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At the end of his life, Job seems to have been content with his lot despite his time of suffering recorded in the rest of the book. Some have suggested that the reason he had for contentment is that he held an early belief in resurrection as expressed in Job 19:23-27 (NJPS):

O that my words were written down;
Would they were inscribed in a record,

Incised on a rock forever
With iron stylus and lead!

But I know that my Vindicator lives;
In the end He will testify on earth—

This, after my skin will have been peeled off.
But I would behold God while still in my flesh,

I myself, not another, would behold Him;
Would see with my own eyes:
My heart pines within me.

Given the number of places Job denies the idea of life after death (Job 7:7-10, Job 14:1-15, Job 16:22, etc.), can we really read this passage as a reversal of his position?

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For the next two weeks, we're thinking about how we can be in thanksgiving. The thrust of this question is, can we take hope from this passage? –  Jon Ericson Nov 21 '11 at 17:24
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2 Answers

Jesus denied life after death, too.

Haha. No, I am not attempting to come up with the latest version of "what Jesus really taught." Jesus does not deny the idea of the bodily resurrection; he clearly teaches it, and in the utter uniqueness of his person, practices what he preaches.

In the Western world we tend toward bare materialistic view of life and death which clash with the Scriptural version of those concepts. One result is serious misunderstandings of the veiled, more limited expressions of the doctrines of life and death in the Old Testament. So, before answering the question at hand directly, I must consider an essential background question—

Is Job's View of Death Incompatible with a Belief in the Resurrection?

Many Christians understand Job (and the Psalms) to speak of death in a much different way than Jesus did. Big if that is true, what did Jesus mean when he said, "He who believes in me will never die"?

It's one of those verses that is often quoted, best less often grappled with. Either we must be willing to admit a different sense of death hear than the one we commonly use, or we must admit that Jesus lied.

So when I say, "Jesus denied life after death," it's not that he denied the life, but that he denied the death. That's what eternal life is about in his teaching as well. Eternal life is not something that begins in the future, but now.

But if Jesus uses this sense of death, why must we insist that the Old Testament writers used a more materialistic sense of death? If this were merely in Job, it would not be a problem, because we can disagree with Job without denying inspiration. But the Psalms speak of death in much the same way. "How can I praise you from the grave?" etc. The answer is, you can't—but that is because death is defined as separation from God. To know God is to live. That isn't fancy words and ancient ideas and poetry. That's reality.

How clearly did the psalmist himself perceive that? I do not know. The degree to which the Old Testament prophets understood what they said is somewhat mysterious. But one thing I can say for sure: before we start to deprecate the way that the Psalmist or Job speaks of death, remember that Christ spoke of life in a way that coalesced with that the way they spoke of death.

So is Job's view of death incompatible with a resurrection? Absolutely not. The dark expressions about death in Job and in the Psalms are a call for and perfectly illustrate the need for resurrection, but do not contradict it. Whether they include is less certain; they certainly do not preclude it.

Interpreting Jesus through our own cultural lens, we often have a rather dull view of eternal life as life that simply does not end. In the context of such dour statements about Sheol, eternal life means a lot more. It means not only perpetual existence, but residence in the sanctuary.

I started by saying Jesus denied life after death, too. Now, having explained myself, I'd like to reverse the terminology, and say that neither Christ nor Job denies an afterlife!

But is Job 19:23-27 an Early Statement of Belief in the Resurrection?

Quite honestly (this is an abrupt ending, but) I do not know. I hope to do more research and work on this answer further (it needs specific references to verse numbers, etc., but I need to not stay up any later tonight). I would like to look into the issue more closely.

But the conclusion of the previous section is very important in forming an opinion on this. Essentially, at this point the translation issue it not whether Job contradicted himself; that is taken out of the equation. It is possible that there is a tension of mood.

Until further notice, then, my thesis is: It is conceivable that this is a statement of faith standing out amid his grimmer speeches. Forgive the half-baked answer; I see even the possibility as being significant enough to be worth arguing for.

