It’s easy to see why these are popular verses of scripture among Christians. Unlike a lot of the rest of the book of Job, which can come across as dense, esoteric, and difficult to read,
the forefather’s cry of faith in 19:25-26 rings out clearly to readers in a completely relatable way. Everyone can understand his emotions, because we’ve all been there.
Well, we’ve not all been exactly where Job was. Hopefully not many of us have experienced the loss of all our children and our means of making a living all in one fell swoop (1:13-19). And hopefully most of us will be spared the kind of physical suffering Job endured (2:7-8). But anyone who has lived very long, and unfortunately even some who haven’t, has probably reached a point of utter despair at least once. A moment when you absolutely can’t see any way thorough or forward. A moment when nothing makes sense, and nothing seems to be what it was supposed to be. Everything is wrong, and there is no one who can fix it.
In these situations it is understandable for us to simply want to “curse God and die,” as Job’s wife encouraged him to do (2:9). It takes a tremendous amount of faith not to just give up. And faith is the essence of Job’s proclamation here.
I believe a big part of the appeal of this passage to Christians is the use of the word “Redeemer” to refer to God. Obviously “redemption” is an important part of the theology of Paul and, therefore, the later theology of the church (although the Greek word for “redeemer” only appears once in the New Testament–Acts 7:35). Jesus is referred to as our “Redeemer” because he provided “redemption” through his atoning death. However, for many Christians this word has lost its full meaning. “Redemption” is often reduced to referring to salvation from sin and its consequences. And that is certainly a part of the Christian understanding. But the Jewish idea of a Redeemer, borrowed and modified by Paul, is actually much broader and deeper than that.
The Jewish belief it is based on, which is what Job was referring to here, is the idea of the Kinsman-Redeemer.
In ancient Jewish belief the Kinsman-Redeemer (Heb. goel) was a person’s next of kin, their nearest living male relative. Both law and tradition gave this Kinsman-Redeemer certain obligations toward the family members they were responsible for. On behalf of his family, he would fight injustice, right wrongs, and administer retribution. For example, a goel could redeem (buy back) a family member who had been forced to sell himself into indentured servanthood (Lev 25:47-49). He could do the same for the property of a family member that had been sold to pay a debt (Lev 25:23-25) or had otherwise come to be out of the family’s control (for an account of this transaction taking place, see Ruth 4:1-10). And in the case of a family member being murdered, the goel was not only allowed but expected to avenge their relative’s death by killing the perpetrator (Num 35:16-21, where goel is sometimes translated “avenger of blood”). Finally, a Kinsman-Redeemer was the man in the rite of Levirate marriage who would marry his deceased brother’s wife and have children with her so his brother’s line could continue (Deut 25:5-10). In essence, the goel served as sort of a combination social security and defense attorney, ensuring that a family’s land did not pass out of their control forever, that justice was done, and that a person’s name and reputation would live on long after he was gone.
So why does Job choose this rather strange metaphor to refer to God in 19:25? His situation seems quite different to that usually “redeemed” by the goel. He had not been sold into slavery, nor had he sold off any of his land or property. He was not yet dead, although he surely expected that he would be soon. But even so, he would not be murdered under the definitions set down in Numbers 35. And he certainly isn’t demanding that God fulfill the duties of the Kinsman-Redeemer in the rite of Levirate marriage. So why did Job proclaim his belief in Yahweh as his goel?
I think Job is not being literal here. Obviously he doesn’t expect Yahweh to strictly perform the duties of the Kinsman-Redeemer on his behalf. But he IS looking for God to bring about the same results that the goel would accomplish–avenging his death (figuratively, rather than literally), and perhaps most importantly, restoring Job’s reputation and good name.
Remember, earlier in the story Job’s “comforters” have suggested that his misfortune is punishment from God because of some unconfessed sin or lack of faith. Job has vehemently denied these charges, yet his suffering continues and there seems to be no logical explanation for it. Job laments that no one believes him, and does not seem to expect this situation to change during his lifetime. So what Job wants from his Redeemer is vindication–the clearing of his name. He wants God to prove to everyone once he is gone that he was guiltless, sinless, and that his faith in God was not in vain. No matter what happened to him in this world, he remained faithful. That is the memory he wants his family and friends to pass down to future generations. And he knows that God is the only one who will be able to make this happen.
For the ancient Israelites reputation and “name” were perhaps even more important than life itself. They didn’t believe in an afterlife (that was a later theological development), so the only way you could “live” after death was through your family, especially your children, and in the memory of you that they passed down. This is why it was so important to have children, especially males, in this culture: your sons would be the ones who guaranteed your legacy and name lived on after you. This is the issue Job seems primarily concerned with in these verses, not with the saving of his life or the alleviation of his affliction.
This interpretation is supported by Job’s statement right before this in vv. 23-24: “Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever!” (NIV). Job wants his faith in God to be permanently recorded so that in future there will never be any doubt or confusion on this point.
If you’re like me and often seethe over injustice in the world, this passage is comforting. It is a confident proclamation that God will one day bring his perfect justice to bear on the world. His kingdom will prevail. God will return (see v. 25, “in the end he will stand on the earth”). Wrongs will be righted, reputations will be restored. God’s people will be renewed and gathered together once again. All will come to see that faith in God was not folly, but rather wisdom.
Job here is proclaiming future hope in a hopeless situation. He doesn’t believe he will live to see his reputation restored, but still firmly believes God will make it happen. That is the essence of faith.