Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who was Job's Redeemer? (Job 19:25-26)

1. There is a beautiful Aria in Handel's Messiah based on these verses in Job:

"I know that my redeemer lives,
     and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
     yet in my flesh I will see God."

It is a tremendously powerful picture!  Job is suffering. In one Christian reading of these verses, he faces potential death, but he knows that Jesus is alive, shall we even say that he will rise from the dead! I know that my Redeemer, Jesus, whom the Romans put to death, has risen and that he will come again. One day he will stand on the earth. Long after Job's skin has disintegrated and he is died, he will rise again from the dead. In his flesh, he will see God.

This is a powerful theological reading of Job. Although I can't think of any place where the New Testament actually interprets this verse from Job in this way, it is a fine theological reading of the verse.

2. The question in my mind is what the verse meant when it was first written? The default reading probably goes something like this:
  • "I read the verse against my world and my definitions. As a Christian, Jesus is my Redeemer. "In the end he will stand on the earth," sounds like my belief in the second coming. Skin destroyed and then returning? Sounds like resurrection to me.
The problem is when I try to read the verse against its literary context (the rest of Job) and historical-cultural context (how words were being used in the Ancient Near East at the time, roughly).

a. For example, within Job, look at these verses in the literary context of Job:
  • Job 14:12 come into play: "mortals lie down and do not rise again." 
  • Job 7:9-10: "those who go down to Sheol do not come up; they return no more to their houses"
  • And Job 3:16-19: "why was I not buried like a stillborn child... There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest... The small and the great are there, and the slaves are free from their masters."
In other words, Job does not yet seem to have any sense yet of resurrection or of a meaningful afterlife. For this reason alone, it is unlikely that Job 19:25-26 are about resurrection. The rest of Job does not seem to think in those categories yet.

b. When we expand to the historical-cultural context, the situation doesn't seem to change. The other wisdom books, whose final form I personally would date to the same period, have similar things to say:
  • Psalm 88:3-6: "My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those who remember no more… in the regions dark and deep."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:5: "The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost."
3. So what was Job saying originally? It seems to me that the most likely meaning is captured in the following paraphrase:
"I know that God, the one who is going to get me out of my current situation, is alive. I know that he is going to show up here in the land. My skin is rotting now with these boils. But he is going to vindicate and restore me. He is going to restore my skin to normal. In my restored flesh, I will see God."

Obviously I could be wrong. My point is merely to exercise the method one uses when the goal is what the text really meant originally. Then we are free, I believe, to hear true Holy Spirit meanings as well. For this reason, I will continue to prize the theological interpretation of Handel's Messiah! It is a Christological reading that is fully correct theologically.


Pastor Bob said...

As Peter preached beyond his understanding on the day of Pentecost, " For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call." Then later God in Acts 10 had to show Peter by way of vision that the gospel was for all. So with passages like this in Job, the Holy Spirit, for our benefit permits Job to speak beyond his understanding to increase the faith of others as well as himself. This is how I understand such passages, I must recognize divine inspiration of the Scripture.

Ken Schenck said...

I am very open to the possibility that God "impregnated" this verse with a potential for a fuller sense to be understood by Christians later. My point is that 1) this is indeed a fuller sense, not what Job understood himself to be saying and 2) while we feel very attached to this interpretation, it is because of our tradition of reading the verse. The Bible itself never endorses this interpretation of the verse.

So, yes, I have nothing against this interpretation at all! My goal is reflectivity, to show that an interpretation we associate with the inspiration of the Bible is not in the Bible at all. It's like the three wise men. Some feel like inspiration is being questioned when you point out that Matthew doesn't say 3. But it's not the Bible that is being questioned but traditions about how to read the Bible, IMO.