“I know that my redeemer lives…”

Job 19:25–27 contains what are perhaps the most famous words of Job. They are included in Handel’s Messiah and found in other Christian music as well. For many, these words by Job are understood as an indication that Job’s faith continues despite all that has happened to him: Job’s redeemer is God and Job, fundamentally, maintains a profound faith in God. For some these verses are understood even to reflect Job’s hope in life after death.

Yet this common understanding of these verses is almost certainly wrong. Let me explain.

First, it’s worth noting that just because an interpretation or reading of a text makes for some profound message, or great sermon fodder, or supports one’s theological position, does not make it right. I’ve heard that sort of argument for the Comma Johanneum — it must be true because it supports the doctrine of the Trinity. Forget the overwhelming textual evidence against it, the dubious circumstances surrounding its authenticity, and so forth. If it sounds good then that’s enough for some people, and removing it is tantamount to heresy.

That seems to be the thinking behind the argument in some of the commentaries that I’ve seen which then go on to claim that any other interpretation is clearly inferior. Yet this is not a sound exegetical argument. Close inspection reveals problems with this view and the alternative view, espoused below, is free from these difficulties.

The most apparent difficulty is recognised by some proponents of the traditional view (if I may call it this). John Hartley, for example, notes that:

This magnificent verse then means that Job is beseeching the God in whom he has faith to help him against the God who is punishing him.

J. E. Hartley, Job, 295.

The point is, nothing in the context prepares us to identify Job’s redeemer as God, and everything in the context urges us not to make this identification.

There are other problems with the traditional view. For one, we know that Job does not need a redeemer or mediator to resolve his problems, because his problem is not that he needs someone to plead his case to God. We know that from the prologue where God recognised Job as upright and blameless! We know it because Job’s plight is remedied in the end without any mediator or redeemer appearing!

So how do we best make sense of this passage? Let me make a few observations:

  1. The ‘redeemer’ (גאל) was a defined role in ancient Israel (see Num 35:12, 19–27; Lev 25:25–34), sometimes called the ‘kinsman-redeemer’. They sought justice when a family member was murdered, they ensured that widows within the family were cared for, they redeemed property sold through economic circumstances. They were real people who were members of the extended family. Obviously the most famous example is Boaz in the story of Ruth (see Ruth 2:20).¹
  2. Job has, for some time by this point, made it clear that he does not expect to live for long. He feels his death is imminent (e.g. Job 7:21). He will leave a widow, he will leave an estate which needs to be apportioned as inheritance within his broader family. In short, he expects to need the services of his kinsman-redeemer in the near future!
  3. In Job 19:25, when Job refers to a time that is “in the end” (אחרון), this redeemer will stand on dust (על־עפר). ‘Dust’ is used in reference to death, for example, in Gen 3:19; Job 7:21. It is likely a reference to Job’s death, possibly even his own grave. Job ties the arrival of this redeemer with his demise, precisely what we’d expect of a ‘kinsman-redeemer’.
  4. The opening of verse 26 parallels the close of verse 25, again referring to Job’s death. The mistake in many translations is tying this clause with what follows rather than that which precedes it. In the first three lines (Job 19:25–26a), Job has poetically stated that his death is coming, it is certain, and he has made arrangements (he is confident that his kinsman-redeemer is ready).
  5. This portion, v. 26a, is difficult no matter which view is adopted, and some commentators consider it to be corrupt (which it may be). The problems, in particular, are that the singular ‘skin’ (עור) seems to be the subject of the plural piel verb, and whether the piel verb can have a passive meaning, as would seem to be necessary. The LXX offers no help in understanding the Hebrew.
  6. The remainder of verse 26 and first two-thirds of 27 now express Job’s wishes for before he dies — before his skin is gone, while still in his flesh. Furthermore, the yiqtol verbs should be read modally — unlike the way most English translations render them. “But in my flesh I want to see God.” That this is so is made explicit by the final clause (see below). He emphasises this by asserting that he wants to see God with his own eyes and not leave this encounter to another (after he has died).
  7. The final clause makes it clear that Job is desperate for this to happen, but that it is by no means a certainty. The verb here, כלה, usually means “to stop, come to an end,” but is used in the sense of “yearning, longing” in places such as 2Sam 13:39; Ps 84:3[2]; 119:81. Job has elsewhere expressed a desire to confront God (see, for example, Job 13:1–12).

