God to Job: Humans Are So Overrated

9780674025974_p0_v1_s260x420When it comes to humanity’s place in creation, we have our scripture down pat: Genesis 1:27-28.

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”

“Master” the earth, “take charge” of its animals. Or, in the famous words of more traditional translations: We have “dominion” over this world. Throw in Psalm 8 for good measure:

You’ve made [humanity] only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.

Cut and dried, right?

Not so fast.

Genesis 1 is after all but one creation story in an Old Testament that has many of them. There’s Genesis 2:4b-3:24, there’s Psalm 74, Psalm 104, Proverbs 8, Job 38-41, Isaiah 51. Pieces of various cosmologies and creation myths litter the testimony of the Old Testament. Sometimes they agree with each other; sometimes they don’t. And Job 38-41 gives a decidedly different picture of humanity’s place in the world than does Genesis 1.

Kathryn Schifferdecker’s book Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job is a great place to go to unpack these bizarre, even unsettling speeches of God from the whirlwind after Job and his friends have had their say about the nature of the world and humanity’s place in it.

Schifferdecker argues the question the book of Job seems to be asking is: “What is humanity?” Job serves as a type for humankind. He is described as a priest, king and judge for the rest of creation, and the discourses between him and his friends lay out dueling views on why suffering and tragedy exist generally, not just in the life of one man.

So for 37 chapters, several characters in this story get to have their say about the nature and purpose of a person’s interaction with the world: primarily the accuser, Job and his three friends.

In Job 1, the accuser argues God has “fenced in” Job/humanity, protecting the righteous from harm. In Job 3, Job agrees he is fenced in, but rather than seeing it as protection, he sees it as prison; he cannot escape from God’s chaotic order, in which an essentially random and lawless world deals suffering to the righteous and blessing to the wicked. The contrasting, human-centric views of creation are both repudiated by God, when in chapter 38, he too uses the “fenced in” language, but instead says he has fenced in the sea, that primordial force of chaos that otherwise would overwhelm and drown his creation.

It’s the first indication that in God’s speeches, he might not be affording humanity the central place we have assumed for ourselves.

In chapters 3 and 9, Schifferdecker argues, Job/humanity has attempted to unmake creation, first by cursing it, then by ascribing to the creator the very qualities of chaos God is traditionally described as defeating and limiting. God’s response, therefore, is to re-create his world, first by reestablishing the framework (38:4-24), then restarting the meteorological forces (38:25-38) and finally repopulating it (38:39-41:34).

Schifferdecker in her book points out the many ways in which God rejects the notion of an anthropocentric world as he reorders his creation:

  • God is midwife to the sea (38:8), father to the rain and dew (38:28), and mother to the ice and frost (38:29) – but nowhere is the parental relationship to humanity affirmed.
  • Humanity in fact is barely mentioned at all, and every reference is derogatory. We are mocked by the animals we cannot control – the wild donkey (39:7) and the ostrich (39:18) – and even the ones we think we control, such as the warhorses, are in fact eager to turn that use against us (39:24-25). Finally, the carcasses of our children provide food for the birds of prey (39:30).
  • Whereas Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 see humanity as the pinnacle of creation, Job 40 says Behemoth is the “first of God’s acts,” and this remaking of creation climaxes with Leviathan in chapter 41.

This is no anthropocentric creation; it is a theocentric creation, as God affirms only he can control these animals or master the elements. In chapter 30, Job betrays his assumption that there are places of the earth so barren they are fit only for the outcasts of society. In 38:27, God rejects this, affirming that he provides even for the “dry wasteland.” As Schifferdecker argues, God is making sure Job, and therefore humanity, knows there is no such thing as a “God-forsaken” place in his creation.

Job is not the only place we see this theme. In Hosea 2, Israel is described as having failed to recognize the blessings Yahweh has provided through creation (v.8), so he removes them (vv.9-12). But as Yahweh unexpectedly allures Israel back to him, he makes a covenant. But not with Israel. Not with people. With the animals!

On that day, I will make a covenant for them with the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the creeping creatures of the fertile ground. I will do away with the bow, the sword, and war from the land; I will make you lie down in safety.

Hans Walter Wolff in his commentary on Hosea for the Hermeneia series points out this isn’t the only time peace among people is connected with peace between people and animals. Ezekiel 34:28 and Leviticus 26:6 also connect these seemingly disparate ideas.

What should we make of these passages, in which humanity’s very fate seems to depend not on our own agency but on our ability to get along with the rest of creation. Well, the point should be pretty obvious. As Schifferdecker argues:

The vision of creation in the divine speeches can fruitfully be used as a corrective to a consumerist view of the natural world. This worldview is fed by a nearly constant barrage of advertising urging the average American to acquire more and more “stuff” without regard for how much of the earth’s resources he or she is consuming. Such a consumerist culture encourages one to be focused on oneself or (at best) on one’s family and friends, to the exclusion not only of the billions of people who live in “developing” countries but also of the nonhuman world, which suffers from human greed.

A market-driven economy fueled by consumerism views the natural world primarily in terms of how it can be exploited by human beings. One has only to consider the proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to see that worldview in action. To that consumerist culture, the divine speeches offer a radical vision. The speeches proclaim humanity is not the center of the universe, that there exist creatures and places that have intrinsic value quite apart from anything to do with human beings. (129)

As Schifferdecker notes, seeing this alternate view of humanity’s place in creation can help lead us to “a place of humility.” Simply put, we are not all that – at least, no more so than any other piece of God’s good creation. “Creation is not made for the sake of humanity; it comes into being at the pleasure of the creator” (130). The God who calls us to treat each other with selflessness, justice and compassion is, not surprisingly, interested that we do the same with the rest of his creation.

Perhaps it’s time to set aside for now the vision of Genesis 1; it has been used too often and too destructively over the millennia since it was written. Instead, maybe we should pick up the vision of Job 38-41 with its call to recenter ourselves around the creator and partner with the rest of creation to achieve his vision of restoration.

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