Job 38-39 — The First Yahweh Speech

Job had no illusions that if God spoke that he somehow would be able to escape the misery of his present life. He expected death–he did not understand why God prolonged his suffering. But he wanted a word from God even if it was a word of condemnation. Job simply wants to know something even if it is not what he wants to hear. He wants to know the charges against him (10:2; 13:23). He wants to understand the seeming moral chaos of the universe where the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (21:7-26; 24:1-12). If God charges the wicked with evil and judges them, “why must those who know him look in vain for such days?” (24:1). Job challenges God, “Let the Almighty answer me” (31:35). Will God speak? Will he explain?

No doubt to the shock and surprise of all the participants, God does speak. He comes to Job out of the whirlwind  or storm (38:1; 40:6). This is not necessarily an expression of anger as Elijah was taken up to God in such a storm (2 Kings 2:1,11). Here it identifies God’s presence in a theophany, a wind that bears the word of God. God is no longer silent, but does he answer? He speaks, but does he explain? That God speaks is one surprise, and what God  says is yet another.

How does God view Job? Does he regard him as a boisterous, self-righteous sinner who must be crushed by God’s power (like a harsh judge) or does he regard him as an ignorant sufferer whose misery has pushed him to the brink of rivalry with God though he has not crossed the line of cursing God or abandoning God (like a wise sage)? I think he sees Job in the latter perspective. God confronts Job, but in mercy and grace rather than in wrath or anger; I don’t see any indications of anger on God’s part in the speech.. He confronts him with tough questions out of tough love, but Job is also God’s servant and God graciously appears to him. Nevertheless, Job pressed the limits of his knowledge; he spoke “words without knowledge” (38:2). God’s responds through poetic imagination that confronts Job with the reality of creation.

This first speech (38:1-40:2) is a series of questions about God’s role as transcendent creator in contrast to Job’s finitude and ignorance. Job had spoken about things he did not know, so God questions him about his role in the universe. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (38:4). God poses question after question, all reflecting his role as the creator and sovereign Lord of the cosmos. And with question after he question he prods Job to reflect on his own limitations. “Tell me, if you know all this” (38:18). The questions force Job to admit his own ignorance and remember his finite role in the cosmos.

But these questions also point to God’s wisdom and care. They are not simply questions about power. The questions are not arbitrary; they move from God’s creative work when he laid the foundations of the world (38:4-7) and controlled the chaotic waters (38:8-11) to his transcendence over the chaos of the wicked and death (38:12-21), control over the waters (snow, rain, rivers) of the earth (38:22-30, 34-38), and his regulation of the stars and seasons (38:31-33). This is God’s creative wisdom. Yahweh asks, “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?” (38:37).

The questions then move to the animal kingdom and God’s management of his living creation (perhaps reminding Israel of how God paraded the animals before Adam in the Garden). Indeed, the animals are all wild ones, except the war horse (though this horse behaves differently than domesticated ones). The questions are not just about knowledge but about care. God asks if Job “knows” (e.g., 39:1), but he also asks whether Job can manage this creation and care for it the way God does. Does Job hunt for the lion (38:39), feed the young ravens (38:41), give the wild donkey his home (39:6), use the wild ox in his service (39:9-12), care for the ostrich even though she has no sense (39:12-18), and give the horse his strength (39:19). Again, this is about God’s creative wisdom. God asks, “Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom” (39:26)?

Through his power God manages his creation with wisdom and care. Chaos is no threat to God and God is sovereign over the whole. The creation is good; it operates well. It is ordered. But God’s creation is not the playground of his power but the nursery of his care. The creation is God’s biosphere in which he delights. The world is not out of control, God is managing it quite nicely.

Ecologically, this speech subverts an anthropocentric understanding of nature. God cares and enjoys animals that have a distant relation to humanity. There is no mention of how these animals serve or relate to human beings in the speech. They have lives of their own and are valued by God. Human beings are not the only thing that matters in the creation.

But how do these speeches answer Job’s questions? In one sense they do not. They do not address the particulars of Job’s situation. God does not tell Job about the heavenly council described in the prologue. The speeches do not address the issue of distributive justice and moral balance. God does not explain why the wicked prosper while Job suffers. The speeches do not address Job’s specific questions about suffering and justice. Rather, they address something more fundamental. They address the critical issue that was raised in the prologue and assumed throughout the dialogues: trust in God’s management of the world. Do we believe God is wisely managing his creation? This is what Job doubted though he never cursed God, and this is what gave rise to the questions and accusations of his laments. This is where Job is challenged. Job has does not have the power, wisdom, or knowledge to challenge God’s management of the universe.

When evil surrounds us and chaos fills our life, then we begin to doubt God’s sovereignty (is God really in control?) or we doubt God’s goodness (does God really care?). We wonder whether God knows what he is doing or whether he can do anything at all. This occasions lament. We believe in God, just like Job, but the chaos of our lives creates doubt, despair and disappointment. So, we, like Job, complain, question, and accuse.

Nevertheless, God’s response to Job does address his sense of abandonment. Has God forgotten Job? That God speaks at all answers that question with a resounding, “No!” But we can say more. Earlier Job considered himself “a brother of jackals, and a companion of ostriches” (30:29; cf. Psalm 102:6). God responds by talking about the “wild ass,” the “wild ox,” “mountain goats,” and the ostrich. God provides and cares for them, even as they live in isolated places. God provides food for the lion, gives strength to newborn animals, looses the wild ass for freedom, and the wild ox serves God’s purposes. These are all wild animals; the live in the wilderness, among the seeming chaos. They are not abandoned by God and neither is Job. As Fretheim notes, “If all the wild animals of the wilderness are embraced by God’s care and nurture, then so also is Job embraced in his disconnectedness from friends and family” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 245).

At the same time, God does challenge Job. There is a sense in which one might think God approaches Job as a disciplinary parent, but perhaps–with Fretheim (p. 240-44)–it is more appropriate to think of God’s address as the epitome of wisdom. God approaches Job as the wise sage that the friends were not. While Job appropriately questioned God in faithful lament, Job’s knowledge and wisdom was much too limited to challenge God’s management of the world or to find fault with God’s creative work (Job 40:2). Job is challenged to think more deeply and to recognize his limits even though there are hints that God does not tell Job anything new (cf. the hymn of Job 26:7-14).

Job’s response is humble submission (40:4-5). Job silences himself and recognizes his limitations. Structurally, however, Yahweh has another speech and Job’s response to it is more profound. Perhaps this first response silences Job but it does not move him to where he ends up in 42:6. Perhaps Job thinks he has made his case and Yahweh has made his–there is nothing more to say. We can probably make too much of that, but it seems appropriate to see movement in Job’s responses however slight it might be. There is, then, something climactic about the second Yahweh speech and Job’s response. It will address something that this first speech does not.

For the moment, however, God’s answer in this first speech is: I am in control, I care and I know what I am doing. The creation is functioning just fine. Can you trust me? If I controlled chaotic waters in creation, can I not manage the chaos of your life? If my care feeds the lions and the ravens, will I not care for you? If I have not abandoned the wild animals in the wilderness, will I abandon you? God’s answer is his transcendence, but it is not a naked transcendence. It is not a sheer assertion of power. Rather, it a loving, caring transcendence which manages the chaos of the world for benevolent purposes. The question now is whether Job will trust God’s management of the creation.

No Responses to “Job 38-39 — The First Yahweh Speech”


  1. Day 163: Job 38-39 « Steven's Scribbles

Leave a Reply