In the supposed conflict between science and Scripture, most of the skirmishes revolve around the book of Genesis. Its first 11 chapters deal with cosmology, the origin of life and primordial history, topics often considered the exclusive purview of modern science.

Yet for all that, the most extensive discourse on what we’d call scientific observation is found in the unlikeliest corner of Scripture: the book of Job. Most of this ancient text is a classic meditation on the topic of suffering. In its final five chapters, however, God confronts Job with about 160 questions concerning the natural world, touching on topics that include astronomy, geology, weather patterns and animal behaviour, among others.

God does this to demonstrate his infinite power and wisdom to Job – but also to us, who read these words thousands of years after they were written. In them, we see our scientific discoveries as echoes of what God revealed through his Word ages ago.

Job, the man and the book

The book of Job is likely the oldest document preserved in Scripture. The story it records is certainly among the oldest. Job and his friends were roughly contemporary with Abraham, living about 4,000 years ago in the region of Edom or northwest Arabia (modern Jordan).

In the world of the Ancient Near East (ANE), the cultures of the region where Job lived were especially renowned for their wisdom. They and other surrounding nations produced what came to be known as wisdom literature, a genre that was popular throughout the ANE. Primarily in the form of poetry, these writings explored questions about the character of God (or the gods), the problem of suffering, and how to live a wise and virtuous life. They invited readers to meditate on these hard questions rather than offering easy answers.

Wisdom literature is represented in Scripture by the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, parts of the Psalms, and most characteristically by the book of Job. True to its genre, Job (the book) never offers Job (the man) – or the reader, for that matter – a clearcut answer to why God permitted such terrible suffering. Instead, God illustrates through the wonders of his creation that he’s wise and powerful enough to have reasons for allowing suffering which neither Job nor we can begin to understand.

God’s litany of power and wonder

After Job and his friends spend three dozen chapters debating about the justice of God, whether Job deserves to suffer and what he should do about it, the Lord appears and speaks directly to Job. God challenges him with a litany of rhetorical questions, seasoned with more than a pinch of irony, to drive home to Job how little he understands the mysteries of nature.

Where were you when I established the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? What supports its foundations? Or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

According to the cosmology of ANE cultures, the Earth was a flat disk resting on pillars, with a solid dome above that contained the heavenly bodies. God’s questions contradict that common image of the day: Do you know the Earth’s dimensions, and what supports it? Earlier in the book, Job himself said that God “stretches the northern skies over empty space; he hangs the earth on nothing.” Contrary to ancient cosmology and millennia before the discoveries of modern science, God revealed that the earth hangs in empty space, supported by nothing but its own structural integrity, what we call gravity.

Can you fasten the chains of the Pleiades or loosen the belt of Orion? Can you bring out the constellations in their season and lead the Bear and her cubs? Do you know the laws of heaven? Can you impose its authority on earth?

God’s questions to Job continue to challenge the conventional cosmology of the ANE. Far from being fixed on a solid dome, the stars and constellations obey physical laws involving unfathomable power. The Pleiades is an open cluster of bright stars, now known to be bound by mutual gravitational attraction. Can Job hold them together, or can he pull the three stars in Orion’s belt apart? These questions point to astronomical discoveries that were still thousands of years in the future.

Where is the road to the home of light? Do you know where darkness lives, so you can lead it back to its border? Are you familiar with the paths to its home? Don’t you know? You were already born; you have lived so long!

The ancients believed light to be a static thing, perhaps even the product of our eyes. But here, God speaks of light as something dynamic, with a home and a source and travelling along its paths. It’s an ancient poetic way to describe the modern discovery that light is a wave and a particle that travels at unimaginable speeds.

Does the rain have a father? Who fathered the drops of dew? Whose womb did the ice come from? Who gave birth to the frost of heaven when water becomes as hard as stone, and the surface of the watery depths is frozen? 

Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the water jars of heaven when the dust hardens like cast metal and the clods of dirt stick together?

He wraps up the water in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst beneath its weight. For he makes waterdrops evaporate; they distill the rain into its mist, which the clouds pour out and shower abundantly on mankind.

Having grilled Job about the heavens and the earth, God moves on to questions about the environment and its weather patterns. Taken together with earlier words from Job and Elihu, the text offers a remarkable picture of the hydrologic (water) cycle. Where does water come from? Where does it go? How does it get into the clouds? Why don’t the oceans fill up? The ancients had some fanciful ideas, but it wasn’t until about 400 years ago that the hydrologic cycle – anticipated by the book of Job – was properly understood.

Does the hawk take flight by your understanding and spread its wings to the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and make its nest on high? It lives on a cliff where it spends the night; its stronghold is on a rocky crag. From there it searches for prey; its eyes penetrate the distance. Its brood gulps down blood, and where the slain are, it is there.

The bulk of God’s address to Job is taken up with questions about the animal kingdom. Through these, God quizzes Job about the feeding, nesting and migratory patterns of various birds and beasts, both wild and domestic. He concludes with an entire chapter devoted to Leviathan, a dreaded (and now extinct) sea creature that puts a capstone on God’s litany of power and wonder in the natural world.

Ancient wisdom and modern science

Like the rest of Scripture, the book of Job is not a science text. To treat it as such is to read our own modern assumptions and questions back into it, rather than allowing it to question us, as God did with Job. For that to happen, we need to approach Job (as we do all of Scripture) in its own cultural, historical and literary context.

Job is set about 4,000 years ago, outside the land of Israel and apart from its mainstream history, which didn’t exist as yet. The book is a classic example of ANE wisdom literature, tackling life’s most profound questions through the form of poetry and inviting readers to ponder those questions without offering them any pat answers.

Skeptics regard Job as a work of fiction, echoing the mythical beliefs prevalent in the cultures of the ANE. In truth, however, the book challenges those beliefs and reveals the one true Sovereign Creator God, whose wisdom and power are reflected in his creation.

The final chapters of Job were not written to be a science lesson. Nevertheless, their ancient wisdom, expressed through poetic language, foreshadows the discoveries of modern science that came thousands of years later.

Their ultimate message is the same now as it was for Job: God’s wisdom and power are beyond our imagining. Consequently, his reasons for allowing us to suffer are beyond our ability to grasp. All he asks is that we trust him.

Sources and further reading

Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job: How the Oldest Book in the Bible Answers Today’s Scientific Questions, Baker Books, 2011.

David Sanford, “What the book of Job reveals to us about nature,”, April 1, 2021.

J. Warner Wallace, “Is the astronomy in the book of Job scientifically consistent?Cold-Case Christianity, August 17, 2018.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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