And Then God Speaks … About Creation (RJS)

The climax of the book of Job comes when Yahweh answers Job, or more accurately instructs Job, from the whirlwind in Chapters 38-41. This long series of posts, and the careful interaction with recent commentaries by John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)), has led us to this climactic passage. God’s response to Job is a powerful passage, and one that has, it seems to me, significant implications for the way we are to understand God and his interaction with his creation.

There are at least three major points that stick out as I’ve listened to this passage multiple times and read the translations, insights, and interpretations presented by Walton and Longman. Rather than try combine these ideas all in one long post, we will consider each one separately in individual posts.

First, Creation. When God speaks to Job, he does so by pointing to creation. The nature of the world and the origin of the world.

Yahweh answered Job from the whirlwind and said:

Who is this who darkens advice
     with ignorant words?
Brace yourself like a man.
     I will question you, and you must inform me!

Where were you when I founded the earth?
     Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who set its measurements? Surely you know.
     Or who extended the line on it?
On what are its bases sunk?
     Or who set the cornerstone,
when the stars of morning sang for joy
     and all the sons of God shouted gleefully?

                                                    (38:1-7, Longman)

God’s initial set of questions continues through chapters 38 and 39. They all focus on creation and the nature of the world. In fact, the book of Job provides one of the major creation narratives found in scripture.  Longman comments on this aspect of the text, but Walton concentrates a good bit of discussion on the nature of the description of creation.

The description of creation starts off with language common to the act of building a house or a temple with measurements set, bases sunk. and a cornerstone laid. Izak Cornelius in his chapter on Job in The Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) provides more insight.

Creation is described like the construction of a building, the foundations and cornerstones are laid. The link between creation and building terminology is reflected in the ancient Near Eastern temple, which was seen as a reflection of the cosmos. (pp. 292-293)

and:

In ancient Near Eastern art, deities are often depicted holding a measuring rod and line as symbols of authority, because they are the builders of temples, palaces, and kingdoms. (p. 293)

The connection between creation and the act of building is common theme in the Old Testament and in external ancient Near Eastern literature. Walton takes this idea of ancient Near Eastern context a bit further and lists a number of important aspects of the act and understanding of creation (pp. 399-400), all from Ch. 38, and all of which have root in ancient Near Eastern culture.

  • The earth has foundations, footings, and a cornerstone.
  • The netherworld has gates.
  • Light and darkness have locations rather than sources.
  • Snow and hail are kept in storehouses.
  • Lightening and east winds are locations.
  • Rain is stored in water jars.

And Walton emphasizes that this is not simply poetic expression – the explanation for such language about creation that modern Christians are wont to prefer.

Because of this passage’s poetic nature, we can appreciate these statements as poetic, in contrast to our modern cosmic geography, and thus dispense with questions of scientific accuracy. But in the ancient world, this poetry expressed the reality of common understanding, not just metaphors severed from genuine perception. (Walton p. 400)

The text does not provide scientific information. God as speaker in the text does not provide scientific information. Nor does either the text, or God as speaker, correct ancient Near Eastern misconceptions regarding nature, physics, and cosmic geography. The text uses ancient Near Eastern ideas familiar to the audience to make theological points.  In fact Walton emphasizes that “it is primarily in theological matters that he pushes them beyond their cultural understandings.” (Walton p. 400) And he also notes that the description of creation here is not “ex nihilio” or out of nothing. Although God is creator of the universe, and everything in it, the ancient Near Eastern focus was not on material creation.

It should also be noted that this passage is a discussion of Yahweh’s work as Creator, yet it deals not with manufacturing matter out of nothing, but with bringing organization and order to the operations of the cosmos. This supports what I have contended elsewhere, that in the ancient world people thought of creation largely in functional rather than material terms. (Walton p. 400)

The words of Yahweh describing creation speaks the language of the ancient Near Eastern culture that the audience understood.

