Are we impressed with the hippopotamus?

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.” []

Leave a Reply to Rebecca Trotter Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

6 thoughts on “Are we impressed with the hippopotamus?”

%d bloggers like this: