God’s Role in the Cosmos (RJS)

God’s Role in the Cosmos (RJS) January 8, 2013

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?

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

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