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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Job

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Elihu Attempts to Answer Job ( 32:1–37:24 )

A youthful figure, previously unmentioned, comes forward and angrily rebukes all four of those engaged in debate. This individual is called Elihu, which means ‘He is my God’ (cf. Isa 41:4 , ‘I am He’); he alone is given an impressive Jewish pedigree (cf. Gen 22:21 , there Buz is identified as a son of Nahor, Abraham's brother). The name of Elihu's father, Barachel, means ‘El has blessed’, a significant appellation in the light of the dispute within the prologue over whether or not Job would bārak God. Elihu's long address, uninterrupted by responses from anyone, is divided into four parts by prose introductions at 32:1–6; 34:1; 35:1 ; and 36:1 . The speeches appear intrusive for several reasons: Elihu's sudden appearance without previous mention, his Jewish ancestry, his distinctive style and language, his familiarity with the rest of the book, and his disappearance without a trace after 37:24 . He alone addresses Job by name, and he quotes liberally from the book, even anticipating the divine speeches. He prefers the divine name El, the short form of the personal pronoun ‘I’ (᾽ānî), and the word for knowledge (dēa῾) missing elsewhere in the book. His vocabulary has more Aramaisms than used by other characters, and he seems determined to tie up loose ends in the arguments against Job. Interpreters generally view Elihu as an intruder, an attempt by a later Jewish author to provide a more orthodox answer to the issues being addressed in the book. Elihu's youth may signal the lateness of this section (Zuckermann 1991: 148, 153). The similarities between Elihu's ideas and certain Hellenistic texts has also confirmed the lateness of these chapters for some critics (Wahl 1993: 182–87). Others insist that both style and content argue for the integrity of the unit and view its anomalous features as artistic skill. While some interpreters consider Elihu a buffoon, a self-destructing upstart, others see him as a bearer of remarkable insight into the nature of suffering and divine majesty.

( 32:1–5 )

The narrator provides a glimpse into the minds of the three friends who have given up on Job, convinced that he was deluding himself (cf. Prov 12:15; 26:5, 12, 16; 38:11; 30:12 ). The phrase, ‘innocent in his own eyes’, means that in a legal sense Job saw himself as not guilty; from the friends' perspective, that assessment of things had no firm basis in fact. The narrator characterizes Elihu as angry, repeating the idea four times in as many verses (vv. 2–5 ). An ideal among the sages was the control of the passions (lust, greed, anger, appetite), but the young Elihu remains very much in their grip. His anger flared at Job and his three friends—at Job because he justified himself and at the friends for their inability to answer him successfully. The narrator explains Elihu's belated remarks as required by ancient protocol: youth must wait for age to speak first. Would ancient readers have expected much from an angry young man? In v. 3 the Masoretes, guardians of the ancient manuscript tradition, inserted a rare change in the text; the original read ‘declared God to be wrong’. Elihu's perception of their responses does not instil confidence in his reading of things.

( 32:6–14 )

Not content with the introduction accorded him by the narrator, Elihu provides further justification for his remarks. He does so by juxtaposing two fundamental principles, the first, that age deserves precedence, and the second, that every person has direct access to the divine spirit. For him, the second principle took precedence over the first. He dutifully awaited his turn to speak but became convinced that age does not necessarily imply wisdom. Elihu's ambiguous remark about the breath of the Almighty seems to suggest special inspiration (v. 8 , ‘bestows understanding on them’). Similar ambiguity surrounds this concept elsewhere in the Bible (cf. Gen 2:7 where the breath of YHWH animates humankind and Isa 11:2 , where it suggests special knowledge on the part of a chosen ruler). The author of Ps 119:99–100 expresses the rare notion that meditation on the Torah and obedience to it endows youth with more wisdom than their teachers and elders possess. In v. 13 Elihu hints that he already knows the development of the plot, for he attributes to the friends the idea that God will refute Job. Elihu's protestations to originality do not dissuade interpreters from viewing his contribution to the argument as minimal.

