“You Have Heard of the Perseverance of Job”

So says the epistle of James, chapter five, verse eleven: “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (NIV) The Greek word here translated perseverance is hypomone, and appears in such passages as Lk 8:15; 21:19; Ro 2:7; 5:3; 8:25; 15:4; 2Co 6:4; 1Ti 6:11; 2Ti 3:10; Heb 12:1; Jas 1:3-4; 2Pe 1:6; Rev 2:2, 19; Gal 5:23, where it is variously translated as “patience,” “perseverance” and “endurance.” Notice that it appears earlier in the book of James, two occurances near each other at the opening of the book.  Those occurrences are our best clues as to what James means when he uses the term later.  James writes (NIV):

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

To James, hypomone is more than just surviving tragedy, more than just pushing through.  It’s a certain kind of faith-filled acceptance that leads to spiritual maturation, an unshakable inner peace that means the disciple has no need for anything else–his great faith has brought him contentment even in trial.

“You’ve heard,” says James, “that Job had this quality.”

Huh?  Does that strike anyone else as a bit odd?  Maybe more than a bit?  For all his wonderful qualities, Job doesn’t demonstrate the kind of faithful acceptance that James seems to be encouraging here.  In fact, if Job did that, there wouldn’t really be much of a book there.  I mean, sure, he comes across this way in the opening prose framework (1:21, 2:9) but then you have 39 chapters of Job demanding answers, complaining, railing against the injustice of his plight.  He starts by cursing the day of his birth:

“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck? (Job 3:11-12)

It doesn’t seem right that James would point to the person who said these words as an example of the kind of attitude that faithful people should have under adversity.  And it’s not like he’s shining with contentment and the peace that passes understanding by the end of his monologues.  Not even close:

My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I am a brother of jackals,
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black and falls from me,
and my bones burn with heat.
My lyre is turned to mourning,
and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. (Job 30:27-31)

This seems doubly odd when you do have some genuinely impressive examples of faithful perseverance in hardship, like Joseph or Daniel.  Why not point to one of them rather than Job, the classic existential struggler of the Hebrew Bible.  Have you ever wondered what James is up to here?  It’s almost like he’s not thinking of the Job we know at all, as though there were some other Job on his mind, one who was known for, above all things, patient accept of trial.  A Job like this one:

1 And when Satan saw that he could not put me to despair, he went and asked my body of the Lord in order to inflict plague on me, for the Evil one could not bear my patience. 2 Then the Lord delivered me into his hands to use my body as he wanted, but he gave him no power over my soul. 3. And he came to me as I was sitting on my throne still mourning over my children. 4 And he resembled a great hurricane and turned over my throne and threw me upon the ground. 5 And I continued lying on the floor for three hours. and he smote me with a hard plague from the top of my head to the toes of my feet. 6 And I left the city in great terror and woe and sat down upon a dunghill my body being worm-eaten. 7 And I wet the earth with the moistness of my sore body, for matter flowed off my body, and many worms covered it. 8 And when a single worm crept off my body, I put it back saying: “Remain on the spot where thou hast been placed until He who hath sent thee will order thee elsewhere.” 9 Thus I endured for seven years, sitting on a dung-hill outside of the city while being plague-stricken.

What’s that?  It’s the opening of chapter five of The Testament of Job, a Jewish work that dates somewhere around 1BC-1AD, and tells a story roughly similar to canonical Job, if you subtract all of Job’s complaining and add in a ridiculously exaggerated level of patience and acceptance over a long amount of time.  If you are reading about extreme patience from someone named Job with whom a late first century Jewish audience would be familiar, chances are it’s from the Testament of Job, not bitter, flailing canonical Job.

But wait, for that to be possible the New Testament would have to be willing to allude to non-canonical Jewish literature.  And that can’t happen, can it?

But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9, referencing 1 Enoch)

Oh.  Right.

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1 Comment

Filed under Bible

One response to ““You Have Heard of the Perseverance of Job”

  1. wjcsydney

    Kirk, that raises some very interesting questions about the completeness and inerrancy of Scripture.

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