Darwin’s Jobian perspective


While Rabbi Rosenberg is recovering from back surgery, he has chosen a past column to run in this space. This column originally appeared on April 3, 2009. 

Ever since I first encountered the “Book of Job” during my high school years, I have been wrestling with the enormous questions raised by this biblical masterpiece: Why do the innocent suffer?  And, conversely, why do the wicked all too often “get away with it”?  After Auschwitz, how is it possible to call God just?  What, then, is the nature of God?  What might it mean to say that God has a relationship with you and with me?

Even a superficial reading of the 42 chapters of the “Book of Job” will lead one to a disturbing conclusion: God’s thunderous answer to Job from out of the whirlwind (chapters 38-42) has nothing to do with Job’s questions (chapters 3-37). 

Briefly put, Job wants to know what he has done to deserve such suffering; he demands his day in court: “God may well slay me, I may have no hope; yet will I argue my case before him.” (13:15) That is to say, Job is looking for God to reveal some dimension of justice in what appears to be a fundamentally unjust world, a world in which God, with apparent indifference, destroys the innocent along with the guilty. (9:22) 

When at last God does respond to Job, God simply ignores Job’s concern for justice and proceeds to browbeat him with an angry display of cosmic power:  

              Who are you to darken counsel with words without knowledge?

                           Gird up your loins like a man;

                           For I will question you, and you will answer Me.

              Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

              Tell me, if you can understand this. (38:2-4)

God goes on to browbeat Job with a long series of sarcastic questions: “Can you do this, Job?  Can you do that?”  It is almost as if God is trying to crush Job’s rebellious spirit with a manifestation of overwhelming might, to break him with a display of near infinite creative energy.  At first glance, then, it would seem that Job’s questions and God’s response are skewed lines that will never meet.

After decades of trying to discover some meaning in what appears to be a divine temper tantrum, I have come to see that the author of “Job” imagines God saying in effect, “Look, Job, you are asking all the wrong questions. You see, the universe is not about you – or, certainly, not primarily about you.” 

As God continues to address Job, the tone of the divine discourse begins to soften. God begins to show Job how the world appears through divine eyes, as it were: “Take a look, Job, at all these animals living their lives without ever coming into contact with a single human being: lion, mountain goat, ostrich, eagle.  They are part of my world, Job, just as you are.” 

Finally, as if to add a celestial exclamation point, God shows Job two of his most wondrous creatures: behemoth, a hippopotamus-like giant with a tail as tall as a cedar, and leviathan, a fearsome combination of crocodile and fire-breathing dragon.  The world is not about you, Job, and the world is not about us. 

During the past few months, many of us have taken note of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his revolutionary “The Origin of Species,” in which he lays the foundation for his theory of evolution through natural selection. I am struck by how closely Darwin’s vision of the evolutionary tree of life corresponds to the view of divine fecundity found in the concluding chapters of “Job.” 

Both Darwin and the author of “Job” express their awe at the spectacular variety and intricacy of the web of life.  Both Darwin and the author of “Job” find in each particular a unique expression of life’s overwhelming plenitude.  Perhaps most significantly, both Darwin and the author of “Job” insist that the primary purpose of our natural world is not to serve the needs of homo sapiens.  

It is certainly no secret that believers of a particularly narrow stripe find Darwin’s theory of evolution deeply threatening to their religious perspective.  People today – like those at the infamous “Monkey Trial” in 1925 who sought to convict John Thomas Scopes for the “crime” of teaching evolution in Tennessee’s public schools – continue to base their case upon a hyper-literalist reading of Genesis.  Apparently there was no room then – or now – in the narrow minds of Scopes’ accusers for the broader vision of divine fecundity found in the concluding chapters of “Job.”

While of course I make no claim that Darwin considered himself to be a religious person, the enduring irony is that Darwin’s theory of evolution does contain the seeds of a powerful – though admittedly alternative – religious perspective, the perspective of the author of “Job”:  Our biological world, as it continues to evolve through the mechanism of natural selection, is an expression of divine fecundity. The vast web of life in which we are immersed can be read as a sacred text.  The natural world does not exist to serve our needs, but rather we exist to serve our natural world, to mend it and not to exploit it. 

Our species could do far worse than to turn to Darwin and the author of “Job” for renewed religious inspiration and direction.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.