( 32:15–22 )

The final section of Elihu's self-introduction uses the image of a wineskin about to burst from the pressure of fermentation. The sages were aware of a sense of urgency in speaking; they even made clever jokes about the desire to spread gossip, insisting that the words would not explode within one's belly (Sir 19:10 ). Prophetic literature also recognizes the necessity to express oneself (Jer 20:9 ). Elihu's language provides a pun on the narrator's description of him as angry (᾽ap᾽ănî, ‘also I’/wayyiḥar᾽ap, ḥārâ᾽ap, 32:10, 17, 2, 3, 5 ). A twofold irony underlies vv. 21–2 , for Elihu will certainly show partiality to God and, from the perspective of the plot and its development, will cease to exist.

( 33:1–13 )

Elihu offers further rationale for daring to speak, addressing Job by name and citing him almost verbatim. By means of a teacher's summons to attention (v. 1 ), Elihu shifts the focus from himself to Job momentarily, but quickly reverts to the earlier concentration on his own unique qualifications to refute Job and his friends. No chasm exists between Elihu's mind and words, for he is both upright and pure (v. 3 , yāšār suggests moral integrity; bārûr connotes the lack of any blemish). In v. 4 Elihu uses the ideas of God's spirit and Shaddai's breath in a general sense; as such, they do not reinforce his unique claim. They do, however, function to assure Job that he faces an ordinary mortal in debate. Elihu's citation of Job's fourfold affirmation of innocence and fourfold charge against God (vv. 9–11 ) is inexact but reliably summarizes what Job has said at some point ( 9:20–1; 27:4–6; 30:1–40; 33:24b–27a ). To refute Job on all counts, Elihu voices a principle that will undergird everything he says: God is greater than any mortal (v. 12 ). Why then, Elihu asks, do you contend (rîbôtā) with God? Mere mortals, he thinks, cannot enter into a lawsuit with Eloah.

( 33:14–30 )

An inclusio connects v. 14 with v. 29 (one, two/twice, three times); between these numerical expressions Elihu's argument becomes expansive. He claims that God communicates by different means, sometimes through nocturnal visions and at other times through suffering. Both types of communication come as warnings to stem the natural emergence of pride. As a paragon of virtue, Job was particularly subject to this form of sin, for morally good people tend to recognize their superiority over the masses. Elihu admits that the recipients of divine warnings by night seldom perceive them for what they are (contrast Eliphaz's astute grasp of his divine visitor's message in 4:12–21 ). The stated purpose of these warnings is to prevent an early departure into the realm of the dead. Does Elihu envision death as crossing a river like the Greek notion of crossing the river Styx? The second type of warning results in emaciated bodies that elicit compassion from a mediating angel (mēlîṣ). The term denotes an interpreter (cf. Gen 42:23 ) and a mediator (Job 16:19 (MT 20)). In later Jewish literature the heavenly mediator becomes an intercessor for devout persons (1 Enoch 9:3, 15:2 and the T. 12 Patr.). The idiom ‘one of a thousand’ indicates rarity. The mediator does not offer any information about the nature of the ‘ransom’ that covers the sins of the person being spared the Pit. In Elihu's extraordinary scenario, the intercessor declares the guilty person innocent, and this in turn prompts the sinner to confess and receive God's forgiveness. To conclude this remarkable account of a compassionate God who warns sinners and responds favourably to mediators, Elihu praises the divine generosity, insisting that God acts this way repeatedly so that mortals may experience light rather than the darkness of Sheol.

( 33:31–3 )

Again Elihu resorts to a teacher's appeal for an attentive audience; while inviting Job to respond, he states that his sole intention is to justify Job. In v. 33 Elihu promises to convey wisdom to Job (his choice of the verb ᾽ālap provides a pun on the earlier expression, ‘one of a thousand’ (᾽eḥād minnî-᾽ālep).

( 34:1–37 )

In some ways this chapter resembles the rhetorical conceit of the later Wisdom of Solomon, which also addresses an imaginary audience and offers philosophical reflection on God's just governance of the universe. In Elihu's case, only four persons are present, and he does not consider any of them wise. After a brief rhetorical appeal to the audience (vv. 2–9 ), Elihu proceeds to defend God's justice on two counts, God's absolute sovereignty and respect for justice (vv. 10–20 ). Then Elihu shows how God effectively punishes the wicked (vv. 21–30 ), which makes Job's claim of innocence appear ridiculous (vv. 31–3 ), as intelligent people will undoubtedly recognize (vv. 34–7 ). Elihu does not shrink from allowing his imaginary audience to join him in addressing Job by name.

