I Believe in God…and Monsters (2 of 3)
“Friends” and Chaos-Beasts
By Andrew J. Byers
What can we say theologically about natural disasters that have struck Japan, Pakistan, and Haiti in recent months? What we cannot say is that there is a definitive connection between such catastrophes and divine judgment.
As seen in my previous post, the most elaborate critique in Scripture of the oversimplified cause-and-effect formula of disaster-equals-judgment is the tragic tale out of Uz about a man whose integrity God himself described as matchless (Job 1:8).
When Job’s friends find him wallowing in soot and scratching his sores, they are beside themselves. They had received the reports: raiding marauders, fire falling from the sky, a gust of wind that brought down a building containing his ten kids. “Crush injuries”—a ghastly term introduced in news reports from Haiti’s 2010 earthquake—were fatal to Job’s children, just as they would be to so many children in Port-au-Prince.
For those friends arriving on the scene in Uz, the shocking image of a once-dignified man scourged with boils and screeching out laments was too much. They are speechless. The sight is shocking and offensive, too absurd to fit within their frames of reference. Their uncomplicated worldviews threaten to unravel.
But not for long.
The counsel that follows in the friends’ lengthy speeches appears sensible and suitable; the rhetoric parallels language that many Christians use today in providing solace in disastrous times: God gives good things to good people. God helps those who help themselves. God will never give you more than you can handle. But as we see at the end of the book, God declares Job’s friends wrong: “You have not spoken of me what is right” (42:7-9).
Speculating about divine judgment while watching people suffer is a dangerous business—profoundly unhelpful for a child screaming out for parents beneath a prison of masonry and rebar, or for an elderly woman who lifts her eyes to see the ocean coming to devour her street-side fruit stand, or for a grieving man with boils covering his flesh in Uz.
Perhaps it would be best just to stay silent when we are tempted to provide explanations on God’s behalf. As Old Testament scholar Roland Murphy writes, “It is always dangerous to write the script for divinity to be bound by.” Those who must open their mouths from polished pulpits in air-conditioned sanctuaries, or those who would blog their opinions from suburban coffee shops, would do well to resist making statements abstracted from the victim’s suffering.
Speech-making comes to a decisive end in the book of Job when God decides to make a few speeches himself—though not from a sweet meadow scene bedecked with fluffy clouds. He speaks out of a “natural” disaster. He speaks “out of the whirlwind” (38:1).
When children are dead and buildings have collapsed, when cholera has poisoned the village well or when brackish floodgates have swept out the skyline, then surviving victims may pelt the heavens with fierce questions, demanding that Someone give an account for the havoc. The presence of lament poetry throughout the Prophets and Psalms seems to permit and perhaps to encourage this raw, honest reaction. But God might not respond with answers. The suffering victim is not shown “footprints in the sand.” Job receives no systematic theodicy to clarify the reasons behind his misery. What he does receive is a jolting theophany, an exhilarating self-presentation of the Creator-God. And in this divine speech, God speaks of mythic beasts.
I have been telling my little kids that monsters do not exist. After re-reading Job 40 through 41 and after seeing the footage that came out of Pakistan, Port-au-Prince and Japan, I now stand corrected.
God is sovereign and just, but there is a snorting, pawing wildness to life that ever resists mortal manipulation and domestication. To convey this point with concrete potency, God speaks of two unusual creatures that epitomize untamable feral power: Behemoth and Leviathan. These are not animals you can pay to see on safari or a lazy cruise of the Nile. These monstrosities are uncaged and undefeatable by mortals, swallowing rivers (40:3) and spitting out fire (41:18-21). Ancient Near Eastern readers/auditors of Job would identify such fearsome creatures as the mythic monsters of primordial chaos.
The accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 were not the only cosmogonies (theological accounts of creation) shaping the cultures of antiquity. The Canaanite and early Babylonian societies were telling their own stories. Their legendary sagas depicted chaoskampf, a German term for the cataclysmic conflict between the creating deity and “chaos,” a foreboding state of disorder and disarray associated with tumultuous waters and personified in frightening entities. Many scholars believe that this dark, watery realm of chaos is being referenced in Genesis 1:2—“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
The biblical understanding that the God of Israel exerted his sovereignty over the forces of chaos at creation surfaces in a number of texts (Ps 74:12-17; Ps 89:5-14; Job 26:7-14). In these passages, mythic beasts as the agents of chaos are vanquished. But in Job 40:15-41:34, it appears that those chaos-monsters not only survived but are even enjoyed by Yahweh:
In Job they are not defeated, and their cosmic menace and hostility to the human race are actually celebrated by [God]! Rather than destroying them to create an orderly world, Yahweh chooses to let them be (although on a leash). God tells Job that these monsters, the very symbols of evil, are alive and well, and that Job must live in the universe where they roam.
Yahweh, who gently cares for the widow and the fatherless as easily as he speaks from the belly of roaring tornados, is a God who keeps monsters as playthings. Beastly powers of mythic proportions are sometimes allowed to bark and bray in our ears. God is sovereign over all these characters and forces, but there is a complexity to the exercise of this sovereignty that will ever mystify and perplex us.
Readers of the story know that the supposed “fire of God” that “fell from heaven” was in fact neither “of God” nor “from heaven” (Job 1:16) but were rather unnatural disasters issued from the hand of Satan, though admittedly by God’s permission (perhaps the most troubling detail of the entire story). Readers also know that God esteemed Job as more noble than all the inhabitants of the earth, perhaps allowing for the possibility that Haitians, Pakistanis and Japanese are among the most noble inhabitants of our earth. But readers also know that, while there are moments when God addresses the victims of horrific suffering with words of tender consolation (see Is 40), there are also moments when we should expect no satisfying explanation and no tidy theodicy.
Though we cannot access the info that would provide us with answers to “why?,” we can say something about who this divine being is. The God of the Bible’s most definitive self-presentation to humanity occurred not from a whirlwind, but from a cross. We turn to Christ crucified and resurrected in the next and final installment of the series . . .
Andrew leads University Christian Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. He blogs at Hopeful Realism and is the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.