God’s Role in the Cosmos (RJS)

We’ve taken a bit of a break from the series on the book of Job – but today we return and begin to dig into the debate between Job and his friends. The new commentaries by John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)), both their agreements and their differences, help us explore the ways that the book of Job challenges our comfortable presuppositions.

There are a number of different points that could be raised from Job 4-14, the first of three cycles of speeches in the debate between Job and his friends. But I would like to concentrate on just two and look at them in separate posts. At many places in Job 4-14 (not to mention the rest of the book) Job or one of Job’s friends describes or assumes something about the role of God in the cosmos. Both Job and his friends see God as active, powerful, and wise. This is simply foundational to their view of the world. In Ch. 9:4-10 Job recounts part of his view of God in the cosmos (Translation from Longman pp. 163-4, 169):

He is wise of heart and strong in power;
    Who can press him and come out whole?
He can move mountains without them knowing,
    overturning them in his anger.
He causes the land to shake from its place
    and its pillars to shudder.
He speaks to the sun, and it does not rise;
    he seals up the stars.
He alone stretched out the heavens
    and trod on the high places of the sea.
He is the maker of the Bear and Orion,
    and the Pleiades and the chambers of the south.
He is the maker of great things that are beyond understanding
    and marvelous things that are without count.

Job’s use of cosmic geography here is grounded in his ancient Near Eastern (ANE) understanding of the earth and the skies. God controls the earth on its pillars. He controls the rising of the sun, he seals up the stars, shutting them out if he wishes, he stretched out the heavens and he tamed the seas. John Walton suggests that this hymn in 9:5-9 elaborates on God’s superiority and on the way that God “uses all the cosmos as a weapon against those who oppose him” (p. 170). Longman has a slightly different take on the passage, but sees the references as an expression of God’s sovereignty and control over all of creation from the heavens to the earth to the chaos of the sea. Here and elsewhere in Ch. 4-14 there are (or may be) references or allusions to a variety of different ANE gods and stories and God is supreme over all of these other powers.

In Ch. 10 Job describes humans in general (v. 3), and himself in particular (8-11), as the work of God’s hand. It is not simply Adam who was formed from the clay and dust – according to Job’s ANE view of the world the same is true of himself and every other human. (Longman p. 166, p. 178)

Your hands shaped and made me,
    but now you turn and swallow me up.
Please remember that you made me like clay;
    will you return me to dust?
Do you not pour me out like milk,
    curdle me like cheese?
You clothed me in skin and flesh;
    you knit me together with bones and sinews.

In his third response Ch. 12: 7-10 Job calls the natural world as witness to his view of the universe, the way things should be and the way they are. (Longman p. 194, p. 201)

Only ask the beasts, and they will teach you,
    the birds in the sky, and they will inform you.
Or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
    the fish of the sea will recount to you.
Who does not know all these things,
    that the hand of Yahweh has done this?
The breath of all living things is in his hand,
    the spirit of all human flesh.

Again this accords with an ANE view of the world and of the divine. It is interesting that this passage is the only use of the divine name YHWH in the poetical bulk of Job (it occurs as well in the prose prologue and epilogue), although neither Walton not Longman attach any significance to this.

God’s Active Role in the Cosmos. Walton looks at these passages and especially the poetic hymn in 9:5-14 and notes that we see “a theological understanding of God’s pervasive role in the universe” in the way the book of Job refers to God and to creation.

In the ancient (and biblical) worldview, there was no divide between natural and supernatural. One could not speak of “natural laws”; what we identify as natural laws only take on their “lawlike” quality because God acts so consistently in the operations of the cosmos. He has made the cosmos intelligible and has given us minds that can penetrate some of its mysteries.

In the minds of the ancients, the gods did not “intervene” because such thinking would assume a realm of activity apart from them, which they could step into and out of. The Israelites, along with everyone else in the ancient world, believed instead that every event was the act of the deity; every plant that grew, every baby born, every drop of rain, and every climatic disaster was an act of God. No “natural” laws governed the cosmos; the deity ran the cosmos or was inherent in it. There were no “miracles” (in the sense of events deviating from that which was “natural”), only signs of the deity’s activity (sometimes favorable, sometimes not). There is nothing “natural” about the world. Our theology needs to adjust to this alternative way of thinking in order for us to recover an appreciation of an active God. (Walton p. 191-192)

The view that Job and his friends have of the universe, and of the active and sovereign role that God plays in the cosmos, runs deep throughout the book of Job. It shapes the response to suffering and to the deep conviction they all have that the retribution principle ought to be active at all times. Everything that happens, good or evil, pleasure or suffering, comes from the hand of God. In order to understand the book of Job we need to understand this mindset. Walton suggests, and I agree, that our theology needs to adjust itself back to this frame of reference. Our description of the world and of the processes active in the world should not be divided into two categories, either an act of God or a natural process. Rather, God is active in every natural process (including, for example, the course of evolution).  There are specific signs of God’s activity as he relates to his people. The miracles of Jesus reported in the Gospels, for example, are demonstrations of God’s activity through Jesus. But God is active in everything, not just these apparent “interventions” and we misunderstand the miracles if we misunderstand this point.

Should we separate natural process from divine action?

Is this separation an advance of modern science or a flaw in our theology?

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  • John I.

    Evidently Job did not believe in methodological naturalism.

  • AHH

    Evidently the author of Job did not believe that events had to be outside the normal course of nature in order to be Intelligently Designed.

  • phil_style

    Is it not odd that once Job has asked all these rhetorical questions about God being sovereign over nature, God comes back and chides him for speaking about things over which he knows little? Does God disagree with Job about sovereignty over nature?

    I am of the opinion that Job’s intent in his descriptions of God is not the simple literal description of his words (that God is overseeing over the cosmos) but rather that Job is blaming “a god” for punishing him despite Jobs innocence of any crime. He blames the whole world, his friends and this “god”. And rightly so. This is an era of the sacrifice of innocent people in the name of gods. Everyone was doing it.

    the true God responds by telling job, and his friends that this is nonsense. Job is not an innocent being punished by God – he is a victim, but not a victim of God. God is actually on Job’s side, and he hears his plea. God is the god of the victim. He does not cause the victimization process. The victimization process is instigated by the crowd – Jobs friends.

    The story is a battle over whether or not God is the advocate (the paraklete) or not.

  • Tim Atwater

    I think Phil-style above goes in right direction. I think Walton (whose work i admire) perhaps overstates (perhaps for rhetorical effect?) the case for conflation of natural and supernatural law in the prevailing worldviews…

    In the whirlwind God delivers a prose-poetry sermon that essentially says God’s ways are beyond knowing. (not all of nature is beyond knowing…) and
    At the end of Job God instructs Job to pray for his friends who have not spoken properly.
    Human agency is at least strongly implied –?

  • phil_style

    @Tim, “Human agency is at least strongly implied –?”

    Yes. I think the claims for human agency in Job are strong.

  • Tim Atwater

    Phil — (is this ok form of address?) yea — and there would seem to be an insistence on not being too sure of the exactness of interactions — God — nature — human

    (i think)

  • I think the Lord’s rebuke to Job has to do not with Job’s assumption of God’s involvement in reality but rather with the idea that God’s involvement in reality can easily be understood or charted in all circumstances. God’s involvement was assumed (this is true in the NT as well); the nature of that involvement is not always easily seen or understood.

    I affirm this heartily, especially with regards to something like the recent massacre at Sandy Hook. I do not think it would be true to say that something like that represents a realm in which God’s sovereignty was somehow withheld or absent; I also do not think it is true to say that the relationship between such suffering and God’s sovereignty can easily or exhaustively be understood, nor do I think believers are ever commanded to attempt the investigation of such reasons; I just wish some of the more public “Christian voices” would heed this advice.

  • RJS


    We’ll get into more of the issues with Job in the future posts. I don’t think what you say is quite the point, but it will make a good discussion.

    The point today though is an issue of cosmology. Is there a “nature” that is separate from God?

  • Jeff

    It depends on what you mean by “active”. Was God the initiator of the recent tsunami or hurricane? I would say no, but in one sense He allows these things to happen to reflect the freedom that he gives to us as his best creation.

  • Paul W

    The premise that Walton espousing sounds very much like the Reformed doctrine of providence. Which, in the way I have understood it, indicates that:
    1.) every detail of existence is infused with God’s involvement (e.g., preserving, guiding, attending, etc.),
    2.) God’s meticulous involvement takes place in such a manner that he is not to be held culpable for any wrongdoing which happens,
    3.) and that humanity should humbly content itself to recognize that the details of how points 1 and 2 can be coherently and comprehensively held together is beyond the human capacity to understand.

  • Mark Edward

    ‘Is there a “nature” that is separate from God?’

    I assume you mean ‘a nature that *functions* separately from God’?

    I think it’s a difficult question to answer, even Biblically. Walton makes a lot of great points in his ‘Lost World’ book when he shows how people of the ancient near east perceived that gods existed in terms of their role or function. They didn’t simply exist, they existed through their functions. So a god who was in control of the storms was not the storms themselves, but without him the storms don’t exist, and without the storms, he loses his self-identity and self-purpose. So, naturally, we find Biblical writers speaking of natural events occurring at the behest of the one God who is in control of all the world (storms, seas, fires, stars, winds, flowers, etc.). Within these contexts, it is very hard to deny that God actively sustains and maintains nature.

    But then you have, for example, Jesus mentioning how a tower falls for seemingly no reason. Or even that some people were killed by Pilate and ‘suffered’, but not as punishment. How would the Job (or writers of those other Biblical texts) think of these? As being caused by God, or as being ‘automated’ events (via ‘laws of nature’), or as being caused by some malevolent force (e.g. the satan)? If the second, would that technically be a ‘deist’ watchmaker-perspective? If the third, would that be too dualist of a theology?

  • phil_style

    Hi RJS, sorry I was not intending to get sidetracked. I was trying to explain why I don’t think Job’s assertions about God’s controlling of nature are necessarily the opinions that the text is trying to explain/ endorse. I think the God character who appears at the end actually contradicts Job’s words with respect to god’s role in controlling nature in that manner (i.e. that God had a role in Job’s bad circumstances), but commends Job for calling on God to be his advocate.

  • RJS

    Mark Edward,

    Interesting questions. Walton is arguing against a deist approach and against a dualist approach that separates “natural” from act of God. There is certainly an argument that if there is a natural explanation then divine act is ruled out. I think this is an unhealthy view of the world. The scientific explanation (however true it is) doesn’t eliminate room for the activity of God.

    I think the God’s meticulous involvement is quite the right solution either, although it may well be the view of the book of Job. On the other hand, the book of Job certainly reflects on the fact that people suffer but it is not as punishment for their deeds in every (even many) cases. This will be the focus of my next post on the book and the commentaries, coming next week.

  • BradVW

    This is a topic that has been rattling around in my brain for a while now, especially as I do a little casual reading in physics and String Theory. (After doing quite badly in Biology and Chemistry in high school, I sure wasn’t going to sign up for another year of science in Physics, but now I wish those disciplines were offered in the opposite order). Anyway I agree that looking at things happening in creation as somehow either done by God or not done by God can lead to a lot of issues. I like to look at all of creation as all held together by the Holy Spirit and if the Spirit somehow was removed from the equation, the universe would basically cease to exist in any organized fashion. The Spirit holds together the very molecules that bring existence, or if String Theory is on the right track, I like to think of the Spirit as the music that makes the strings dance.

  • Bev Mitchell


    “Our description of the world and of the processes active in the world should not be divided into two categories, either an act of God or a natural process. Rather, God is active in every natural process (including, for example, the course of evolution).”

    Yes, we must outgrow dualism and all forms of essentialism and nominalism. My background is insufficient to comment on how closely related and interactive these three are considered to be, but together they can surely do a number on our thinking. Especially when it comes to combining what we know from science with what we know from Scripture.

    This brings into sharp focus the basic problem of what questions should we ask of Scripture – Job or Genesis especially. One approach I find helpful is to think of Genesis and Job as telling us more about us, and our often problematic relationship with God than about God. Of course, God is revealing things about himself in these books. What I refer to is our tendency to miss the large number of things God is revealing to us about ourselves.

    To your first question, it’s very tricky to try to keep divine action and natural processes together in our thinking, but it needs to be done. We should not, IMO, go in the direction of pantheism or even panentheism, leaving God somehow incomplete without creation or somehow hostage to it. He is God. To avoid this it is helpful to take Thomas Torrance’s good advice and always think of God as Father before we think of him as Creator. But Spirit (who is also fully God) is ever present to creation (as distinct from present in, which I reject). The problem comes when we ask how? By what mechanism? We love asking the wrong questions – or ones that God sees no need to answer just yet. Somehow Spirit is present to matter. In fact, our belief that God sustains creation can be restated as Spirit is so present to creation (energy/matter) that if he were to leave, we would return to chaos. (I think I’m paraphrasing St. Augustine here – hopefully accurately).

    But, here is a bigger problem.” Everything that happens, good or evil, pleasure or suffering, comes from the hand of God. ” Yes, Job and company seem to think this. But God does take Job to task for not getting it quite right. God goes on at length about his control over evil (Leviathan, the dragon, the sea etc.). The image is that of opposition to God but also of God’s complete victory over this opposition, to the point that he makes fun of them. A view of Spirit present to creation to make it all possible needs to be informed by the rebellion that Scripture also clearly describes. This is clearly evident in we humans, but can also be seen in the chaos that Spirit overcomes in creating, sustaining the cosmos.

    Then, with a Christological perspective, which is where we should always end up, we see, in the risen Lord, the kind of “blend” of Spirit and matter that God wants and will have when there is no longer any opposition or rebellion. And this will include all of the cosmos, and all life. A new heaven and a new earth. You can’t make this stuff up!

    Two books by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks make wonderful companion reads to Longman and Walton.

    “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning”
    Jonathan Sacks

    “Covenant & Conversation: Genesis: The Book of Beginnings”