For those who want a change from the Gospel
Kingdom 2 / 3rd before Advent – Job 19:23-27a
This short extract from Job is perhaps the purplest of passages from the book, and you probably didn’t read it without the Air from Handel’s Messiah ringing in your brain. In the context of Jesus it is a great affirmation of faith, but, as I constantly tell my students, a text cannot mean something which the original writer did not intend the original readers to understand it as saying. The whole point of this blog is to read the OT for itself, and not how the gospel, or the Gospel, tells us to read it. Sadly it has nothing to do with Jesus, and is not an early version of ‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead’. Our job is to uncover what Job meant by it, and what that may say to us today.
We can get into this by asking an important question: what does Job want from God? the answer is vindication. We’re used to the idea that even the best of us are miserable sinners, and we need to begin every meeting with God by apologising and having a priest tell us it’s OK again. But Job isn’t like that. Several times throughout the book he is declared completely innocent. Under the Jewish Law that was theoretically possible. In Psalm 17:3-5 the author tells God that however hard he probes he will find no sin in him. All that was before Jesus came along and complicated things by telling us that it wasn’t just doing bad things which is wrong: even thinking them is enough. So Job is innocent, and knows himself to be. Why then has God punished him so cruelly? What he needs above all is his day in court. He needs to stand before God and tell him how nasty and unjust he has been. All his friends can do is to tell him he’s mistaken, and that by definition God must be right and he must be a sinner. But Job knows that he isn’t, so God must be wrong.
But how do you get to tell God that? In a Law Court if the Judge and the accused are the same person, you know it isn’t going to end well for the prosecution. And even before that, will he be too overwhelmed at standing face to face with God that he won’t be able to set out his case coherently, or even at all? The book considers some alternative possibilities for Job: he might descend to Sheol and wait until God’s anger blows over (Job 14), or maybe a figure, either earthly or heavenly, will stand between them as arbiter (Job 9, 16). But in our passage there is another possibility, that a go’el or redeemer, often a close relative as in the Book of Ruth, will stand up for him, even after his death, and vindicate him. And just in case his plight is forgotten, to have the case written down, not just on paper but carved in rock too, will make sure that future generations will know that he was innocent. But the best option is for him to see God face to face while he is still alive, so that the ranting against God’s injustice can be heard not through an intermediary but directly.
In the event, as we know, God does appear to him, and after a talking to Job withdraws his case. But the meaning so often given to this passage, that we can only expect vindication after death and through Jesus, could not be further from the original meaning, and can easily lead to the kind of quietism which tells suffering people that everything will be fine once they’ve died. Many people need redeemers now, and they need human ones, not pie in the sky when they die. Part of our sharing in the ministry of Christ is to stand alongside the broken, who may well feel that they have been broken unjustly, and argue their case against those with power and influence. This is not a text of quiet assurance: it is a call to action on behalf of those who simply have no other way of being heard or obtaining justice.