The plight of Job is one of the most familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible. Many of us know Job’s suffering and the tortuous advice of Job’s “comforters.” The experience of suffering is universal. In the midst of our suffering, we seek to understand, to process, to comprehend. For individuals of faith, events of radical suffering plunge us into a theological crisis. Where is God? Is God causing this to happen? Is God allowing this to happen? Why?
The crisis deepens when we realize that the suffering does not match our preconceptions of how the world should work. We seem to think that if we output positive vibes into the world, the world (or God) will reciprocate. That would be fair. That would be right. That would be just.
However, in the reality of human experience we recognize that great fortune sometimes falls on the underserving, while horrible events beat down the most innocent among us.
Perhaps this is why so many of us can relate to the book of Job. Here we have a character who does everything right. From the first verse, we know that Job is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). In fact, these characteristics draw God’s attention and praise.
Sometimes, though, even the attention of God is not desirable. As God brags about Job’s righteousness and devotion, another heavenly being, the accuser, proposes the ultimate challenge. Would Job still be upright if God took away all of Job’s blessings? Moreover, would Job remain a righteous exemplar if he were to suffer affliction, the deaths of his family members, and disease?
After enduring the trauma itself, as well as poem after poem of his supposed friends’ accusation-laced platitudes, Job has had enough. Job demands a hearing. Job wants to take God to trial (see the preceding verses in chapter 19 for a litany of accusations against God). Within this context, we encounter the words of this week’s lectionary reading from Job:
“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:23-27, NRSV)
For many Christians, these words are familiar, not because we spend a great deal of time sitting with Job, but because we have heard the line year after year in performances of Handel’s Messiah. The tradition is so strong, that the NRSV translators have decided to capitalize the term “Redeemer” in verse 25.
This choice, however, is unfortunate within the context of the rest of the passage. Job demands a hearing for his story. He is not asking for someone to “redeem” him from any sin, for, as we know from the prologue, Job is blameless and upright. Job, rather, is requesting a legal advocate. While many might suggest that this advocate is God (or in later Christian interpretations, Christ), the literary context of this passage suggests otherwise. If Job seeks to prosecute God, why would Job request God as his advocate? Perhaps, Job’s advocate or vindicator is someone else entirely.
Biblical scholar Samuel Balentine observes Job’s increasing desire for a record of his plight. Job demands that his story be written down, perhaps on a scroll or book, nay even better he wants it to be etched in stone, never to be lost or forgotten. The vindication that Job seeks is for his plight to be heard, to be known, to be remembered. In the midst of the cacophony of traditional voices that suppress the testimony to his trauma, Job commands an audience, and Job persists in his hope for an advocate.
If God is the accused, then who is the advocate? Could it be that those who read and tell Job’s story are actually Job’s vindicators? Part of Job’s hope has been realized. The author of the book has recorded his testimony, the traditions of the church and synagogue have preserved it, and those who turn to its pages for wisdom during existential crises are attempting to hear it.
Perhaps, then, those of us attending to Job’s stories have, in a small sense, become his vindicators. In so doing, perhaps we are also learning how to hear not only the traumatic testimony of an ancient patriarch, but also the voices of those who suffer around us.
We vindicate Job by hearing his story. We vindicate Job by attending to the suffering around us. Perhaps we vindicate Job by refusing to blame the poor for their poverty, by proclaiming the story of a mother who lost her child to a random act of gun violence, or by listening to the suffering of refugees in war-torn countries such as Syria. The book of Job challenges us theologically and existentially. It provides hope to the afflicted and an example of how one victim expressed his pain in the face of radical suffering. For those of us not currently in the midst of healing from such suffering, maybe it challenges us not only to allow space for the suffering in our communities, but also to advocate on their behalf.
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David G. Garber, Jr. is the Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. His research interests include the study of Hebrew prophets, trauma theory, social justice in the Hebrew Bible, and expressions of biblical motifs in popular culture. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
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