I had the honor of asking Dr. Kyle C. Dunham (author of The Pious Sage in Job) a few questions regarding the book of Job, and how Christians and modern laypeople can best understand this ancient text.
My questions are in bold.
Some find the references to Leviathan and Behemoth both intriguing and confusing. Can you explain what is going on there? What seems to be the point of their inclusion?
Dunham: Determining the identity and role of Behemoth and Leviathan is a challenging yet important question. Typically commentators have adopted two tacks. One camp interprets these creatures as literal animals (traditionally the hippopotamus and crocodile, respectively) highlighting God’s dominance over the most ferocious fringes of the created order. The other camp views them as mythological creatures representing the forces of evil, specifically the demonic forces behind death and sin. Although I favor a literal interpretation, scholars who propose a mythological understanding are correct, I think, to note that the language is often “poetically-charged” and hyperbolic (E. Smick uses the term “mytho-poetic”). Before I provide my rationale for my view, let me say a few words about the meaning of the terms Behemoth and Leviathan. Behemoth is the plural of the Hebrew word for beast, used frequently to refer to cattle (Gen 8:1; Joel1:20; Hab 2:17; Psa 8:8; 49:13, 21, 51). The plural form is an intensive plural, meaning that the referent is a singular entity so completely characterized by the qualities it possesses that the plural form is used. Behemoth is thus an exceptional exemplar of the cattle-beast. Leviathan appears elsewhere in the OT as a type of sea-monster which Yahweh created to play in the sea (Ps 104:25–26). The psalmist depicts Israel’s exodus as Yahweh’s decisive victory over the multi-headed Leviathan(Ps 74:13–14). Isaiah depicts Yahweh’s defeat of Leviathan as symbolic of his eschatological victory over the forces of evil: “In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isa 27:1;cf. Job 3:8). Of the two beasts, Leviathan is more often depicted in the OT as a primordial beast either subservient to God on the one hand or opposing Yahweh and his redemptive purposes, alternatively a physical beast or the embodiment of hostile demonic forces. My reasons for preferring the naturalistic interpretation are the following. (1) The poems describing Behemoth and Leviathan are not essentially different from the earlier poems, which deal with familiar birds and animals. These previous flesh-and-blood animals, from which significant conclusions are drawn about the world and man’s place in it, would be rather mitigated if Yahweh must turn now to mythological creatures to consummate his point. (2) Fanciful imagery is used elsewhere without implying mythology. F. Andersen says: “We are no more required to believe that Behemoth’s bones were made of metal (40:18) than that God has water-bottles in the sky (38:37)” (p. 288). (3) Allowing for poetic imagery, the book of Job is otherwise realistic throughout. God is the only supernatural authority figure; Satan and the angels are relatively minor (and managed) characters. (4) Yahweh states in Job 40:15 that Job and Behemoth are equally God’s creatures: “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you.”(5) The use of poetic hyperbole, including possible allusions to mythology, is characteristic of Hebrew poetry in general and of Job’s poetry in particular. Seeing them as natural creatures described hyperbolically is more consistent with the author’s style. (6) Behemoth is not characterized as entirely horrific and predatory, as are the terrifying beasts of ancient Near Eastern creation mythology. Behemoth grazes (40:20), lies peacefully in the bulrushes (vv.21–22), and laps its waters (v. 23). Leviathan, although admittedly more terrifying, is not quite on par with monsters from the ANE [Ancient Near East] but is depicted in rather naturalistic although intensified ways. (7) As Gordis notes, the writer of Job is not chronicling cosmic events from the past, as are the Sumerian and Ugaritic creation epics, but is describing the habits and appearance of creatures related to Job in the present. With these factors in mind, I prefer to see Behemoth and Leviathan as natural creatures described poetically and hyperbolically. The point seems to be that these fearsome creatures, more powerful and savage than Job can handle or imagine, are also created and sustained by Yahweh. How much more does this reveal Job’s limited, finite perspective and utter dependence on God for life and justice?
What are we to make of the scene in the opening chapters of Job that depict God and Satan in dialogue? Are we to take this literally? (Do you think that Satan and God literally communicate in heaven?)
Dunham: I think we are to understand this narrative as a divine-council type scene. The sons of God are angelic hosts that appear before Yahweh, and the title alludes to their celestial powers. The manner of their gathering is fashioned after a royal council in which the king is surrounded by his courtiers. Texts from Canaan and Mesopotamia commonly picture the pantheon as a divine assembly in which the supreme god rules in the midst of a community of gods. In the OT, references to this type of scene underscore the supremacy of Yahweh: “God has taken His place in the divine assembly; He judges among the gods” (Ps 82:1). The participants in the divine council are elsewhere referred to in the OT as “messengers/angels,” “gods,” “host of heaven,” and “the sons of God.” The most pointed portrayals of the divine assembly outside this context are 1 Kings 22:19–22; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 23:18; Daniel 7:9–14; and Zechariah 3. In 1 Kings 22 Micaiah ben Imlah perceives “the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (1 Kgs 22:19). In Daniel 7 the Ancient of Days is seated on his throne attended by thousands upon thousands of his courtiers. The purpose of their presentation before Yahweh is unclear, but it perhaps carries literary allusions to the preceding episode since the angels appear before God on their appointed day just as Job’s children appear before him on their appointed day (cf. “on the day” v. 6). While there are mysteries concerning the nature of communication in the divine realm, I would understand the narrative to convey actual conversations between God and Satan. Satan appears to be permitted access to God’s “divine council” in some fashion.
