Who Let the Wild Ass Run Free? – Book of Job

Freedom exposes us to suffering. Humans grow up in the wild, apart from the presence of God and ignorant of God’s plans. To gain freedom, that’s how it has to be, because the world gives birth to freedom only in the absence of God’s dominant will.

Therefore, God created an uncaring world, behind which God hides, so that humans can gain freedom in a world that also brings suffering. This is the message I find in the biblical Book of Job.

My first sustained look at Job came, not in church or Sunday School, but at Ole Miss in a sophomore class on ancient writings taught by Anita Hutcherson in the fall of 1966. She looked upon the Book of Job as classic literature, an opinion I subsequently found to be shared by many. But don’t blame Anita Hutcherson for the conclusions stated above. I’ll take the blame.

Authorship of the book, dates of writing and amending, and historicity of the characters have received various answers from progressive and even conservative scholars. About the only aspect never disputed is the brilliance of the extended poem that forms the central core of the book, supplemented by brief prose segments serving as prologue and epilogue.

The literary setting is not Israel, but instead “the land of Uz,” almost certainly eastward in Edom, also called Seir. Chief among Job’s friends and debaters is Eliphaz of Teman, an Edomite city. Edom, considered to be a nation descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother, was renowned for its wisdom.[1] An ancient tradition in the Hebrew Bible has Yahweh coming forth from Seir, perhaps specifically from Teman.[2]

It’s reasonable to propose that the Book of Job may have been composed initially by an Edomite. If so, its depth of insight and elegance of expression led to an inspired decision to incorporate it into the Hebrew canon.

As the story unfolds, Job, described as a good and pious man, suffers tragedy well beyond what he deserves. His wealth in flocks of sheep and goats is stolen, his children are killed, and his body festers with boils.

The book requires interpretation at multiple levels. The simplest explanation comes in the prologue, which describes Job’s misfortune as the result of a challenge posed to God by Satan, who said that Job’s reverence for God would turn to cursing if Job’s blessings were taken away. Accepting the challenge, God allowed Satan to bring calamity to Job, but not to kill him. However, the prologue only sets the stage for a much deeper look into human suffering and divine will. After chapter 2, Satan gets no further mention in the entire book.[3]

In chapter 3, prose narration gives way to poetic dialogue. Most of the book is an interchange between afflicted Job and 3 friends who have come to offer solace for the tragic events of his life. Job calls his friends “miserable comforters” and “worthless physicians.”[4] They cannot restrain themselves from giving conventional explanations of how Job’s own unconfessed sins have led to his calamity. Remarkably we hear the same arguments repeated often today.

Job proclaims his innocence and boldly asks to have his day in court with his accuser and judge, whom he recognizes as the one God. He states, “I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God” (13:3). The first verse of the prologue has described Job as “blameless and upright.” Then why has he experienced unrelenting loss? He cries out for an answer. At a high point in the book (19:25-27), Job declares to his friends that he will be vindicated.

Job’s complaint does not focus solely on the suffering that he and his family have experienced. He declares that the wicked are not called into judgment, but can be plainly seen to prosper in this life, while the poor of the land have their few possessions stolen, their toil exploited, and their clothing and shelter depleted (chapters 21 and 24). The only judgment is that death comes to all.

Has Job crossed the line in his complaint about God’s neglect of the innocent? Has Job committed blasphemy? The epilogue is crucial to understanding the book. In verse 42:7, God himself tells the 3 friends, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”[5]

Here is the first deeper point of the Book of Job: God does not punish, but unexpectedly commends human questioning of good and evil…and of God’s will which lets both happen.

The second deeper point of the book is that humans grow up, live, and die in a wilderness which makes that questioning possible. The wilderness gives birth to free creatures.

Chapters 39 to 42 in the Book of Job provide by far the longest speech in the Bible ascribed to God’s own voice. The poetic description of nature in these chapters comes through powerfully even in translation.

Unseen and speaking from a whirlwind, God grants Job’s bold request for an audience. However, there is no asking Job to repeat his complaint. God already knows it. Instead God begins a vigorous interrogation, asking how Job might presume to take responsibility for the vast natural world.

The questions God asks not only move the interrogation forward, but also give a description of the establishment of natural law and creation of the physical world. The description is surprisingly scientific – measurement, light and darkness, and a search for explanations. Cosmology enters with the mention of 4 starry constellations. The “ordinances of the heavens,” or physical laws, also apply on earth.

Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
   Declare, if you know all of this.
Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
   and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
   and that you may discern the paths to its home.

    *  *  *

Has the rain a father,
   or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
   and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
     and the face of the deep is frozen.
Can you bind the chains of the Plei′ades,
     or loose the cords of Orion?
 Can you lead forth the Maz′zaroth 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?

From physics, weather, and astronomy, God’s voice turns to describe biologic life and, especially, freedom and abandonment in the lives of several animal species:

Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
   Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
    and do you know the time when they bring forth,
 when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,
    and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
    they go forth, and do not return to them.
Who has let the wild ass go free?
   Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
 to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
   and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
   he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
   and he searches after every green thing.

    *  *  *

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
   in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey;
   his eyes behold it afar off.
His young ones suck up blood;
   and where the slain are, there is he.

The reader should recognize that the poet is speaking here symbolically about human life, not merely the lives of animals. The theme of chapter 39 in the book is freedom. To me it’s the greatest chapter on freedom ever written. The poet describes the raising of children, then leaving family behind, cycles of birth and death, as humans acquire and transmit life’s lessons, becoming aware in the wilderness, seekers of meaning among its ridges and ravines.

We grow up in the wild. Our bonds have been loosed. We feed on death. As a consequence, life is difficult. We must roam the mountains and search after every good thing.

The experience of Homo sapiens and other creatures in the wilderness may mimic in a very small way the experience of God who faced and remolded primordial chaos. As God created a world of beauty, order, and endeavor from mere possibility or chaos, so too humans construct stories of meaning from raw materials found in the thin surface layer of our planet. Whether meaning is discovered, or created, or simply declared does not matter much. There is little practical difference between these modes of becoming. Each involves acts of will.

According to the Bible the first humans received this charge from God: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion….”[6] After humans were banished from the Garden of Eden into the wilderness, what happened to God’s command?

Life and good remain for humans, but goodness hides, and we find it only through toil and often pain. The ease of the garden is lost, but God’s command continues, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion….”  Could this charge from God be more meaningful for us than ease and comfort?

The poet lets God’s voice explain how the work of human creatures, like the uncanny image of a wild ox serving a farmer, fulfils the purpose of God –

Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
   Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
   or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
   and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
   and bring your grain to your threshing floor?

The surprising truth that emerges in these lines is that God depends upon the strength and will of just such a “wild ox” – the human species. Elsewhere in the Bible, we learn that God intensely watches every step of human efforts.

Through its sketches of the lives of various animals, the 39th chapter of Job describes the human struggle and its meaning. The 41st chapter of Job, on the other hand, uses the image of a much fiercer mythical beast to describe divine, then human, engagement with chaos. In the ancient Middle East, the sea symbolized chaos, and the archetype of chaotic power was the sea monster, called Leviathan here. Whether the beast in the 41st chapter is viewed as a whale or a crocodile, the meaning is the same. The beast inspires fear in humans.


Who can open the doors of his face?
   Round about his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
   shut up closely as with a seal.

    *   *   *

Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
   sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
   as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
His breath kindles coals,
   and a flame comes forth from his mouth.

    *   *   *

He makes the deep boil like a pot;
   he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
   one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his like,
   a creature without fear.
He beholds everything that is high;
   he is king over all the sons of pride.

In contrast to the human viewpoint, the opening verses of chapter 41 describe God’s engagement with chaos –

Can you draw out Levi’athan with a fishhook,
   or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose,
   or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you?
   Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you
   to take him for your servant for ever?
Will you play with him as with a bird,
   or will you put him on leash for your maidens?

Sometimes chaos disrupts our lives. It happened to Job. As small and pitiful as we feel at those times, the poet offers this consolation: We face the same beast that God knows well and has mastered. If tragedy brings me to a confrontation with God, and I end up saying with Job, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” let me then perceive that I have been granted the privilege of meeting God, who reminds me in the midst of calamity of God’s own effort and victory.

Chaos is the leveling or shall we say, the random sorting, of all goods, the absence of order and meaning. But chaos also represents possibility. It conveys breakdown and pain, but it also brings everything new. We can draw out of chaos meaning for our lives. God gave us that charge, and God put us in the wilderness so that we can know that the choices are ours to make.


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Images:  Header image: Indian wild ass, (c) Suketasandip | Dreamstime.com. Eagles, (c) Jpablo25 | Dreamstime.com. Ox, by Walter Frisch CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia commons. Crocodile, by Tomas Castelazo – own work, CC0 Public domain, Wikimedia commons.

[1] Obadiah 8, Jeremiah 49:7

[2] Deuteronomy 33:2, Judges 5:4, Habbakuk 3:3.

[3] A traditional account states that Satan was thrown out of heaven after the fall of Adam and Eve. However, in this book Satan is depicted entering the heavenly court during Job’s lifetime. Verse 1:6 reads, “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.”

[4] Job 16:2, 13:4.

[5] Chapters 32-37 of Job present a monologue by Elihu, described as a young man. This uninterrupted speech is widely considered to be a late insertion in the book. Regardless of translation one can note a lesser quality of the poetry. Elihu largely makes the same points that Job’s friends made. Like them, he assumes Job’s guilt, but he also charges blasphemy as an additional sin (34:37). I choose to think about Elihu in the same way that God does in the epilogue, that is, to ignore him. Or I may propose that Elihu serves as an illustration of the persistence and strength of false thinking.

[6] Genesis 1:28.

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