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The Patience of Job

William Blake

It is hard to imagine any biblical character less patient than Job! This is the man whose first extended speech begins with a curse of the day of his birth: “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived’” (Job 3:3). That same speech ends with the declaration, “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes” (Job 3:26). This is hardly a model of patience. In fact, Job’s friend Eliphaz counsels patience to him, saying that God will eventually deliver Job from his troubles. But Job rejects such counsel, asking instead, “What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?” (Job 6:11).

As the book of Job goes on, Job himself only becomes more impatient. “I loathe my life,” says Job, and therefore, “I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 10:1). Job clearly lays the blame for his situation at the feet of God: “I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces” (Job 16:12). And so Job the impatient demands an audience with God: “Oh, that I knew where to find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:3-4).

How then did we get the phrase “the patience of Job”? It comes from the New Testament book of James where, according to the King James Version (KJV), the author says, “Ye have heard of the patience of Job” (Jas 5:11). Most biblical scholars agree that the Greek word (hupomone) translated by the KJV as “patience” probably means something more like “endurance” or even “persistence.” The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), for example, translates the sentence as “you have heard of the endurance of Job.” This makes much more sense of the character of Job. For if Job is not patient, he certainly does show remarkable endurance in the face of tragic loss and intense suffering, and eventually, at the end of the book, Job emerges from suffering and loss into a life built anew around his children and grandchildren. And throughout the book he remains stubbornly persistent both in his refusal to give in to his accusers (Job 27:2-6) and in his desire for an audience with God (Job 23:3-4).

It is too much to hope that “the endurance of Job” will become a byword or that those who resolutely resist authority will be commonly said to display “the persistence of Job.” Certainly that is a more apt description of the biblical Job. But the influence of the King James Version on English-language culture is deep and wide, and the proverbial “patience of Job” has stuck.

  • Tod Linafelt

    Tod Linafelt is professor of biblical literature in the Theology Department at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and is a recent holder of the Cardin Chair in the Humanities in the English Department at Loyola College in Maryland.  He is co-author, with Walter Brueggemann, of An Introduction to the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2012).