As COVID-19 has begun to shut down the United States, most of us are grieving losses of some sort or another. We grieve the loss of time spent with family and friends; we grieve the loss of vacations and events; we grieve the loss of jobs and stability. We grieve potential losses as we fear for the health of our parents and grandparents. But underlying all of these specific losses, I think there is a more abstract and profound type of loss. We grieve change; we wonder whether things will ever go back to “normal,” and we grieve the loss of the world as we previously knew it. When we experience a loss in normal times, we can figure out how to cope; we know where to turn for comfort and stability. But when seismic events like these occur, there is none to be found, because they disrupt any sense of order in our lives. It feels chaotic, but not just in the sense of panic buying in crowded grocery stores. It is chaotic in the sense that our structures and routines have been stripped away – everything comfortable and familiar – leaving us scrambling to figure out what to do and how to cope. It feels like there’s nothing under our feet, nothing to hold onto, because everything we’ve taken for granted has been called into question. Nothing feels certain anymore.
And it is in this space of utter lostness that our old friend Job finds us.
Ask a dozen scholars what theological issue the book of Job is trying to address, and you’ll likely get a dozen answers. It is difficult to pin down precisely what the book of Job is about; Saint Jerome in the 4th century said of Job, “It is like trying to grasp a little eel; the tighter you squeeze it, the sooner it escapes.” There are a number of themes that Job seems to address: the nature of disinterested piety (the question that concerns the Accuser in the prologue – do people fear God for nothing?), the problem of suffering and especially innocent suffering, the themes of order and chaos in creation, and the divine-human relationship. My own understanding is that Job is intended to raise several different questions and explore them all, rather than attempting to answer definitively or thoroughly treat any one of them.
But the theme in Job that I find most compelling is the idea of chaos in creation, and it is one that I find particularly meaningful during this time of fear and uncertainty. Most of the time, we like to cling to the illusion that we are in control of our lives. When a mysterious, frightening, uncontrollable pandemic sweeps the globe, that illusion is lost. We recognize that nothing is guaranteed, that there is a randomness to life and loss. And I think it is this same realization that Job is confronted with, rages against, and gradually comes to accept.
After the recounting of Job’s insurmountable loss, and after Job’s famous declaration of piety – “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away” – chapter 3 opens with Job cursing the day of his birth and even God’s creation (“let there be darkness” can be read as the wishful undoing of God’s command “let there be light”). In this initial outburst, Job expresses his misery and longing never to have been born, concluding with these words: “Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I have no ease, no quiet, no rest; but turmoil comes.”
Wisdom scholar Carol Newsom points out that Job does not say that he had dreaded the loss of his family and possessions and health. Instead, he implies that what he had feared was rather rogez, or turmoil. The closing words of ch. 3 reveal that Job’s material loss, although profound, is only the veneer for what truly disturbs him. Everything he believed about God and the world has been turned upside down. Order and coherence have given way to chaos and turmoil; his world, once so ordered and orderly, now makes no sense at all. He grasps for meaning, and cannot find it.
Throughout the next 39 chapters, Job attempts to make sense of life once again, to put the pieces of his theology back together. His friends assume that he must have sinned in order to deserve this suffering. Job knows that he has not, but he assumes that someone must be to blame. That someone, Job believes, must be God; that is the only logical alternative. God has done this to Job because God is a cruel tyrant who delights in torturing humans. (Haven’t read that part of Job? Check out chapter 16.)
When God finally answers Job, the divine speech from the whirlwind is both terrifying and exhilarating – and it introduces a completely new understanding of the world of which Job and his friends could not have conceived. While they have argued over who is to blame for the suffering, God does not engage this question; in fact, God’s response indicates that this is not the right question at all, and that their explanation of chaos is far too narrow and self-centered. Job and his friends – and humankind as a whole – do not even feature in the divine speeches but are reduced to a mere speck, an audience to a cosmic exhibition. Instead, God speaks about the mystery of the cosmos, the habits and hiding places of rain and snow, the wildness of the animal kingdom, and finally the terrifying, untamable grandeur of the chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan. The chaos which Job has so feared, and which he thinks God has unleashed on him, is just a part of the created order.