( 34:1–9 )

Elihu quotes a popular proverb (v. 3 ) reflecting his oral culture; the ear, not the eye, tests words. Ancient sages recognized the need to evaluate what was spoken in the same way one's palate discriminated between desirable and undesirable food. Three of the six occurrences of the noun mišpāṭ (just, right) in the larger section (vv. 12, 17, 23 ), mark the significance of vv. 4–6 . Over against Job's charge that God has taken away his right, Elihu places the desired collective conclusion of his audience. They, not Job, have the responsibility of choosing mišpāṭ, here used in poetic parallelism with ṭôb (‘good’). In vv. 7–9 Elihu accuses Job of standing out above all others, but not in goodness (contrast 1:3 ). He drinks mockery like water (habitually), associates with sinners, and blasphemes, i.e. he denies the fundamental principle that the universe is moral. In Elihu's opinion, whoever delights in God receives an appropriate reward; Job's experience taught him otherwise.

( 34:10–15 )

Elihu appeals to intelligent listeners, reminding them of God's sovereignty. Such a one has no reason to pervert justice, he argues; the unspoken contrast is the human judge whose greed renders him subject to a bribe and whose vulnerability before the powerful leaves him open to showing partiality. vv. 14–15 allude to the ancient story of creation (Gen 2:7; 3:19 ).

( 34:16–20 )

Appealing to his listeners again, this time in the singular to designate them individually, Elihu points out that God, who loves justice, chose to govern. It follows that God cannot pervert justice; the same person cannot be both ṣaddîq and reša῾ (wicked). Does Elihu's understanding of God leave room for the traditional belief that the poor occupied a special place in God's affection?

( 34:21–30 )

God's overthrow of the wicked is made possible by keen sight, according to Elihu, for God sees everything they do. Despite Job's claims to the contrary, God punishes the wicked and pays heed to the cries of the oppressed. Having accepted as a reality the orthodox belief about God's just governance of the world, Elihu concludes that divine silence does not make the deity culpable.

( 34:31–7 )

The meaning of this brief section is obscure. Does Elihu advise Job to repent in vv. 31–2 , or does he contrast Job's obdurate conduct with one who repents when confronted with guilt? In v. 33 the verb reject (mā᾽ as) lacks an object; a similar phenomenon occurs in Job's actual response to God's second speech from the whirlwind ( 42:6 ). Elihu cannot know the conditions governing the Adversary's test of Job—unless he really is a later intruder—and his wish that Job be tested to the limit violates the stipulation that his life be spared. The accusation that Job speaks without knowledge anticipates YHWH's words in 38:2 . Here the Lord appears to corroborate Elihu's harsh assessment of Job.

( 35:1–16 )

This entire chapter is structured around two of Job's objections: that in his case it has not paid to serve God and that God pays no attention to his cry for justice (vv. 3, 14–15 ).

( 35:1–8 )

In the previous chapter Elihu invited rational people to judge for themselves; now he asks the embittered Job to reconsider his complaints against God. At issue is the justice of God as manifested to Job. Elihu thinks any sensible person will conclude that God is just; Job, therefore, has lost his capacity to reason when he says, ‘I am more just (innocent) than God’ (my tr.). Job's verdict is based on the failure of God to deliver appropriate rewards for faithful service. Job reckons that he has been treated by God like one who has not rendered loyal obedience. In short, religion does not pay. Elihu answers this charge by emphasizing the divine self-sufficiency, an approach that Job's friends have already taken. In Elihu's view, neither virtue nor vice affects God whatever, for God dwells in the remote heavens. Human deeds, both good and bad, relate solely to other mortals (v. 8 ). This answer does not really address Job's complaint, for even a self-sufficient deity can reward goodness and punish evil for purely altruistic reasons.

