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198. Job 19:23-29, Job’s Appeal for a Redeemer

 

23 “Oh that my words were written!

   Oh that they were inscribed in a book!

24 That with an iron stylus and lead

   They were engraved in the rock forever!

25 As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,

   And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.

26 Even after my skin is destroyed,

   Yet from my flesh I shall see God;

27 Whom I myself shall behold,

   And whom my eyes will see and not another.

   My heart faints within me!

28 If you say, ‘How shall we persecute him?’

   And ‘What pretext for a case against him can we find?’

29 Thenbe afraid of the sword for yourselves,

   For wrath bringsthe punishment of the sword,

   So that you may know there is judgment.”

 

We now enter sacred ground, both of the text of Job and the history of interpretation of this text. The center of the quoted text, of course, is Job’s declaration in 19:25 that he knows his Redeemer lives; but questions and problems radiate out from that verse like spokes from the center of a wheel. The major question has to do with the identity of the Redeemer (whom Clines calls his “champion”), but other questions emerge about what is meant by any of several phrases in verses 26-27, what verses 28-29 are doing in this context, and to what extent one believes that Christological interpretations of this passage are justified. 

 

The last issue isn’t just one for those who self-identify as Christian interpreters of this text, but has to do with whether Biblical figures can speak of more than they understand as they utter their words. Just as many scholars of US Constitutional Law argue that the “meaning” of the post-Civil War amendments to the US Constitution (Amendments 13-15) wasn’t realized or ‘understood’ for more than 100 years after their passage, so one might argue that Job’s ‘meaning’ might only really emerge hundreds of years after these words.  To take another example. In the artistic world Vermeer’s paintings probably “mean” more for us than they did for people five hundred years ago and certainly for those in his lifetime.

 

So, the issue of teasing out meaning of Job 19:23-29 is not simply a verbal exercise, but also a theological and historical problem. Yet I hesitate to run to Christological solutions for Hebrew Bible passage, much less this one. The Book of Job presents an argument, as well as a brilliant, and often frustrating, debate between friends. The argument is going somewhere—and that “somewhere” is Job’s preparation of his “case” of (relative) innocence and blamelessness to God, who then will be in a position, so Job thinks, of responding to Job and declaring his innocence.

  


We need to see 19:23-29, and especially the appeal for a Redeemer, as part of an argument that is building throughout the Book of Job. That is, we are to see it first of all in a forensic context, in the context of Job’s preparing his case against God. Job realizes that God can easily dispose of him if he relies on his own resources, without more. As we recall from Job 9, there was no “umpire” (mokiach, 9:33) who could lay his hands on both parties. Several chapters later, however, after the case had been prepared and Job was confident in victory (13:18), Job posits the existence of a heavenly witness (ed) who will speak for him in his case (16:19). Job realizes he needs help in the presentation of his case; the friends are no help, God is silent, but he now has a witness in heaven who will speak for him.


What is so dramatically powerful about 19:23-29 is that Job will change the name of the helper he envisions and place this helper on the earth, rather than in the heavens.  Make no mistake about it, however. Job fully expects a helper in his fight against God, though he calls this helper now a “Redeemer.” Though the word “witness” is attested in the Bible, the word “Redeemer” (verb is gaal, 105x) is so richly represented in the Hebrew tradition that its presence here adds a historical dimension to Job’s plea. It is as if he is saying, ‘That Redeemer we all have been reading about since Leviticus 25 and Leviticus 27—yep, that kind of redeemer is here for me.’ Though God can sometimes be called the Redeemer of the people (See, e.g., Isaiah 41:14), the stronger meaning of the term, as we will describe below, is of a figure from one’s own kin who will fight for you when you are in danger of losing precious family property.

More on that in the next essay.