Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? …The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment… Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Job 38:4–7, 14, 16 (NIV)
These verses from the Biblical book of Job focus on the Earth, from the top of the highest mountains to the deepest valleys of the sea floor. Job is described as a man who used to have a very comfortable life, but then loses everything: his health, his ten children, and much of his property. Job can see no obvious reason for this terrible turn of events, so Job demands an answer from God, asking “What have I done to you…? Why have you made me your target?” (Job 7:20).
There is no direct reply to Job’s question, but instead a long conversation with his friends who assume (wrongly) that he must be being punished for doing something very bad. When God finally speaks, in chapters 38-41, he draws Job’s attention to his surroundings. The sun, moon and stars, the immensity of land and sea, the creatures that inhabit them, and the processes that produce weather are a wonderful display of God’s creative power. God is the origin and sustainer of all these things, and they are far beyond anything humankind could produce, fully understand or imagine – even today.
The things we do understand about the processes described in the closing chapters of Job can help us appreciate how marvellous they are. Mountains and valleys are produced by the movement of the Earth’s rocky crust over great periods of time. Erosion by weathering or glaciers grinds down rocks to produce the mineral component of soil. Volcanoes also contribute to fertility, bring minerals up from Earth’s deep interior to the surface. As organisms flourished on earth, oxygen built up in the atmosphere. The intensity of the sun has increased by thirty to forty per cent since it was formed. All of these factors have contributed to making Earth fit for life, including human life.
Many branches of the church are celebrating Creationtide this month, which is a time to reflect on, pray and care for God’s good creation. So it’s worth remembering that the entire Biblical narrative makes it clear that the fruitfulness of Earth, which makes such a great abundance of life possible, is not solely for our benefit. All of life, and in fact non-life as well because rocks and water are included, are constantly praising and bringing glory to God. Maybe this is part of the reason why we often find that being outdoors is so good for us. When we immerse ourselves in natural habitats we don’t just get to experience the kind of environment we were made to live in, but we are exposed to the praise of all creation and have the opportunity to find our place, joining in with the rest of the choir.
The imagery used in this particular passage from Job draws upon ideas from human creativity. There is reference to architecture – perhaps similar to other uses of temple imagery throughout the Bible. Is the seal an allusion to of God’s ownership of the world? The garment idea mentioned must refer to the wrinkles in a piece of clothing – peaks and valleys in miniature. Whichever perspective you are looking from, this passage tells us, the Earth is the handiwork of God, and belongs to him.
The question Job asked ends up seeming very small compared to the answer he is given, but the story of Job is important. Faith must be lived out in hard as well as easy or comfortable times, and we need help in doing that. In this context, God first speaks to Job in the midst of his suffering, lifting his eyes to the power and creativity of his maker. Only after that theology lesson are Job’s practical needs addressed.
The perspective that comes from considering the wider picture of creation can help restore our sense of who we are, who God is, and where we fit into his purposes. I’m not suggesting this is something we should always emulate in our own ministry. Jesus’ often addressed physical needs before attempting to speak into the situation. But a constant check on our own thinking – reminding ourselves of the big picture – might be just what we need to keep us going in the coming months.
This article drew very directly on the writing of Prof Bob White in New Daylight (BRF, Sept-Dec 2020), and the input of a Bible study group based in Cambridge.
 I believe by a very long slow process!