James in the Light of Job and Abraham: An Informal Attempt to Discover A Unifying Concept

James in the Light of Job and Abraham: An Informal Attempt to Discover A Unifying Concept

Editor’s Note: The words below this introduction came from Benjamin Elliff in two private email conversations about the book of James. They follow a fairly lame attempt on my part to put the book together on James 2:12. Neither one of us knows for sure if the idea expressed below is exactly what James had in mind when he wrote his letter, but the attempt opens the door for more discussion.

The style of Benjamin’s writing is just what it is–an informal discussion over the internet. He knows how to write formal and scholarly material, but this is not about that. Therefore, there may be mistakes and typos just like a typical email message. But it does represent a fresh way to think about this book that normally seems to defy unifying. I’ve personally struggled for years to make sense of this book. It is one of the most quoted books in the NT and each part seems powerfully stated, yet the book itself seems to lack cohesiveness. This exploratory approach may solve that problem.

The author’s comments stems first from a passage at the end of the book where James says, “We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11). Added to this, Benjamin adds James’ comments on Abraham in 2:21-24:

  • Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

These two figures, to Benjamin, might be a kind of overlay for James—a guide to him as he writes about currents trials for his readers. Put another way, perhaps James is seeing Job and Abraham before him as he writes and allows their experiences to guide his thoughts.

See what you think. And don’t hold Benjamin or me to this. We may change our views again! Benjamin is definitely not saying he knows the following idea is what James had in mind, but I do feel it is worth your time to examine. (Jim Elliff)

Benjamin Elliff wrote: “There has to be something pulling all this stuff together in James. At one time I thought that the theme was the whole issue of the patience of Job. In other words, Job fell into a trial, and it produced patience in him. He became poor, and he should have boasted in his new humility, since it was making him rich in spirit. And when he failed the test somewhat and sinned by wondering if God is unjust, he needed to realize that, yes, God brings the outward temptation to deny him, but the real temptation comes from inside a person–from a person’s own desires. If he fails the test and sins, he has only himself to blame. God is giving him a good gift of poverty, which his own desires are making into a mortal test/trial. So he should put his hand over his mouth and be “slow to speak, slow to anger.” Were you there, Job, when the morning stars sang together? Ok then: shut up, Job.

“It’s not enough to say that you believe that God is good. You have to be a doer of the word. When the time comes when you are tempted to curse God and die, you have to jab a bridle-ring through your tongue and bully it into submission. Don’t just protest that widows always used to bless your name (that’s one thing that Job said). Keep on loving the widows even in your new poverty. Get used to actually hanging out with poor people, and not just offering philanthropy. You are now a poor person yourself, Job, so get used to it and don’t complain.

“And why are you so keen to hang out with your rich friends from the past, Job? Aren’t they the very ones who accuse you before God and man and look down on your new poverty? Why do you care what they think? God has chosen the poor to inherit his kingdom.

“Let’s see your work do some speaking now, Job, and not just when you were rich. If you want to get cleared before God, this is the way.

“We need to shut up and start doing. Let’s not all sit around like Job’s friends. Let not many of us become teachers, like a bunch of rabbis debating God’s justice. Every time Eliphaz says that God always punishes sin, so Job must be sinning, he’s setting himself up for a greater judgment also. Just take that rudder of yours, Eliphaz, and sail off back to where you came from. You’re tempting Job to bless God and then curse him from the same mouth.

“There are two kinds of wisdom. One wisdom says that God always promptly punishes sin and always promptly rewards righteousness. It says that a rich person must be a good person, or God wouldn’t have let him get rich. That kind of wisdom just creates dissensions. It created that giant argument we call the book of Job. But God’s wisdom is peaceable and waits in faith and unfailing good conduct. God simply prefers humble people to proud people.

“So let’s resist this temptation. Let’s resist the devil who asked for permission to come down and test us. Let’s not go offhand criticizing people when they fall into hard times like Job. Who are you to judge your neighbor? Maybe you think that God is blessing you with riches because you are so righteous. Come now. You don’t know what catastrophe might hit you tomorrow, like it hit Job. It’s dangerous to be rich.

“So let’s have patience. God will exalt us in time. “You have heard of the patience of Job.” In the end God restored him.

“So what is the right response to calamities like Job’s? If you are sick, have the church pray about it. And help the sick person not to stray from his faith in God.”

I taught James yesterday for our meeting before the refugee work in Tel Aviv. I didn’t hold the whole thing hostage to Job, but I used Job to illustrate. I also tried to develop another illustration of James’ point: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, like he mentions in chapter 2. Here Abraham is asked to lose his life in order to save it, so to speak. This story must be in the back of James’ mind when he says that God doesn’t tempt/test/try anyone (that’s all the same word). The story in Genesis specifically says that God tempted/tested/tried Abraham (Gen 22:1). James is working this out, and there are two answers:

First, in both Job’s and Jesus’ temptations/tests/trials, it was not actually God who did the testing, but the devil. This is why it makes sense that James says “resist the devil and he will flee.” The only thing that God did was “lead” them “into temptation” (the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness).

Second, it is actually our desires (our “flesh,” as Paul might put it) that make the place where God led us into a trial.

On the subject of trial/temptation/test, we have to add God leading Israel into the wilderness and “testing” them (it says that somewhere in Deuteronomy), and also the fact that God specifically led Jesus’ disciples into temptation/trial/test. Jesus said that the disciples should pray that they would not enter into temptation/trial/test.

So there’s a whole theology of testing in James which seems linked to a bunch of stories in the OT and Gospels. And the real question is not whether you say you have faith like Peter and Judas did, but whether you have the deeds to back it up. Are you really willing to lose your life, to be the servant, to be the last, to be poor, to be humble, to show no partiality against tax collectors, to take up your cross and follow Jesus? If you are, you are blessed, and your deeds will justify (vindicate) you, because they will show that you have the faith of Abraham. And you will gain what “God has promised to those who love him” (called a “crown of life” in 1:12, but an inheritance of a “kingdom” in 2:5).

Actually, 1:12 and 2:5 are a bit of a key because they both have that phrase what God has “promised to those who love him.” In 1:12, it is people who come through trials who win this prize, but in 2:5 it is the “poor of the world.” This links all of the trial/test terminology with all of the poor-rich terminology in James. And that brings us right back to Job.

One thing is clear: Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen somehow didn’t get the memo.

(Editior’s note) There you have it. If Benjamin is right, James has been meditating on Job and Abraham. Out of that come comments about suffering that reflect that meditation. Therefore, it is possible to “see” Job and Abraham in the development of the book. This is worth thinking about as a possible unifying element to James (JE).