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Here is Job 29 from the NRSV:

Job again took up his discourse and said:

A
“O that I were as in the months of old,
as in the days when God watched over me;
when his lamp shone over my head,
and by his light I walked through darkness;
when I was in my prime,
when the friendship of God was upon my tent;
when the Almighty was still with me,
when my children were around me;
when my steps were washed with milk,
and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!
When I went out to the gate of the city,
when I took my seat in the square,
the young men saw me and withdrew,
and the aged rose up and stood;
the nobles refrained from talking,
and laid their hands on their mouths;
the voices of princes were hushed,
and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.
When the ear heard, it commended me,
and when the eye saw, it approved;

B
“because I delivered the poor who cried,
and the orphan who had no helper.
The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
and made them drop their prey from their teeth.
Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest,
and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix;
my roots spread out to the waters,
with the dew all night on my branches;
my glory was fresh with me,
and my bow ever new in my hand.’

A′
“They listened to me, and waited,
and kept silence for my counsel.
After I spoke they did not speak again,
and my word dropped upon them like dew.
They waited for me as for the rain;
they opened their mouths as for the spring rain.
I smiled on them when they had no confidence;
and the light of my countenance they did not extinguish.
I chose their way, and sat as chief,
and I lived like a king among his troops,
like one who comforts mourners.”

Everyone knows the story of Job. Job, the parable of patience. “Patience,” from the Latin patior, with two senses, both formerly carried in English by the word “suffer.” One, the usual sense of the word in current English: to experience painful things. The other sense, a bit paradoxical: willing agency in passivity, that is, what we usually call “patience,” consenting to let something happen, to let something be done that may not be what we wanted.

Job, in the biblical tale, is the man whom God points out to Satan, the Accuser, as a paragon of righteousness /justice. Satan replies that Job endures in righteousness/justice only because God blesses him with every material and social blessing. Let me take away all that comfort, all those riches, all that power, Satan says, and Job will curse you. OK, says God, the bet is on: you can do anything you want to Job—you can take away everything and everyone that makes his life sweet—except that you cannot kill him.

So Satan takes away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health, and leaves him sitting on an ash heap, scraping his ceaselessly itching skin sores with the shards of his shattered fine china, all alone except for his wife, whom Satan leaves with him so that she can prompt him to take the only reasonable way out: Curse God and die, she suggests.

People who think their doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy of scripture require Job to be a real historical person worry about chronology and geography. Where is this land of Shinar? Did Job live before Abraham, or after Ezra, or in between? They should worry instead about a God who would hand over one of his beloved children to the devil for all kinds of torment just to settle an argument that he could finish a lot faster by telling the devil to shut up and fall into a fiery pit (see the book of Revelation).

What Kind of Job Are You?

No, Job is not a particular historical person. The story of Job is a moral tale, a narrative argument against facile “wisdom” that says that for people who do the right thing, everything will always be sunshine and roses. It doesn’t work like that, the story of Job warns. You can do all the right things and your life can still suck. Try on this story, the Spirit who breathes through Scripture tells us, and see how it fits you. Are you Job? What kind of Job are you?

This is the point: Job is potentially every person. Maybe you are Job, or will be Job, or I will. Maybe some people spend their whole life as Job. Maybe some of us have, somewhere along the way, just our fifteen minutes of Job-dom. What then? Will we be baffled and bitter because we are stuck in a theology of sub-biblical intelligence that tells us that God guarantees flourishing to God’s people? Will we be unable to suffer, unable to endure and even consent to the pain? Will we curse God and die?

Or will we spout endless choruses of pious nonsense at those who are suffering around us? Which is pretty much the bulk of the content of the book of Job. People who set out to read the whole Bible, if they make it through Leviticus, can usually get through the historical books, with their wild tales of war and crazy prophets and intrigue, but may give it up partway through the book of Job. I mean, some of it—especially but not only Job’s own speeches—is beautifully poetic, with deep existential ponderings and descriptions of the wonders of the natural world to shame Moby Dick or Annie Dillard. But let’s face it, a lot of it is tedious, pompous drivel. A whole book of inspired scripture given over to preparing the saints of God for the fact that if they hang around religious people they’re going to have to sit through a lot of bullshit.

Job as Collective

But as I read this chapter of Job this morning, I wondered: what happens if we try on the story of Job not just as individuals but corporately? What happens if we try to imagine America Christianity in the year 2023 as Job sitting on his heap of ashes?

