The Poetry of Creation (Job 38-41)
One of the wonderful things about the Bible is its great variety. From fascinating accounts of ancient history to terrifying visions of apocalypse, from royal love letters to beautiful poetry and from songs of worship to eye-witness accounts of the greatest events in history, the Bible blends together the best of every genre and binds it all together in masterful storytelling. It’s our privilege to explore the richness of this variety, but with that privilege comes responsibility. A responsibility to correctly interpret each passage so that we do not misunderstand its intent.
Most basically of all, we must understand what genre of writing we’re reading. Not all parts of the Bible are the same; the style shifts and the rules change. The author’s purpose is very different when he’s writing a letter to real people to when he’s singing the praises of God in a psalm. Likewise, the same words can mean something very different depending on whether you find them in a chronicle or in a poem. Some things are meant to be taken literally, others are not; some things apply only to specific persons and situations, others are universally applicable.
The end of the book of Job is a case in point. Here we have four straight chapters of poetry, the medium through which God chooses to reply to Job after a whole book set in the form of dialogue between friends. In the dialogue sections we make allowance for the force of Job’s emotions in an excessively stressful episode and we note that his friends may be mistaken. It’s only if you think that every single word in the Bible is equally and universally true that you get into the awkward situation of resolving endless contradictions. Job is not a scientific textbook, so it shouldn’t be treated like one.
For instance, in the poetry section at the end we find some very fanciful language and bizarre imagery. For instance, the earth doesn’t have a foundation like buildings (38:4), the stars don’t sing (38:7, although this video of Louie Giglio analysing the noise of deep-space quasars might make us think twice), hippos (assuming the mysterious ‘Behemoth’ is a hippo – or perhaps a rhino?) don’t have bones of bronze (40:18) and crocodiles (again assuming that this is what ‘Leviathan’ is) don’t breathe fire like dragons (41:19) – although it would be very cool if they did. A literal reading of this would be ludicrous. Insisting it to be literally true, as Christian dogma did for centuries, discredits the rest of the Bible and causes conflict with what science tells us.
These verses are not meant to trip us up; we should allow them to lead us into the presence of God. Some people prefer literal language and others love the figurative flair – there’s something in the Bible for everyone. Still, we’d miss out if we skipped these chapters as too flamboyant or seemingly error-strewn. In my opinion, poetic verse can convey truth much more beautifully and memorably than ordinary prose. It somehow leaves a more lasting impression, easier to remember. The melancholy poetry of Siegfried Sassoon takes us closer to the horrors of the First World War than historical accounts and the Iliad or the Aeneid bring alive for us the sights, sounds and smells of the ancient world in a way scholarly books never could.
In this poetry at the end of Job we see God’s creative power at work, described in words of His own choosing. We’re given a tour-de-force of the natural world, seeing it through God’s eyes, and it’s breath-taking. Whether we’re hunting with lions (38:39), watching mountain goats give birth (39:1) or rearing chicks with storks (39:14-15), charging into battle with horses (39:19-25) or flying with hawks and eagles (39:26-30), it’s like we’re really there. It’s an intimate portrait of nature, as known to the people of the time, i.e. based firmly on the knowledge and experience of people in the ancient Middle East.
God is in control of it all and has mastery over everything. The seas might not be shut ‘behind doors’ but God still rules the waves (38:8-11). Unlike us, He has no fear and no limits on His knowledge. He can see further than the eagle, outrun wild horses and tame great beasts. Unlike us, the Lord has no fear of anything and complete mastery over all creation.
God is everywhere in His creation. He walks in the deeps (38:16) and is equally familiar with light and dark (38:19). He directs the weather and orchestrates the seasons (38:22-30), showing us that He is not just Sovereign over but also actively involved in His creation. The God that this poetry portrays is all-powerful, omnipresent and busy. Definitely not the absentee deity that some imagine, the divine spark that wound the clock up and then left the world to run its own course. He is a voice of authority, the dispenser of justice and the punisher of the wicked (40:8-13). He is the owner of everything, reminding us that we are simply stewards (41:11).
His power extends beyond Earth and throughout the universe – I love the imagery of Him ‘binding the chains of the Pleiades’, ‘loosening Orion’s belt’ and ‘leading out the Bear with its Cubs’ (38:31-32). This is poetry on a grand cosmic scale. It’s so marvellous that no wonder the angels shouted for joy (38:7). This is awesome stuff, the work of an awesome God.
We shouldn’t look for scientific clues here or clinical accuracy, we should just appreciate and admire the poetry. Just because it is not literal does not mean that it doesn’t have anything to teach us. You just don’t take each word at face value. Approaching Biblical texts in the right mindset, with a correct understanding of their style and purpose, is crucial to understanding what they say. If we think of this as a scientific treatise we will of course be able to pick it apart and find fault, but that misses the point completely. This isn’t a science textbook, any more than the beginning of Genesis is. It’s an epic vision of who God is and His relationship with the world.