This leads to the following translation of this passage:

I know that my kinsman-redeemer lives,
and after (me) he will stand on the dust
after they have stripped this — my skin

Yet from my flesh I want to see God,
I want to see him for myself,
and my eyes see, not a stranger’s!

My innards yearn within me.

Job 19:25–27

So in the end, Job is reiterating his expectation that his death is nearing. He is ready for it, indeed he has in places been longing for it. But before that happens, before the end comes, he wants the opportunity to meet with God so that he might register his complaint and, perhaps, get some sort of explanation for what has happened to him. And while he doesn’t know it at this point in the story, he is going to get his wish!

For Christian readers this might be somewhat disappointing. Desperate to find deeper meaning in the Old Testament, we can forget that Job’s original readers knew nothing of Jesus, knew nothing of the nature of post-mortem existence, had no inkling of a final judgment or eternal life.

  1. See, for example, Matthew J. Suriano, “Death, Disinheritance, and Job’s Kinsman-Redeemer.” JBL 129.1 (2010): 49–66.

job’s wife

February 8th is International Septuagint Day.

In celebration, this year I thought I’d post one of the two major differences between the LXX and MT in the Book of Job, the details of Job’s wife. For those unfamiliar with her, this is all we hear of and from Job’s wife in the MT:

ותאמר לו אשתו עדך מחזיק בתמתך ברך אלהים ומת

Then his wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Sounds pretty harsh, right? Well the LXX of Job tends to tone things down quite a bit throughout. When it comes to Job’s wife, however, we get quite a lot more information! The LXX has this:

Χρόνου δὲ πολλοῦ προβεβηκότος εἶπεν αὐτῷ ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ
Μέχρι τίνος καρτερήσεις λέγων
ΔΙδοὺ ἀναμένω χρόνον ἔτι μικρὸν
προσδεχόμενος τὴν ἐλπίδα τῆς σωτηρίας μου;
iοὺ γὰρ ἠφάνισταί σου τὸ μνημόσυνον ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς,
υἱοὶ καὶ θυγατέρες, ἐμῆς κοιλίας ὠδῖνες καὶ πόνοι,
οὓς εἰς τὸ κενὸν ἐκοπίασα μετὰ μόχθων.
sύ τε αὐτὸς ἐν σαπρίᾳ σκωλήκων κάθησαι διανυκτερεύων αἴθριος·
kἀγὼ πλανῆτις καὶ λάτρις
τόπον ἐκ τόπου περιερχομένη καὶ οἰκίαν ἐξ οἰκίας
προσδεχομένη τὸν ἥλιον πότε δύσεται,
ἵνα ἀναπαύσωμαι τῶν μόχθων καὶ τῶν ὀδυνῶν, αἵ με νῦν συνέχουσιν.
ἀλλὰ εἰπόν τι ῥῆμα εἰς κύριον καὶ τελεύτα.

The NETS translation of this is:

Then after a long time had passed, his wife said to him, “How long will you persist and say, ‘Look, I will hang on a little longer, while I wait for the hope of my deliverance?’ For look, your legacy has vanished from the earth—sons and daughters, my womb’s birth pangs and labors, for whom I wearied myself with hardships in vain. And you? You sit in the refuse of worms as you spend the night in the open air. As for me, I am one that wanders about and a hired servant—from place to place and house to house, waiting for when the sun will set, so I can rest from the distresses and griefs that now beset me. Now say some word to the Lord and die!”

Nowhere near as harsh! The LXX gives Job’s wife a more human face, referring to her own loss and sufferings. Furthermore, it removes the lexical link to the words of the Satan by simply exhorting Job to say some word to God, rather than explicitly ask him to “bless” God.

Was Elihu Right?

JESOT 3.2 is now live and includes my article entitled “Was Elihu Right?” In it I discuss the contribution of Elihu in the Book of Job, so check it out:


The “prequel” to this article (entitled “Malevolent of Mysterious”) is also available for download from Tyndale Bulletin:


david penchansky — understanding wisdom literature

Eerdmans have recently published a new volume by David Penchansky entitled Understanding Wisdom Literature. This is a book which examines the biblical and post-biblical wisdom literature and raises questions and issues which are sometimes uncomfortable but are nonetheless (or perhaps I should say “are thus”) important. Below is my review of Penchansky’s book.

malevolent or mysterious? god’s character in the prologue of job

My latest article on Job will appear in the next volume of Tyndale Bulletin with the above title. Here’s the synopsis:

