We have a pear tree in our back yard. Phil planted it some years ago…. and this was the year it really matured enough to bear a full harvest of fruit. The tree was covered with these lovely little greeny-gold pears, some with just a bit of a red blush. Phil harvested them and brought them inside to ripen, and we’ve been eating them happily for many weeks now.
That’s our view of the pear tree situation. There are other perspectives.
Our dog, for example, also thinks of it as our pear tree, in our yard, with the our definitely including him. He likes to eat the fallen pears, and will sometimes bring them inside and leisurely eat one on the living room floor.
The local raccoons, on the other hand, question the whole concept of private property. Your yard? Your tree? Says who? Our pear tree is a destination, a point on their map of the neighborhood that’s worth a nightly visit. They seem to appreciate the pears just as much as the Hassetts, human and canine, do.
If you predict that the canine and raccoon perspectives, the territorial predator versus the anarchic foragers, may have come into conflict, you’d be correct… though fortunately everyone has emerged from those encounters unscathed.
Perspective. It’s an interesting word.
Per-spect means see through. The word evokes an imaginary lens, through which you view the world. Photographers and other artists use the word literally; but it’s also used figuratively, all the time. We talk about getting perspective on a problem – meaning, to see it in context and in proportion. We talk about getting a new perspective on something – coming to understand it in a fresh way, maybe a broader way.
Perspective is an interesting concept to bring to the Book of Job.
The Book of Job spends two chapters dropping Job into the depths of human misery, and 35 chapters of Job demanding that God heed his suffering and give him some explanation, while his so-called friends tell him he must have had it coming somehow.
Now, in chapter 38, God answers. And God’s answer… is complicated.
God’s words emphasize the gulf between Job – a human being with the usual human limitations – and God, all-seeing, all-knowing, and eternal. Again and again, God asks Job questions which can only be answered, “Of course not!” – Is the wild ox willing to work for you?Did you give the horse its might, or clothe its neck with mane? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars? Can you catch a sea-monster with a fish-hook?
It’s hard not to read it as mocking. God is putting Job in his place. Telling him that there’s a whole lot that he should not expect to understand. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman describes this as a massive failure of pastoral sensitivity on God’s part: “After Job relates in great detail his anguish and pain and bewilderment, [God] responds, ‘Let me tell you about my crocodile.’ Any pastoral supervisor evaluating this act of ministry would say to [God], ‘You couldn’t stand the pain and you changed the subject.’”
Fair. And yet: I love these chapters. Many people do.
For one thing, it’s just wonderful poetry about the beauty and power and strangeness of the natural world. The passage about the ostrich is a great example:
“The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage.
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labour should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.
Yet when it spreads its plumes aloft,
it laughs at the horse and its rider.” (Job 39:13-18)
The text holds up the absurdity, the idiocy of the ostrich – and its breathtaking speed.
Leviathan is another favorite – God spends a whole chapter talking about this wonderful sea-monster!
“Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on a leash for your little daughters?…
I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,
or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame…
Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth.
In its neck abides strength,
and terror dances before it.” (Job 41:2, 5, 12, 20-22)
These texts are great fun to read. But it’s more than that. There is – somehow – a strange comfort here. Perhaps – a new perspective.
Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes that it’s easy to see God’s answer to Job as no answer at all: “God… mows Job down with a stream of non sequiturs that have nothing to do with what is really at stake. If Job finally stops talking altogether, … [it’s only] because there is no point in arguing with a bully.”
But, she says, that reading misses the sense in which God is answering Job’s complaint. God offers Job “a God’s-eye view of the world” – starting with the mysteries of seas, stars, and seasons, then moving on to God’s delight in wild creatures.
All the animals God praises in these chapters have something in common: they completely untamable. From a human point of view, they are useless at best, and terrifying at worst. If there had been raccoons in the ancient Near East, maybe God would have held forth about their dexterity and resourcefulness. The one exception – the war horse – proves the rule; it serves human purposes, yes, but the text stresses its fierce power: “It laughs at fear and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.”
Davis writes, “This God’s-eye view of the world plays havoc with Job’s notion of the way things ought to be – which is to say, sensible, well-adapted to human purposes, and above all, predictable.”
Remember how when Job’s children would get together for a party, Job would go make sacrifices just in case they had sinned? There’s so much about control – about the human illusion of control – in that single detail. Job was invested in a model of the world in which if you checked all the boxes, everything would be OK. Like the sons of Zebedee in today’s Gospel, Job’s relationship with God was founded on what God could do for him.
And in these mocking, glorious chapters, God tells Job: That’s not how any of this works. Davis writes, “God’s involvement with the world expresses itself in huge, unapologetic delight in a creation whose outstanding quality is quite simply magnificence: power and freedom on a scale that is bewildering and terrifying.” She quotes spiritual writer Annie Dillard: “Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap; and the creator loves pizzazz.”
God’s answer to Job is that the world – that life – is bigger and stranger, riskier and more beautiful than he has ever imagined. Davis says, “God calls this man of integrity to take his place in a ravishing but dangerous world where only those who relinquish their personal expectations can live in peace.”
God asks Job – perhaps asks every human: Can you love what you do not control? Can you love what you can’t own? What you can’t protect?
The world is not sensible, not well-adapted to human purposes, and certainly not predictable; can you learn to tolerate that truth? Could you learn to love it?
I don’t think all this is answer Job was looking for. But it satisfies him. Perhaps it even changes him – heals him. Davis argues that the end of Job’s story – which we’ll hear next week – hints that Job learns to live and love more like God.
And I think part of the lasting power of the Book of Job is that people continue to discover that same strange comfort. Holding pain, or loss, or anxiety, many of us find some peace in sitting near big water, or walking in the woods, or seeing a storm roll across the sky. In watching squirrels squabble, or gazing at the stars. Even the affection or demands of a familiar pet can take us out of ourselves just a little – into a perspective in which what’s really important is dinner and a warm lap.
Why does it comfort us, sometimes, to remember that we are simply one creature among billions on this big, old, wild world? That we are not the center of it all, but dust and ashes?
I don’t know – but, sometimes, it does.
And the witness of the book of Job is that it always has.
Those raccoons stealing – sharing! – our pears – the bears who sit and gaze at scenic vistas – even the seagulls hanging around the Burger King – they remind us, quite simply, that our perspective is always limited. That there’s a bigger picture and a longer view. Thanks be to God.
Ellen Davis, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom: The Book of Job,” in Getting Involved with God, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
The Annie Dillard quotation is from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
The Walter Brueggeman quotation comes from Brueggemann’s CHRISTIAN CENTURY lecture given in Chicago in September of 2005.