Are we impressed with the hippopotamus? 6

This past week my close friend and mentor recommended to me Charles Williams’ War in Heaven. Williams is the member of the “Inklings” that most of us forget about, but whom many consider to be the best theologian of the bunch. (I am on record as attributing that crown to Dorothy L. Sayers.) I am not terribly far into this “mystery-supernatural thriller” (as one blurb put it), but early on there is this exchange between a man who works in a publishing house, Mornington, and a priest.1 They are discussing whether a character’s interest in the occult is the result of “the wrong kind of curiosity.”

“Oh, wrong, do you think?” Mornington asked. “Would you say any kind of curiosity was wrong? What about Job?”

“Well, sir, I always understood that where Job scored over the three friends was in feeling a natural curiosity why all those unfortunate
things happened to him. They simply put up with it, but he, so to speak, asked God what He thought He was doing.”

The Vicar shook his head. “He was told he couldn’t understand.”

“He was taunted with not being able to understand–which isn’t quite the same thing,” Mornington answered. “As a mere argument there’s something lacking perhaps, in saying to a man who’s lost his money and his house and his family and is sitting on the dustbin, all over boils, ‘Look at the hippopotamus.'”

“Job seemed to be impressed,” the Archdeacon said mildly.

“Yes,” Mornington admitted. “He was certainly a perfect fool, in one meaning or other of the words.”

Because I didn't have a picture of a hippo.

Because I didn’t have a picture of a hippo.

This is the difficulty with the book of Job and, more specifically, God’s response to him: He never really addresses Job’s questions. God tells us and Job to consider Behemoth, the Leviathan, and all his power and glory, “the first of the great acts of God” (Job 40:19). Not only did humans not make the beast, we cannot take or control it; it is fierce and armored, powerful of limb and loin, “it is king over all that are proud.” All this God tell Job and…Job was impressed. He was humbled and acknowledged that God was God and he despised himself and repented.

But I tend to agree with Mornington, “there’s something lacking perhaps, in saying to a man who’s lost his money and his house and his family and is sitting on the dustbin, all over boils, ‘Look at the hippopotamus.'” I am impressed with the hippo, with Behemoth, with Leviathan. All of creation still declares to me the glory of God’s power and might. I don’t doubt or question that. But that isn’t the same thing as giving us a glimpse into how our lives are ordained.

Speaking of “ordained” that is the challenge of Job as opposed to our situation. (Or that is the challenge of our situation!) Job 1 details the exchange between “HaSatan” and God where God allows Satan to act against Job. While most scholars see this as a later addition to the book, the canonical form is what we have and it shapes not only the book of Job, but our own considerations. I will not rehearse my earlier, brief arguments (“The will of God“), but I will restate that I find the suggestion that this Job-like situation holds true for all of us awful. (It is problematic enough within Job! It is only mildly mitigated if one views Job as purely literary rather than historical, not a debate I intend to engage in.) The conception that God is actively directing harm (the commission or omission, it makes not difference) creates a God who is a best capricious and at worst sadistic.

And so the hippopotamus.

I am beginning to reconsider the book of Job in the following way. Removing chapter one, the Behemoth now represents all the weird and inexplicable things about this world that God created. That God created it is affirmed, but that there also exists such a massive creature whose purpose and power is beyond our comprehension is…well, that’s just it, it is beyond our comprehension. Can you figure out the hippo? Can you discern its purpose and relevance? If you can, then perhaps you can understand why this specific suffering has occurred.

I am impressed with the hippopotamus, but I am not sure that I can explain its existence. Or our suffering.

  1. It does have one of the best opening lines of any mystery: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” []

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6 thoughts on “Are we impressed with the hippopotamus?

  • Bob MacDonald

    The poet of Job who constructed Yhwh’s speech was very careful to answer him word by word. About the Hippo I have not considered, but Leviathan is perhaps representative of Job himself and his de-creating of his own life in chapter 3.

    It is not time perhaps but if you can get Ticciati on Job and the Disruption of Identity, you will find her leading away from the repentance of Job in the last chapters – rather it is Job’s refusal to be his own referee. This 2005 treatise is a very good read.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Bob, Thank you. I will have to look into Ticciati. As you know, I am mostly just “thinking out loud” right now, not offering the usual, critically based analysis of a text. (I haven’t taught Job, even as part of an intro, in over 8 years.) I am not sure, however, that I see the Lord’s speech as answering Job “word by word,” but perhaps that is in Ticciati.

      • Bob MacDonald

        I think Ticciati is more subtle than my simple analysis of words repeated in chapters 3 and the speeches of Yhwh from my study of Job in 2009 here. She even includes Elihu in her analysis of the concept of referee embedded in the word מֹוכִיחַ as it and its related word reprove/reason are used throughout the book. There’s a review here..

  • Rebecca Trotter

    God’s answer to Job always bugged me so a couple of years ago I re-read it and was actually very surprised at what I found once I actually thought about it. It’s hard to summarize here, but I think that God was actually encouraging Job to stop complaining and start fighting back. God’s response starts by talking about animals which exist in the wild and tellingly each of these animals has a domesticated counterpart. God also lays claim to humanity’s imaginative, mythological and poetic ideas about how God and the world works. I think this shows a certain respect for what man is capable of. Then in Job 40 and 41 God talks about a real animal he made (the hippo) and a fanciful animal which humans made-up (the leviathan). In particular God talks about the response of the Leviathan to being attacked. I really think that God is telling Job to embrace who he was made to be – ingenious, imaginative and able to fight back against an attack. Like I said, it’s hard to summarize here, but if you’re interested, you can find the study here:

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Thank you Rebecca. I will read your study. Needless to say, Job is a wide-ranging and far-reaching text. I will comment that while we, today see “leviathan” as a “made-up” creature, I believe that Job’s audience knew well what real creature this was. I look forward to reading your study.