In what ways do you find Job relevant to the church today, and relevant regarding the ongoing dialogue about the problem of evil?
Dunham: I think the book of Job is very relevant for the church today. It informs not only our understanding of God’s freedom and sovereignty but also provides insight to more practical areas such as counseling and questions about the nature and origin of evil. With respect to this last issue especially, I think the book of Job has much to teach us about the nature of suffering and evil in the life of the believer.
I offer several points for consideration. (1) Although much human suffering remains in the realm of mystery, suffering may be used by God as a vehicle for the transformation of the sufferer. Job is never supplied the rationale for why God allowed his suffering; in fact, one of the emphases of the Yahweh speeches is that the believer will never understand many things simply because he or she is not God. Yet Job is personally transformed through the process of suffering, a change evident in his final response to Yahweh: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6). Job has grown through the process of suffering in a way that revolutionizes his response to Yahweh by the end of the book. Humble, submissive faith has replaced his agonized protestations of innocence. Job has not only experienced suffering; he has experienced an encounter with God himself.
(2) All suffering falls within the purview of God’s sovereignty. Job never supposes that God is anything less than sovereign, that his suffering is merely a random occurrence outside the sphere of God’s sovereignty. Rather, his struggle is with God himself: it is God’s sovereignty that is the very basis of his conflict. Satan, the literary foil and perpetrator of these misfortunes, is merely a pawn in God’s purposes. As Job asks from the beginning: “Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). God is ultimately the impetus behind everything that occurs.
(3) The author’s focus on the righteousness of Job points to the reality of innocent suffering. Not all suffering is tied directly to one’s personal sin in a strict cause-effect relationship. The latter view is the response of the three counselors indicted in the epilogue. Rather, some suffering in this fallen world is not attributable directly to immediate, personal sin. This theological emphasis is an appropriate counter-balance to other biblical books which pose a relatively straightforward connection between sin and consequences (e.g., Deuteronomy, Kings, Proverbs). We must be very cautious in light of this about drawing a strict correlation between one’s suffering and one’s sin.
Although this may be true in some instances, we would be wrong to deduce this unilaterally in each case. Such conclusions ultimately usurp God.
(4) There is space in suffering for lament and even protest. A desire to sanitize our grief stems perhaps from the mistaken notion that Christians must always display a stiff upper lip. The book of Job demonstrates, however, that mourners are given room to vent their frustrations, disappointments, and questions to God. The key is not allowing bitterness to take root but rather to be honest with God in wrestling through the experience of “strange providences.”
(5) For the believer, suffering leads to greater faith rather than the loss of faith. As D. A. Carson notes: “At no point does Job abandon faith in God; at no point does he follow his wife’s advice to curse God. It is precisely because he knows God to be there, and to be loving and just, that he has such a hard time understanding such injustice. Job wrestles with God, he is indignant with God, he challenges God to come before him and provide some answers; but all his struggles are the struggles of a believer. That is why Job can be praised, by God himself, for saying the right things: at least he spoke within the right framework” (How Long, O Lord?, 141–42).
(6) God is gracious and compassionate toward the sufferer. Although many readers contend that the epilogue’s “happy ending” overturns a major point of the book, namely, that righteousness and evil do not result automatically in blessing and suffering respectively, this should not be our conclusion. Rather, the epilogue demonstrates that in the end God has compassion toward his creation. He is free to display grace toward whomever he wills. His plans for his people are good, and he works to bring together all things for their good (Rom 8:28). Much of this activity remains veiled in mystery, but the book illustrates that believers must go forward in faith that God is working for their ultimate good in every situation.
If you could reduce Job to a sentence or two, what might that look like? What do you feel the main message of Job is, in a nutshell?
Dunham: I would summarize the book of Job in the following way: As evident in his unrivalled wisdom, freedom, and goodness in creating and sustaining the world and its inhabitants, the LORD is the sovereign and gracious God who faithfully administers justice according to his character and purpose and is therefore worthy of worship, trust, and service. There is much more that could be said. The book of Job is a goldmine that richly repays the diligent and careful student.
Thank you for your time!
Currently working on a commentary on Ecclesiastes in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series, Dr. Kyle C. Dunham is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Dunham’s areas of expertise include the kingdom of God, ancient Near Eastern theodicy, the book of Job, and Hebrew Wisdom Literature.