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The Irony of James 5:1-6 – Structural Observations

Just as the structure of the entire epistle remains uncertain, the structure of 5:1-6 remains a matter for debate.  It is understandable that the exegesis of the pericope has led to a variety of structural opinions.  In future posts I will be responding to many points found within these proposed structures.  To this end it is necessary to provide the two major structures that have been proposed by modern scholarship.[1] In addition I will also mention the observations that will direct our own exegesis and the emerging tripartite framework that will be developed later.

The traditional arrangement of the passage is a two-fold division.  The first portion announces and illustrates the “coming miseries” of the rich men (vv. 1-3).  The second portion then describes the incriminating actions of the rich that led to their miseries (vv. 4-6).  A modified version of the traditional structure keeps the same two-fold division but views v. 2 as a description of themiseries, v. 3d as the first reason for the coming miseries, v. 4 as an illustration, and v. 5 as either the continuation of v. 3d or the second charge.  The outlines are as follows:

  1. Announcement of miseries (v. 1)
    • Rotted Wealth (vv. 2-3a)
    • Witness and testimony of rust (v. 3b,c)
    • Worthlessness of tre asuring (v. 3d)
  2. Reasons for miseries
    • Withholding wages (v. 4)
    • Living luxuriously (v. 5)
    • Murdering the righteous(v. 6)

OR

  1. Announcement of miseries (v.1)
  2. Description of miseries (v. 2)
  3. Reasons for miseries
    • Hoarding treasure (v.3d, [v.5])
      • Illustration (v.4)
    • [Luxuriously living (v.5)]
    • Murdering the righteous (v.6)

A second structure frames the passage into a list of accusations leveled on the rich.  The number of charges is varied depending on whether one chooses to delineate v. 5 as a separate accusation or as part of the accusation in v. 4.  The general outline would appear as follows:

  1. Announcement of miseries (v. 1)
  2. Accusations
    • Hoarding (vv. 2-3)
    • Withholding (v. 4, [v. 5])
    • [Living luxuriously (v. 5)]
    • Murdering (v. 6)

Three initial observations direct our own investigation.  First, the various objects that turn against the rich, such as the rust in v. 3 and the wages and harvesters in v. 4 pique my interest for possible connections and resulting implications of these objects as accusers.  Second, the similar eschatological phrases of vv. 3 and 5 guide us to ask questions about the function of eschatological imagery.  Third, the concluding phrase of v. 6 seems to be out of place, or at the least, anti-climactic.  I am concerned then, to discover how this phrase connects with the rest of the passage.

These three observations are mentioned here only to foreshadow the issues that influence the tripartite view that emerges from my examination.  I hold to an arrangement that has three sections of accusations (echoing the third outline above).  Each section is composed of three parts: an accusation, an ironical twist of judgment and punishment, and an eschatological statement of folly.  As I examine the passage, this three-part framework will come into view more clearly and key issues will find their appropriate place within the structure.

Before I move into a detailed analysis of the particular text, it is necessary to define my understanding of irony and folly.  Irony, as defined by Leland Ryken, is an “incongruity or discrepancy.”[2] Ryken, further defines three types of literary irony:

Dramatic irony occurs when a reader knows more about what is happening than characters in a story do.  Verbal irony occurs when a writer states something but means exactly the opposite.  Irony of situation occurs when a situation is the opposite of what is expected or appropriate.[3]

In James 5:1-6, we will be dealing with a combination of dramatic and situational irony.  As we will see the “rich men” of the passage are rather ignorant; they expect their actions to produce certain results, when in fact, as James informs us, their conduct sets in motion their downfall.  The common definition of folly is “lack of good sense or of normal prudence and foresight; inability to accept or foresee inevitable consequence; actions or conduct so misguided as to result in destruction or tragedy.”[4] I hope to show how James uses folly as a tool in his condemnation of the rich.


[1] Admittedly, the outlines are in simple form.  Within each general outline scholars may vary in details.  One would need to consult the particular works to see the intricacies of their structure.

[2] Leland Ryken, Words of Life: A Literary Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 170.

[3] Ryken, Words of Life, 170.

[4] Webster’s New International Dictionary, third edition.

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