Jabez was an obscure and little known Old Testament figure until Bruce Wilkinson used him for his famous book ‘The Prayer Of Jabez: Breaking Through To The Blessed Life’. Wilkinson’s premise is that God wants to bless you, if only we invite him to do so in the right ways. It’s not a book I recommend, not only because of the way it rips the story of out its biblical and literary context, but also for its focus on accumulating wealth, and manipulating God to do so.
So when it came up in Biblia Na Utajiri, I’ll admit, my expectations were not high. But the process of doing theology cross-culturally is one of being constantly surprised.
Ufoo reads the Jabez story as being about loving others. She even quotes Jesus’ command about loving your neighbour as yourself. I kept doing a double-take and going back to check the Swahili over and over when I read this, because I have only ever heard the Jabez story used as an example of how to enlist God in your quest to increase your own wealth. It is not normally others-centred!
The key to understanding Ufoo’s reading lies in the way Jabez is introduced: that he was more honourable or respected than his brothers. In Tanzanian culture, a person who is respected greatly is a person with great responsibilities. People honour you, and they have great expectations of you, expectations that you will provide for them. So Jabez is faced with a dilemma: he has many people who are depending on him to provide for them, so how will he do it? Will he gain his wealth by stealing, deceit, murder, swindling, or the like, or will he turn to God?
The prayer of Jabez in this context is not motivated by selfishness but by unselfishness. Jabez’s prayer for wealth is a prayer to be able to provide for others. In an individualistic culture, the prayer of Jabez is all about Jabez getting rich, but in Tanzania which is a corporate culture, it’s about looking out for others. How’s that for a different reading of the passage!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.