Should our interpretation of scripture, especially Old Testament texts be confined to the intent of the original author? Is it dangerous to see shades of later Christian understandings in the text?
Late last fall I started a series of posts looking at the book of Job. The book of Job is a profound and often overlooked or misunderstood book. Two new commentaries – Job (The NIV Application Commentary) by John Walton and Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms) by Tremper Longman III form the basis of this series. I’ve taken a long hiatus in the series as other commitments prevented me from reading and working through the commentaries. The fact that much of the book, where Job in a cycle of dialog with his three friends gets rather repetitive (i.e. boring) didn’t help matters. There are several passages, however, that are worth coming back to for a closer look and I will do so, beginning today.
One of the most well known passages in the book of Job is found at the end of Chapter 19. This chapter comprises Job’s fifth response to his friends, and as in most of the others he begins with angry complaints about the way his friends (in this case Bildad) treat him in their speeches. They assume that because Job is suffering he must be guilty, in need of repentance. Job however, maintains his innocence, and we from the preface know that he is righteous before God. Job has done nothing to deserve the suffering he is enduring. The last portion of chapter 19 contains a rush of confidence as Job looks for a redeemer before God. Both Longman and Walton point out that this is a difficult passage to translate, with several serious ambiguities. The translator’s choices necessarily involve an interpretation of the intent of the passage. As usual I will quote from Longman’s translation, 19:23-29. Walton’s commentary is based on the NIV translation, available through this link to BibleGateway.
Oh, that my words were written down. Oh, that they were inscribed in a scroll. Oh, that with an iron pen and with lead that they were etched on rock as a witness. I know that my redeemer lives, and he at last shall rise up on the dust. After my skin is peeled off, then out of my flesh I will see God. I will see him for myself; my eyes will look and not a stranger's. My heart fades within me. When you say, 'How should we pursue him?' and, 'The root of the matter is found in him,' be careful of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, so you may know there is judgement. .
Many Christians have taken Job’s confidence contained in the statement “I know that my redeemer lives” as an anticipation of the coming of Christ. The 1984 NIV and the ESV capitalize Redeemer in an interpretative move emphasizing a connection between this redeemer and Christ. (The 2011 NIV does not have it capitalized.) In Handel’s Messiah librettist Charles Jennens coupled verses 25 and 26 with 1 Cor. 15:20, “For now is Christ risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep” in a famous aria coming just after the Hallelujah Chorus and starting off Part III of the Messiah. William Blake also saw Christ as Job’s redeemer in his illustration for Ch. 42, shown above. Despite this popular interpretation, both Longman and Walton are firm in the opinion that this passage in Job is not a messianic prophecy, that Job did not have a messiah, resurrection, or postmortem judgement as part of his theology.
Longman prefers the view that God himself is Job’s redeemer. Job will meet God, and God will vindicate him. He summarizes:
In the final analysis, I believe the best understanding is that Job expects (or at least strongly desires) this meeting to take place before his death. In other words, the peeling off of his flesh in v. 26 refers to his tremendous suffering and pain, not his death. Thus, after his flesh has been peeled off, he will meet God out of his flesh (at the height of his suffering). Once he sees God, they will become familiar with each other (“not a stranger’s”). Just thinking about the possibility makes him faint (“My heart fades within me”). (p. 261, Longman)
This is consistent with the ending of the book, where Job does see God and his redemption and the reversal of his suffering comes from God himself. Job submits to God, God restores Job, and Job’s friends are saved only by the intervention of Job.
Walton takes largely the same view although he does not suggest that God himself is Job’s redeemer. He summarizes his conclusions:
In summary of this technical analysis, I would offer the following expanded paraphrase:
“I firmly believe that there is someone,30 somewhere, who will come and testify on my behalf right here on my dung heap at the end of all this. Despite my peeling skin, I expect to have enough left to come before God in my own flesh. I will be restored to his favor and no longer be treated as a stranger. This is my deepest desire!” (prosperity has nothing to do with it).
30. Perhaps from the divine council, but unspecified. (p. 221, Walton)
In any case Job’s hope is in his present life, and in his vindication before God and man. This is not a messianic prophecy or expression of a messianic hope.
