of the general ancient Near Eastern culture is the role of God’s justice and wisdom in the operations of the cosmos. There is no modern science hidden within the text – although metaphors are used at times “we cannot maintain that those metaphors conceal a view of the cosmos that was actually much like ours.” (p. 121) Walton and Longman go on to make an important point:

We all recognize that scientific understanding changes constantly. If God’s revelation were embedded in a particular scientific view, there would be no room for further investigation. Statements about the operation of the world cannot easily be so general as to fit the current knowledge and understanding of any generation. … After all, science is not simply a compilation of fact; it expresses society’s consensual understanding of how the world works. (p. 121)

I had not thought about the issue in quite this way before, but it is worth considering. I would put a few things a little differently. For example, scientific understanding grows constantly, building on what came before, rather than “changes.” Using the word “changes” often conveys the wrong meaning, as though the changes were random and could go in any direction. Scientific understanding changes, but these changes are not arbitrary or disconnected. Our collective understanding of what we call the natural world is moving in a well-defined direction, with occasional meanders. However, Walton and Longman make a great point. God created a world with a purpose and humans with a mission to be the image of God and to rule and subdue the earth. There is an expectation of growth and change. A once-and-for-all scientific revelation would circumvent an important part of the growth process – and was not necessary for God to reveal himself and his mission to his people.

Walton and Longman go on to suggest that an approach to Scripture that sees modern science in the ancient text “can undermine biblical authority because it vests the imagination of the modern reader with the right to provide new meanings.” (p. 122)

When we embrace biblical authority or even inerrancy, however, we are adopting a view that pertains to those things that the Bible affirms or, to put it another way, to those things the Bible intends to teach. That is, we are attaching authority to that which is the focus of revelation. For the sake of clear communication, God uses incidentals that are believed by his target audience in order to reveal the truths that he wants to convey. Scriptural authority resides in God’s revelatory message, not in the incidentals he uses to convey that message. Inerrancy describes the nature of revelation and our confidence that it is true. God is who he says he is. He has done what he says he has done. His motives and purposes are what the Bible proclaims them to be. (p. 123)

lucas_cranach_God_as_Creator_Luthers_BibleThere are numerous examples of ancient cosmic geography in Job, pillars of the heavens (26:11) and of earth (9:6), storehouses of snow and hail (38:22), the chamber of the tempest (37:9) and so forth. No such reference impacts the message of the book. The purpose of the book of Job is not to describe how the cosmos works, but how God works in the cosmos. Is God just? Does the ordering of the cosmos reflect God’s justice? Does his justice shape its operation?

The description of the cosmos in Job, especially God’s speech in chapters 38-39, does teach us a good deal about the world God has created and the world in which we live. There is order, non-order and disorder in creation. “In his wisdom God has decided to bring order gradually. He can impose his will at any time and in any way, but he has set up a realm where non-order remains and disorder is allowed to intrude.” (p. 127) Some of what we consider “natural evil” would be better described as non-order. There is a paragraph here worth considering in more detail:

Many of the phenomena that we term “natural disasters” on the cosmic level (e.g. hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, droughts and famines, plagues and epidemics), all the way down to the devastating experiences at the biological level (e.g. mutations), can be identified as aspects of non-order in the world. They can have a severely negative impact, and God could potentially use them as punishment, but they are not intrinsically evil in any moral sense. They are not impervious to God’s control, but neither can they be considered instruments wielded in judgment. They are not independent of him, but we should not picture him with a remote-control device. These forces are subject to his bidding just as humans are, though we are not robots. (p. 127)

What this means is that the operations of this world are not always just. “God can use disasters or disease as acts of judgment, but we would never know whether he is doing so unless we had a prophetic voice to that effect. Those who lose their lives in a hurricane are no more wicked than those who are spared, but through these events we should all be warned (Lk 13:1-5).” (p. 128) Rather than focusing on justice we should see grace and wisdom in the operation of the world. “When we affirm his wisdom we assert that none of us could do a better job of running the world. Job though he could, and God called his bluff (Job 40:10-14). (p. 128)

As we do not wonder why a person breaks a leg from a fall under the influence of gravity, so we should not wonder why cancer or diabetes affects this person but not that person. “God’s wisdom is founded in the world that he chose to create, not in each expression of gravity or cell division.” (p. 130) Walton and Longman conclude the chapter:

Why did God devise the system the way that he did? This is not a question that we can answer, but we can say that he did not do it for the sake of justice. Justice is not the linchpin of the cosmos. The forces that God built into the world are not discerning, volitional or moral, and God does not micromanage. There is more to the world than justice, and we should be glad of it, because if justice were at the core of everything, we would not exist. In his wisdom God ordered the cosmos to work the way it does. He is able to interfere or even micromanage, but that is not typical. In its fallen state the world can only operate by his wisdom, not by his justice. (p. 130)

While it is clear that humanity is fallen and that this has an impact on the world introducing disorder, I don’t find it useful to put too much emphasis on the fallen state here. God created a world where, in his wisdom, there was non-order and perhaps even disorder before there was any human rebellion. The snake in the garden represents non-order at best, disorder if this is Satan. The Bible does not portray an image of perfection prior to human sin. The message of Job is that we must trust in God’s wisdom.

What does the book of Job teach us about the ordering of the cosmos?

Is the distinction between God’s wisdom and God’s justice useful in understanding the cosmos? What is the role of grace?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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