What suggested this thought to me? The nostalgia. “Oh that I were in the months of old!” Nostalgia is so powerfully alluring! And Job dives in deeply. As does American Christianity in our day. Oh for the good old days!

When I pasted in the text of the NRSV, I divided it into three sections: A, B, and A prime. In the first half of A, Job remembers how prosperous he was. In the second half of A, and again in A prime, he remembers how well-respected he was. When Job spoke, people listened! He had high social rank, he had influence. What he said was law—which is the meaning of sitting in the city gate and saying things there: that means you are acting as judge and legislator. He says so explicitly: “I sat as chief, and I lived as a king among his troops.”

Is this not the heaviest part of the nostalgia of American Christianity in our moment? We used to be universally respected. And we were in charge! Our distinctive moral convictions were the law of the land. Our special holiday greetings were compulsory for everyone. Oh that we were in the months of old!

No A Without B

So sections A and A prime seemed to fit us well. But then I was jolted when I got to “because I delivered the poor when they cried.” For Job, sitting on his heap, the words flow naturally. But I felt a break, a disjuncture, a turn in another direction altogether. Because American Christian nostalgia is all about the respect that we used to get, and the power that we used to wield, and that prosperity that we used to enjoy. We are still prosperous, but we convince ourselves that it is all being taken away, because we are so pained by the slight erosion of our former prestige and influence. We are pained, but we are not suffering in the deep sense of the word: we are not consenting to feel this pain.

For Job, as for the biblical writers in general, section B is not separate from section A. There is no A without B in biblical models of social and political position and power. To have A is to do B. According to the last verse of Job 29, which should startle us, to be king is to be comforter. To be prosperous to be a provider for the poor. To be secure in one’s position and power is to advocate and act for the positionless and powerless.

It is not that the biblical writers cannot conceive of having wealth and power and not using it to relieve and lift up the poor and downtrodden. They can imagine it! They have seen it! But they call it the purest form of evil. Those who think and live like that they call tyrants and oppressors and promise that the wrath of God will fall heavily and decisively upon them.

Two Types of Nostalgia

American Christian nostalgia is hollow. It is all A and A prime with no B. But this is not because the history of Christianity in America has been a history only of prideful abuse of power. There has been too much of that! But there has also been a massive amount of the other. Many acts of mercy, many accomplishments in care of the poor. The enslavers claimed biblical warrant, but the abolitionists were impelled by biblical Christian conviction. Many hungry people have been fed, many orphans taken in and loved, many houses built for the homeless. In American Christianity, mercy and justice have been not only enacted individually and by congregations but also institutionalized in enduring ways that have survived secularization. Notice the names of many of our hospitals and ask where they came from. Read biographies of the great social reformers and see what motivated them. So why all the hollow nostalgia in our present moment? Why all the “Make us great again!” with no recollection of the devotion of our forebears in faith to the service of poor thems?

There are two types of nostalgia.

There is self-pity, which is the putrid decay of self-centered self-indulgence.

And there is wistful recollection of the blessings of God, and of the service to others those divine blessings enabled us to carry out. There is nothing wrong with remembering “when the friendship of God was upon [our] tent” so long as meanwhile we consent to the pain of its absence. There is nothing wrong with remembering when we were good, and blessed by God and praised by neighbors—even if we were never purely good—so long as our firm intent is to get back to turning the blessing we receive from God into blessing for all the poor and powerless around us. That is the way of righteous Job. That is holy, healing nostalgia.

But to sit in self-pity, pining for our lost power; to yearn to be blessed without pouring ourselves out in blessing, to receive but not to give, to be king but not comforter—this is to curse God and die.

James D. Ernest

James Ernest is vice president and editor-in-chief at Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. His Ph.D. work at Boston College focused on patristic biblical interpretation.

5 Comments

  • Daniel Miller says:

    A wise reflection for our times.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Insightful and thought-provoking. Thank you.

  • Henry Hess says:

    I have long appreciated (“enjoyed” doesn’t really fit) the book of Job. It helps to make sense of so much in life that otherwise seems incomprehensible. This essay adds a new dimension. Thank you!

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    I really enjoyed your insightful application of the story of Job. I will carry these two types of nostalgia with me, calling out in my own life and community the “self pitying” kind (“which is the putrid decay of self-centered self-indulgence” Well said!) in the hope of cultivating “the wistful recollection of the blessings of God” kind. Thank you for the wisdom of this piece.