Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee

I have a love-hate relationship with the book of Job. I hate that God lets the devil test Job. I hate that not only Job’s animals but also his children are horribly killed, and it’s somehow okay because God gives him new ones. (If you haven’t had a chance to watch Season 2 of Good Omens, I recommend the episode that deals with Job. It captures my feelings of outrage). But I love that Job doesn’t back down when his friends accuse him of having brought his sufferings on himself through some unspecified sin, and I love that he turns the situation around and demands an accounting from God.

Then God appears and, instead of answering Job’s accusations, asserts divine omnipotence via a poetic litany of creatures God has made: the lion, the mountain goat, the ostrich, the horse, even Behemoth, who might be a hippopotamus or an elephant or a herbivorous dinosaur. God is especially pleased with Leviathan, who might be a whale or a sea serpent.

“Behemoth and Leviathan” by William Blake

As a philosophical solution to the problem of suffering, God’s answer is unsatisfying. But what God’s litany of creatures succeeds at doing is reminding us how vast and complex the universe is. It reawakens wonder. 

Wonder isn’t just an emotion, nor is it an attitude of helplessness before ineffable mystery. It means being present with curiosity and a longing to understand. It is a disposition of intellectual openness, preparation to be amazed or thrown off course, but balanced with discipline, restraint and rigor.

I have been thinking about this kind of wonder lately, thanks to a Facebook group that exists for the purpose of identifying wildlife in the United States. We may not be swapping photos of Behemoth or Leviathan, but we’re looking at plenty of coyotes, bobcats, snakes, hawks and spiders. Any member of the group can post a picture and ask for identification, but only the moderators, trained professionals in wildlife-related fields, can make an identification. Since I am not a trained professional in any area related to wildlife, my role there is a quiet one.

While I enjoy watching cute or funny animal videos, learning about diverse wildlife species offers a different satisfaction. The pictures in the wildlife group have not been curated for human entertainment. And when the animal in question is one that might ordinarily be regarded with fear or revulsion, we’re encouraged to get past the temptation to assess its value based on how we feel about them. A person might love cuddling adorable puppies yet their reaction to seeing a snake or a spider is the desire to kill it.  But as group moderators remind us, the more we get to know about different species the more we appreciate them, even if we don’t necessarily want them crawling around on us.

Being in the wildlife ID group has forced me to admit that, even as a lifelong nature-lover, I know very little, and much of the lore I grew up with was inaccurate. The mnemonic for distinguishing a venomous coral snake from a harmless scarlet kingsnake, for instance, is “Red on yellow kills a fellow / red on black, a friend of Jack.” According to this, if a snake has red bands next to yellow bands on its body, watch out. But since some coral snakes in the U.S. have aberrant patterns and the nonvenomous species, the Sonoran shovel-nosed snake, has adjacent red and yellow bands, this rule can be misleading.

“The Corn Snake” by Mark Catesby

We humans do love categorizing things. This trait is captured in the second creation myth in Genesis, when Adam is given the task of naming the animals. We have been naming things for probably 200 thousand years, and as our societies have developed and our scientific knowledge evolved, our taxonomies have grown increasingly complex.

Unfortunately we also really dislike admitting when we are wrong, so healthy curiosity and wonder don’t always keep pace with our need to be right. Like Job’s friends, we’re inclined to show up already having the answers. And as the coral snake mnemonic shows, clinging to unreliable taxonomies can become dangerous. Past movements to categorize according to imaginary racial or ethnic markers have led to genocide. Today the impulse to impose a simplistic and inaccurate gender binary on humanity and the natural world leads to prejudice, exclusion, hate and violence.

… considering the extent to which humanity has made a mess of our place in nature, it’s clear that our experiment of dominion isn’t going well.

Many of the lines of demarcation we’ve drawn have become blurred or dotted. Since objective reality is more complicated and more in flux than many want to realize, numerous labels that we’ve plastered on things should be viewed more as diagnostic shorthand. The universe, as God reminded Job, is vast and complex. Not all species have a male and female binary. Some are hermaphroditic. In some creatures there is also the possibility of sequential hermaphroditism, the instance when an organism changes on its own from male to female or female to male. 

This is one of those basic scientific realities that some refuse to acknowledge. Doing so would force them to admit that their whole edifice of ideologies, based on foundational notions about binary gender, are wrong. And when they lose their ability to label and divide, the world becomes harder to control. 

Maybe fear of losing that certainty and illusion of control is one reason why we often resist the invitation to step into a world of wonder. However, considering the extent to which humanity has made a mess of our place in nature, it’s clear that our experiment of dominion isn’t going well. And yes, it’s the fault of many who have power and choose to use it poorly, but it’s not the fault of the poor and vulnerable. It is not the fault of the nonhuman animals that have to live in our fouled nest. And just as it was unjust that Job had to suffer, it’s unjust that ecological disasters are likely to come down most heavily on those who are most innocent.

It would be lovely if we could simply embark on a program of inculcating wonder and curiosity, first steps towards doing better as a species. But it’s not that easy. And I need to restrain my own impulse to lay out solutions that are as conveniently facile as the pre-packaged wisdom with which Job’s friends attempted to console him.

And maybe this is why I don’t hate God’s answer to Job. As a philosophical solution to the problem of suffering, it is completely unhelpful. But it’s also a true answer. No, I have not peered into the foundations of the earth. I cannot catch Leviathan with a hook and a line. I can’t always tell a banded water snake from a cottonmouth. Much of the time, I can’t even sit peacefully in the spaces where I am uncertain. 

And I fear that, with our collective inability to relinquish our illusion of control, we may soon arrive at a time when the names of living things, of spiders and snakes and birds and mantises, are only elegies for creatures as lost and fantastical as Behemoth and Leviathan.


Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer and academic residing in rural Ohio. She is the digital editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and can be found at

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