The sons of God and the morning stars. Another example can be used to highlight the role of cultural understanding in the description of creation found in Job 38-39. Walton comments on v. 7 where the “sons of God” are cast in parallel with a reference to the morning stars who sang for joy. The term translated by Longman “sons of God” is translated by the NIV “angels.” The phrase, however, is bene ‘elohim which Walton notes, in agreement with Longman, is literally “sons of God” – the same phrase used in Genesis 6:2,4 where the NIV does translate it “sons of God.”  This phrase is also related to the phrase bene ‘elim used in Psalm 29:1 where the NIV translates it “heavenly beings” and the NASB translates it “sons of the mighty.” The latter phrase is also in Psalm 89 – Walton references 89:7 but I wonder if he meant 89:6?

Walton sees the “sons of God” as members of the divine council. The term bene ‘elohim is also used in Job 1:6 and 2:1 when the bene elohim, with the accuser (or challenger, haśśāţān) in their midst, come before Yahweh. Texts outside the Old Testament give support for the connection of the “sons of God” with functionaries in the divine council. The divine council comes up implicitly or explicitly in a number of Old Testament passages, most obviously 1 Kings 22:19-23. In his discussion at the first occurrence in Job 1 Walton notes:

In these contexts the council is not populated by other gods, but by the next lower tier of heavenly functionaries. We ought not call them “angels” because angels have a messenger function, not an administrative function. These administrative functionaries possess no independent divine authority, but they have delegated roles in the administration of Yahweh’s authority. (Walton, pp. 63-64)

The parallel construction between stars of morning and the sons of God in Job 38:7 represents a common parallel in ancient Near Eastern literature. The stars have a divine nature and gods are considered stars. Walton suggests that the construction of this passage is shaped to the understanding of the audience to communicate the message.

In Ugaritic texts, the “sons of El” or “sons of the gods” are parallel to the “assembly of the stars” In this way, Yahweh’s speech reflects common thinking in the ancient world. The difference is that in Israelite theology, the divine council (= sons of God = heavenly host = stars) is not composed of gods with whom Yahweh shares divine authority, though he may at times delegate tasks to them. (Walton pp. 400-401)

Yahweh doesn’t reveal that the morning stars are actually balls of gas undergoing nuclear fusion producing helium from hydrogen and giving off energy (photons, light) in the process. (And he doesn’t tell them of the planet or two in the bunch.)  The text lets the ancient Near Eastern view of stars as heavenly beings stand, but twists the idea theologically. The stars sang for joy and the sons of God shouted gleefully as Yahweh founded the earth. And Job wasn’t there.

Job 38 is a creation narrative. It affirms that Yahweh is the Creator. It uses ancient Near Eastern ideas, the common approach throughout the Old Testament whenever Creation is described or discussed.

There is no new scientific revelation in scripture.

How does Job 38 help us understand Creation in the context of the Old Testament?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Great stuff. This dovetails so nicely with the Genesis 1 & 2 as Temple theme, and basically all the stuff Beale deals with in his book on the Temple and the Church’s mission. Creation as Temple is such a rich theme!

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I believe that the questions raised by the author of the book of Job are still very modern.

    Scientists are just beginning to consider the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes.

    But if that is the case, how can we feed the modernist certainty we have almost unravel the entire reality? Why could there not be worlds with radically different laws, beyond the grasp of human reason?

    And why could also some of them not be populated by extraordinary beings we will never comprehend?

    The facts of nature should all lead us to a deep humility which was well expressed by Socrates and Einstein as “All I know is that I don’t know.”

    If you think at the limitation of our knowledge, the claims of the New Atheists become utterly ridiculous.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • attytjj466

    I get the insight about ancient cosmology verses modern cosmology and functional creation verses material creation, etc. But I think the ancients were able to describe creation and the universe with colorful metaphors and idioms and poetic descriptions in a way that communicated things in a kind of cultural “shorthand” without intending all those desciptions to be absolutely literal. We (modern and scientific types) do the same thing today all the time. Just one example, we talk about sunrises and sunsets, even on the weather newscasts, when we know full well the sun does no such thing, but we all culturally understand that, i.e. it goes without saying that the phrase is not literal. An archaic way of expressing something can be used by a culture long past when the literal meaning is no longer really intended or believed. I think the ancients were very able to do the same thing, especially with a poetical book like Job. I think Walton can get so focused on what he is looking for in a text that that becomes all he sees. Something we can all do.

  • Jeff Martin

    I have heard an interpretation of “sons of God” as being the kings of the earth. This makes sense when you think about the old belief that kings who passed onto the afterlife would go to the stars. That is why the pyramids of Egypt are lined up in accordance with the stars.

  • RJS4DQ

    attytjj,

    Sure the ancients could use metaphors and colorful idioms as well as we can. But as far as I can tell the extant evidence suggests that many of these were more than colorful metaphors in that context. The distinction only really matters for us when we try to impose on scripture an expectation that it isn’t intended to bear, like scientific revelation or accuracy. It is an ancient Near Eastern document.

    By the way the extension to stars as sources of light fueled by hydrogen fusion is my own addition. Walton does not go that far in his discussion.

  • Dan Arnold

    RJS,

    A couple thoughts: First off, the reference to Psalm 89:7 is because in the Hebrew Text, it is verse 7, not 6, since the prologue to the Psalm (“A maskil of …) is verse 1 in the Hebrew. That’s the easy one to deal with as regards your post.

    What exactly is meant by beni ‘elohim is actually fraught with exegetical and theological difficulties. The term in Ps 89:7 (beni elim) is much closer linguistically to the Ugaritic bn ilm and is not the normal term for God/gods, Elohim. Indeed this term is used in only 4 other places and one of those (Ex 36:19) it pretty much can’t refer to a god or divine being. It’s interesting that one of the other places it is used is Job 41:17 (English, 41:25), in reference to these gods fear of Leviathan. The theological difficulty is that, in the context of the ANE, it appears to presuppose the existence of other gods, which is hard to reconcile with monotheism.

    As Walton says, bn il may reference the sons of Il (El). It’s fascinating to me to see how terms like this that describe deities in ANE literature, such as the Ugaritic religious texts, become merely divine beings in the biblical literature. Mark Smith notes in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (pp 61-63), this phrase may refer to the actual offspring of El who have an astral quality. Smith lists several gods who are clearly astral in nature. So the question for us in our day is whether the reference to the morning stars singing is simply poetic or is it actually referring to these astral deities, who now ascribe praise to YHWH (instead of EL)? Given what I’ve read of ANE texts, there is much in Job, even beyond these chapters, that seems to echo some of the Ugaritic literature.

    At the very least, it seems to me that Job 38 does several theological things. First, it affirms YHWH as creator. Second, if it is not merely a poetic expression (and I don’t think it was meant that way given the above understanding), it places the astral deities in submission to YHWH, as it does later with the mythical monster Leviathan (41:1). There doesn’t seem, however, to be much that would help me understand creation from a scientific point of view.

  • Chip Moody

    Helpful stuff, Scott. Thanks for the terse and helpful treatment of the subject. For those like me teaching in a seminary in which inerrancy is a distinctive, this kind of discussion helps immensely in the essential engagement we simply must be doing in in genre studies. Thanks.

  • RJS4DQ

    Thanks Dan,

    John usually sticks with NIV numbering in this commentary, but I can see where the confusion could come from your explanation.

    Thanks for the further commentary as well. I find this context for the text fascinating, in Walton, Longman, and the other sources I’ve consulted. It puts meaning in the text that straight English translation misses. And it helps us avoid over simplified, out of context interpretations. A lot of this seems to emphasize the role of YHWH over all of creation.


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