Biblical Employment

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.

Balthasar-Paul Ommeganck, Landscape with shepherds, via Wikimedia Commons

Editing Sheep

Many academics I know dismiss editors as just another species of laity put on earth to serve the guild. There’s perhaps some truth to that. Without people to write books—and few beyond the professorate are granted the time and leisure to do so—we’d be without a job. One of the more hidden aspects of being an editor is, however, its prophylactic role. One thing that those of us who’ve written books know is that we get pretty close to our subject. We have to. Writing a book while viewing your topic from a distance is possible, but not desirable. Being too close to your subject, however, often leads to extreme myopia. Many are those who are quick to dismiss editorial suggestions wonder later why their books didn’t do better. Think about it. Editors, by definition, read all the latest stuff.

We’re kind of like shepherds, my fellow editors and me. We try to keep the ideas in order. We’re not the owners—the authors are—but without an able shepherd you soon find yourself lacking the sheep that make you wealthy. The benefit of an editor is having dispassionate eyes—often knowing eyes—viewing a nascent book without the love of a parent. Don’t get me wrong—we often have great fondness for those books we didn’t write. We can tell the author something s/he is too attached to the text to notice. We can help the writer avoid mistakes. Not that we’re perfect, but we are critical because we’re rooting for you. Facilitators.

It used to be common for editors to be authors. With the growing atomization of specialization, however, this is fairly rare these days. As a colleague of mine once put it, editors are more like deans than faculty. We look at book budgets and statistics. We face the harsh realities. And some of us were once faculty. I receive dismissive notes now and again, supposing that I’m an English major who made it good. Unlike many editors, however, I write. I’ve sat on both sides of this desk and when I offer advice it’s for your own good. Academics and publishers need each other. For one, without books there’s no promotion. Without books, for the other, there’s no paycheck. Like any shepherd, however, we know that the sheep are the important assets. We shepherd ideas into books. But you have to trust the shepherd to do the job.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.

394px-Flock_of_sheep

Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.