Thursday, May 15, 2014

Death and Love

Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. —Job 19:26

This is one of the most subtle and beautiful lines in the Bible, which is why it tends to get butchered by orthodox theologians. The traditional reading, which the Rabbis insist on as well as most Christians, is this: "Worms will destroy my body, but then, in an incredibly miraculous moment, I will be brought back from the dead, given a new body, and then I will see God for myself."

I can't accept that reading. If I could, I would have to reject Job himself, because this Rabbinical statement is directly opposed to what I think.

First, let me be clear what I think about death. It's the end of life. That means the soul—the principle by which the body lives, thinks, feels and grieves—loses the frame in which it makes sense to talk about it. Nothing mysterious happens.

This is what the Roman poet said too, before Christianity seized the West in its grasp:
A tree cannot grow in the air, nor clouds float in the sea;
nor can a fish swim in the field,
nor blood flow through a log, nor sap through a rock,
for it is fixed and ordained where each thing can grow and exist.
And nor can the soul take root except in nerves and blood.
—Lucretius, De Rerum Natura III.784–9, my translation.
Let's accept this view of things, not least because it's how things are. By this view, Job said something that's actually the exact opposite of the usual approach. "Yes, I will die," he says, "and there will be nothing left of me. But that's fine, because I get to see God right now, before I die."

What can this possibly mean? I think we can find the answer in the logical region where real, modern religion has its life. Living with God, in the first place, has very little to do with verifying the existence of an incorporeal, omnipotent being and then dispassionately finding out what he has to say. I'm not setting up a straw man here. Look at what Maimonides says:
We must first form a conception of the Existence of the Creator according to our capabilities; that is, we must have a knowledge of Metaphysics. But this discipline can only be approached after the study of Physics: for the science of Physics borders on Metaphysics, and must even precede it in the course of our studies. —The Guide for the Perplexed
That process, if it's even coherent, has no roots in the life that I (and probably you) live. In our search for the real home of religious life, let's quote a better author:

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. 
—I John 4:7–8.

As John knew, seeing God has everything to do with religious action. That means, as John says, love, but it can also mean living by divine obligation. Even if we're atheists with respect to the visible world, we can be godly in the actions that we do for the sake of other human beings. We can't see God anymore in the stars, and still less in the pages of a book; but only if we bear each other's burdens.

We should also bear in mind the significance of seeing God in the flesh. That's Job's way of saying: not with the eyes, but in our actions. We can use our mortal, frail bodies to enact God's will on earth.

File:Jan Wijnants - Parable of the Good Samaritan.jpg
This is what resurrection looks like.

So even though we have to die, says Job, that doesn't mean that we have to live godless lives. Though worms will destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Appendix. This is the Hebrew:

:וְאַחַר עוֹרִי נִקְּפוּ-זֹאת וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱלוֹהַּ

This is an extremely thorny verse, as usual for something out of Job. Most translations say something like "After my body and skin are destroyed, I will see God in my flesh." But that makes little sense of the beginning of the verse: אַחַר pretty clearly refers to something that happens after the skin is destroyed; namely, the destruction of the body. There's no reference to an event that happens after the destruction of both body and skin.  

The best reading, in my view, is the King James version which I quoted above, which boils down to: "after my skin, my body will be destroyed. But in my flesh I will see God." That doesn't force us to put the events in chronological order, which—conveniently!—supports my interpretation.

Appendix II. This is a better interpretation of the verse than anything than I could possibly say.

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