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Reading Emily Dickinson with Job

October 13th, 2020 | 9 min read

By Laura Cerbus

A few months ago, a Mynah hatchling fell out of its nest in one of our carport rafters. When we found it, it was lying awkwardly on the ground, clearly hurt beyond our capacity to heal. Nonetheless, my kids insisted that we try our best: a makeshift bed, placed out of the elements and away from the neighbor’s cat, and a prayer.

Later that afternoon we buried it in the backyard, in the soft ground near the fence. My oldest shed furtive tears, and my youngest asked the typical toddler question, “Why?”

I could answer with respect to the secondary causes: the bird fell, and it was hurt too badly to survive. My youngest’s curiosity over the burial sidetracked the chain of “Why” questions — I wasn’t asked to explain more.

And so, I turned away from the grave and continued on with my day. Like many others, I usually respond to the events of the natural world with detachment: I am an observer, a bystander. As a result of my liberal arts education, I have a passing understanding of the science behind many everyday natural phenomena. And of course, if I don’t understand, there’s always Google — if I’m curious enough to use it. But whether I use Google or draw from my basic science education, I usually stop, as my youngest child did in her distraction, at the secondary cause. What natural process or event led to this result?

Yet, for most of human history, my question about natural processes, as well as my detachment, would have been an anomaly. Rather than observing disinterestedly, our ancestors searched the natural world intently for signs of divine intention. This searching fills the poems of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest poets. Heir to the Calvinist theology of Jonathan Edwards, Dickinson connected what I didn’t have to in that conversation with my toddler: God’s hand is at work in all that happens.

This connection, however, did not cause Dickinson to rejoice. Rather than exult in a God who holds the world in his hands, whose providence governs all that happens, Dickinson lamented. Though she lived in isolation for much of her life, the two books of revelation brought her enough evidence to call God’s benevolence into question. Through her poems, she wrestled with the inexplicable death she observed in the natural world. In one of her more well-known poems, she writes,

“Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God.”[1]

The imagery is stark: the frost is an assassin, beheading the innocent flower. Dickinson indicts both the frost and the sun, the former for its careless use of power, and the latter for its indifference to the death it has contributed to. However, her judgement doesn’t end with these secondary causes; God, as well, is implicated in the flower’s death. It is his approval that provides the poem’s concluding punch.

Dickinson throws another punch in a poem about the sacrifice of Isaac. In an arresting metaphor, she questions whether or not “with a Mastiff/Manners may prevail” (F1332). This question comes on the heels of naming God “Tyranny” who was “Flattered by Obeisance.” For Dickinson, belief in God’s sovereignty combined with her observations from the natural world and the problematic actions of God in Scripture brought no comfort. Instead, she describes God’s strength and power as a threat to the world she loved.

Our own world, a century and a half distant from Dickinson, gives little reassurance or counter to her judgment. Plague, injustice, and abuse on a large scale, death, sickness and brokenness in personal relationships on a smaller one — all provide fuel for Dickinson’s accusations.

Yet Dickinson’s accusations are not only modern ones; they have surged from the hearts and lips of humans for millennia, perhaps since Eve first found Abel slain by his brother. Similar accusations come from Job, a man whose story has written itself in our memories. Suffering intense loss and personal affliction, Job takes God to court. Without anyone to defend him, Job nonetheless offers his own defense, refuting his friends’ accusations and challenging God’s justice. After rehearsing his righteousness in matters of personal and communal piety, he cries, “I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing” (Job 31:35). He throws down the gauntlet: God must answer, or Job’s assessment stands.

God does respond, but not in a way that either Job or his friends expect. In a deluge of questions, God appears to indignantly put Job in his place.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
Or who laid its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4)

Question upon question upon question, God leaves Job — and no doubt the reader, as well — silent. Who is Job to question God? Perhaps Dickinson was right — God is a tyrant, and when questioned, he refuses to answer the questions. Instead, he scoffs at Job’s insignificance next to his own omnipotence.

Or does he? God’s questions offer a litany of the breadth and depth of the natural world. Throughout, God communicates a tender, intimate knowledge of his creation. From the birthing of mountain goats and deer, to the provision of food for the raven’s young, to the soaring eagle and hawk, to the singing of the morning stars, God makes his purpose clear: he sustains and nurtures creation. He is not a distant, indifferent God, but one who intimately knows his creation, cares for it, and works for its blessing. Moreover, the lyricism of God’s speeches “changes the discourse from that of rationality and argument to that of delight and praise.”[2] God did not order the world only to step away in aloofness. Rather, God delights in what he made and continues to sustain it with loving care.

Yet God’s delight in the world does not erase its gruesome and awful realities. He does not proclaim, “Look at me,” as a reverse Wizard-of-Oz trick that tries to convince us to pay no attention to any ugly thing that we see. Instead, he calls our attention to them:

“The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
But are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leave her eggs to the earth
And lets them be warmed on the ground,
Forgetting that a foot may crush them
And that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
Though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
Because God has made her forget wisdom
And given her no share in understanding.” (Job 39:12-17)

The foolishness and cruelty of the ostrich, God says, are in my hands. And for this He offers no explanation, no way for the ostrich’s behavior to be redeemed. God is not perturbed by the seeming inconsistencies of the natural world. And in the end, Job puts aside his case and worships.

I’m not sure what Dickinson thought of Job’s humility and worship at the conclusion of the book. It’s hard not to imagine that she would have seen Job as another Abraham, another person who “flattered [God] by obeisance.” She refuses any such flattery, unconvinced that the evidence she saw was anything but damning.

As a result, her poems demonstrate a posture of resistance. If God is not good, if he could not be trusted, then at least she would be. Even as she secluded herself from the rest of the world physically, she continually reached out through her letters, poems, and flowers. She writes,

“If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.” (F982)

From her attic, she was able to relay encouragement and solace to those who were hurting, and despite her own turmoil over God’s goodness, she refused to acquiesce to a world without goodness at all.

What strikes me about the conclusion of Job’s story is not his acquiescence to God’s speech or even the lavishness of God’s blessing, but the request that God makes of Job. God calls Job to serve as priest to his friends. This request makes it clear that Job has actually been vindicated and that Job is the righteous one — a priest must be sanctified before he can serve. And in Job’s obedience to that request, we see the truest, most faithful response to any questions of God’s goodness in suffering: an embrace of one’s responsibility for all. Despite the faithlessness of his friends, Job steps in as mediator to bring the forgiveness of God to bear on his friends’ lives.

It reminds me of Dickinson, in a way — despite her accusations and unanswered questions, she nevertheless was able to turn away from those inner wrestling matches long enough to open her arms to the world as it is. She didn’t give up on her garden, however certain the frost was to come. She continued to write letters and poems, and she sent them as missives of solace. Paradoxically, although she understood her work to be resistance in the face of “tyranny,” she was in fact working in harmony with the goodness and beauty of God.

And I can’t help but see in my children’s response to that mynah bird the same kind of faithfulness and harmony with God’s character. Rather than remain bystanders, their attentiveness to the bird demonstrates on a very small, but not insignificant, level, an obedience like Job’s and Dickinson’s, despite the “Why?” that hangs in the air, unanswered.

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  1. Emily Dickinson. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R.W. Franklin (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 603.
  2. David J.A. Clines, Job 38-42 (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2011), p. 1202.