In the Theocentric Universe, Human Beings Are Not Masters

Powerful passages in the Book of Job teach that the world, and the animals in particular, must not be abused or exploited by human beings.

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A profound theological basis for ecology, including the right of animals in the world, is to be found in a biblical source that to my knowledge has hitherto never been invoked in this connection. The Book of Job is unique in its conception of the purpose of Creation, which is adumbrated in its climax in the Speeches of the Lord Out of the Whirlwind [38:1-42:6]. After the debate of Job and his friends has ended and the brash young Elihu, though uninvited, has made his contribution to the heartrending problem of human suffering, the Lord, speaking out of the whirlwind confronts Job in two speeches.

He offers no facile answer to the mystery of evil; instead he raises the discussion to an altogether higher level. With exultant joy, the Lord has the world that he has created pass in review before Job, and he challenges him to understand, let alone share in, the task of creation. In powerful lines, the wonders of inanimate nature are described. The creation of heaven and earth, stars and seas, morning and night, light and darkness is pictured. The snow and the hail, the flood and the lightning, the rain, the dew, the frost, and the clouds-- all are revelations of God as Creator.

black hole universeBut we do not have here a cold ”scientific” catalogue of natural phenomena, such as is to be found in the Egyptian Onomasticon of Amenemope. What is significant is not the explicit listing of the items, but the implication the poet draws from them -- like the rain in the uninhabited desert, they were all called into being without man as their purpose and they remain beyond his power and control (Job 38:1-38). This significant implication will be underscored more strongly as the speech proceeds.

The World of Animal Life

The Lord now turns to the world of animate nature and glowingly describes seven creatures: the lion, the mountain goat, the wild ass, the buffalo, the ostrich, the wild horse, and the hawk. What they have in common, apart from being beautiful manifestations of God’s creative power, is that they have not been created for man’s use; they have their own independent reason for being, known only to their Creator.

This theme is powerfully reinforced in the second Speech of the Lord Out of the Whirlwind. He now pictures two massive creatures, Behemoththe hippopotamus, and Leviathan the crocodile (40:15-24; 40:25-41:26). It is not merely that they are not under human control, like the animals already described; they are positively repulsive and even dangerous to man. Yet they too reveal the power of the Creator in a universe which is not anthropocentric but theocentric, with purposes known only to God, which man cannot fathom. The world is both a mystery and a miracle; what man cannot understand of the mystery he can sustain because of its beauty. Man is not the goal of creation and therefore not the master of the cosmos.

Theological and Practical Implications

The basic theme, that the universe is a mystery to man, is of course overtly expressed in the God speeches. There are, however, two other significant implications. In accordance with characteristic Semitic usage they need to be inferred by the reader.

The first is theological: since the universe was not created with man as its center, neither the Creator nor the cosmos can be judged from man’s vantage point. The second is ecological. Though the poet was not concerned with presenting a religio-ethical basis for ecology, he has in effect done so. Man takes his place among the other living creatures, who are likewise the handiwork of God. Therefore he has no inherent right to abuse or exploit the living creatures or the natural resources to be found in a world not of his making, nor intended for his exclusive use.

If we have read the meaning of the Speeches of the Lord aright, we now have a sound conceptual basis for one of the more beneficent aspects of 20th-century civilization  -- the growing concern for the humane treatment of animals. This sensitivity expresses itself both practically and theoretically.

On the practical side, a far-flung and highly varied network of organizations has arisen in Western Europe and America, designed to protest the cruel treatment and undue suffering to which animals are often exposed in industry and even in scientific research. Many concrete proposals have been advanced for laws to protect animals against abuse and needless pain. The rising tide of protest against contemporary practices in these areas takes on many forms, some perhaps ill-considered and at times even bizarre and violent. On balance, however, the essentially positive character of the movement for animal rights is undeniable.

Aside from a deepening involvement with concrete measures in this area, there has also been an increased interest in a philosophical basis for the rights of animals, with a growing literature on the subject as a branch of secular ethics.

The Book of Job offers a religious foundation for the inherent rights of animals as coinhabitants of the earth, adumbrated two millennia earlier than the emergence of secular ethics in this area.

By insisting on a God-centered world, to which man has only a conditional title, the Book of Job presents a basis in religion for opposing and ultimately eliminating the needless destruction of life and the pollution of the natural resources in the world.

Reprinted with permission from the estate of Robert Gordis, from Judaic Ethics for a Lawless World, published by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1986.

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Dr. Robert Gordis (1908-1992) taught for over half a century at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as Professor of Bible and Rapoport Professor in the Philosophies of Religion. He served as a congregational rabbi and as editor of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal. Among his many books are Love and Sex and Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law.