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.
Somehow, 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.’
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.’ 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.’ Job’s reaction to the astonishing overview of creation that he is given is to feel very small and to repent of questioning God. 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.