One of the most significant causes of conflict – whether between individuals or among nations – is the conviction that reality revolves around ourselves: our perceptions, our needs and our desires.
Ancient biblical narratives both reflect and oppose this orientation. For instance, the serpent says to the woman in the garden, “God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5). It’s all about us; we are meant to be masters of our own domains.
We read the sacred Scriptures through self-colored lenses. And to some extent this is justified.
For, humanly speaking, we are the authors of Scripture, and the manifold narratives, doctrines and exhortations of Scripture reflect our interests and concerns.
We recognize an arc of divine/human relationship across all of Scripture – from Genesis 1, where God creates humans in God’s own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), to John 1, where God becomes [human] flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14), to Revelation 21 where God wipes away our tears and banishes death from the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:4).
But what if there are clues scattered throughout Scripture meant to lift us out of our obsessive self-concern and give us a vastly grander view of God’s will and God’s concerns?
As a test case, I refer the reader to a biblical book that could almost serve as a poster child of our self-concern: The Book of Job in which a good and wise man suffers horrendous misfortune as part of a standoff between God and Satan of all things!
At first, Job maintains his faith (Job 2:21), but then, increasingly, under the accusations of his friends who maintain that his suffering must be the result of some hidden sin because God is just, Job lifts up his voice about the unfairness of it all and cries out to God for vindication (Job 19:23-24).
As Job calls out for an explanation of his suffering and for vindication (Job 19:25), the Job poet seemingly sets the stage for what the Western theological tradition calls a theodicy, a justification of God’s ways to humanity.
But when Yahweh answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” what ensues is not an explanation of human suffering or an apologia for God’s actions, but a breathtaking series of cosmological questions (Job 38:4-5).
God’s questions take us through the genesis of earth and the sea (Job 38:4-11); the mechanics of the dawn (Job 38:12-15); the home places of light and darkness, including Sheol, the ultimate darkness (Job 38:16-21); the mysteries of meteorology and astronomy (Job 38:22-39); and, finally, a series of joyous portraits of the wild beasts – crouching lions and remote mountain goats, haughty wild asses and oxen, ostriches and horses that run free and eagles that soar – perhaps the most vivid beastiary in all of Holy Scripture (Job 38:39-39:30).
If our expectations have been framed by the heartrending cry of Job, stricken with grief and sitting on the ash heap scraping his boils (Job 2:20-22, 3:8), then the exuberance of these images in God’s putative answer seems wildly incongruous.
Many contemporary Christians are heirs of a great tradition stretching from Stoic humanism through Enlightenment individualism to the “me” generations of 21st-century America.
We expect the Job story to be all about us, and when we suffer, God owes us an explanation. But what does the Lord actually say?
“Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, in the desert which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?” (Job 38:25-27)
The startling insight, there all along but brought to vivid relief when we uncouple the Scriptures from our own pressing interests, is that God cherishes and rejoices in creation quite apart from any human interest therein.
Our relationships with the nonhuman components of creation, and with many other peoples, cultures and religious groups in the human family as well, skew toward the instrumental.
When we value someone or something only for its value to us, conflict is never farther away than feelings of wounded self-interest.
We will best play our appointed role in God’s creation, according to the specifically human gifts and perspectives we have, if we acknowledge that the creation doesn’t revolve uniquely around us.
Whether we experience and participate in God’s creation in great blessedness and shalom, or in sore brokenness and distress – and Job knew both – and whether we live in this age or the age to come, which the Job poet only dimly anticipated (Job 19:25-27), to live is to know and be known by God, to dwell in God.
What fools we are to make a relationship with God instrumental to some other value, be that what it may: wealth, fame, long life, good fortune. These goods are in limited supply, and thus grist for conflict.
It would seem that the humble beasts are aware of this truth in their own way, and it is clear in Scripture they will share in that denouement called the Kingdom (Romans 8:19-21).
The creation and its denizens are bound to us and us to them and all of us, together, to God. And God loves us all.
Editor’s note: A previous, more extensive version of this essay first appeared as Wheeler, David. “Job 38: 1-40:2 – Rain on a Land Where No One Lives, Oxen Who Won’t Plow Your Field.” Review & Expositor 96, no. 3 (August 1999): 441–50.
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”