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120. Job 12:7-12, God is Responsible for Everything, Including My Misery
7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9 Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
11 Does not the ear test words
as the palate tastes food?
12 Is wisdom with the aged,
and understanding in length of days?
These verses have created a puzzle for scholars. Many argue that they don’t “flow” from the preceding verses, nor do they prepare the way for the succeeding section on the greatness of God’s creative activity. But the fact that things don’t “flow” may actually be a sign that it belongs here! Job loves to destabilize our idea of what a convincing argument looks like. A most ingenious hypothesis has been advanced by the prominent Jewish scholar of a generation ago, Robert Gordis, who saw these words not as expressing Job’s thought but as Job expressing what the friends might say. Whereas I will later argue that portions of Job 27 are not what they seem, I don’t follow Gordis here.
I think a sufficient explanation for 12:7-12 not precisely fitting into the preceding or following is that it is Job’s way of making a transition from a “me-centric” opening passage (vv 1-6) to a “God-centric” closing passage (vv 13-25). As such, the precise point of transition, in my approach, is the little word “this” (zoth) in verse 9. Zoth refers not only to Job’s condition (i.e., looking backwards to 12:1-6) but to God’s glory (i.e., looking forwards to 12:13-25). It may also refer in general to God’s principles of governance in the world, expressed in a confusing fashion in verses 5-6.
Job’s last clear words were in verse 4, where he bemoaned his being treated as a laughingstock despite his being tam and tsadiq. His friends don’t acknowledge that he is tam and tsadiq, and so in verses 7-8 Job looks around at other sources, this time in the natural world, that might function as witnesses for him and so affirm that he is both righteous and in the right. Job’s method in verses 7-9 is not unprecedented. Early in Deuteronomy Moses promised he would call “heaven and earth” as witnesses against the people if they made graven images and departed from faith in the living God (Deuteronomy 4:25-26). Later, when Micah described God’s rib or controversy with the people, he called on the mountains and the enduring foundations of the earth to witness to what he says (Micah 6:1-2). That Job will call on nature or other creatures as his “witnesses,” then, is a common thing to do.
Note that in 12:7-8 Job calls on four categories of creatures or objects to affirm what Job affirms in verse 9, “Who doesn’t know among all of these (four categories) that the hand of the Lord has done this (zoth)?” The “this” remains unspecified, but before discussing that word, let’s consider Job’s four categories of creatures or objects. In order, they are: the beasts (behemoth), the birds of the air (oph hashamayim), the earth itself (erets) and the fish of the sea (degey hayyam). If you think that his categories echo those found in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, you would be right.
The comparison with Psalm 8 is especially delicious because Job has already “dialogued” with that Psalm in Job 7:17, where he gently chides both God and the optimism of the Psalmist. Rather than marveling at God’s creative activity, centering on the creation of humans, Job asks why God makes such a big deal over humans, especially those whom he won’t give freedom even to swallow their spittle (Job 7:19).
When the author of Psalm 8 continues his rhapsodic treatment of God’s glory, he decides to specify how this glory is manifest in creation. First, forming a ring around the Psalm (vv 1, 9) is the excellence of God’s name in all the earth (erets). Then, after describing the dominion of humans over the earth, he lists the categories of human-controlled things: the beasts (behemoth) of the field, the birds of the air (this time they are tsippor shamayim) and the fish of the sea (degey hayyam, vv 7-8). Note that the categories of Psalm 8 perfectly overlay Job’s categories in 12:7-8. Earth is placed in the third position for Job, but the other three categories, except for a change of one word, could have been “lifted” from the Psalm. Yet, as in Job 7, Job uses Psalm 8 for his own purposes in Job 12. Rather than the creatures of the earth being the subjects of the human creature (Psalm 8), they are witnesses on behalf of the human (Job 12).
Or, consider God’s creative work in Genesis 1. After making the earth (erets) in verse 1, God continues to create so many other things. The vocabulary and objects, of course, are much more vast and varied than Job in 12:7-8, but there are distinct categories of things on the earth, over the earth and in the seas that are created by God. Genesis 1 may provide a general background for the categories of Job 12:7-8, but Psalm 8 provides a dialogue partner for the author of Job 12:7-8.