Job – humbled and healed by nature

Job may seem a strange character to launch a new series of biblical eco-heroes. After all, his story is famously depressing: a tale of undeserved suffering, humiliation and the apparent absence of God. Yet the book of Job also contains the longest passage about non-human creation in the Bible. In chapters 38-41, Job is taken into the wilderness and introduced to a bewildering range of species and natural phenomena. God takes Job out of his self-absorption and immerses him in a world of storm clouds and starlight, mountain goats and monstrous Leviathans.

Ostrich by Ana_CottaSomehow, in the wilderness, Job’s questions are silenced. He regains perspective on who he really is, and who God is. He is humbled and healed by his encounter with wild nature. And that’s what makes Job so important for us today. Job’s wilderness experience challenges all ideologies, Christian or secular, which revolve exclusively around human interests. He provides a counterbalance to over-optimistic ideas of stewardship and of science-based conservation.

In Job 38:25-27, God asks:

‘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,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?’

God’s questioning points out the absurdity, the heresy, of human-centred views of creation. God did not make this world just for us. God cares for other creatures and other places too. As John Muir once observed, the idea that the world revolves around humanity ‘is a presumption not supported by all the facts.’[1]

God is relentless in humbling Job. Again and again his lack of knowledge, understanding and power regarding nature’s complexities are exposed. Can he control the climate or the oceans? No, he can’t even control wild goats and donkeys! In 38:39 – 39:30, God lists ten species of middle-eastern wildlife: lion and raven (38:39-41), mountain goat and deer (39: 1-4), wild ass (Onager; 39:5-8), wild ox (Auroch; 39:9-12), Ostrich (39:13-18), warhorse (39:19-25), hawk (39:26) and eagle or vulture (39:27-30).

Each is beyond human control and understanding, yet also unique, valued, and cared for by God. Bill McKibben writes, ‘Not only are all these things mighty and inexplicable and painful, but they are unbearably beautiful to God. They are right. They should brew in us a fierce and intoxicating joy.’[2] Whilst good science is vital for nature conservation, we should not be afraid of also evoking the beauty and mystery of nature.

Animals are inherently valuable regardless of their significance for humanity. The conservation movement is on dangerous ground in using self-interest in arguing for nature preservation. Ideas of ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’, however well-intentioned, betray assumptions that wildlife only matters in relation to people. Job 38-41 proclaims the intrinsic value of wild creatures, even those potentially threatening to human interests.

Finally, the message of Job questions the ability of humans to exert dominion over the most wild and mysterious animals, or to be stewards of the whole of nature. Both dominion and stewardship, Job reminds us, ultimately belong to God. This is not to deny our human role in wildlife conservation. Rather, our starting place in that work and the values we bring to it are re-imagined. Stewardship needs to commence with humility, in contrast to our habitual hubris. As Richard Mabey has said, ‘Perhaps it behoves us … to see ourselves not so much as managers or even stewards of the natural world, but as fellow-creatures.’[3] Job’s reaction to the astonishing overview of creation that he is given is to feel very small and to repent of questioning God.[4] Knowing our place in God’s world means knowing how small we are, how incomplete our knowledge, and just how wild, weird and wonderful are our fellow creatures. Job’s contribution to our parade of biblical eco-heroes is the chastened conservationist, humbled and healed by nature.

[1] Muir, John, John Muir in His Own Words: A Book of Quotations  (Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 1988). p.4
[2] McKibben, Bill, The Comforting Whirlwind  (Grand Rapids, MI: W B Eerdmans, 1994). p.43
[3] Mabey, Richard, The Common Ground  (London: J. M. Dent, 1993 (2nd ed.)). p.ix
[4] Job 42:1-6

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About Dave Bookless

Dave has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation. Dave’s passion is communicating biblical teaching to today’s cultures, and he has spoken in many countries to conferences, colleges and churches. He has contributed to many books and has authored two: Planetwise – Dare to Care for God’s World (IVP, 2008) and God Doesn’t do Waste (IVP, 2010), selected by Third Way magazine as one of its books of the year for 2010. Dave was born and grew up in India, and has a love for Indian food, Indian culture and Indian Christianity. He, his wife Anne, and their four daughters live in multi-cultural Southall, London, where Dave (an ordained Anglican minister) shares in the leadership of a multi-racial church and where as a family they try to live as sustainably as possible. Dave is also a qualified bird-ringer and loves birding, islands and mountains.

3 thoughts on “Job – humbled and healed by nature

  1. This passage from Job is one of my favourites. I often use Chapter 38 verses 4-6 in my science classes: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. … On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—”. With all our 21st century understanding there are still fundamental laws that can never be explained but simply are. I like to think of these as the “foundations”, “footings” and “cornerstones” of which God speaks. God is vastly greater than our human understanding and that is good and beautiful.

  2. I’ve just been looking at some video of red prawns and giant cusk eels from one of the deepest ocean trenches and can feel that awe and wonder… in a way nothing has changed in the few millennia since Job was written

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