by Father Mike Stubbs
In the Bible, the sea wields tremendous power. Storms arise at sea that can wreck ships and cause great destruction.
Sea monsters, like the Leviathan, swim in its depths. Frequently, the sea represents primordial chaos, as is seen in the opening lines of the first creation account in Gn 1:1-2: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.”
However, in Sunday’s first reading — Job 38: 1, 8-11 — we see a different picture of the sea and its beginnings. God asks Job: “Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?”
Of course, the answer is God. This is a rhetorical question that God poses to Job. God wishes to remind Job who is really in charge. The question does this by drawing attention to God’s role as creator.
Nothing is so helpless and weak as a newborn baby. The image of the sea as an infant underlines its comparative weakness in light of God’s great power as creator. As a newborn baby is dependent upon its parent, so also the sea is dependent upon God.
In this passage from Job, the image of the sea as an infant casts God in the role of a parent. The text does not identify the womb from which the sea bursts forth. But, once born, it is God who takes care of the sea. God wraps the sea in swaddling bands.
The detail of the swaddling bands indicates not only God’s parental care for the sea, but also God’s control over it. In the ancient world, swaddling bands were meant to constrict the child’s movement, which was considered to be unhealthy. Wrapping the newborn infant in swaddling clothes made up part of the normal care for the child, as seen in Ez 16:4. At the same time, the swaddling clothes restrict the child’s movements.
As powerful as the sea can appear, it still must remain within the limits that God has set, much as an infant is restrained by its swaddling clothes. God points out: “I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!”
According to this passage from Job, the sea can only operate within the constraints that God has set for it. The sea originated from God, who is creator of all things. God is almighty. That is why Job should shut up and stop complaining.