Sermon for March 14th, 2021
Job 39:13-30 (OT p.486)
13 The ostrich’s wings flap wildly, though its pinions lack plumage. 14 For it leaves its eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed on the ground, 15 forgetting that a foot may crush them, and that a wild animal may trample them. 16 It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own; though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear; 17 because God has made it forget wisdom, and given it no share in understanding. 18 When it spreads its plumes aloft, it laughs at the horse and its rider. 19 “Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane? 20 Do you make it leap like the locust? Its majestic snorting is terrible. 21 It paws violently, exults mightily; it goes out to meet the weapons. 22 It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword. 23 Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. 24 With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet. 25 When the trumpet sounds, it says ‘Aha!’ From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting. 26 “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? 27 Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high? 28 It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag. 29 From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away. 30 Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.”
All Creatures of our God & King: Ostrich, Horse, Hawk, Eagle
Some churches and preachers would have you believe that the Bible is a simple, straightforward text. You just read what it says, do what it says, and that's it. But for anyone who actually reads AND studies the Bible, it doesn't take long to realize that things are not quite so simple. Take our scripture passage today, the opening lines of verse 13. I'm going to read this verse to you in several of the most well-known and respected English translations:
NRSV: The ostrich’s wings flap wildly, though its pinions lack plumage. NIV: The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, though they cannot compare with the wings and feathers of the stork. ESV: The wings of the ostrich wave proudly, but are they the pinions and plumage of love? KJV: Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich? STG: The peacock has a beautiful wing: if the stork and the ostrich conceive, it is worthy of notice.
If you happen to have one of our pew bibles handy (NRSV translation) I want you to look at the footnote for verse 13 at the bottom of the page. It says, "Meaning of Hebrew uncertain." Now look at the footnote to verse 18, just a few verses down. What does it say? "Meaning of Hebrew uncertain." Now flip through some of the pages of the Book of Job and look at all the footnotes. You'll see that same note, "Meaning of Hebrew uncertain", oh, I don't know--probably about one or two HUNDRED other times throughout the book.
It's true that the Book of Job contains some of the most challenging Hebrew language in the Bible. It's also a good reminder that if even the world's foremost experts and Biblical scholars (in every generation going back for over a thousand years) still can't agree on what SO MANY verses of the Bible actually say...MAYBE we should approach the Bible with humility and wonder, instead of with certainty and over-confident judgment (as, unfortunately, many Christians do). Nor should we be too quick to dismiss it entirely on the basis of our limited understanding of it (as, unfortunately, many non-Christians do today).
The Bible contains wisdom--things worth knowing and practicing. But it also contains mystery--things worth studying, pondering, and simply soaking in...even if they don't make a lot of sense at first.
For the purposes of this sermon, however, I'm going to assume (along with the NRSV) that we're probably talking about Ostriches here in verses 13 through 18.
For the past two weeks, we've been looking at these diverse lists of animals that show up in the Book of Job. Like that ancient wisdom sages who wrote the Book of Job, we're asking ourselves what wisdom we can learn from the natural world around us--in particular, from the animals that God references in his speech to Job.
Today's list (minus peacocks and storks) includes the ostrich, the horse, the eagle, and the hawk. What do these animals have in common? Last week's list included a bunch of wild animals. It might be tempting to see this list as a continuation of that one, except for the horse, which is one of the oldest domesticated animals. Actually, ALL of the animals in this list were domesticated in the ancient world. There is evidence of ostrich farming (and even humans riding ostriches!) in Sumeria 1,000 years before the time of Christ. Both Eagles and Hawks were domesticated and used as hunting animals in ancient Egypt and Babylon.
Three of our animals (ostrich, hawk and eagle) are birds, but the horse is not. Two animals (horse and ostrich) are land-runners, while two are sky-flyers. My best guess about the similarities is that these are all animals known for their speed...and for their perceived (by humans, at least) cruelty.
The ostrich, in verse 16, is described as dealing "cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own." I can understand how an observant student of ostriches in the ancient world would come to this conclusion. A male ostrich will mate with several females, but the dominant female will push all of the other female's eggs out of the nest, leaving them to be trampled or ransacked by predators.
Of course, the modern student of ostriches may also note that these "ousted eggs" serve as an early source of nutrition for the eggs that actually hatch. Less than one percent of all the eggs in an ostrich nest go on to become full-grown ostriches.
The horse is described in verses 19 through 25, with its terrible snorting, its violent pawing, and its fierceness and rage. This is not a gentle farm-horse, but rather the mighty war horse that "goes out to meet the weapons" and "laughs at fear" when it smells the battle ahead of it.
Finally, the eagle and the hawk are described in verses 26 through 30--rapacious birds of prey, living on barren crags and spying out their prey from a distance. "Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are (the dead in battle), there it is.
This is all pretty violent, gruesome imagery. When people act this way, we tend to judge and condemn such actions. And yet, we rarely blame the ostrich, the horse, the hawk, and the eagle for their swift and pragmatic opportunism. Is it because we, humans, are so much smarter, so much better, so much more enlightened than they? I don't think so.
But nor do I think that God (or the writer of the Book of Job) is condoning violence. I think this is an acknowledgement that we live in a world where violence happens, for any number of reasons--some pragmatic, and some truly random. And violence can tear apart our lives swiftly, in the twinkling of an eye, at the speed of...well, an eagle or an ostrich.
Remember that God, in this chapter, is speaking to Job, who has lost everything at the hands of violent bandits who raided his property, and the violent storms that took the lives of his children. If we are truly observant students of life, we must acknowledge that we live in a world filled with violence--sometimes perpetrated by our fellow human beings, but just as often from "natural" disasters and cataclysms, or what insurance companies like to call "Acts of God."
This has been true for thousands of years, and I think will continue to be true for thousands of years to come.
But wisdom teaches us that we have a choice: We can fall into despair over the cruelty of the world (and Job *almost* does), or we can humbly acknowledge our small and fragile place in it, and God's sovereign control over all that we cannot understand.
The lone ostrich egg that hatches and survives into adulthood can live for over 60 years--one of the longest lifespans of any bird. And as verse 18 points out, when that ostrich spreads its flightless wings to run, it puts both horse and rider to shame.
The mighty war horse did not cause the war, but when it rides into battle, it "laughs at fear, and is not dismayed."
The eagle and the hawk do not take sides in the struggles of men, but they watch and they wait, and they feed their young ones with what God has provided.
People of First Presbyterian Church--will you listen to the animals? Will you let them teach you? Will you seek after the wonder and the mystery of God's creation, and will you let yourselves be caught up in the beautiful, terrible, amazing and dangerous existence that God is calling us to be part of?