Sermon for February 28th, 2021
Job 38:39-41 (OT p.485)
39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40 when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41 Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
All Creatures of Our God & King - The Lion and the Raven
After Noah had weathered the storm for 40 days and 40 nights, after the ark landed on solid ground, and after the flood waters receded, he gave thanks to the Lord, lowered the ramp of the ark, and set all the animals free, telling them to "go forth and multiply over all the earth." All the animals left... except for two snakes who lay quietly in the corner of the ark. "Why are you still here?" Noah asked in surprise. "We can't go forth and multiply." said the snakes. "Why not?" asked Noah. The snakes looked at him for a moment and said, "Because we're adders."
With the possible exception of Genesis (where we find the creation story, and the story of Noah and the Ark), no book in the entire Bible has more to say about animals than the Book of Job. That may seem surprising for a book that is largely about a guy named Job, who is the subject of a cosmic wager between God and Satan, a guy who loses all of his possessions, his family, and his health, and then spends 38 chapters commiserating about his misfortunes with his three friends, only to come face to face with God, who ultimately restores Job to all of his former prosperity. Where are the animals?
If you've heard the story before (and you have, since I have preached from the book of Job every year during Lent for the past seven years) you may remember something about his 3,000 camels and 7,000 sheep, 5,000 donkeys and 1,000 cows. That's a lot of animals. But those animals make an appearance in the first chapter and again in the last chapter, and nowhere in between, without a lot of commentary.
Today, and for the next two weeks, we're going to delve into the poetic part of Job--those 38 chapters of poetic verse that form the core of the book. And in those chapters, we find a lot more animals. Entire catalogues of animals, in fact. And that may lead us to ask, "Why? What's the point of that in a book about suffering and sorrow and loss?"
Actually (and this may surprise you) the Book of Job is not primarily about suffering, although we often view it that way. It was written in a very specific genre, and follows very specific conventions that would have made its subject instantly recognizable to people in the ancient world, but less so for us today.
The Book of Job is all about wisdom. It is one of three books of the Bible that are known as the "Wisdom books" and it is one of hundreds of wisdom writings from the ancient Middle East. The central question of the Book of Job comes halfway through the book, in chapter 28, verse 12: "Where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?"
Spoiler alert: The ancient sages who wrote in the wisdom tradition (who were the scientists of their day) had an answer for that question: Wisdom is found by observing the natural world around us, its rhythms and its movements, and drawing from those things the lessons and principles by which the universe functions. This is reflected in Job chapter 12:7-8: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you."
For this reason, animals, along with plants and weather patterns, are consistent features of all wisdom literature, including the book of Job. What can we learn from observing them? About the world we inhabit? About ourselves, about each other and about God who created all things?
Today's sermon is about Lions and Ravens. Lions actually make their first appearance in Job chapter 4, when Job's friend Eliphaz is trying to comfort him--or more accurately, trying to explain why all these bad things have happened to him. He basically tells Job that you reap what you sow. Everyone gets what's coming to them in the end. And then, to support his argument that even the strongest things come to ruin, he literally throws in some lions:
"The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion, and the teeth of the young lions are broken. The strong lion perishes for lack of prey, and the whelps of the lioness are scattered."
In English, those are all...lions, with adjectives to modify them: basic lion, fierce lion, young lion, strong lion, and girl lion. But in Hebrew, those are five completely different words: אַ֭רְיֵה (ar-yeh), שָׁ֑חַל (sa-hal), כְּפִיר (kephir), לַ֭יִשׁ (la-yis), and לָ֝בִ֗יא (la-bi). If you look all of those words up in a good Hebrew dictionary, each entry simply says "lion." We have no idea what kinds of lions they are--it's just the best guess of whomever is translating your Bible into English.
This is a common feature of wisdom literature: a catalogue or list of similar, even related animals, with the idea that there are subtle distinctions between them that somehow make a point. Whatever point that may have been in the list of lions is lost to us now, but if I were to talk today about a dog, a puppy, a pure-bred, and a mutt, you would get the subtle distinctions, even though I'm talking about the same animal.
I think the takeaway for us, is that a wise person observes, notices, and appreciates diversity in God's creation. There is a value in categorizing things, sometimes grouping them together and sometimes distinguishing them from one another.
In our scripture passage today, Lions appear again, this time in a speech that God makes to Job from out of a whirlwind. We'll get to the lions in just a moment, but first I want to read to you the first part of that speech--it's not about animals, but about nature. Job has been asking God to explain why bad things happen to good people, and God essentially says, "Who are you to even comprehend the way the world works? Where were you when I was putting all these things into motion?" And then in verse 25, God says:
25 “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, 26 to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, 27 to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?
I love this passage. It reminds us that we, as human beings, are not actually at the center of everything God does. God sends rain and makes the grass grow even in places where no humans reside. In other words, nature has a purpose all of its own, independent from us. Nature does not exist simply to please and serve us, and by implication, neither do animals. They have a life, and a purpose quite apart from us. This is a direct counter-argument to another tradition that runs throughout the Bible--the Genesis tradition which says that God created all these things for mankind to exercise dominion over. The Book of Job, in many ways, puts forth a dissenting point of view, and shows us that the Bible is full of rich, diverse, and sometimes conflicting perspectives.
Ok, now the lions. In verse 39, God says: "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?"
This is, of course a rhetorical question in a long series of rhetorical questions. The correct answer is that, no, Job himself cannot hunt for the lions of the earth and provide food for them. Nor can we. But the implication is that God can, and does, provide for the needs of all creatures--not always in a way that seems acceptable to us, but certainly in a way that somehow works, since clearly lions have been around for thousands of years, with only the occasional meal provided by humans.
God continues, switching to a very different animal (one of my favorite animals), the Raven. Verse 41: "Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
Lions hunt for their food. Ravens, on the other hand, are scavengers. Ravens are often dependent on other animals (including humans) to hunt or otherwise make leftover food available to them. As the verse implies, scavenging is not an easy task, and sometimes the young ravens go hungry. And yet...somehow, Ravens have found a way to exist, and thrive, for thousands of years. Whether it's predatory hunting or scavenging, God has given each creature the means to survive--neither of those means may be very appealing to us, but they are the right means for the animal in question. I like to imagine that both the Lion and the Raven would be completely disgusted by the thought of pushing a cart down the aisle of a grocery store, filling it with boxes of frozen food.
In a supreme example of irony, Ravens--those scavengers who are never sure where their next meal is coming from--show up again in the book of 1st Kings, when the great and powerful prophet Elijah is stranded alone in the desert. God commands the ravens to bring him bread and meat in the morning and evening of each day, keeping him alive and nursing him back to health.
What's the message--the wisdom--here for us? God takes care of his creation, both animal and human alike. Jesus says something very similar in Luke 12, also (for what it's worth) referencing Ravens.
He says to his disciples: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?"
So...Consider the ravens. Consider the lions (all of them). Consider all of God's creation, and the wisdom we gain when we observe it carefully, when we let go of our worries, our fears and our presuppositions; when instead we place our trust in the rhythms and processes of creation, in the amazing and providential care that the creator of the universe put into place before the beginning of time.