My Redeemer Liveth. In some respects though, the intent and view of Job, or more to the point, the original author of this text (and I do think that it is a literary work not a transcript of an actual dialog) are not the only issues to be considered. The New Testament authors and the early church saw reflections of Christ in many Old Testament passages where the original authors had no such intent. One example I’ve used before is found in Matthew 2:15 “Out of Egypt I called my son.” This is a quote of Hosea 11:1, where Matthew neglects the first part of the phrase and the entire context of the passage. The passage in Hosea is clearly not a messianic prophecy. We could cite many more examples from the New Testament as well. The early church also saw references to Christ in many passages where the original authors had no such intent.
Longman notes that although most scholars, including conservative scholars, don’t see a messianic hope in Job, Kaiser is an exception. In his book The Messiah in the Old Testament he “argues that this passage should be understood as anticipating Jesus the Messiah.”
For Walton there are real problems with seeing a messianic hope in Job. Job was not looking for a redeemer to die for his sin, he was looking for an advocate. Job was treated unjustly – and looked to be vindicated and declared righteous. Walton contrasts this to our situation in light of the New Testament.
We have nothing to argue before God; we stand guilty and condemned to death. … We cannot argue that God is unjust because we now know that all have sinned and death is the penalty of sin. Jesus is our Mediator because he has taken our sin upon himself. (p. 226)
Walton has a point here with respect to the nature of the redeemer Job envisions, although I think he reads only one facet of the way Jesus is our redeemer into the equation. Unless penal substitution is the whole story, the kind of hope Job expresses could play a role in our understanding of Jesus. It is something of a stretch however. The main lessons of Job lie elsewhere.
Walton wraps up his discussion with several points I think worth considering.
What then should we think concerning the long traditions in the church’s seeing Job 19:25-26 as messianic prophecies of Christ the Redeemer and as expressing hope in the resurrection? Do the existence and truth of these New Testament doctrines supersede the contextual analysis of Job’s words? If any of the New Testament authors commented on Job’s statements here and offered an interpretation of it we would have a more difficult riddle to solve. But since that is not the case, we only argue against our own interpretive imagination, not against Scripture. If neither the Old nor the New Testament suggests that Job 19:25-26 ought to be interpreted as a reference to Christ or the resurrection, we have no authority for such a conclusion. Though we respect the opinion of the church fathers, they do not carry intrinsic authority; furthermore, they are of mixed opinion on this passage.
… When we preach or teach a certain passage, we ought to carefully avoid imposing our own agenda on that passage; rather, we should allow it to speak from its own context. Laxity on this matter only encourages the people we teach to employ the same methods, which can lead to naive or even dangerous flights of fancy. The danger is not in the doctrine but in the method, which, when applied without restraint, can result in tragic mishandling of the text. (p. 229)
I find this argument against the use of Job 19 as a messianic prophecy somewhat troubling. I think the NT authors were inspired to reflect on Christ and his life, death, and resurrection in the context of the Old Testament story of Israel, but I don’t think they were inspired to see messages hidden in scripture – be it Hosea 11:1 or Job 19. Rather they were inspired to see Jesus as the culmination of the entire sweep of the Old Testament story. The connection between Matthew and Hosea isn’t in the intent of Hosea but in the realization that Jesus was, in a sense, faithful Israel. Likewise many in the church have seen a messianic connection with Job 19 because of the culmination of the story in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
While I value the historical context of each passage, in Job, Hosea, Leviticus, and the rest, I don’t see it as dangerous or as “imposing our own agenda” when a passage is interpreted in a manner consistent with the entire sweep of scripture. Tragic mishandling of the of the text is far more probable when the Bible is read as isolated proof texts and moral lessons than when a passage is used to illustrate a clear doctrine of the full sweep of scripture. The protection against dangerous flights of fancy is in a thorough knowledge of scripture.
There are layers meaning in the text. At least the New Testament authors thought so, and I don’t see why we should disagree. I agree with Walton and Longman that the author of Job did not include a messianic prophecy in Job 19. But I don’t see any real problem with the way this passage is applied in popular theology and in Handel’s Messiah. And I’ll conclude this post with a clip of a performance of Handel’s Aria “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.”
Should we be concerned by the out of context use of Job 19:25-26 as messianic prophecies of Christ the Redeemer and as expressing hope in the resurrection? Is it dangerous?
Do the existence and truth of these New Testament doctrines supersede or supplement the contextual analysis of Job’s words?
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For those who may be interested here is a list and link to the earlier posts on Job. Wow, Job, Justice or Wisdom?, The Accuser is not Satan, Job is Innocent… And He Proves Faithful, Job’s Lament (And What’s in it For Me?), God’s Role in the Cosmos, Is God Just?.