Of Dust and Ashes: A (Re)Reading of the Book of Job

I once hated the book of Job.

It’s about a guy against whom God and the satan conspired… the ancient story of a despicable prank. The satan approached God with a wager of sorts: “I bet you won’t find one believer in Israel who will remain faithful to you in the face of calamity.” God heard the bet and volunteered “his servant” Job– and immediately thereafter, all hell broke loose.

As the story goes, the satan pulled strings while God watched, and Job lost his home, his wealth, and his cattle. His children were all killed, he was stricken with a terrible sickness, his wife lost her faith and his friends turned against him. In despair, Job cried out to God demanding answers, but would not blaspheme. The end of the story records a famous reward for Job. God honored his unwillingness to blaspheme by replacing his wealth and giving him new children. I used to think about this story and say, “If this is God– thanks, but no thanks” and cynically dismiss the entire narrative.

I’ve heard dozens of sermons about Job but could never find any inspiration in the story until last year when I took a course in Hebrew Bible at seminary. My professor explained to us that at the end of the story, there’s a verse that doesn’t translate very clearly. In the King James Version, Job 42:6 says “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

The “dust and ashes,” as I have always understood them, were ritualistic symbols associated with repentance, and the assumption has always been that Job “repented”– using dust and ashes to express how sorry he was for being angry. However, my professor explained that this crucial verse could actually say a variety of other things, and is a debated topic in the world of Biblical scholarship. One of the options for its translation is:

“Therefore, I change my mind about the dust and ashes.”

As I listened to my professor explain that there are various meanings for the “dust-and-ashes” verse– I began to think about my own experiences with loss, despair, religious folks and spirituality. I put myself in Job’s shoes and wondered if, while under the pressure of what it meant to be human, Job changed his mind about what it meant to be ritualistic, or religious… Or more controversially– maybe he changed his mind about God.

I thought to myself: Maybe the book of Job isn’t about what it means for God to be God, or for the satan to be the satan. Maybe it’s about what it means for us to be human, and what it means for humans to evolve spiritually. Maybe it’s about what it means for religious folks to “change our minds” as we live our lives.

In my experience with Christian fundamentalism, the Book of Job was used to bind broken people to spiritually abusive systems by telling them that there would be some reward for sticking with “God.” Like so many others who have left unhealthy expressions of the faith, I once felt that I was being crushed by harmful religious influence(s) with no escape. When I finally got out, I projected all of my negative feelings about that experience onto God… It took a lot of time for me to separate God from my former church experiences, and to accept that I was better off without the influence of those organizations. After some time, I was able to see things a little more clearly and decided to put my spiritual pieces back together– even if it meant separating myself from traditional forms of Christianity.

At a time of intense despair in my life, I did as Job did… I sat… often alone… and asked the hard questions about what it meant for me to be spiritual. Over the course of several months, I changed my mind about the dust and ashes — the ritual — of it all. It was the absolute healthiest thing I ever did. Blessings to those of you who are also changing your minds about the dust and ashes.

11 responses to “Of Dust and Ashes: A (Re)Reading of the Book of Job

  1. I also like how the Message puts it: “I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor.”

    I’m still in the process of changing my mind about the dust and ashes. I often pause to think, “Wait a minute, is this how God really is? Or am I just accepting a kinder and gentler form of fundamentalism?”

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  3. I’ve come to see this in line with another Quaker’s interpretation: Job never says he’s done wrong, and God eventually confirms that Job is correct in this. What Job does say that’s significant: “I’d heard about You, from other people, but now I see You!”

    His religious friends come off poorly in all this, as God tells them they should apologize to Job & ask him to pray/sacrifice for their forgiveness.

    It isn’t so much that God has been “unjust”, or even unkind — but that this experience has been the shock Job needed to see What’s What (& Who’s Who)! If ‘satan’s involvement seems iffy — I don’t think you’d be too far wrong in seeing him as a personification of Job’s doubts about God and his own worth…. While bystanders like Job’s family are presumably getting clobbered in line with their own karmic needs, what happens to Job is an example of disguised benevolence… Rumi: “The wicked in Hell are happier than ever they were in their Earthly lives, for now they see God continually.”

  4. “I thought to myself: Maybe the book of Job isn’t about what it means for God to be God, or for the satan to be the satan. Maybe it’s about what it means for us to be human, and what it means for humans to evolve spiritually. Maybe it’s about what it means for religious folks to “change our minds” as we live our lives.”

    I think you are absolutely right, and I consider myself far more scripturally conservative than you!

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