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God's Purpose for Animals: An Analysis of the Book of Job Chapters 38 and 39
Our fellow creatures: What are they about?
We encounter them every day and hardly give them a thought – those strange beings that share the planet with us, but apparently live by an entirely different set of rules. We see them in the trees, on the side of the road, peeking out from behind rocks, grazing in fields, and scurrying across our garage. Some of them have even moved into our homes and made themselves comfortable on our beds. What are they? What is their purpose?
The Bible mentions animals frequently but is mysterious about God’s purpose for them. The Bible focuses on the story of humanity and our relationship with our Creator, and gives us scant information about the purpose of beasts; or perhaps we should say the purposes, because for all we know, each species may have a different purpose for existing and a different destination – which is to say, we know very little. But in searching the scriptures, I have found some intriguing clues, particularly in the book of Job, chapters 38 and 39 (New King James Version), in which God Himself discusses many species of animals in a fascinating way.
Animals in the Bible: The beginning
But before getting to Job, I would like to start this discussion at the beginning. In Genesis 1:26, God says man is to have dominion over the animals and is to name them. This seems to indicate that animals are created to be in some kind of relationship with humans; or perhaps it is just as likely that, since animals were created first, humans are created to be some kind of relationship with animals. In God’s value system, having dominion over something does not necessarily mean you are more valuable: God values humility and having dominion could be seen as a type of servitude. However, Christ assures us of our relative value in Luke 12, Verses 6 and 7: “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
After the fall, it appears that the relationship between man and all of nature underwent a change:
“…therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.” (Genesis 3:23)
No longer was man able to live in harmony with nature, but instead would have to struggle with it for his very life:
“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17)
Animals and nature in Job 38 and 39
Many scriptural references to animals are metaphorical, used to make a point about man, and many others are literal, relating historical events, such as in the story of Jacob with his herds of livestock. The animal references in Job 38 and 39 are rather unusual because they record God discussing his literal creation of animals, but doing so to make a point about the position of man to his almighty Creator. These passages, which are part of God’s response to Job’s complaint about his terrible and seemingly unjust suffering, are so detailed and so exuberantly forceful, that they provide fascinating insight to God’s relationship with his non-human creatures. “Out of the whirlwind” God responds to Job by asking him a long series of questions to illustrate the point that it is not really Job’s place to question the Almighty.
Job 38: The vastness of nature
After God tells Job He will answer him, He begins His speech with these famous words:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Verse 4)
The verses that follow are dramatically beautiful poetry about God’s creation, using water imagery to express the scope of his power from the setting the boundaries of the roaring sea in Verse 8...
“Or who shut in the sea with doors, When it burst forth and issued from the womb…”
...to creating drops of dew in Verse 28:
"Has the rain a father? Or who has begotten the drops of dew?"
God’s references to the dwelling place of light and darkness (Verse 19) and the gates of death (Verse 17) confirm for me the existence of parts of reality that are beyond the reach of our conscious awareness. Humans have always known, or suspected, or believed that there are dimensions of reality beyond our sensory perceptions, but we have little specific information about our ultimate destination; we can only know by faith and revelation that Heaven is good and does not include the familiar evils of this world. But these verses seem to point firmly in the direction of these unknown realities.
In Verses 25 to 27, God begins to touch on His purpose for nature:
“Who has divided a channel for the overflowing water,
Or a path for the thunderbolt,
To cause it to rain on a land where there is no one,
A wilderness in which there is no man;
To satisfy the desolate waste,
And cause to spring forth the growth of tender grass?”
The message is that, whatever the relationship between man and nature, God also has a purpose for nature apart from man. He causes the rain to fall and bring forth tender grass in desolate places where there is no human to see it. God seems to takes delight in His creation down to the tender blades of grass. In this passage, He swings from singing stars to the sea that burst forth to the gates of death to grass, and back up to the constellations Pleiades and Orion in Verse 31:
“Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades,
Or loose the belt of Orion?"
