Book of Job – Looking at our animal friends
Today we look at Chapter 39. I’m going to break it into sections to point out a few details.
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? 2 Do you count the months till they bear? Do you know the time they give birth? 3 They crouch down and bring forth their young; their labor pains are ended. 4 Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds; they leave and do not return.
This strikes me as odd because people in the ancient world were often quite aware of the cycles of life taking place around them. So it seems quite likely that there would be people in Job’s time who knew when the mountain goat mated and then when it gave birth. Perhaps because Job’s people were agrarian, they had lost touch with some of this knowledge. But today, anyone with the money can watch mountain goats mate and give birth on the Discovery channel. It’s not quite the great mystery most of us assume when first reading this. I think that perhaps this passage isn’t about some secret knowledge God has, but is pointing to the differences between parenting as a mountain goat vs parenting as a human. When a woman gives birth, her physical labor pains end, but the labor of raising children to maturity and beyond is only started. Our children do not leave and not return in most cases. IOW, although our cycles of life are shared by other parts of creation, they are not the same. God could also be pointing to the very wild cousins of the goats that were kept by humans.
5 “Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied its ropes? 6 I gave it the wasteland as its home, the salt flats as its habitat. 7 It laughs at the commotion in the town; it does not hear a driver’s shout. 8 It ranges the hills for its pasture and searches for any green thing.
Of course, no one set the wild donkey free. It was created free. We domesticated donkeys, and their wild cousins live as they always have. But wild donkeys have their homes, away from where others would want to dwell and they’re happy there. He pays no attention to us and doesn’t envy the domesticated donkey his life.
9 “Will the wild ox consent to serve you? Will it stay by your manger at night? 10 Can you hold it to the furrow with a harness? Will it till the valleys behind you? 11 Will you rely on it for its great strength? Will you leave your heavy work to it? 12 Can you trust it to haul in your grain and bring it to your threshing floor?
Again, God brings up an animal that humans domesticated and points to its still wild cousins. While we have oxen who do our bidding, their wild cousins will not. When someone needs heavy work done, he acquires an oxen from the stock of domesticated animals, but would not go out into the wild to acquire an ox. When we put our hands on God’s creation, we change it. But those parts of God’s creation that we don’t touch remain as they were created – beyond our control.
13 “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, though they cannot compare with the wings and feathers of the stork. 14 She lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, 15 unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them. 16 She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers; she cares not that her labor was in vain, 17 for God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense. 18 Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.
I think that part of what God may be pointing to here is that sometimes we are envious of the freedom and wild beauty of a wild animal such as an ostrich. We may even be awed by a creature that seems more amazing to our eyes than ourselves. But God points out, this is also a creature that doesn’t care for her young. She has not been given wisdom or good sense such as we have and for all of the ostrich’s power and speed, she cannot share God’s concerns for her offspring that binds us humans together and is intrinsic to what makes us image bearers. Also, I’m not sure about ancient times, but I do know that ostriches are farmed – domesticated – in places today. But again, messing with a wild ostrich is both difficult and dangerous.
19 “Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? 20 Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? 21 It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength, and charges into the fray. 22 It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword. 23 The quiver rattles against its side, along with the flashing spear and lance. 24 In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground; it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds. 25 At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’ It catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.
The horse is another animal we domesticated. Interestingly, God points to the horse’s role in battle when speaking of horses. What is described here is behavior that isn’t prevalent in wild horses. It took human domestication and training to bring this aspect of the animal’s nature to the forefront.
26 “Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings toward the south? 27 Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high? 28 It dwells on a cliff and stays there at night; a rocky crag is its stronghold. 29 From there it looks for food; its eyes detect it from afar. 30 Its young ones feast on blood, and where the slain are, there it is.”
There are two things I see taking place here. First, hawking is a very ancient practice. Some hawks really did (and sometimes still do) take flight by our instructions and head south (or where ever they have been directed). But again, their wild cousins are well beyond our control. Probably in part because they do build their nests in such inaccessible places. And yet, even the wildest and freest of creatures – the eagle – does not fail to be affected by our activities. Unlike the raven and their young from the end of the last chapter who go about on the ground crying out to God because there is nothing to eat, the eagles on the cliff and their young are fed whenever and where ever we go to war. Or even when we just leave our own meat unattended!
So, there are a few general observations to be made. God doesn’t point to strange and unfamiliar animals here. Even the mountain goat of the first section has a domesticated corollary. God gave us dominion over the animals and their domestication is part of what we have done with that. Perhaps God is saying that work done by his hands is wild, dangerous and free while work done by our hands captures the aspects of an animal’s nature that serves our needs. It is almost like God created and we harvested what we needed. God creates the wild and we create the domesticated. I also notice that the last two animals are spoken of in relation to humans going to war. Perhaps this is a subtle comparison between God who doesn’t always provide for the hungry lions or ravens and us who kill each other directly. And again, like in the last chapter, there does seem to be a level of respect given from God to what men have done. By the time of Job the secrets to animal domestication were probably lost to time – perhaps they were even given to Adam and Eve when they were given dominion over the animals. There seems to be a sense of awe that should come not just from God’s wild creation, but also from what man has been able to do with it. We are more powerful than we realize.