( 35:9–16 )

How does Elihu's response to Job's other complaint fare? In this instance Elihu holds the citation from Job's speeches in abeyance until he has dealt generally with the problem it raises. Oppression among mortals compels the less fortunate to raise a cry to the heavens, but they do not cry out in prayer. That seems to be the meaning of vv. 10–12 . Instead of searching for their Maker and expressing gratitude for the gift of songs during the night (the Heb. word zĕmirôt can mean either ‘strength’ or ‘songs’) and acknowledging that the divine teacher instructs by means of animals and birds, they swell with pride. Here Elihu mocks Job's earlier observation that God teaches through animals and birds; in addition, Elihu implies that Job, like the unnamed evildoers, has surrendered to the powerful temptation of pride. The antecedent of the phrase, ‘because of pride’, is unclear; it can be either the verb ‘cry out’ or ‘does not answer’. If the former, it explains their reluctance to pray; if the latter, it states the reason for God's disregard. Now Elihu has prepared the way for yet another onslaught against Job's character. Thus he cites Job again, this time indirectly and in general (vv. 14–15 ). Job's firm conviction that God ignores his just cause has been robbed of its potency by Elihu's clever artifice. It has become obvious to Elihu that Job's talk lacks substance inasmuch as it consists of many words devoid of knowledge. Here Elihu anticipates YHWH's rebuke of Job in 38:2 , which uses the same words. Has the later author of Elihu's speeches found a way to authenticate his own views?

( 36:1–37:24 ) Elihu's View of God

The conclusion to Elihu's speeches slowly moves away from Job's flaws to concentrate more fully on God's character and majesty. Accordingly, citations of Job's troubling view recede into the background as Elihu reinforces his own authority to speak correctly about God ( 36:1–4 ). Returning to earlier themes, Elihu emphasizes God's power, justice, and salvific activity ( 36:5–15 ), but in the process Elihu interprets the mystery of disciplinary suffering as an occasion to warn Job ( 36:16–21 ). Beginning at 36:22 , a decisive shift in the tenor of the speeches takes place, one that anticipates the divine disclosure in ch. 38 . The similarities between the two discourses suggest that Elihu intentionally steals a major share of divine thunder. The speech opens with an expansive introduction ( 36:22–33 ) divided into three distinct sections by the exclamation ‘see’ (hēn) in vv. 22, 26 , and 30 . The topics of this unit (divine majesty, God's control over rain and lightning) mark a transition ( 37:1–5 ) to the theme of a thunderstorm ( 37:6–13 ). Elihu asks several rhetorical questions like those soon to be ascribed to YHWH ( 37:14–20 ) and ends with a flourish ( 36:1–4 ). Elihu's final self-presentation indicates that he understands exactly what the issue is from Job's perspective: divine justice or, more correctly, its absence. Elihu differs, however, on whether or not it exists. He intends to bring his knowledge to bear on this matter, hoping thereby to refute Job's denial of God's justice. For Elihu, God is innocent and Job is guilty. Moreover, Elihu boasts, my knowledge is both accurate and sound (tāmîm).

( 36:5–15 )