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Background

Job is generally thought to be among the most ancient of the surviving Hebrew texts, if not the oldest.1 Exactly when the account was penned is not known, but the best guess as to the time period portrayed is around the time of Abraham or later. Therefore it's entirely possible that the author knew the sources of the Gilgamesh epic. One of the central ideas of that work and of the Sumerian culture it springs from is:

The life that thou seekest, thou wilt not find.
When the gods created mankind,
Death they imposed on mankind;
Life they kept in their power.2

The climactic finale to Job (chapters 40, 41, and 42), have God respond to Job as He might have responded to His Sumerian accusers. Job 40:1-2, 7-9 (NJPS) for instance:

The Lord said in reply to Job.

Shall one who should be disciplined complain against Shaddai?
He who arraigns God must respond.

...

Gird your loins like a man;
I will ask, and you will inform Me.

Would you impugn My justice?
Would you condemn Me that you may be right?

Have you an arm like God’s?
Can you thunder with a voice like His?

Job has no answer. Shaddai is God and Job is not.

Argument

N. T. Wright suggests in The Resurrection of the Son of God (p. 96-98 in the 2003 edition I have at hand) that this passage has numerous translation problems. (The ESV, for instance, notes that verse 26 could read, "yet in my flesh I shall see God" or "without my flesh I shall see God." The first affirms and the second denies a bodily resurrection.) Older English translations (we're looking at you KJV) tend to highlight post-Easter renderings, while more recent translations tend to be equivocal about the exact meaning of the passage. (I picked, what I hope to be a neutral translation in the New Jewish Publishing Society Tanakh when I asked the question.)

Wright further points out that, in light of the many passages in which Job denies an afterlife, most scholar do not hold this passage as a sudden reversal.3 Indeed, reading in a hope in life after death would blunt the impact of the main argument of the text—we don't know how God intends to make things right and so we must trust Him and not accuse Him of evil.

Now the desire to interpret this (and other passages like it) as statements of resurrection does seem to be very strong in Second Temple period. Both the LXX and Targum translations put this passage in the best light for seeing in it a bodily resurrection (Wright 2003, 199). Both also attempt to soften the stark language of Job 14:14 (NJPS):

If a man dies, can he live again?
All the time of my service I wait
Until my replacement comes.

The Septuagint flat out alters verse 14 to say, "If a man dies, he shall live," and adds a postscript to Job that reads, "It is written of him that he will rise again with those whom the Lord will raise." (Wright 2003, 148) But these changes indicate that the doctrine of what happens after someone dies has been changed in Hebrew culture and that something had to be done to make Job fit. Therefore, chapter 19 was not seen as doing enough to proclaim a resurrection of the righteous and reading it that way now is anachronistic.

Summary

Job presents as very dark picture of life after death and chapter 19 doesn't offer as much hope as many believe.

Footnotes:

  1. An objective measure of the age of a text is the number of translation difficulties it presents. Any modern translation will reveal that Job is rife with translation problems.

  2. This quote taken from Morris Jastrow Jr.'s introduction to the Babylonian fragments of tablets that contain stories that would later be compiled into the Assyrian epic. It's a fascenating topic, but entirely tangential to the question at hand.

  3. He cites Martin-Achard, R. 1960, From Death to Life: A Study of the Development of the Doctrine of the Resurrection in the Old Testament, 166-75; Johnston, P. S. 2002, Shades of Sheol: Death and the Afterlife in the Old Testament, 209-14 among many others.

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In order to make this make any sense I think you would have to include an overview of how you understand the text of Job as a whole. Is the purpose of the text to tell us about Job's inspired understanding of the world and an afterlife -- and is it supposed to be prescriptive for us to believe like him; or is it a record of his struggles based on his limited understandings to help us understand that we don't have the big picture and keep us listening for God's corrections (as God does speak up at the end of the text and set him straight on a few points). –  Caleb Nov 21 '11 at 18:40
    
@Caleb: Does this edit help? No doubt there's more to be said, but I think this answer is starting to be too bulky. –  Jon Ericson Nov 21 '11 at 19:55
    
Jon, I trust that you will forgive me for posting several rebuttals of your posts in the last few days! I do want to admit that I find your argument from the overall point of the text (not questioning God even when he seems questionable) very strong. So +1 for that and a helpful introduction to the textual issues. (For the record, though, I am no fan of Wright!) –  Kazark Sep 24 '12 at 4:06
    
@Kazark: Self-answered questions really need to be challenged. It's also nice to be able to raise our answers per question metric. I don't mind rebuttals in the least and I have some reservations about Wright myself! –  Jon Ericson Sep 24 '12 at 18:28
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