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Job 38:4-7 and the Mormon Doctrine of Preexistence

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Job 38:4-7 and the Mormon Doctrine of Preexistence

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

"When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that human beings existed in heaven as spirits before the formation of the earth. In support of this doctrine, Mormons often quote Job 38:4-7. In this passage, the LORD (Jehovah or Yahweh) asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (v. 4). Mormons often understand this question to mean that Job did exist when the LORD made the earth. They also often appeal to the LORD’s statement that “all the sons of God shouted for joy” when he made the earth (v. 7). Does this passage teach preexistence of human spirits?

Let’s read these verses in context:

“Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements?
Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:2-7 NASB)

Throughout this passage, the LORD is speaking to Job. He is challenging Job using very strong language. Job had presumed to question God’s justice, and God is responding by exposing Job’s ignorance. In this context, the question “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” is a rhetorical question that assumes the answer is “Nowhere.” God’s point is that Job wasn’t around when God did this work of creation and so doesn’t know anything about the foundation of the earth. Notice the next line: “Tell me, if you have understanding.” Of course, the point is that Job doesn’t have understanding. The LORD had already said so in verse 2 when he described Job as someone who “darkens counsel by words without knowledge.”

The question in the very next line is also a rhetorical question: “Who set its measurements? Since you know.” In a sense, the words “since you know” are completely accurate and consistent with Job not preexisting: he knows that it was the LORD God who “set its measurements,” no one else. But Job “knows” this secondhand, not firsthand; he wasn’t there to witness it. So the words “since you know” could be taken sarcastically. It is as if God had said to Job, “Who set the measurements of the earth, Mr. Know-it-all?” Both questions, “Where were you…?” and “Who set…?” are rhetorical questions designed to elicit from Job an admission of ignorance. Notice how the second lines of each verse are parallel: “if you have understanding,” “since you know.” In fact, some translations translate those words “if you know” (the ancient Greek Septuagint, the KJV, the Jewish Publication Society Bible, and the NET Bible) or “Surely you know!” (ESV, NRSV), which perhaps best brings out the rhetorical force of the words for modern English readers.

We see the same thing further on in the same passage:

"Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and its features stand out like a garment.
From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this” (Job 38:12-18 ESV)

Job is clearly supposed to keep responding “No…no…no…no” to all of these questions. He has not done these things; he has not gone to these places; he has not even seen these places. He doesn’t know any of this.

The LORD continues:

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great! “ (Job 38:19-21 ESV).

This is more sarcasm. Having questioned Job’s knowledge over and over, God is not suddenly saying that Job is an ancient being that knows the way to these places. The words “You know” are not to be taken literally; God is being sarcastic here, just as I think he is being in verse 5. He is ridiculing Job’s presumptuous attitude that he could even begin to question or challenge God. The LORD goes on in this vein throughout chapters 38-41. When he is finished speaking, Job admits his ignorance:

“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3 ESV).

In this context, then, Job is clearly not among the “sons of God” in Job 38:7 who witnessed the formation of the earth. The “sons of God” were there, shouting for joy at God’s work of creation, whereas Job, untold millennia later, is complaining about the way God’s creation works. These challenging words of the LORD take it for granted that Job was not around when he created the world and therefore was not one of those “sons of God” who witnessed creation. Of course, this is the obvious explanation for why none of us remembers being there—we weren’t there!

The usage of the rest of the Bible confirms this conclusion. In the Old Testament, the expression “sons of God” and similar expressions refer either (1) to angelic or heavenly beings (Gen. 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; possibly in Deut. 32:8; Ps. 82:6), or (2) to God’s chosen people on earth (Deut. 14:1; Isa. 43:6; Jer. 3:19). Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament ever refers to all people as God’s “sons” or “children.”

Properly understood in context, then, Job 38 not only fails to teach that humans preexisted in heaven, but it clearly assumes that they did not.