The twofold use of the adjective ‘mighty’ (kābbîr), together with another word for strength (kōaḥ), in v. 5 demonstrates Elihu's theological starting-point. God is great! When sovereignty and intelligence join hands, as here, one has truly happened upon the best of all possible worlds. Elihu offers a subtle hint of another dimension, compassion, for he claims that God does not reject (mā᾽ as…). This verb has no object and therefore it must be supplied by readers. Presumably, Elihu means that God has no predisposition to despise anyone, and by implication God's treatment of individuals is fully determined by human conduct. Pressing the point further by means of a proverbial saying (v. 6 ), Elihu affirms both sides of the principle of reward and retribution. God destroys the wicked and exacts justice for the afflicted. Among the sages the usual pair of contrasting groups was righteous/wicked, but here rāšā῾ is matched with ῾ǎniyyîm (wicked/afflicted) as frequently in psalms of lament. The following verse brings the vocabulary more into line with customary sapiential speech, for it refers to these afflicted ones as righteous (ṣaddîq). The origin of the notion that the ṣaddîq and the poor were identical is difficult to trace, but it surfaced as early as the eighth century (cf. Am 2:6 ), becoming normal in later psalms, and evolving into a theological axiom in some post-biblical literature. Indeed, the name of the earliest Christian movement, Ebionites (the poor), reflects this understanding of the lowly as God's special people. Elihu relates divine power to human decisions; the arrogant wicked are overthrown by it, and the lowly afflicted are exalted. Against Job's claim that God looks away from the needy, Elihu boldly asserts the opposite (v. 7 ). Moreover, he interprets affliction as God's discipline aimed at restoring individuals. Their fate, he insists, lies in their own hands; if they heed divine instruction, they will be lifted up, but if they refuse to listen, they will perish. Here Elihu resorts to a play on words between the verbs for serving God and being destroyed (῾ābad/῾ābar). Elihu's virtual fixation with right thinking leads him to add ‘without knowledge’ (cf. 35:16 , the same words YHWH will use with reference to Job in 38:2 ). In vv. 13–14 Elihu describes the punishment of people like Job who become angry because of divine affliction rather than imploring God's mercy. Such stubborn sinners die while young, ending up in the company of reprobates. The Hebrew word for male prostitutes associated with the temple occurs in v. 14 . Despite biblical references to this practice in ancient Israel, its scope and nature remain obscure. Apparently, both men and women served as sacred prostitutes (qĕdēšîm), their earnings going into the temple treasury despite intense opposition in Deuteronomistic circles (Deut 23:17–18 (MT 18–19); 2 Kings 23:7 ). In v. 15 Elihu sums up his teaching about the positive use of discipline; by means of affliction, God opens the ear of the afflicted. An Egyptian proverb states that the teacher opened a student's ear by striking him on the back. It should be remembered that ancient educators made liberal use of corporal punishment. Curiously, Elihu uses the noun ῾ănî rather than mûsār, so prominent in Proverbs and Sirach; the verb ῾ānâ carries a harsher connotation than yāsar.

( 36:16–21 )

Elihu begins this unit by harking back to God's initial kindness to Job; the three images picture a person at one with the world (wooed from distress, a wide space, a table filled with rich staple foods). Two of these words recur in vv. 18–19 (sût and ṣār, woe and distress). In other words, God has overcome Job's restrictive limitations and replaced them with wide streets and plenty of ‘fat’, a delicacy in the ancient world. God's generosity contrasts with Job's niggardliness, his anger. Elihu seems to warn Job against being enticed by his distress to pointless fury and mocking. His near obsession with justice (dîn) will backfire, in Elihu's view. Ultimately, dîn and mišpāṭ will overwhelm him. By this he probably means ‘divine judgement’. The allusion to a great ransom (v. 18 ) echoes the remark by the mediating angel in 33:24 , ‘I have found a ransom’.

( 36:22–37:24 )

The final section of Elihu's speech begins with a declaration of God's might and poses three rhetorical questions for Job's consideration (vv. 22–3 ). Each of the questions functions to negate the answers: no one compares with God as teacher, or tells God what to do, or can accuse God of wrong. The idea of God as teacher (cf. 33:14–22; 34:32; 35:11 ) reached beyond the sages such as Elihu to prophetic figures as well. In Isa 30:20–1 the themes of YHWH as afflicter and teacher come together in the same way they do in Elihu's discourse. Moreover, both Isaiah and Elihu put forth these ideas as a response to concern that God is hiding. For the prophet, the moment a person starts to veer off course, YHWH speaks up and points out the way to be travelled. Elihu's assurance that the one who afflicts the sinner uses adversity to teach a moral lesson lacks the emotional depth of the related prophetic text, but at least Elihu's understanding of divine activity has a moral dimension. That cannot be said for YHWH's speeches about the interrelationship between Creator and creature. The second rhetorical question also resembles a text from the book of Isaiah ( 40:12–14 ), which asks who has instructed the majestic Creator or taught him the path of justice. The implied answer to these rhetorical questions is ‘no one’. Elihu's third question, like his second, underscores the absurdity—from his perspective—of Job's onslaught against the sovereign teacher. For him ‘might’ comes mightily close to representing ‘right’.

