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.
So how do we best make sense of this passage? Let me make a few observations:
- 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
- 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!
- 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’.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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; 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.
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.
- See, for example, Matthew J. Suriano, “Death, Disinheritance, and Job’s Kinsman-Redeemer.” JBL 129.1 (2010): 49–66.