And He Will Stand

There was a strain of thought in Ancient Israel that went like this: when a man dies childless, his brother has a duty to marry his widow and carry on his line for him. It was a way to 'defend' and 'redeem' (Hebrew gā-al) both the dead man’s legacy and the vulnerable woman he left behind.

The Book of Ruth tells the story of two such forsaken women, Naomi and Ruth. Its joyous climax comes when Ruth has a son by her late husband’s kinsman, Boaz. That’s the happy ending: Naomi and Ruth with a new family to console them after all their loss. Similarly Job, after he had suffered unspeakably, was given new children by God to replace others that had died.

The Hebrew word for this act of recompense is haqīm. It means ‘raise up’ or ‘cause to stand’ (see e.g. Ruth 4:5; Deuteronomy 25:5-7). The husband falls to the grave, but his name is lifted back up by the children his family have after him.

It’ll be obvious, I guess, what I’m suggesting: this practice represents a kind of quasi-immortality, a resurrection of the dead man’s memory so it can ‘live on’ after his death. I’m suggesting this because in the Gospels Jesus is confronted by some rival Jewish thinkers who don’t believe that there will be a literal resurrection of the dead. If there were then what would happen, they ask, to women who married several brothers so they could raise up sons? In the Gospels’ Greek, the Hebrew haqīm becomes anastēnai, which likewise means to ‘raise up’ or ‘cause to stand’ (see esp. Matthew 22:24). But anastēnai is also the Gospels’ word for ‘resurrect,’ and the noun form, anastasis, is the name of the very resurrection being doubted (ibid. v. 23). Jesus’ interlocutors seem almost to be saying, ‘we already have a resurrection, thanks; no need for flights of fancy about dead men coming back to life.’

Well, new children may comfort bereaved mothers, but as a final answer to the agony of death there is one crucial way in which they are completely ineffective. Even if your legacy lives on, there is no getting around the fact that you do not. Even if your brother has made up for the financial loss that your death represents to your widow, he has done nothing to undo the much deeper loss that it represents to her, to you, and to the world: the complete disappearance of your inner life. You were not only a member of a family and a society with particular roles and responsibilities; you were also a consciousness, a unique way of seeing and experiencing things. That is now gone, and there is not even any question of replacing it.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus became famous for stressing this urgent point: if the soul dies when the body does, then whatever we mean when we talk about ‘you’ is gone forever. Your parents and your friends and your wife may find ways to become whole again, but your own self is completely snuffed out, extinguished like Macbeth’s ‘brief candle.’ Here’s what Epicurus got wrong: the finality of that disappearance is a tragedy beyond all human remedy. It's so horrifying that we (or at least, I) can only rarely bear to take stock of it: the thought that the universe of experience which is your selfhood may indeed disintegrate into nothing. 

If you’ve been watching Black Mirror on Netflix recently, you’ll have noticed an obsession with various kinds of digital immortality. Episode after episode plays with some speculative machine that can replicate your neural synapses so that after your body dies, you get reborn as a computer code. It’s not fiction: there are companies right now developing technology to preserve your brain’s synaptic configuration (your ‘connectome’).

I don’t know whether that will amount to a kind of resurrection, but I am certain that the whole question will turn on the issue of what it’s like to be the computer, or robot, or whatever, which receives your data. Is it you in there? Do you ‘wake up’ to start seeing and feeling again? Or does some other thing come into being, one whose experiences, however valid, are not yours? If so then this new technology will be as useless to you as Job’s new children were to his dead ones.

But Job also had a vision, in the throes of his pain, of a different kind of resurrection. ‘I know that my redeemer lives,’ he said — that same word, gā-al, again. ‘And he will stand’ — the same verb as haqīm and anastēnai. ‘My eyes, not some stranger’s, will see him.’

Today, Christians answer Job: yes. That child of Ruth’s, whom she raised up to carry on her dead husband’s line, became father to Jesse, who was father to David. And it was in David’s line that Jesus was born, Jesus who stood up and rose — himself, and none other — from the grave on Easter. 

So in the end Ruth’s solution to death really did fulfill the purpose towards which it was always yearning but which, in itself, it could never quite achieve. Today we affirm that Ruth and Job, Epicurus and Shakespeare, you and I, will not be replaced but redeemed. Our souls will not evaporate into nothing; our relatives will not have to make due with some substitute: we ourselves will rise. Because our redeemer lives, and will stand, and our eyes will see him. Ours, and not somebody else’s.

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Alleluia! Easter is here; let us go in peace. Here’s something to take with you on your way: my translations of two songs from Ruth and Job which, I believe, express the ancient longing that's satisfied today.

Ruth 4:14-17

And the women said to Naomi: 
‘God is blessed -- God who did not deprive you of a redeemer: 
Let his name be called out in Israel. 

‘He is the one to bring back your soul and to nourish your old age:
Your daughter-in-law, who loves you, gave him birth. She is better for you than seven sons.’

Then Naomi took the boy, and set him on her bosom, and became the nurse to watch over him.

And the women who lived near by called him by this name — they said, ‘a son is born for Naomi,’ and they called him by the name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Job 19:1-27:
(Job cries out in response to his friends’ reproach):

Job answered. He said,

‘How long will you grieve my soul, and crush me to pieces with words?

‘Ten times over now you’ve humiliated me; you have no shame treating me like strangers.

‘If it’s really true that I’ve gone wrong, the wrong dwells within me.

‘If you really feel big at my expense, and condemn me for my repugnance,

‘Know this: God turned my world upside down. He penned me in with his snare.

‘Look: I’m wailing, “brutality!” and no one answers. I scream, and nothing. No justice.

‘He barricaded my trail so I can’t get past; he spread pitch dark over all my pathways.

‘He ripped my magnificence off of me, and snatched the crown from my head.

‘On every side he tore me down, and I’m gone. He uprooted my high hopes like a tree.

‘His rage fumes against me; he considers me his opponent.

‘His battalions come all together and mount their march against me; they pitch camp on every side of my tent.

‘He’s distanced my brothers from me, and everyone I know is alienated from me.

‘My family let me down; the ones who know me best forgot me.

‘My tenants and my maids consider me a foreigner; I’m a stranger in their eyes.

‘I call for my servant and he doesn’t answer, though with words from my own mouth I beg him to.

‘My own breath is unrecognisable to my wife. I’m abhorrent to the sons of my own flesh and blood.

‘Even toddlers rejected me: I stand, and they speak out against me.

‘My confidantes came to loathe me, and these, my beloved — they changed towards me.

‘My bones cling to my skin and my flesh, and I survive by the skin of my teeth.

‘Have mercy on me, oh have mercy, you, my companions — God’s hand has touched me.

‘Why do you hunt me down like some god, not satisfied with my flesh?

‘Who will grant it to me now to write down my words? Who will give me a scroll to etch them in —

‘With a pen of iron, of lead, to engrave them in rock forever!

‘But I . . . I know my redeemer lives. And in the day to come, on the dust, he will stand.

And after this skin corrodes, out of my flesh I will behold God —

I will behold him for myself; my eyes will see, not some stranger’s, though my organs be devoured within my core.’