Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mystery Beasts and Inscrutability

The forty-first chapter of the book of Job has thirty-four verses in an English Bible. Thirty-two of those describe a mystery beast you and I have never seen and almost surely never will. The remaining two are about God.

I think those two are probably the point of the chapter, no? At least it’s as good a guess as any.

The Search for Leviathan

Still, Leviathan is an interesting concept. All the efforts of unbelieving and quasi-believing scholarship to make him into a creature of our present era fall more than a little flat.

He’s not a whale, a shark or a giant crocodile, as some commentators of other generations have suggested. Leviathan has scales and a neck. To complicate matters further, he breathes fire. He carves up the land with his sharp underbelly, but is at home in the water.

Current evolutionary timelines will not accommodate the identification of Leviathan as some sort of sea-going dinosaur, though a first century secular historian offers a description of something not wildly dissimilar. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder describes the skeleton of a forty-foot sea creature washed up on the shore at Gades, with 120 six- to nine-inch teeth and a spine a foot and a half thick. Considering the Gades skeleton was discovered somewhere in the range of two millennia after the time of Job, it is conceivable all kinds of strange things lived in the ocean in Job’s day which had become extinct by the time Pliny’s “monster” was discovered.

The Mythical Leviathan Problem

And yet, if making Leviathan historical proves challenging to some, making him mythical is even more of a daunting task ... at least if we want to keep anything of value to be found in the book of Job. Identifying Leviathan with a known sea creature is unimportant for believers — we simply accept the existence of something outside our personal experience because we have been told it in a context we find otherwise reliable. We trust the Author. He has established his credibility in other ways.

Nevertheless, identifying Leviathan to Job as a known creature of his day is an acutely important part of God’s four-and-a-half-chapter dialogue with his servant. We may not need to know what Leviathan was, but Job sure needed to.

The dialogue begins with God and his creation, echoing the first chapter of Genesis, then moves into describing the awesome depths of the sea, the power of big weather, the clouds and finally the constellations — all very real, identifiable parts of Job’s lived experience. From there God moves into a lengthy description of specific, real, well-known animals: lions, mountain goats, wild donkeys and oxen, ostriches, horses and hawks. By the time he gets to Behemoth (late in chapter 40) and Leviathan, God has used nothing but examples from nature which even a modern reader would immediately recognize. Indeed, God’s entire case to Job absolutely depends on Job being familiar with the lives and habits of the creatures to which he is referring, if not by having seen them himself, then at least by having heard reliable accounts of them.

Biology or Tolkien?

So here’s the problem: if Leviathan is a fiction, a myth, or just an over-hyped, bad-breathed crocodile, then the entire book of Job is every bit as fictive. What would be the value of describing to Job a creature which didn’t exist, let alone to detail the futile efforts of men to injure him with their weapons if such battles never occurred in the real world? Job would have at very least thought, if not actually said, Hey, wait a sec, I’ve never heard of this crazy creature ...

Leviathan is the culmination of God’s argument to Job. After God finishes, Job is fully persuaded, worshipful and repentant. But without a real-life Leviathan, it simply isn’t much of an argument. His historicity is a requirement. Absent it, God’s argument is every bit as credible as comparing the power of human beings to that of Balrogs, Ents or Glaurung the Great Worm ... except that Job had not read Tolkien.

Even if we were to decide the book of Job is merely the product of some uninspired human author rather than the Holy Spirit carrying along one of his servants, and that Job is a mere character in an ancient story rather than a real person, we are still stuck with more or less the same logical problem: Why would the writer build his storyline argument on nothing but what can be observed by anyone in the natural world, then suddenly make the culmination of that argument all about one or more fictitious creatures? It makes no sense from an authorial perspective, never mind a divine one. Whether it is God’s argument or no, to make it persuasive — let alone conclusive — requires that readers find not just the characters in his story but also his logic credible. Without a known, real-world creature in chapter 41, the tale falls completely flat. And making up a Leviathan from scratch isn’t at all necessary. Substituting whale, a shark, a hippopotamus or an elephant in chapter 41 would have still been quite impressive while not requiring readers to suspend their disbelief.

The Real Deal

Here’s a sensible conjecture: maybe the first readers of Job didn’t have to suspend any disbelief. It’s quite probable at least some of them knew what Leviathan was from first or second-hand experience. I can’t see any other plausible explanation for this chapter.

Theologically, the existence of Leviathan is not a matter of indifference. We cannot simply appropriate the moral lesson while rejecting the story itself. What hangs on the historicity of Leviathan is this two-verse statement about the power and glory of God:
“No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him [Leviathan] up. Who then is he who can stand before me? Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.”
Paul paraphrases the third sentence of this quartet when he asks his Roman readers, some of whom may have been familiar with both the book of Job and the writings of Pliny the Elder, “Who has given a gift to [the Lord] that he might be repaid?” The point he is making is basically the same point God was making to Job thousands of years earlier. Job, who repented in dust and ashes, would have immediately agreed.

Refusing to Hear What We Can’t Understand

But do we get the point? When the secularists attack the idea of Leviathan as a real creature in time and space, they are not so much fighting a battle between science and religion as they are simply refusing to hear God whenever he declines to explain himself to their satisfaction. That is an intolerable state of affairs. The whole point of what the writer of Job is telling us is that God need not explain himself at all. Ever. Sometimes, in grace, he does. But he has no obligation to, and we cannot demand it. He does not cease to become God because we do not like what is happening around us or because we are incapable of comprehending the reasoning behind it. If man cannot come to grips with a mere creature God has made, how much less can he call to account his Creator?

But when Paul makes use of the same principle of the inscrutability of divine wisdom in Romans, exactly the same unwillingness to hear God afflicts some of his Christian readers. How, they ask themselves, is it possible that “all Israel will be saved”? Surely God does not mean those horrible Jews? Those people who crucified Christ? Impossible! God cannot save Israel in that petty, literal sense, only in the wonderful spiritual sense that Israel is really just another name for the Church. Oh, we will allow that God may choose to save a few straggling Jews who repent, reject their history and identity and become good Christians ... only provided they become like us. But surely God cannot graft the Jews back into the tree of his plans and purposes and blessing on a national basis? That would reduce the Church to a mere phase in God’s dealings with mankind rather than the whole point of the salvation exercise. Surely that cannot be!

There are a great many of these folks out there. You have probably met some online. You might even be one.

From Him and Through Him and to Him ...

But when God declines to explain himself to our satisfaction, it doesn’t really matter whether the subject under dispute is the old creation or the new creation, the credibility of a sea creature we can’t see or the credibility of a plan to bless a nation of Christ-rejecting troublemakers in a future day in fulfillment of all God’s unbreakable promises.

God remains forever beyond our ability to fathom, his ways inscrutable and past finding out. He does not take counsel from man, and unlike everything in his creation he is an end in himself, for “from him and through him and to him are all things”.

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