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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

From the Whirlwind
distributed 10/2/09 - ©2009

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Rev. Jacqueline and Dan Ziegler of Stockton, Illinois. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Anybody who talks about "the patience of Job" in a flattering way hasn't read that book of the Bible. Job's impatience -- his wrestling with moral theology and his coming just to the edge of cursing God -- provide the setting for a remarkable revelation from God, and for Job's transformative restoration.

It is a story that we need to ponder, for it offers us great wisdom and necessary insights as we try to figure out how to live in a human-dominated world. I hope some preachers will take on that challenge later this month when the closing chapters of Job are Lectionary options.

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Chapters 38-41 of Job are the Bible's most direct assertion of what ethicists discuss as "the integrity of creation." Every species has its own reason for being. Their worth does not depend on whether we humans find them valuable. God has created them, God loves them, and that in itself defines their integrity and worth.

That theological perspective stands in opposition to an all-too-common approach which considers only financial and economic worth in human terms. As a glaring example of that, economist William Baxter wrote, "Penguins are important because people enjoy seeing them walk about rocks ... I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake." We hear similarly dismissive -- and ecologically oblivious -- comments about why humans should put any effort into protecting polar bears and pandas, snail darters and spotted owls. "The integrity of creation" is a challenge to our culture's core values.

When God speaks from the whirlwind, posing a long string of rhetorical questions, Job has to realize that he does not understand what is valuable. The divine voice runs through a litany of species that have nothing to do with humans -- mountain goats and deer, wild ass and ox, ostrich and eagles, Behemoth and Leviathan. To Job, they seem meaningless, dangerous or even foolish, but to God they are important and beloved.

The questioning of Job shows how God's intention reaches outside of human purposes, and displaces the primacy of human values. God sends "rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and make the ground put forth grass." The wild ass, which has been given the desolate places for its home, is celebrated when it "scorns the tumult of the city." The wilderness is not just separate from the human, it is honored for its own reasons.

God's diatribe from the whirlwind -- sarcastic, scathing and loving -- is a necessary wake up call for us today. Indeed, we may need to take it more seriously than Job did. We face a far greater danger in our modern world. Where the mythical Job raised philosophical questions about the world, our culture has taken decisive action that is reshaping the world, and our approach in doing so runs counter to what God has revealed. We need to listen carefully to the voice from the whirlwind, and we -- like Job -- need to be drawn into confession and repentance

As we read this old text, though, I'm afraid that we have a new layer of difficulty in understanding Job in this modern age. Many of the rhetorical questions and obvious assertions from biblical times are less clear and less pointed for us. We humans have claimed God-like power and knowledge, and we think we can answer the queries from the whirlwind.

Do you know the gestation period of the mountain goat? Well, yes, we do, and we are well informed about the sources of rain, too. We are quite proud of the fact that we have "entered into the springs of the sea" and "comprehended the expanse of the earth." We considered it a trivial matter to make ice and snow -- and we manipulate the length of the Colorado ski season by doing so. We have taken it upon ourselves to build massive dams and to cut channels in the desert, so that we can move the water from desolate places to where we think it properly belongs -- without regard for the grasses and wild animals that depend on the godly grace of rainfall.

Where Job was humbled by God, we might be inclined toward pride. Job answered the Lord, "See, I am of small account." The arrogance of our culture is more likely to quote Psalm 8, and assert that God has made us a little lower than the angels, and given us dominion. Precisely because of our power and pride, we need to remember that we do not possess all knowledge and wisdom. We certainly need to remember that God's valuing of all creation is a far greater truth than our utilitarian measures.

Biologists speak of our time as the sixth great extinction era in Earth's long history. Species are disappearing at a thousand times the natural rate, primarily because of human impacts such as habitat destruction, pollution and over-fishing. Those creatures who have their own distinctive places in God's design are being wiped out because they get in our way, or because it is in our short-term interest to use them up. If we allow God to question us, if we acknowledge the integrity of creation, how can we possibly respond?

The end of the book of Job is slap in the face, a challenge to human arrogance, and a rejection of our self-centered values. That much comes through clearly, even on first hearing. But if we stop there, we are left without an alternative set of values, and we have no option for a different perspective. We have to dig deeper to find a positive meaning -- and I am deeply grateful for an insightful commentary in William P. Brown's book The Ethos of the Cosmos for doing so. Brown writes:

Job's contact with the margins of creation grants him a new level of dignity, one that arises from within nature, not against it. Nature is a worthy partner and instructor for humankind. No longer are conquering and controlling nature part of the equation for discerning human dignity. Job discovers a self-forgetful awe in the 'sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals', to quote Iris Murdoch, and in so doing discovers true integrity. ... he comes to see that he is a child of God as much as all these creatures ... It is Job's patriarchal pride that is at stake, nurtured and sustained at the expense of nature and community. ... With all these creatures, human dominion has no place, but human dignity does. ... In the end, Job both retracts and finds resolution to his case against God. He repents yet finds vindication. He loses his life and comes to find it.

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There was a recurring joke on the Smothers Brothers TV show in the 1960s. Week after week, Tommy whined to brother Dick, "Mom always loved you best."

God teaches Job, and us, that it is not about one being loved more than the others. God loves each of us -- each individual, each species -- for who we are. A sign of that comes in the closing sentences of the book. Job, restored and transformed, gave his three daughters an inheritance along with their seven brothers. It does not all go to the first-born son. It does not all go to the humans.

Our species is gobbling up the planet. We are depleting resources, diminishing the glorious diversity of life, polluting air and water, and distorting the climate that sustains all life. Global leaders gathered this week in Bangkok, and Senators in Washington, struggle with ways to maintain human dominance without killing us all.

May we hear the voice of God -- from a whirlwind, a pulpit, or a scientific journal. May we lose our lives of exploitation and control, and find new lives in community and respect among God's beloved creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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