Mark 1:12-13 (NRSV)
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Job 6:1-4 (INL)
1Then Job answered, and said: 2If only my anger could be weighed, and my destruction brought to the scales of justice! 3By now it would outweigh all the sands of the seas. That’s why my words have been wild. Indeed, the arrows of El Shaddai have pierced me; my spirit soaks up their poison. The terrors of God are lined up for battle against me.
A monster walked into a bar one day. When the bartender looked up and saw a monster standing there, he said “Hey, did you know there’s an energy drink named after you?” The monster got really excited, and said “You have a drink named Fred?”
Monsters have terrified and fascinated people since the very dawn of humanity. They appear in our earliest art, literature, and mythology. They adorn the architecture of some of our most prestigious buildings, and they routinely draw larger audiences than some of our highest paid movie actors and actresses. We love monsters. We fear monsters. We love to fear monsters.
But what are they? Where do they come from? Are they real? Imaginary? Good? Evil? Somewhere in between? What does the Bible say about monsters? And what does our fascination with monsters say about us? For the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring these questions–particularly three larger-than-life monsters: Behemoth, Leviathan, and Satan, as they are depicted in the biblical Book of Job and in ancient, medieval and modern art.
Along the way, we’ll tackle the difficult but important subject of monstrosities in our world today, from horrific natural disasters to very real, very human monstrosities that fill our news headlines on a daily basis. Like the character Job, we’ll ask the question “Where is God in the midst of these things?” and what should be our response to them as faithful, intelligent human beings?
We’ll begin with scripture. We read in Mark 1:13 that Jesus, in the wilderness, encountered Satan and “wild beasts.” The word used for wild beasts – θηρίον – can mean wild animals, but it’s also the same word used for the monster that accompanies the dragon in the book of Revelation, so “monsters” would be a good tranlation here, especially seeing that they seem to accompany Satan.
What’s significant about this passage, however, is not the monsters, but rather how Jesus came to be among them. That’s in verse 12: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Jesus doesn’t accidentally stumble into the presence of the monsters. Nor do the monsters seek him out. Instead, the Spirit–in other words, God–purposefully placed him in the midst of monsters. That’s important.
In our second scripture passage, Job says something similar: He says “the terrors of God are lined up for battle against me.” The terrors (or the monstrosities) of God. Job is not blaming Satan or even the terrors themselves for his condition. He is blaming God, the one who sent them, the one who authorized them, the one who created all things. And just in case you’re tempted to let God off the hook by assuming that Job is wrong in his accusation, look up Job 42:7, at the end of the book, where God himself affirms that Job, alone among all the characters in the book, has spoken correctly about God.
This is a complex and difficult teaching: Monstrosities come from God, because all things come from God. The earth is the Lord’s, says Psalm 24, and everything in it. Not only that, but God places Jesus, Job, and us squarely in the midst of monstrosities. If that bothers you, please come back for the next three sermons–because I don’t think it’s even possible to solve the two-thousand-year-old problem of theodicy in just twenty minutes. Theodicy is the name given to the problem created by the assumption that God is all-powerful, all-loving, and yet somehow allows monstrous evil to exist in the world. It’s the problem at the heart of the Book of Job, and this sermon series.
But for now…back to monsters. In 1936, a young Oxford professor published a paper that widely inluenced the study of English literature and several generations of English scholars. His name was J.R.R. Tolkien, and the paper was titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In the paper, he took a somewhat obscure Old English poem (Beowulf) and established it as the first great work of literature in the English language. Prior to his paper, the poem was not taken very seriously–it had too many fantastical monsters. Critics who considered it at all tended to downplay (or ignore) the monsters, and use the poem solely as a source for Anglo-Saxon history.
Tolkien argued that this was precisely the wrong approach. The monsters were key to recognizing the poem as a work of art, the skilled creation of an imaginative mind. The struggle between heroes and monsters introduced universal themes, like loyalty, generosity, revenge, and mortality. Today, thanks mostly to Tolkien, Beowulf appears on the required reading list of just about every high school in the English speaking world.
I think the Book of Job suffers from the same problem that Beowulf once did. In our current climate of Biblical fundamentalism, many in the church are tempted to read the story of Job–and its monsters–as literal history: Behemoth was actually a hippopotamus. Leviathan was really a crocodile. Worse yet are the absolutely crazy folks from the “Creation Science” Museum who argue that the monsters in the book of Job are evidence that dinosaurs and people once coexisted.
On the other end of the extreme are those who dismiss the story of Job–and especially its monsters–as mere supernatural fantasy, irrelevant lies from an outdated culture.
What both extremes miss is the same thing Tolkien saw in Beowulf: The Book of Job is a beautiful, highly skilled work of literature. Its characters–and its monsters–are real, not in a historical sense, but because of the universal realities they represent in our own lives and experiences.
Last week, I made reference to the practice of ancient mapmakers, who, when they had drawn on the map all the places they knew, all the places that had been explored and charted and established, would then label everything else on the edges of the map with the words “Here be dragons” or “Here be lions.” More often than this, they would simply draw all sorts of fantastical monsters to represent their fear of the unkown, untraveled places.
There is a deep truth in this practice. Our greatest fear is the fear of the darkness, the fear of the unknown. What are monsters, if not the tangible representation of things that live obscured in the shadows, that we cannot see clearly? What are monstrosities, if not things hinted at by our imagination that we cannot understand? Actions or occurences that are so far out of our realm of experience that we cannot possibly begin to comprehend or wrap our minds around how something like this could happen? Monsters are always at the edge of our map, on the fringe of our comfortable existence.
And yet, God pushes us into the darkness, into the wilderness among the monsters. Why would a loving God do that?
If monsters represent our fear of the darkness, our fear of the unknown…then the opposite of darkness is light. The opposite of the unknown is knowledge, or what is known. We are called to be people of knowledge, or as Thessalonians 5 puts it, “children of the light.” In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
“The light shines in the darkness,” says John 1. And when that happens, “the darkness can never extinguish it.”
God pushes us into the darkness, into the presence of monsters and monstrosities.
And then he tells us to turn on the light.