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Politics of Scripture

God’s Wisdom Through the Whirlwind—Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Human rulers like Job might imitate the rule of God, but God’s power goes beyond what they are capable of enacting.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 
2 ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 
4 ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding. 
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it? 
6 On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone 
7 when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

34 ‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
   so that a flood of waters may cover you? 
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
   and say to you, “Here we are”? 
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
   or given understanding to the mind? 
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
   Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 
38 when the dust runs into a mass
   and the clods cling together? 
39 ‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
   or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 
40 when they crouch in their dens,
   or lie in wait in their covert? 
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
   when its young ones cry to God,
   and wander about for lack of food? 

The images in this week’s selection from Job 38 reveal God not only as wise, or knowledgeable, or powerful, but specifically as one who governs with authority. The images fall into three general categories: architectural, meteorological, and providential (in the literal sense of how God provides material support to God’s creatures).

Nearly every line is phrased as a question: “can you” (that is, Job) “do X?” or “Do you know X”? The tone and nature of the questions, however, imply that the answer is always “I” (that is, the Lord) “can do X” or “I do know X.”

In the architectural images, we find that not only did God “lay the foundations of the earth,” but God “determined its measurements.” God speaks of stretching a line, sinking the cornerstone of creation. These activities depict the active wisdom of God in creating the world.

The description of the architecture of creation concludes, stunningly, with an abrupt turn of our gaze from the depths and foundations of earth to the heights of heaven: “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.”

The next verses in today’s reading describe God’s sovereignty over the weather. The Lord asks if Job can call down a flood from the clouds, or command the lightning to go forth and report back; two verses later God asks if Job can “tilt the waterskins of the heavens.” These are images of God’s command over subordinate created things.

This section of images concludes once again with a reference to time that also pans the mental camera 180 degrees “when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together.” From the heavens back down to the ground, we have come full circle.

The next images describe the way that the beasts who walk between heaven and earth are cared for by God’s provision. Lions and ravens require prey; their young will starve unless God provides. These are creatures which are easily seen as self-sufficient; they are not passive lilies and grasses, but active hunters. Still, even their survival clearly depends on God.

God is one who plans and acts for God’s self in the architectural images. God issues commands, hears reports, and sends forth subordinate actors in the meteorological images. God cares for the very young and vulnerable in the providential images. This all takes place in the whole of creation, from the deepest foundations of earth up into the heavens, back down again from the clouds to the ground, extending even to the animals who walk on the surface of the earth.

Job, too, was a man who governed with authority. We are told in the very beginning of the book that he was “the greatest of all the men of the east” (Job 1:3). We know that he provided for the spiritual well-being of his children by offering sacrifices “continually” (Job 1:5). He had thousands of animals in his flocks (Job 1:3).

In his responses to his friends, Job shows frequently that he is aware of the power of God. For example, in chapter 9 he speaks of God’s architectural power: “It is God who shakes the earth out of its place / and its pillars tremble” (Job 9:6). He knows God’s meteorological power as well: “Who commands the sun not to shine” (Job 9:7) and later in chapter 12: “God restrains the waters, and they dry up; and God sends them out and they inundate the earth” (Job 12:15).  Job has attended to the beasts and the birds and knows that “In [the Lord’s] hand is the life of every living thing” (Job 12:10). 

God’s speech to Job is then, in one sense, a confirmation of what Job already knew. God says to Job “you spoke correctly: I am the one with all the power you described.” However, as Robert Alter has pointed out in The Art of Biblical Poetry, the speech from the whirlwind is radically elevated poetry compared to what has been presented in the previous thirty-seven chapters. One of Alter’s conclusions from this change in the poetry is that “God’s poetry enables Job to glimpse beyond his human plight an immense world of power and beauty and awesome warring forces” (Alter, 110).

Job might be able to order servants and hear reports from them, but he could never order the lightning. He might be able to provide sacrifices for his sons and daughters, but he cannot keep them from dying when the house collapses.

The speech from the whirlwind is the speech of one ruler addressing another ruler; it is an example of God’s self-revelation being made in a way that is intelligible to the listener. At the same time, the expanded scope and grandeur of the poem reminds the listener not to minimize or forget the creator/creature distinction. It is an affirmation of the analogy between kingly rule and divine rule, and at the same time a warning not to trust the analogy too completely. 

The strongest caution comes in a verse not yet addressed here, verse 36: “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” The clear import is that neither Job nor any earthly ruler is able to make men truly wise; only God can place wisdom deep inside the heart of a person.

This is a corrective to a strong tendency in the ancient world: a belief that a sufficiently good ruler or regime could create an educational scheme that would make men wise. Whether or not this was actually what Plato and Aristotle thought themselves, it is a subject they both raise when they discuss the place of wisdom in politics.

Earthly rulers may imitate the rule of God in many ways, but God’s power extends ineffably beyond what they are capable of enacting. They should beware of grasping for too much authority, or imagining themselves to be too similar to God in the nature and scope of their rule.

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