Readers of the Book of Job often believe that the prologue reveals the entire reason for Job’s loss and suffering and so the full background for all that transpires throughout the remainder of the work. Many readers find that this raises significant problems about God’s character as depicted in the book. There are, however, subtle indications both in the structure of the prologue and the content of the entire book which suggest that the exchanges between Yahweh and the Satan do not offer to the reader the complete rationale for Job’s suffering. Furthermore, it appears that the author of Job has deliberately created a riddle which, left unsolved, traps the reader into believing—as Job’s friends believe—that a full reason for Job’ s suffering is at hand. Solving the riddle, however, entwines the reader in Job’s ignorance and thus the book’s insistence that there is some wisdom only Yahweh holds.

If I’m right then I’d argue that many claims made about the book of Job are spurious. For example, in a recent article by Deane Galbraith on Job (h/t Jim West), the following from its synopsis could no longer stand:

The injustice of the story of Job also reveals itself repeatedly in God’s totalitarian, universalising strategies, which deny the uniqueness of Job’s case, where he is made to suffer arbitrarily because of the wager between God and the Adversary.

Many other scholars make the assumption that the prologue tells us all we need to know about Job’s suffering. Grab a copy of the next Tyndale Bulletin to find out why I think this is incorrect.

job’s perfection and paul’s objection

Job, we are told in the opening verses of the book which bears his name, was ‏תם וישר וירא אלהים וסר מרע — “blameless and just, fearing God.” Much of the point of the book rests upon the veracity of this assertion. Job did not deserve to suffer as he did.

David Clines claims that this presents a somewhat difficult conundrum to Christian readers of the book. I’ll let him explain:
Continue reading

the prayer of job?

Andrew Barry has suggested that Job 42:7, which reads:

חרה אפי בך ובשני רעיך כי לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב

ought to be rendered thus:

My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has.

The significant difference to most interpretations and translations is the “spoken to” in place of “spoken about.” Andrew’s suggestion is based on the observation that the Hebrew here, כי לא דברתם אלי, employs the preposition אל following the verb דבר which elsewhere almost always means “speak to.” Consequently, Andrew reads Job 42:7 as referring to prayer — to speech directed to God, not discussions about him.

Grammatically and statistically the reading “spoke to me” is both possible and well attested — indeed, even at the beginning of Job 42:7 we have an instance of דבר ‫+‬ אל describing Yhwh’s speaking to Job (דבר יהוה … אל איוב). As Andrew points out, the majority of uses of the verb דבר in the piel followed by the preposition אל mean “speak to.” Nonetheless, there are a few exceptions such as 2Chron 32:19; Jer 28:16; 33:14; 51:12 (although outside Job 42:7–8 there are no exceptions within Job).

In light of these observations, what reasons can be offered in support of the more common/traditional rendering? None of the commentaries I have at hand offer any discussion of the point, but I think a case can be made for the common understanding:

1. There is some indication of mixing of אל and על in BH, particularly later texts (although על tends to replace אל, not the other way around). על would more clearly mean “speak about.”

2. There are examples where דבר + אל does mean “speak about,” so it is a possibility (see above). We can’t simply go on statistics or else all language would be impossibly wooden — it simply doesn’t work that way.

3. The LXX translates the preposition with ενωπιον rather than with εις, προς or a dative, suggesting that the early translators read it as God rebuking Job’s friends for what they had said about him rather than to him.

4. Perhaps the strongest point in favour of the traditional reading, however, is the context. Context plays a far more important role in determining the appropriate meaning of words than should statistics, after all. Within the book of Job, Job’s friends had not spoken to God at all, so to rebuke them for not saying the right thing to God seems odd. OTOH, they had made lots of claims about God, specifically about his response to sin and so made him the cause of Job’s suffering and made the reason some supposed transgression on Job’s part.

Furthermore, there are few examples where Job is recorded as speaking to Yhwh. Andrew points to Job 1:21 which is perhaps one of the few actual occasions where Job is recorded addressing Yhwh (although in 1:21 he does so rather circuitously). In Job 5:8 Job expresses his desire to present his case to God (and do so by speaking to him). Job’s desire to speak with God is manifest in the speech cycles of Job 4–27, but that’s not quite speaking to God either. In fact, Job isn’t recorded as directly addressing God until Yhwh himself calls for a response from him and he replies in Job 40:4–5. At that point, Job’s words to Yhwh amount to an admission of his ignorance in light of Yhwh’s array of questions which all highlight Job’s lack of knowledge.

