God’s Science Quiz – Updated!
By Neil Earle
Some years ago I read a Commentary on the Book of Job, chapters 38 to 41. The theme here is God challenging his servant to answer a multitude of questions relating to the natural world. The writer brilliantly named these chapters “God’s Science Quiz.”
Do you remember this section of Scripture? God is trying to humble Job for calling his ways into question and Yahweh the Lord begins his own cross-examination:
“Why are you using your ignorance to deny my Providence? Now get ready to fight for I am going to demand some answers for you, and you must rely. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much” (Job 38:2-4, Living Bible throughout).
A Surprising Debate
Though God’s sudden appearance surprises people reading “Job” for the first time, it has the blunt honesty of a God-to-man dialogue of the kind people seem to crave. Surprisingly, God open himself up to investigation by sketching out a complex cosmos he claims to have ordained. The sticker for us moderns is that many of God’s questions to Job seem to have been answered across the centuries with our expanding scientific knowledge.
For example God asks such things as:
“Do you know the dimensions of the earth?”
“Where does dew come from?”
“Do you know how mountain goats give birth?”
“Do you know how a hawk soars and spreads her wings to the south?”
Let’s remember tha this whole Book of Job is very rich and expressive and written in a poetic more than scientific style yet with fascinating gestures towards natural history along the way. That in itself is interesting for today’s ongoing Creation/Science discussion because it shows the Bible writers typically present God’s creative office in a devotional and artistic style rather than rushing each claim to the laboratory, which was admittedly harder in 1800 B.C. Job 38-41 parallels Genesis 1-3 and many of the Psalms and parts of Isaiah which shed light on how we are to read creation accounts in the Bible. Theology, not geology (or biology, etc.) is the main takeaway.
But we digress, slightly.
“Who’s in Charge Here?”
The reason God invites Job to play King of the Mountain is because the patriarch under the pain of horrible suffering has questioned God’s governing of the universe. The language here ranges from sarcastic to tart irony (“Tell me if you know!”) and often strikes a playful note (look at the description of the horse for example) – all to depict Yahweh’s serene mastery over such a multifarious creation. Indeed the range of quiz questions is quite impressive for the Late Bronze Age. Even an incomplete list would include earth, sea, morning, underworld, light, snow, storm, rain, the constellations, clouds, the lion, ravens, the ibex, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk, the falcon and two giant creatures (behemoth and leviathan) that no one today can define with precision.
God’s purpose is not to engage in an overly-literal creationism (consider his comparing the sea and the fog to childbirth in 38:8-9). The motive here is to arouse in Job (and us) a sense of awe and mystery and perhaps a little fright at the manifold ways only a divine being could keep this cosmos in harmony. Most of the things mentioned here depict Job’s insignificance amid even the everyday wonders of creation. “Can you hold back the stars? Can you restrain Orion or Pleiades? Can you ensure the proper sequence of the seasons?” No, we can’t. Why we can’t even keep the sun from coming up and going down.
On the devotional level, then, God’s science quiz stands up very well some 3000 years later. As we show below there are things in the cosmos far far beyond our control even in our more scientific and technological age. Two weeks ago I had moved into a new house in the Mid-South and was feeling a bit displaced and out of sorts when three flocks of Canada geese suddenly flew overhead honking to their hearts content and in good formation at almost tree-top level. There they were heading south for the winter and almost reassuring me that the timing mechanism of what we call Mother Nature is still working…and doesn’t depend on me. I instantly thought of Jesus’ command to “study the fowl of the air.” It reminded me that God was still in control of the timing mechanism on this earth and therefore I could trust him with control of my life.
This is the kind of deduction God wants Job (and us) to make. Which Job does eventually and sets up the almost Hollywood-like happy ending at Job 42:11-17 (a beautiful read).
Bigger Questions Remain
Even so, though, with all the updates science has made – that wonderful explosion of knowledge we have seen in the past few centuries – there are still intriguing challenges even in the more poetic sections of Job 38. Consider these: “Where is the path to the distribution of light? Who gives intuition and instinct? Who is wise enough to number all the clouds?”
It is by intuition that these Canada geese fly south every winter along what we label the Mississippi Flyway but how did these splendid aviators develop that kind of homing instinct with their pea brains?
These are still good questions.
But hold on. When it comes to 20th and 21st Century scientific discoveries it is there that we find even more stunning questions that are bewildering our brightest minds. In some ways the questions God could ask a modern-day Job are even more profound and arresting, especially since the New Physics emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the grand triumvirate of Planck, Einstein and Bohr.
Here are some of them:
What is light anyway? Is it a particle or a wave?
How do subatomic particles disappear and appear in another place without travelling the distance in between?
Why is it that 96% of the universe is still unknown?
How can we get a new skin every twenty-eight days without noticing it?
How can we sit on a chair when we are mostly empty space?
(By the way, if all the empty space were taken out of all the atoms the universe would fit into a sugar cube.)
How is it that Time – which we all fear – bends, warps and curves and rarely travels in a straight line?
Why do scientists believe in dark matter even when they can’t see it?
Hmm. A good point that last one. Christians are always ragged for believing in a God they cannot see but…well, you get the point.
Niles Bohr said everyone should be outraged by Quantum Theory (QT my science prof called it), the idea that quantum particles are everywhere and nowhere at the same time and yet seemingly aware of each other.
So you see, the Science Quiz could be extended indefinitely. Which is why it’s refreshing to meet up with scientists today who are not afraid to admit that we live in a very weird cosmos indeed, that “every discovery seems to lead to new mysteries and that each breakthrough throws up a slate of ever more bewildering questions.” That last quote is from Noble Prize winner Leon Lederman who helped discover Quarks (Quarks? Let’s not go there).
There’s no reason ultimately for believers to be opposed to open-minded scientific investigation. The Bible itself says so. “It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover and invent” (Proverbs 25:2). Which is exactly why thinking Christians honor such great “kingly” minds as Newton, Galileo, Maxwell, Heisenberg and all the others who showed us the universe is still the greatest mystery we know.
Job was encouraged to search things out but had to drop out of class before the quiz was half-over. No wonder. We’d all get the same low grade on the way to learning the greatest lesson of all: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the earth shows forth his handiwork.”
For further searching:
The Language of God by Francis Collins
A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber
God Hides in Plain Sight by Dean Nelson
The Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson