As some know, I am finishing up a short book on the important things to know when reading the book of Job. It’s called Approaching Job and will be published soon in the Cascade Companion series. I thought I’d offer up a preview from the final chapter (where I am able to dip my feet in my relatively new obsession of trees). I will also accept any comments (biblical or botanical) or questions since it is a draft.
Two more caveats: This comes at pretty much the very end of the book so I do assume that the reader will be familiar with some of the critical issues and the plot of the book of Job (things covered in the first three chapters of the book). Also, forgive the sloppy documentation. I used footnotes and just imported them into the lines.
According to Genesis 1, on the sixth day of creation, God created humans and commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” According to many critics of Christian theology, most famously, Lynn White, this first divine commandment to humans has led to our current ecological crisis. (Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.) There is, perhaps, some truth to White’s claim despite protests from environmentally sensitive evangelical exegetes. (See Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, 32.) The primacy of the Priestly creation story would certainly lead many to conclude its primacy as an ethic and less sophisticated exegetes might conclude that such a command gives humanity license to dominate the earth with little concern for its ecology. Furthermore, that the Bible begins with Genesis 1 must mean, to many, that it is the most important creation text. The problem for many readers of the Bible is that there are other biblical texts that recount the creation of the world by God and creation often looks quite different in those accounts. That should not cancel out the command to subdue the earth (whatever that might mean), but it might limit the command somewhat, depending on one’s hermeneutic.
The Book of Job, for instance, offers a mitigating vision of the creation story despite displaying an awareness of the Priestly creation text from Genesis 1. Firstly, note that the narrator’s description of Job portrays him as one who has, in fact, been fruitful and multiplied. He has, after all, seven sons and three daughters, which is a large number of children in any era. Job also has demonstrated his willingness to exercise dominion over things that move upon the earth, such as his large cache of livestock (seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys).
Furthermore, when Job opens his mouth to curse his day in chapter 3, he certainly parodies Genesis 1:4’s “Let there be light” by saying “that day, let there be darkness.” What follows, as we noted in the previous chapter, is a metaphorical dismantling of creation. So when God responds from the tempest, and specifically responds to Job’s opening speech from chapter 3, the author of Job is not merely offering a new, independent creation narrative. Rather, God’s speech is informed by Genesis 1.
There is nothing inherently problematic with two creation narratives, obviously, for distinct creation narrative on the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 follows the seven day creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3. What the creation text of Job does, however, is not solely augment the Priestly text (as some might suggest Genesis 2 does to Genesis 1), but rather it offers a competing thesis of creation and humanity’s role in it. God does not tell Job from the tempest that Job is to fill the earth and subdue it, nor is Job called to till it and keep it (Genesis 2:15). Rather, Job is ironically told that he is not at all instrumental in the work of creation or its maintenance. The sarcasm in God’s rhetorical questions throughout the speeches indicates that Job evidently knows how far flung the universe is and how incidental to it humanity is. (Job’s own speech in 7:17-21 and elsewhere suggest that he already knows his insignificance in the world. Humanity’s transience, in fact, is one of his reasons for questioning the justice of his suffering. “What does my punishment accomplish,” he seems to be saying, “considering my insignificance in the grand scheme of things.”)
The theological point of the speeches from the tempest does not, however, promote a worm theology given from on high, particularly when coupled with the restoration of Job in the epilogue. That God, even after speaking of all the nooks and crannies of creation that have no bearing on the life of Job, deigns to restore Job and even call him “my servant” shows that God does, in fact, hold humanity in a high regard—as a servant of God and a servant of God’s creation.
What, then, should we take from this conclusion? What is the proper ethic promoted here if a lowly human can still be considered a servant of God and creation? As a test case, let us consider the forest and our relationship with it.