Consequently, Job 42:7 may well be indicating that God approves of Job’s words to him admitting his limits, while Job’s friends all proceeded from the point of view that they held certain knowledge which they then sought to apply to Job’s sufferings — information which we know (from the prologue) to be ill-informed (at least in Job’s case).

As to whether the book is about prayer, I don’t think that is correct. Certainly it has something to say about how we should pray, about the importance of prayer, and so about prayer. But this is not the main message of the book. Nor, for that matter, is suffering.

does the story of job reflect a national tragedy?

jobThe book of Job contains no explicit dating information and so determining its precise historical context is difficult. Although the implied date of the story is widely acknowledged to be in patriarchal times (when wealth was measured in goods and chattels, where people reputedly lived well past 100 years of age, and where there was no centralised religious cult), there is no reason to think that this reflects the date of composition of the work as a whole or its component parts (if indeed they ever enjoyed any form of independent existence).

So, rather than appealing to explicit information within the story itself, scholars appeal to other aspects of the book in order to propose a date of composition. One argument often raised in support of an exilic date is the idea that the story of Job offers an account of innocent suffering supposedly parallel to the experience of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians when they were carted off into exile — they suffered although they were innocent. Leo Perdue appeals to this argument when he writes that “[t]he poet’s rejection of the doctrine of retribution… would enable the people in exile to realize they were not responsible for the tragedies of the destruction of Jerusalem, the devastation of the land, and their consequent removal to Babylon.”1

It seems to me, however, that this argument is not as strong as is sometimes implied. First, it is by no means necessary for a national tragedy to prompt a writer to address the issues with which Job deals — personal tragedy or loss could easily offer similar impetus.

Second, it puts Job at odds with the prophets who unequivocally pointed to Judah’s sinfulness as the prime cause for the exile. Perdue suggests that the explanation offered by the prophets is one of a range of different responses to the tragedy and that Job offers an alternate perspective. While this may be true to some extent, I think that Job’s prologue counts against this interpretation. In a context where differing explanations were offered for the exile — in particular where national sin was held up as an underlying cause — the prologue to Job presents one who suffers in spite of exceptional and exemplary piety. There was, as the author states, none like him in all the earth. If the exiles were meant to see in Job’s predicament a reflection of their own, would they really have felt that they were as blameless as Job? In short, Job’s prologue makes Job too good to serve as a mirror to the nation.

Of course this is not to say that Job said nothing to the exiles about their own suffering. What I think it does say, however, is that the argument which sees Job as offering an explanation for the events surrounding the exile because Job’s predicament supposedly mirrors that of the exiles is far from compelling.

1. Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 84.

job 42:3 — too marvellous or too difficult?

In English translations, Job 42:3 is usually rendered as follows:

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

The reference to “things too wonderful for me” appears to be a little odd given the context, following Job’s confrontation with Yahweh wherein Job is presented with a series of questions apparently designed to highlight his ignorance. The emphasis here is on Job’s lack of knowledge, a point asserted by Yahweh and affirmed by Job when he says “I have uttered what I did not understand.” Indeed, perhaps Job’s own emphasis here when he declares ‏לכן הגדתי ולא אבין is not simply that he spoke of things he didn’t understand, but that he actively affirmed them as factual (i.e., made his point quite vociferously).

So while it might be true that many of the things Job did not understand were too wonderful for him, part of what he didn’t understand was the justification for his own suffering. I’m not sure that he would describe that as “wonderful”!

However, this is not the only way to understand the verse, nor even the best way. The niphal participle here from פלא can also mean “be too difficult” according to HALOT when followed by the preposition מן, as it is here. In fact, when you look at the way in which the verb is used elsewhere with מן + a personal pronominal suffix (see Deut 17:8; 30:11; Jer 32:17; Ps 131:1; Prov 30:18), the emphasis generally appears to fall on the notion of difficulty, not wonder. And this fits better in Job 42:3 as well, for both Job and Yahweh have spoken of Job’s ignorance. His inability to answer any of Yahweh’s questions speaks to the fact that they were, for Job, too difficult, not too wondrous.

Consequently I suggest a better translation might be something like:

I have asserted, but I did not understand;
these things are too difficult for me, and I do not know them.

ISTM this better fits with what’s going on between Job and Yahweh.