The other day I read something where the author casually suggested some biblical personage was doing their job. That idea seemed to stick in my throat on the way down, like improperly masticated toast. Jobs are something we do in a surplus economy, but in biblical times could what anyone did properly be called a “job”? Sure, there were kings (aka bullies), and priests. They were exempted from too much physical labor. Even the plaintive bleating of sheep followed by a thud and sudden, eerie silence, was carried out by lesser temple functionaries. But did these people think of what they did as jobs? Did someone write them a check at the end of two weeks so they could pay their rent and utilities, and spend their weekends wishing they were doing something else? Jobs are a modern phenomenon.
How easy it is to forget that ancient people were by and large country folk. Even until late in the nineteenth century (CE, for those who are counting) in the United States most people were farmers living in the country. Their job? Simple survival. Trading on the surplus—of course money had been invented by this point—they grew or tended what their land allowed but what they did wasn’t so much a job as it was a way to keep alive. In the earlier biblical times, back beyond the New Testament, money wasn’t always an assured way of trade. Many people could go their entire lives without seeing silver or gold. Those in cities specialized their trades somewhat, but if they grew weary of say, weaving luxury textiles, did they have to carefully consider healthcare options before “quitting their jobs”? Rolling over their 401Ks? Writing new killer cover letters?
We need another word for ancient occupations. And we also need an awareness of how our modern lenses distort our vision of ancient lives. People lived for short periods of time. Most men died by forty and most women by their twenties. Sure, you could survive longer than that—much longer—but healthcare perks weren’t then what they are today for those who can afford them. Your perspective would certainly shift if your life expectancy were so short. I can’t help think, though, that there were people like me out there in the field, perhaps watching over a flock of mangy sheep, thinking about the larger issues consciousness affords. They couldn’t get a job as an editor, I don’t suppose, since literacy was rare. If they’d been trained to write their future would’ve been secure. But times change, even as does the very concept of a job.