The poetry of science in the book of JobWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
The Bible is not a science textbook. This statement gets tossed around a lot in discussions about how to interpret the Scriptures. It’s usually shorthand for an argument that runs something like this: The Bible was written in pre-scientific times by pre-modern authors with religious intent. As such, its scope of authority is limited to matters of theology and ethics. When it comes to observations about the natural world, however, the Bible must submit to the light of modern science.
This line of reasoning may be faulty, to say the least, but it does get one thing right. The Bible is indeed not a science textbook. And thanks be to God that it isn’t. Textbooks are often dry, prosaic affairs. They’re useful for imparting facts, not so much for gripping the imagination or moving the heart.
God’s Word, by contrast, speaks to the whole person. It’s meant to elicit awe and worship for God from the whole person – heart, soul, strength and mind.
To that end, all things in Scripture – historical accounts, prophecies, songs, descriptions of nature – are recorded with a specific purpose in view. That purpose isn’t to provide exhaustive data on any particular subject. Rather it’s to turn our eyes heavenward, to focus our thoughts and affections on the glory of God.
Science writing for the mind, heart and imagination
Aside from the creation account in Genesis, the Bible’s most sustained discussion of the physical world – what we moderns would call science – is found in the book of Job. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Job is an ancient document, one of the oldest in the Scriptures. Second, the bulk of the book is in the form of poetry, a genre not normally associated with science writing.
To be sure, it isn’t science writing as we’ve come to know it. There are no complex formulae or tables of data or specialized technical terms to decipher. There’s simply God talking to Job, asking him a series of rhetorical questions about the wonders of creation.
These questions touch on a wide array of what we’d call scientific disciplines, including geoscience, oceanography, climatology, astronomy and zoology, as illustrated by the following excerpts from Job chapters 38 and 39:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed”?
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? On the rock he dwells and makes his home, on the rocky crag and stronghold. From there he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it from far away. His young ones suck up blood, and where the slain are, there is he.
This is only a sample of the litany of questions God posed to Job. His intent was to impress upon Job that divine wisdom – even in allowing suffering – lies infinitely beyond the reach of human understanding.
For that purpose, the Lord recounted some of the mysteries of his creation that reflect his wisdom and power. As a result, Job was driven to a renewed sense of awe and wonder, and ultimately, to worship. Such an outcome was accomplished far more effectively via colourful poetic imagery than it might have been through a simple rehearsal of facts.
Theology as queen of the sciences
When universities first appeared in medieval Europe, theology was considered queen of the sciences. Not so in modern times, in which skeptics use science as a bludgeon against theology. The assumption underlying their skepticism is that the advance of scientific knowledge has accounted for creation without the need for a Creator.
In response, some people of faith have adopted a siege mentality, treating modern science with deep suspicion. Others struggle to reconcile it with their theology. Still others have surrendered their theology altogether, submitting it to the interpretive whim of theories currently in vogue. The Bible, they’d be quick to remind us, is not a science textbook.
However, the book of Job shows us a better approach. Contrary to the claims of skeptics, the growing body of scientific knowledge has merely revealed how little we know about the workings of the cosmos. Modern science has yielded mysteries and wonders our ancestors could never have imagined. Whether in the depths of space, in the heart of the atom, or in the riddle of life itself, the hand of the Creator has become evident in ways that Job and his contemporaries would not have dreamed possible.
Rather than thinking of science as dry or insidious, we’d be better served by Job’s example: science as poetry. When we begin to see the natural world as a work of art that reflects the glory of God, we too, like Job, will discover a fresh sense of wonder and worship.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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