How then can I answer him,
choosing my words with him?
Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.
Job says he is innocent, but he says he still needs mercy. What does this mean? Perhaps he does see not people in the simplistic way that we often do–or at least as simplistic as we see the ancient Israelites.
Just like in the Christian scheme, I’m starting to think that the ancient Israelites also thought that people were considered righteous only on account of graciously being in covenant with God. All the sacrifices, festivals, laws, etc. were more as signs that they were the people of God; they were not how people became part of that group in the first place. In other words, the sacrifices and laws were outward displays that they were fully righteous before God’s eyes; they weren’t the ways that they “earned” righteousness or forgiveness.
Even though Israelites knew they still needed mercy, they were still confident that they had, like Abraham, been “reckoned righteous” by God’s grace alone, through their faith alone in the covenantal work of God.
And so, perhaps when Job talks about his purity and righteousness throughout the book, he is not saying that he doesn’t sin, but rather that he is righteous before God, because of God.
This also gives a new perspective on Job’s friends. We often over-simplify these friends as if they’re trying to say that Job’s suffering is because he must have done something wrong, when Job hadn’t. Instead, I think, Job is trying to tell them not that he hasn’t sinned, but rather that the reality is far more complicated. In essence, he says, “I am both sinful and righteous, but it doesn’t matter! That is not at all the factor at play here.”
Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
I am blameless; I do not know myself;
I loathe my life.
Again, this seems like such a complex anthropology of sinfulness. The ancient Israelites did not hold to some simplistic “If I do good things, I am good; if I do bad things, I am bad” sort-of theology.
Job feels innocent, but knows that his words would condemn him. He feels sure, but he knows he does not know himself. He understands that categories of “innocence”, “condemnation”, “blamelessness”, and “perversity” are far deeper than mere behavior, cognition, feeling, or personal insight.
No matter one’s depth of self-knowledge, they should never think that they are beyond the possibility of being absolutely blinded and deceived by their own sinfulness and selfishness. This is yet another reason why life with God must be lived in deep, painful community.
And lastly, the book of Job is one of the things that further convinces me that the New Perspective on Paul is correct: Israelites believed in salvation by grace. When Paul talks about “justification by works”, he is not referring to “salvation”, as in how someone gets into right relationship with God in the first place. (More here, from N.T. Wright)
Just look at these verses–Job does not think that “works of the law” would define his standing before God either way. He needs mercy and grace and the covenant faithfulness of God. Justification is more about how the people of God are to act and mark themselves after they’re already “in”, not how to get “in” in the first place.