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Beth Alpha Synagogue Mosaic by Unknown artists (Marianos and his son Hanina)
God the Father with Donor from the Homiliary of the Archangel Michael
Chaos (The Creation) by Ivan Ayvazovsky

Unknown artists (Marianos and his son Hanina)

Beth Alpha Synagogue Mosaic, 6th century, Mosaic, Beth Alpha, Israel, The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Unknown Ethiopian artist

God the Father with Donor from the Homiliary of the Archangel Michael, After 1730, Illumination on parchment, Each folio: 285 x 230 mm, The Church of the Archangelo Mikael, Ankobarr, EMML no.2373, fols 3v–4r, Photo: © 1993 Malcolm Varon, New York City

Ivan Ayvazovsky

Chaos (The Creation), 1841, Oil on canvas, 106 x 75 cm, Museo Armeno, Venice, Bridgeman Images

A Lesson for the Ages

Comparative Commentary by

In Isaiah 55, the prophet prophesies future blessings that God will bestow on his people. As part of his proclamation on behalf of God, Isaiah declares, ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:9). Through this declaration, God explicates the incomprehensible and unbreachable gulf that exists between himself and humanity, creator and creation. They differ in just about every imaginable facet: knowledge, lifespan, strength, and much more besides.

Job 38, together with the remainder of the book, reiterates this fundamental truth. In Job’s objections to his three friends, as they argue concerning his sin and righteousness, Job behaves almost as though God were just another one of his comforters, a man. He boldly invites God, the creator of the world, to respond: ‘Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! let the Almighty answer me!)’ (Job 31:35). When God finally confronts Job, speaking to him from the storm (38:1–2), the overall tenor and purpose of the divine words inculcate the superiority of God over humankind. God poses a series of rhetorical questions to Job, to recall, emphasize, and reinforce his dominion over Job.

Each of the three artworks in this exhibition highlights various nuances of God’s pre-eminence over Job, and indeed all humankind.

Ivan Ayvazovsky depicts God at the earliest stages of his creative work. Recollection of this absolute originating power is at the heart of God’s speech from the whirlwind, and brings home his absolute superiority over Job with respect to time. The painting presents us with a lone individual figure—God—whose shining form hovers above the dark cloud in the centre. No other signs of life appear, not even the heavenly bodies—sun, moon, and stars. The work, therefore, reinforces the message of Job 38:4: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ God was alive and active long before the creation of man, and indeed, before time itself. Although the precise length of Job's life is not stated in the book, we can be sure that his life was finite (he died ‘full of days’; Job 42:17). God, on the other hand, existed before the creation of the world and is not bound to the restrictions of time like the rest of creation.

The Beth Alpha mosaic depicts the constellations—the combinations of stars in the sky that change position, according to man’s perspective, coursing their way across the heavens as the months and years pass. Recollection of the vast array of stars and planets in their diverse configurations highlights the spatial disparity between God and Job. From his vantage point on earth, Job could see the constellations without any true knowledge of their actual size and the unfathomable distance they were from the earth. God, on the other hand, not only knows their size and distance from the earth, but further bears sole responsibility for their creation and placement in the night sky. That which Job could barely see and describe, God has created and ordered. The Beth Alpha mosaic thus reiterates God’s superiority over Job with respect to space.

Finally, the Homiliary draws attention to the vast differences between Job and God regarding regal status. Within the composition—if we imagine Job in the position of the donor—numerous factors contribute to this perception. Compositionally, God’s preeminent status is reinforced as he towers over the human figure. Spatially, God dominates the page, a majestic robe surrounding him. His face radiates light. Contrasting with this splendour of divine majesty, the human subject lacks any royal regalia, appearing without even clothing for his upper body. Additionally, the artist portrays him horizontal, prostrate, and occupying a marginal space on the page. God is a majestic and almighty king, and the Job-like donor reflects an insignificant and humble part of his creation—a mortal man.

In the present age of rapid technological advances and global communication, all manner of information literally resides within arm’s reach. Just about every query or question we need answering quickly becomes available through a well-phrased internet search. Despite humanity’s increased access to facts, statistics, and information, the questions God poses to Job in chapter 38, overall, remain unanswerable. Consequently, the messages reinforced by the three artworks in this exhibition remains as relevant for today’s society as they were for Job: for as high as the heavens are from the earth so are God’s ways are higher than our ways.