Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?

No one feels comfortable about the Book of Job. A book which provides the most memorable lines of the Church of England funeral service is not going to be cheering. It culminates though in a breathtaking sweep over creation and the might of God, and leaves open the most joyous wonder we have.

Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? (Job 34:31)

First cast your eyes to the unfathomable wonders of the universe, as far from human experience as imaginable. but all in the hands of the God of Israel. Even the pride of modern cosmology can only look. It has found a twist to the passage: the Pleiades are indeed bound by the sweet influence of their gravitational fields; but the stars seen as Orion’s belt are moving apart – the Lord can loose the bands of Orion, and has done. Is this a joke, planted so as to be understood only a millennium and a half later?

From the heavenly, Chapter 34 descends to the forces of natures, then the familiar beasts:

Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, When they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat…

Creation, the stars, the great waters and clouds, lions, the wild ass, the unicorn (possibly a rhinoceros), the horse, the ostrich, the peacock.  They are all part of the same world, and what is it which separates us ultimately from the beasts, who share our world, our flesh, our needs?

Then in chapters 40 and 41 there are the greatest and untranslated beasts:

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

Perhaps behemoth is a buffalo or a hippopotamus or an elephant, but it seems real, and of immense, unimaginable strength. And of course:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

The beasts of the field and the sea can awe man through the force of their power, by even their power is petty compared with hands which formed stars. Bodily power is a mere faint reflection.

This picture of the unspeakable power of the leviathan made its name a mythological entity in the unreformed Middle Ages or as representing the Devil.  There is a carving on a church in Derbyshire showing Christ battling the leviathan – it is the church in which Hobbes lies interred. From this idea of leviathan as representing unspeakable power, Hobbes chose it as a byword for the power over all enjoyed by the state. Will he make a covenant with thee? Wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

If the lesson we start to take away from the Book of Job is that Job was wise and righteous and his friends foolish and unseeing, these last chapters are written as the Lord’s rebuke to Job for his inadequacy. That is not to say the  friends were right, but that all were incapable of seeing the things of God, that any man would be so incapable, and really the rebuke of Job can only be for his yielding to the temptation to think he can start to understand. That  in any case is how I read it, but I am not capable of understanding, any more than Job; far less than him indeed.

The picture is of beasts, from the powerful down to humble. What divides us from the beasts is less than we might want to imagine. We are in body animals. Only insight is different, or the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge perhaps. It is not through nature but from our organised society that we have everything. Job first mourned the loss of his children and his property, but without the common power of the common-wealth, the common state, there is no property and nothing to stop anyone taking what they want, or killing to get it. He lost greatly but “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The head is still spinning with the tour of the universe, but stop and think of what it means. From stars at incalculable distance, bound and loosed at will, through the elemental forces and every swimming, flying of walking thing upon Earth and Job should worry about his troubles?  But then God is speaking, addressing what he has said, and God blessed him with those comforts he has lost, and new ones he is to gain. Man is is such a trivial  thing in the depths of the majesty of the universe, so weak compared even with fellow creatures around him – and yet God speaks to him. ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ as the psalmist asks. Forget the starts and the  ocean and the tempest and the great beasts – ‘that thou art mindful of him’ – that is the greatest wonder.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short