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At the end of a whirlwind lecture about the “Writings” in the Hebrew Bible, my intro Old Testament professor arrived at the whirlwind itself: Job 38–41. Here, after chapters and chapters of Job and his friends wrestling with the meaning of Job’s suffering, God finally responds.
I was used to the traditional Calvinist interpretation of this passage: God speaks to remind Job of God’s ultimate sovereignty, God’s total control over all things, good and evil, that happen on earth. God arrives, in some sermons I’ve heard, with proof text in hand: “All things work together for good.”
But my professor, Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley, gave a different reading. God’s flurry of questions and nature images is not a declaration of divine order, she suggested, but an acknowledgment of creation’s chaos. The wild animals God mentions—lions, ravens, wild oxen—are symbols of this chaos, of the part of creation beyond human understanding and maybe even beyond divine control. And yet God feeds and cares for them, nurturing chaos just as God also nurtures beauty and order. I’d been taught to think of creation as God replacing chaos with order, but one lesson of the book of Job is that chaos is woven into creation at the deepest level.
Job’s encounter with chaos, painful as it is, nevertheless comes out of faith and a search for understanding. But in the millennia since Job was written, some human societies have learned a new kind of arrogance, treating creation’s chaos less as something to fear than as something to conquer.
In his 1998 book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, historian Mike Davis describes some of the crises and tragedies that have happened in just one corner of the world as American capitalism has tried to colonize and control the world’s chaos. Like Job and his friends, the white European settlers of the early United States saw the world as a place of divine order. Eastern North America had the same stable seasons and gentle geography as their European homelands, proof of either a theistic God’s orderly care or a deistic God’s orderly design. “Geology [was] generally acquiescent,” Davis writes, “and [it was] easy to perceive natural powers as orderly and incremental, rarely catastrophic” (15). The Victorian scientist Charles Lyell termed this understanding “uniformitarianism”: the world was uniform, fathomable, dependable.
But the western United States, and Southern California in particular, didn’t and doesn’t play by these uniformitarian rules. It is, in Davis’s words, “a revolutionary, not a reformist landscape,” regularly remade by earthquakes, wildfires, and floods (16). In fact, Davis notes that California has much in common with the chaotic Mediterranean climate and geology that the biblical authors lived within. Ecological scriptures like Job 38–41, he writes, “are far more appropriate to Southern California than the arcadian idylls of [Henry David Thoroeau’s] Walden or [Gilbert White’s] Selborne” (20).
But when capitalism reached Southern California, it had no time for ecological wisdom, be it biblical, Indigenous, or simply logical. Capitalism demanded a uniformitarian logic of predictable averages and stable trends. So as developers and investors poured their money into Southern California, they pretended that its fury could be tamed. Surely wildfires would be no match for subdivisions.
Davis’s clearest example of this misguided attempt to domesticate chaos with profit is the fire-suppression efforts in Malibu. Without human intervention, sporadic wildfires would consume the plentiful dry organic fuel in this area fairly regularly, preventing any single blaze from being too destructive. But today’s wealthy homeowners demand a zero-fire policy in which these small burns are constantly snuffed out—an expensive, labor-intensive project that actually increases the risk of large, out-of-control wildfires. By trying to subdue chaos, the Malibuites feed it.
Meanwhile, firefighting resources are siphoned away from poorer urban and suburban neighborhoods, where human-caused fires (often due to neglected or insufficient building codes) become both more likely and more dangerous. The whole of Southern California might be better off, Davis provocatively summarizes, if we “[let] Malibu burn” (93)
I read Davis’s book while on vacation in Patagonia (a generous early-graduation gift from my parents-in-law). Patagonia, like Southern California and the eastern Mediterranean, is a place shaped by dramatic, erratic, chaotic forces—in this case, glaciers. And as these ideas about chaos and profit-driven human arrogance were echoing in my head, I was standing six feet from the kind of thing that had carved the Great Lakes.
At one point during a guided hike in Chile’s Alberto de Agostini National Park, we stood on a glacial moraine—a smallish hill left behind after the glacier pushed a bunch of sediment forward and then receded. We could just make out the glacier in the distance. When one of our fellow hikers asked how long ago the glacier had been where we were standing, I expected the answer to be on the usual uniformitarian time scale: ten thousand years, maybe, or who knows, a million.
But no. “Maybe two hundred years?” our guide estimated. “No more than that.”
As it turns out, a glacial pace is pretty darn fast. On another excursion, this one to the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, we saw a massive, semi-truck-sized piece of ice calve off the face of the glacier. Suddenly, it was easier to believe what our guides had already told us: that the glacier moves at two to three meters a day, new ice constantly rushing in to replace the old. Sometimes, when the glacier feels like it, it blocks the lake’s output and causes water to build up for years until the pressure builds up and the ice bursts apart. That last happened in 2019. No one knows when it will happen again.
Sometimes, as with Patagonian glaciers, creation’s chaos is sublime and awe-inspiring. Other times, as with earthquakes, wildfires, and pandemics, it is just tragedy and terror.
The book of Job and the stories of Southern California teach us that we can neither ignore chaos nor try to engineer it out of creation—when we try either one, we make things worse. But if we watch the chaos, if we study the world’s ways and listen to those who know them well, we may be able to care better for each other in the midst of the whirlwind.