As Chapter 38 comes to a close, the scripture gets to the animals:
“Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
Or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
When they crouch in their dens,
Or lurk in their lairs to lie in wait?
Who provides food for the raven,
When its young ones cry to God,
And wander about for lack of food? (Verses 39-41)
Here God expresses concern and awareness of the animals, and not just as species, but as individuals. I get the idea that God is aware of every feather on every bird as well as every blade of grass, just as He is aware of each star. His awareness is awesome in itself, but when you add the fact that He is the source and sustainer of all creation, you begin to get a glimmering of understanding of what He is expressing to Job. We might be tempted to whine that God is saying He is too big and great to pay any attention to our problems, but we would be whining without justification. God is after all taking the time to explain all this to Job, and he has shown Himself to care about our every breath long before Christ incarnated to redeem us by His death and resurrection. He is a God who is willing to take the time to express His point of view to one of the creatures He has made!
Job 39: Animals have their own nature and God has His reasons
In Chapter 39, God speaks about a variety of animals with exuberant delight in the unique qualities of each one: mountain goats, deer, the wild donkey, the wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk, and the eagle. His focus is mainly on wild animals except for the horse. Each animal has its own nature and its own value in God’s eyes, apart from its usefulness to man.
The mountain goats and the deer are out in the wild bearing their young according to their own schedule. The deer babies grow strong and leave their mothers, never to return. That’s the way they are made to be (Verses 1-4). God as set the wild donkey free from its service to man and has made a home for him in the wilderness, where he can pursue his natural drive to search for green food (Verses 5-8). Here again, God seems to be indicating that this animal exists for purposes apart from service to man, and in fact God Himself has “loosed the bonds.”
God’s purposes may be undecipherable, but all animals are what they are according to God’s design. In Verses 13 through 18 God talks about the ostrich who proudly waves her wings but cannot fly and lays her eggs on the ground where they can get stepped on and broken by other beasts, showing little motherly care about the whole thing: “She treats her young harshly without concern.” God states that He did not give her wisdom or endow her with understanding. Why not? God does not say. But He makes it clear that He made her that way deliberately. God’s purposes are beyond our understanding, but we can know that however imperfect creation may appear to our understanding, God has His reasons and does not often reveal what they are.
In contrast with the silly ostrich, Verses 20 through 25 describe the strength and courage of a battle horse. This animal acts in conjunction with man, but his nature is his own. Verse 19 asks, “Have you given the horse strength? Have you clothed his neck with thunder?" In fact, the horse rejoices in his nature: “Can you frighten him like a locust? His majestic snorting strikes terror. He paws the valley and rejoices in his strength…” And so, it seems, does God.
God does not reveal all His purposes
Chapter 39 ends with a passage about majestic birds of prey. In poetic contrast with the ground-laying ostrich, God asks Job, “Does the eagle mount of at your command, And make its nest on high?” These animals, and presumably all creatures, have their God-given nature and God loves all of His creation. To think that they exist exclusively for our pleasure, or that we can decide or know their purpose, is arrogant. We can only be fortunate that we get to share this beautiful life-sustaining planet with them and hope and that someday, perhaps in the next world, we will get to discover more about the mysteries of creation. For now, all we can do is admire the incredible miracle of life in all its varieties. As Job says, after God as finished speaking:
“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know .” (Chapter 42, Verse 3)
It’s kind of a hard pill to swallow. I don't know about you, but as beautiful and informative as these passages are, I would really like to know more. I feel like we get to see only a narrow slice of a vast panoramic picture. But the message I get is that is the way it's supposed to be. Understanding our own purpose for existing will pretty much take all the time we have available in one lifetime. Perhaps trying to figure out the purposes of other creatures, or even other human beings, would distract us from the important task of becoming the person God wants us to be. Just as animals have their nature and scope of abilities, so do humans. The difference is, we want to go beyond ours and they are content with theirs.