Faithful Foreigners: Dust & Ashes


Read: Job 42:1-6

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6, NRSV).

It sounds like the start of a fairy tale: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job….

In some ways, that fairy tale tone is accurate. “Once upon a time” signals that we don’t have to lose any sleep over historical accuracy. (Tell me you are not bothered by God and Satan placing bets at Job’s expense!)

On the other hand, a truer tale was never told. The righteous do suffer and the wicked do prosper. This, alas, is not a fairy tale, and poor old Job spends 42 chapters telling us about it.

A careful reading of the whole book will have to wait for another day and a longer format. On the eve of Ash Wednesday, however, I would like for us to take a look at what is arguably the most misunderstood line in Job’s story: …therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

Sometimes Job’s words are misread as a confession of sin. It’s easy to understand why. After all, his so-called friends have been pressuring him to “fess up” to a secret sin. According to their twisted theological calculus, Job’s suffering is a clear sign that he is begin punished for some previous sin. We as readers know this is not true, however, since we have read the book’s prologue (chs 1-2). Job is suffering because God is betting that Job will still be faithful even if he loses everything.

So, if we know Job is innocent, and Job knows he is innocent—what’s going on with this so-called confession?

Part of the problem lies in the way this verse is typically translated. Ellen Davis makes an excellent case for an alternative:

With the ear’s hearing I had heard of You, but now my eye has seen You;

therefore I recant and reconsider about dust and ashes.*

This rendering reveals something that is more like a confession of faith than a confession of sin. Job is certainly sorry, but it is not over some secret sin. Job has simply reconsidered about what it means to be “dust and ashes”—that is, his status as a human being (see Gen. 18:27, where the same phrase symbolizes the human condition). How could he not, after God’s relentless interrogation from the whirlwind in chs. 38-41? With that brutal reality check fresh in his mind, he admits that God is god and he is—well—dust and ashes.

What is even more amazing is that book goes on to describe Job’s willingness to trust God even without explanations or guarantees. This makes him what my friend, Jane Morse, called “one of the fiercest believers in the Bible.”

Not bad for a man from the land of Uz.

Ponder:  What goes through your mind when you hear the words, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust”? How does Davis’ translation of Job’s words complicate/inform your feelings?

Pray: Help us to remember that we are dust, and that to dust we will return. Then help us to entrust our mortality to your immortal love.


*Ellen Davis, “Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith” in The Whirlwind: Essays on Job, Hermeneutics and Theology in Memory of Jane Morse, ed. Stephen L. Cook, Corrine L. Patton and James L Watts (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 118.



Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!