Sunday, January 7, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 9: Job's Divine Safari (Job 39)

Address 9: Job’s Divine Safari (Job 39)

Among the Wisdom books, the book of Job stands out as one of the greatest single works of all time. The book is justly admired for the majesty of its speeches – Job’s cries to God for justice and his friends’ counsels of despair. It is admired for the profundity of its theme – the theme of unjust and meaningless suffering. This book by itself merits a semester’s worth of exposition. Today I am going to take one theme only: a comparison of Job the king among men and God’s kingdom of the wild animals.

In order to understand the book of Job properly, we must accept at face value that Job was a big man, a patriarch of Abraham’s stature, the greatest man of his day. Some people make the mistake of seeing Job as a secret sinner – as if he went home each day and got drunk behind closed doors. To view Job that way is to accept his friends’ point of view. They keep needling Job to confess some personal fault. But Job keeps protesting over and over: I am blameless.

And he is right. The book states right at the beginning. There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1). Job fulfils all the ideals of the wisdom literature, beginning with the fear of the Lord, and he also fulfills the requirements of the Jewish law without actually having the Law. He was what Jewish people today call a “righteous Gentile.” St. Paul says that such people keep the Law which is written in their hearts (Romans 2:14).

And Job was richly rewarded. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants (verses 2-3a). In the days before cash currency, a man’s “personal net worth” was valued according to the size of his family and the number of his animals. Today no doubt Job would have a fleet of Mercedeses and a pool of personal secretaries.

Job was no crass materialist. He recognized that his wealth came from the hand of God. Indeed he seemed unusually anxious to protect his household by pre-emptive prayers.

His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, "It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts." Thus Job did continually. (verses 4-5)

Job may have been something of what we in the States call a “control freak,” trying to program everything in his life. If so, he failed. Everything that Job prayed not to happen happened! God’s curse apparently fell upon him and his household. From heaven’s point of view, of course, God has not cursed Job but rather has permitted Satan to attack him. We know God values Job, but we do not know what value God sees in a test of this sort. By the end of the book, Job is restored to his health and fortune, but we never learn directly what he learnt from the experience.

I would suggest to you that we can understand something about Job’s suffering – and our own lesser sufferings – by paying attention to God’s speech from the whirlwind (chapters 38-41). God begins these speeches with a direct challenge to Job’s sense of self-sufficiency. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me”(38:2-3).

By the time we get to chapter 39, God has adopted another way of instructing Job. God uses these speeches to show Job the wonders of his creative and redemptive reign. Last week I mentioned how Agur’s little riddles about leeches and lions in Proverbs 30 make us stop, look, and think about the world around us, and to marvel at the mystery of God’s glory. Now God is going to take Job on a divine safari to see the wildest of beasts. Let’s join him.

The first creature is the mountain goat or ibex.

"Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they bring forth,
when they crouch, bring forth 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)

Mountain goats are not like the little fellows tied up along a road here in Uganda. The ibex is a rugged animal that one can glimpse only at early dawn and late dusk perched on a distant mountain crag. The Lord points out to Job the mystery of instinct. These creatures live in the shadows and they reproduce their number, often bearing twins, without anyone counting them. Job had tried to control the affairs of his perfect family; God now introduces him to the sovereign mystery of life: “the Lord gives… and the Lord takes away.”

The next creature is the wild ass or, if you will, the zebra.

"Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the zebra,
to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
and he searches after every green thing. (verses 5-8)

The amazing thing about the zebra is, he looks like a horse, but you can’t tame him, you can’t ride him, you can’t civilize him. You just have to let him run free. In Israel the ass was a royal beast of burden: King David rode on a donkey. But God is the only One who rides a zebra!

The next animal Job sees is the wild ox or what we here in Africa call the cape buffalo.

"Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor? (verses 9-12)

In the Bible oxen are the most useful domestic animals. They work to till the fields and grind the grain, and they are the most prized animal for sacrifice. The wild ox, therefore, is an anomaly. He has the strength of an ox, but he cannot be harnessed for work. He is eligible to be a sacrifice, but he may make a sacrifice of the person who tries to capture him.

At this point God – with a touch of humour – points Job to the silliest of birds, the ostrich, and says:

"The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear;
because God has made her forget wisdom,
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider. (verses 13-18)

The ostrich (which, I am told, lives in Karamoja) has only one redeeming virtue: she can run like the wind. But what good does her speed do when in all other respects, she is a fool? She flaps her wings but cannot fly. She neglects her young, leaving them vulnerable on the ground. And she has a pea-sized brain. Could it be that Job is learning to appreciate the person with one talent only – or maybe even only a tenth of a talent?

Finally, God shows Job the eagle.

"Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells
and makes his home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey;
his eyes behold it afar off.
His young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there is he." (verses 26-30)

The eagle, like Job himself, is a noble and towering figure, carried effortlessly upward by the drafts of air. But the eagle is also a creature of blood, tearing its prey into a bloody sacrifice for its own young. This image may remind us of how Job used to make sacrifices for his children. Job, God is saying, “you, by your obsessive religiosity, have been doing nothing more than the animals do by instinct when they provide for their young.

How is God a better comforter than Job’s friends? What can ibexes and zebras and cape buffaloes and ostriches and eagles have to do with Job’s complaints that he has been abandoned by God? When we compare Job’s first condition with his last, it seems to me, we find him a changed man. In the first chapter we meet a man in his prime, in his pride, and in full control of his life. By the end of the book, Job is bewildered, belittled, and utterly dependent on God’s word. What God shows him expands his mind’s horizons and enlarges his soul’s compassion for God’s world.

The inner spring of suffering is mental, not physical. By taking Job on safari, God is diverting Job from his own troubles and suggesting to him that his human categories of blamelessness are too small. Some great mystery of creation and redemption has yet to unfold. St. Paul, who also called himself a blameless man, was confronted by this same mystery:

But whatever gain I had [he confesses], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith… (Phil 3:7-9)

God shared with Job, in suffering, the loss of all things, the mystery of the Cross – the Righteous One dying for the Unrighteous – and the mystery of faith – that we know God not by blameless behavior but by trusting the sovereignty of God, who loves us and gave His Son up for us.

Amen


Address 9: Job’s Divine Safari (Job 39)

The Mountain Goat

"Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they bring forth,
when they crouch, bring forth 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)

The Zebra

"Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the zebra,
to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
and he searches after every green thing. (verses 5-8)

The Cape Buffalo

"Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor? (verses 9-12)

The Ostrich

"The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear;
because God has made her forget wisdom,
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider. (verses 13-18)

The Eagle

"Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells
and makes his home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey;
his eyes behold it afar off.
His young ones suck up blood;

and where the slain are, there is he." (verses 26-30)

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