As far back as the Elizabethan era, people have been concerned with human exploitation of the forests, though there was little knowledge of the importance of the forests to the ecology across the globe. John Manwood, a jurist and gamekeeper of the Waltham Forest, penned a treatise of the laws of the forest in 1592 in England, defining a forest as a “certain territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase, and warren, to rest and abide there in the safe protection of the king, for his delight and pleasure. . .” (John Manwood, A Treatise of the Laws of the Forest, Shewing not only the Laws now in Force but also the Origin and Beginnings of Forests; and of what Forests are, and how they differ from Chases, Parks and Warrens. . ., cited in Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, 72.) In other words, a forest is a forest if it is a sanctuary for wildlife and nothing more (other than the delight of the king).
By the Enlightenment, however, Europeans’ understanding of forests changed and the forest became subject, not to wildlife or even “delight and pleasure,” but to its utility to the economy. Robert Pogue Harrison, who writes about the evolution of European understanding of forests in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, marks the change in attitude with Monsieur Le Roy’s eighteenth century Encyclopédie entry on “forest.” The key terms in the entry are “public interest” and “public utility,” which reduce the woods to humanity’s economic interests. Le Roy writes, “Religion itself had consecrated forests, doubtlessly to protect, through veneration, that which had to be conserved for the public interest.” (Cited in Harrison, Forests, 115.) As we have seen, this understanding, even in the case of religion, contradicts YHWH’s speech to Job from the tempest. There is no sense in the book of Job that Job or anyone should find the ostrich useful at all. YHWH’s point is that the ostrich “forgets wisdom” and yet it remains mysteriously important to YHWH despite its seeming ridiculousness. But the Enlightenment understanding of forests as public utility has remained and even influenced those who wish to preserve the forest, for religious reasons or otherwise. Harrison explains:
The Manwoodians of today are forced, however, to speak the language of those whom they oppose. This is precisely the language of usefulness. In their efforts to preserve the forest sanctuaries, they must remind science as well as governments that one day the abundant diversity of plant species that exist nowhere else but in the forests will prove useful and beneficial for such things as treating cancer or other diseases. They must contrive a thousand convincing or unconvincing arguments in favor of the utility of forest conservation. (Harrison, 124)
As we learn more about forests it becomes difficult not to hear the voice from the tempest reminding us of our own irrelevance with respect to the forest. That is, the tables have been turned. We want to help the forests as they have helped us, but one of the only things we can do is respect them. Consider some of the forests in North America, near where I am writing this. In the case of the edenic old growth Douglas-fir canopies and the rich biodiversity therein, the only real way that one can “till them and keep them” (in Hebrew, “to serve them and protect them”), is to put a hedge around them and let them be. One of the thousands of organisms that live and grow in the Douglas-fir canopy is the lichen Lobaria organa, which botanists have recently discovered are extremely slow-growing producers of massive amounts of nitrogen. The amount of nitrogen the Lobaria provides the forest depends on the age of the Lobaria, which is dependent on the age of the trees in which they live. In fact, Lobaria of any size may not be found in Douglas-firs younger than two hundred years old. Even then, it will take another three hundred years for the Lobaria to produce the nitrogen that will be of most benefit to the eco-system. Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to speed up the process. (Marie E. Antoine, “An Ecophysiological Approach to Quantifying Nitrogen Fixation by Lobaria oregana,” the Bryologist, 107.1 (2004), 82-87. See also Richard Preston, The Wild Trees, 185-186.) The Lobaria oregana and the Douglas-firs upon which they grow need what God can give it and that a single generation of humanity cannot—time. In other words, the best thing we can do for the forest is respect its place in God’s creation.
Note the challenge that arises when even discussing the theology of creation in the book of Job. We can discuss the importance of old growth temperate rain forests to humanity—how the huge amount of carbon stored in old growth trees is one of the most important mitigators of climate change in the world and how important it is to the future of humanity to slow global warming by protecting forests—but then again, we introduce the language of “usefulness” into creation. The usefulness of creation to humanity is nary a factor in the theology of Job. In fact, the introduction of utility brings us back to the pre-theophany theology of Job and his friends. Though that language may aid us in our service and protection of God’s Creation from the over-subjugation of the earth by a myopic humanity, in the end, we must remember the free God who brought it about and our insignificance and absence in that bringing. Even as we learn more about lichens and their role in the forest ecosystem, we still speak “by words without knowledge.”