Job: My Redeemer Lives!

A very powerful and important part of Roman Catholic liturgical piety regarding the resurrection of Christ includes the reading of Job 19:23-27.   Job proclaims, “My redeemer lives!”, which is often interpreted as his belief in the resurrection.

The focus on the Messiah as Redeemer is a very important element in the thinking of especially Western Christian piety since medieval times, where it fits well into ideas of the substitutionary death of Christ and a piety which focuses on Christ the victim who dies for (pays the price for) our sins. 

Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon in his small commentary on Job, THE TRIAL OF JOB. Writes about Job 19: 

Then come the truly shining lines of the book, where Job places all his hope in God, his ‘Redeemer’ or Vindicator in the latter days (verses [19:]23-27). This noun, go’el, is the active participial form of the verb ga’al, meaning ‘to avenge.’  … the Christian transmission of Holy Scripture has preferred the words ‘redeem’ and ‘purchase’ to translate this Hebrew verb. Thus, Psalm 74 (73):2 says that God ‘redeemed’ or ‘purchased’ (ga’alta) His people in their Exodus from Egypt.

Reardon’s comment that the root word translated as “redeemer” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to avenge” caused me to wonder whether the emphasis on Jesus as redeemer or the one who pays the price for something was too weak a translation of the word, though it fits well into Western Christian piety and has shaped that piety.
I began to wonder whether the Orthodox focus on Jesus Christ as the conqueror of death, the victor over mortality rather than the victim of death, perhaps in some way better captured the imagery of Christ as Savior.  The Western Christian debates between Catholics and Protestants swirled around the notion of Jesus as the one time redeemer who paid the price for our sins, whereas Orthodoxy tended to focus on Christ as the destroyer of death, liberating all humankind from death’s insatiable appetite for human flesh. 

Orthodox biblical scholar Silviu Bunta in a personal email to me wrote: 

Redeemer is not a good translation. The go’el was not just someone who paid a price. The passive implication in the English redeemer is not there in the Hebrew go’el. Actually ga’al most probably means more to vindicate than to redeem or to avenge. To avenge is too far from the sense of rescue which ga’al certainly carries, but to redeem is also too far from the sense of vengeance, which ga’al also carries. In common language ga’al was mostly used for tribal or familial relations in which one person, the go’el, would act as the defender of the tribal or family rights. Probably that’s what Job asks for in ch. 19 (a kin with divine powers, like the god of his family). So I would say that ga’al has three different connotations which no one English word can encompass: kinship, defense, and vengeance. Certainly the go’el is not one who just “takes it,” passively. Job 19 is far from fitting this picture. Clearly Job wants the full destructive force of his go’el.

The Orthodox understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not that He passively paid some price for our sins, but rather than He actively came to destroy death by His own death and then he liberated all the dead from Hades.   As Chrysostom says in his famous Pascha sermon, “not one dead remains in the grave.”    The very purpose of the incarnation of God in Jesus is so that Jesus can die in order to destroy death  (see my blog, Why did God become human?).   The Orthodox icon of Holy Saturday clearly portrays Christ harrowing Hades and liberating those trapped in death’s pit, raising them up with Himself in the Resurrection of new life.

Jesus’ death was voluntary – He willfully submits Himself to execution and death, in order to go to Sheol, to the place of the dead, so that He can destroy death and  to liberate all the dead.  This is the great act of salvation which we celebrate each Pascha.  Christ dies for our sins, not to passively pay some ransom, but in order to destroy death (1 Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14).