While God claims ownership over creation and alludes to the subduing of chaotic forces (38:10-11), the overarching theme of the divine speech is that of a wild, untamable, unruly creation – and the terrifying beauty of the undomesticated. What Job had tried to intellectually possess and control is revealed to be utterly beyond his grasp; his tour of creation shows him that the beauty and value of creation is inseparable from its wildness and freedom. Although God has set boundaries for creation, God has nonetheless woven chaos into its very fabric, such that “the sheer vitality of creation itself will produce situations and results beyond God’s control” (McCann, “Wisdom’s Dilemma,” 23). Job cannot demand answers from a creation that refuses to give them. He cannot control what even God does not control. Thus, Job must accept that suffering and chaos are “simply…conditions for participation in creation” (ibid).
The divine speeches serve as a kind of invitation for Job to be a part of this world of chaos, accepting it for what it is and finding his place within it. Presumably, Job accepts the invitation. He responds with humility, but I would argue that it is his willingness to go on with life and to bear children once again – arguably the most vulnerable act of all – that serves as his RSVP. Scholars have long noted the unusualness of the narrator telling us that, afterward, Job gave his daughters inheritance alongside his sons – something that wasn’t common in that time. Why? Perhaps because in a world of chaos, Job is more willing to color outside the lines, to live fully in the face of uncertainty. Perhaps, having accepted the wildness and freedom of the created world, Job himself can live with a little more freedom and spontaneity, holding what he has a bit more loosely.
I think the book of Job gives us a much richer and more complex theology of suffering than we give it credit for, and one that gives us a framework for understanding something like a pandemic. In fact, ironically, Newsom believes that a virus might be our most adequate comparison to the way the Israelites feared the great chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan. A virus, like those creatures, is something mysterious and terrifying, something we cannot understand and of which we live in fear. What does it mean for God to speak of COVID-19 as a wild creature that frolics in its domain, before whom terror dances (41:22)? We cannot control it, and we feel helpless before it. Nonetheless, we coexist with it in this creation, and we must find a way to live in a world where so many things are beyond our control or understanding.
There is terror in creation, but there is beauty, too – sometimes apart from the terror, and sometimes even within it. There is no love without loss, no rainbow without rain. Even in the present crisis, we recognize the strange truth that there are gifts tied up with the losses – more time with our family, a cleaner environment, a chance to slow down and rest. We could not disentangle the threads if we wanted to. Chaos is merely a condition of life in this world.
In crises like these, we naturally try to make some kind of meaning out of it or at least find some explanation. Did we do something wrong – is God punishing us? Or has God brought this upon us so that we would return to God? Is God not all-powerful – or is God just not good? I believe that Job shows us that there is a certain randomness and unpredictability to creation. Not that God is overpowered by God’s own creation, or that God is impotent in the face of contagion – but that God has created wild things and allowed them to go free. Us included.
This pandemic has not fundamentally changed reality for us; it has merely unveiled it. Instead of living in denial, we are now confronted daily with the chaos of the world and with our own smallness and fragility in light of it. But now that we are aware of this dynamic, perhaps we can follow Job by living fully into it and embracing the life we have in all its complexity and chaos, in all its sorrows and joys. You, too, are a creature. Be wild and free and beautiful. Bring children into the world, even though it’s a risky and courageous thing to do – for the ostrich (39:14-15), for Job, and for you. Give them playful and extravagant names like Cinnamon and Eyeshadow (42:14) and give to them without holding back. Buck the trend and challenge social norms. Innovate and color outside the lines. And maybe, when this is all over, we will focus less on controlling our lives and more on living them.