By Tom Pryce
Approaching a stranger – with no particular Biblical expertise – on the street, asking what the Bible says concerning the natural world, one can anticipate the answer. Having been given the supreme position at the start of the canon, Genesis 1-3 comes to the forefront of their memory. It reminds them of God’s creation in 7 days and that terribly slippery notion of humanity’s ‘dominion’ over the planet. And yet – foregoing the heated debates regarding its place in ancient Israelite faith – creation plays a significant role elsewhere, in oft-neglected corners of the Hebrew Bible. Such passages offer a counter balance to the divinely ordained environmental exploitation committed under the banner of ‘dominion’. They provide a deeper understanding of what it really meant when God made humanity stewards over creation.
The beautifully constructed divine speeches of Job 38-41 are one such text. After 37 chapters of bitter complaints from the righteous sufferer Job, God bursts onto the scene, speaking from the whirlwind. Belittling rhetorical questions challenge Job’s misguided presuppositions: it is God, not Job, who is the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and carer for creation. Further, God’s role extends far beyond the individual cares and well-being of Job, or of humanity in general. God cares for the wild ass, beyond human control. God cares for where no humans inhabit, causing rain to fall in an otherwise barren desert. God cares even for the Leviathan, the great Biblical emblem of the chaos that constantly threatens the natural and social order; described by God as a play-mate in the oceans, what to humans is the destructive ‘other’ is to God a rubber duck in the bath.
These speeches are often interpreted as a heartless God, apathetic to Job’s misery, challenging the petty human’s anthropocentrism. I believe something much subtler is going on. In the existential crisis preserved in these passages, Job’s anthropocentrism is challenged, yes. But this induces a tragic sublimity in the fullest sense: with his self-understanding decentred, and his perceptions of the created order shown to be misguided, the rug has been pulled from beneath Job’s feet. God, however, does not do this in a cruel manner, revelling in Job’s suffering. Destroying the categories through which Job understands the world, God intends to elicit self-knowledge from Job. Challenging him to reach a fuller understanding of himself, the tragic sublime knocks Job down, so as to then elevate him to new insight. Job is challenged by God to a new understanding of what it means to be a steward over creation. Being created in the God’s image, the description of divine providence serves as a reminder to Job of his responsibilities.
Job is forced to appreciate that ruling over creation does not mean, or even allow, the creation of a hedonistic paradise where all creatures – or at least humans – may have their inner-most desires perpetually satisfied. Instead, it requires care for all of the creatures which inhabit the earth, even if this care requires the self-sacrifice of some. Providence over creation requires that some creatures may suffer, to allow for the general well being of the created whole. This even requires that God allows the eagle prey on the fallen human soldier, so as to feed the young waiting in the nest. God challenges Job to appreciate the nature of divine providence. In doing so God elicits a new self-understanding of Job, who can recognize what his role as the imago deo truly requires of him.
If one were to ask Job – after his dialogue with God – what the Bible has to say about the natural world, I believe that the answer would be quite contrary to that of the stranger on the street. Rather than dominion, I believe the righteous Job would call for responsible stewardship over creation. I believe Job would recognize the value and care which humans, as stewards, should have for creation, even if this is sometimes to the detriment of their personal desires. I believe Job would understand the full sense of what the stewardship given by God to humanity in Genesis 1-3 really calls for.