( 36:24–37:5 )

The proper response to God's grandeur, Elihu urges Job, is hymnic praise. To reinforce his point, Elihu extols the awesome power unleashed in thunder and lightning, with their accompanying rains that produce abundant food for all living creatures. Not every image in this description of heavenly fireworks is intelligible; for example, ᾽ēd in v. 27 actually refers to a primordial underground stream, at least in ancient mythology (cf. Gen 2:5–6 ), and the phrase ‘covers the roots of the sea’ in v. 30 seems strange. Perhaps it suggests that bright flashes of light expose the roots. On the basis of similarities between this text and Ps 29 , some interpreters emend the verb ‘cover’ to a noun with a possessive pronoun (‘his throne’; cf. Ps 29:10 , ‘The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king for ever’). The last verse of ch. 36 presents greater difficulty; Gordis (1978: 424) revocalizes it to read: ‘His thunderclap proclaims His presence; His mighty wrath, the storm’. In 37:1–5 the point of view shifts from God's electrifying display to the human response. The same shift takes place in Ps 29:9 (‘all say, “Glory!” ’). In v. 2 Elihu uses repetition to effect a breathtaking pause in the action (‘Listen, listen’) as he invites others to share his excitement. The point of view in vv. 2–5 begins and ends on the human level but soars to the heavens in the interval. Elihu stands in awe of divine power, but he is not alone in failing to comprehend God's niplā᾽ôt and gĕdōlôt (‘wondrous’ and ‘great’ deeds).

( 37:6–13 )

Turning to a less noisy but nevertheless spectacular display of a different kind, Elihu points to the formation of ice and snow, inclement conditions that force animals to seek shelter. The image of thick clouds and lightning prompts him to discern a moral in all this movement. In his view, such phenomena convey divine intention, but one may choose among three possibilities: for correction, for his land, or for love. Although Andersen (1976: 266) emends land (᾽ereṣ) to acceptance (rāṣâ), the broad focus in this section on people and animals speaks against emending the text. Elihu views such grandeur as aimed at disciplining wayward humans, nurturing all God's creatures, and as a general display of love. Here, too, Elihu's understanding of divine power is more comforting than YHWH's own interpretation of the same phenomena. Strikingly, Elihu makes minimal use of mythical images in this description. By way of contrast, YHWH will squeeze every ounce of mythic symbolism from the same activity.

( 37:14–24 )

The speech of Elihu ends where it began, but the rebuke of the four men has narrowed to one, providing a smooth transition to YHWH's rebuke of Job. Just as Elihu's earlier rhetorical questions and description of meteorological phenomena anticipate one type of YHWH's speeches, the kind of questions that make up vv. 15–18 prefigure the other type of questions YHWH hurls at the beleaguered Job. These queries (‘Do you know?’, ‘Can you?’), together with the sarcastic ‘Teach us’, may be understood over against the earlier concept of God as teacher. Elihu prepares Job to face a barrage of questions from the heavenly instructor whose knowledge is perfect (tām, cf. Elihu's similar claim about his own knowledge in 36:4 ). Mocking Job's wish to confront God (v. 20 ) as an automatic death-wish, Elihu reminds Job that God is far brighter than the sun (cf. Sir 43:1–5 ), on which none can look without harm. One would think that such brilliance could not be hidden from humankind, but just as the sun has its own hours of concealment, so Shaddai sometimes resides outside human perception. God chooses when to be seen and moves from the north, the mythic abode of the gods (v. 22 ). Elihu's parting moralism poses a problem. The first colon is clear: ‘Therefore mortals fear him’. The second colon reads literally: ‘He does not look on any person of intelligence’. Andersen (1976: 268) emends the verb ‘see’ to a similar verb, ‘fear’ (rā᾽â to yārē᾽), understands the negative lō᾽ as (‘surely’), and takes ‘every intelligent person’ as the subject (cf. the LXX). This attractive interpretation yields a sense equivalent to that in 28:28 , and has Elihu concluding on a high note: ‘Surely all wise of heart fear him.’

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