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To Shake the Wicked from the Earth: Job IV

April 16, 2012

The third main section of Job, God’s case against Job (Chapters 32-42:6), centers around a different set of characters than the second section. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar do not speak at all in this section. Job speaks only a handful of lines instead of his long speeches. Instead, Elihu and God do almost all the speaking in two long speeches (unless one wishes to break God’s speech in the middle for Job’s short response).

This section is opened by Elihu. Oddly, Elihu has not been mentioned before at all. As far as we know Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are the only ones present. However, a line of prose tells us that these three friends stop answering Job because Job was righteous in his own eyes. At this, Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite becomes angry at Job. It is clear from what he says that he’s been there the whole time, but this is the first we’ve heard of it.

Elihu’s anger is twofold: first, he is angry at Job for “righteoussing” himself from God. I’m aware that that sentence is nonsense but it’s important to start there. The usual English translation is “justifying himself rather than God”. However, this misses two subtleties in the actual text. The first is that “justify” is actually “to make righteous”. In Hebrew both words are variation of צדק. (Really, both words may be spelled צדק but this is because צדק is “tsdq” and the two words differ in the vowels which are frequently not written. If vowels are written they are dots or dashes above, below, or in the middle of consonants.) So when the three friends stop talking because Job is “righteous in his own eyes” and then Elihu becomes mad because Job has justified himself rather than God these are clearly linked statements. Job is righteous in his own eyes and Job has justified (righteoused) himself.

The second thing to note is that the comparative here is simply a prefixed mem (מ, M) on the word “God”. In many instances a prefixed mem means “from”. However, it makes little sense to say “justified himself from God” in this context and so mem is serving in its other role where it compares two items. In this case the indication is that Job has compared himself favorably to God (the word the mem is prefixed two is the lesser of the two being compared). Saying “Job justified himself rather than God” might be right but “Job justified himself more than God” is also possible and actually more likely from a purely grammatical standpoint. It’s also an important distinction, too. Has Job claimed that God is unrighteous, or merely stressed his own righteousness more?

So Elihu is angry that Job has spent more effort arguing for his righteousness than God’s and Elihu is also angry at the three stooges because they have failed to argue their case effectively to Job while condemning him. (One textual variant indicates that their failure condemns God instead.) The first chapter of his speech is, in fact, nothing but him saying, “I waited for you to speak because you are my elders, but you were unable to contradict Job so it’s my turn.”

Elihu next addresses Job. He points out that he is a man like Job and so Job should have no issue making his case to Elihu however much he worries about making his case to God. Then he addresses one of Job’s points, that God is unresponsive. Instead, Elihu argues that God frequently uses trials to awaken someone to repentance. God not only responds to their evil by punishing them, but responds to their repentance by healing them. Elihu then asks Job to make any counterpoints for Elihu says he wishes to justify (that important word) Job.

A line of prose marks a continuation of Elihu’s speech and most likely a break in the thoughts, too. The next section brings up Elihu’s charge against Job. Amidst arguing that God is perfectly just, Elihu accuses Job of rebellion. Job has said there is no point in trying to please God and has asked to take God to court. Another line of prose marks a continuation on to the next section in which this thought is repeated, that Job has questioned obedience to God. Elihu points out that God is not touched by human good or evil and that Job’s (presumably potential) sins harm only humans. Elihu then says that God, in His justice, ignores the pleas of the evil. So, of course, God has been ignoring Job while Job claims that God isn’t listening, that Job is waiting for justice, and, especially, that God does nothing about wickedness. Job, Elihu concludes, has no idea what he is saying.

Another prose line bridges us to Elihu’s defense of God. Elihu first extols God’s justice and mercy, how he lifts up the righteous and deposes the wicked, and how he is always trying to get people to repent. Elihu warns Job about the danger of choosing evil in his affliction. He then goes into an extended discourse about God’s power and majesty. He concludes by asking Job how Job would go about drawing up a case against God. This forms a natural bridge to what happens next: God appears to Job and issues a challenge.

God’s challenge is quite simple. Does Job know anything about the way the world works? The scope of the questions God mockingly asks Job is vast – does he know how to run the weather, feed the world’s creatures, do justice, arrange the stars, and on and on. However, the nature of and length of the list sets the tone more than the plotline. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that no, Job can neither answer any of the questions nor do any of the tasks that God challenges him with. God wraps up the list by asking if Job still wishes to correct him (again, a line of prose marks this transition). Job admits that he really can’t and that he will be quiet now. God then issues a similar challenge again.

The opening of God’s second challenge is very interesting. God asks Job to be ready the answer Him and then says, “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” The next short section is a list of justice-based challenges for Job. Can he set the world to rights? If so God will grant that he was right. In fact, it is somewhat unclear whether the nature of the challenges changes. After this, God challenges Job to subdue some difficult to identify creatures. Perhaps subduing monsters is part of making things right. It is after this that Job repents. It would be nice if he were very specific about what he is repenting of but he simply admits that he didn’t know what he was saying and that he repents.

This brings us to the conclusion, which I discussed earlier, in which Job’s friends are rebuked and Job’s fortunes are restored. But what can we say in conclusion about the entire book?

Job’s friends are wrong, except Elihu. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar made all their arguments early on, where they argued that God only punishes the wicked and so Job must be guilty. Job actually warned them in that section that if God were to stop by to hear the case, then He would not be happy with them accusing an innocent man. This seems to be the case – the simplistic theology of the three stooges has led them to accuse an innocent man and to fail in their friendly obligation to comfort him. So the first conclusion of Job is that bad things do happen to good people and that it’s bad to claim otherwise.

The second conclusion of Job is that Job was in the wrong to challenge God. This was not because Job was guilty. In fact, we as readers know that it was because Job had it all backwards. He was arguing that he was not guilty and should not be punished. We know that it was Job’s exemplary faith that led to him being tested, that Job had actually risen to such a level that he had become one of the things God bragged to the satan about to show which one of them was winning. Job presenting evidence of his innocence would not have mattered as the heavenly court had already ruled on that matter. What was wrong in Job’s actions was that he believed he had the standing to challenge God and that God could not be doing something Job didn’t understand. In fact, in many ways Job’s fault is the same simplistic theology of which his three friends are guilty – believing that nothing very complex was happening and attempting to force someone into the mold this simple idea provided for them.

It is for this reason that I think that the common understanding of Job as a book about why bad things happen to good people is wrongheaded. Indeed, I have never actually heard anyone try and apply this. Presumably it would involve telling someone who was suffering that the cause of their suffering was a heavenly bet and that they should feel favored to be so singled out. The obvious silliness of this strategy prevents its occurrence, as well it should. The book of Job does touch on the topic of why bad things happen to good people but only to affirm that they do and that an explanation that says that it must be because these people are secretly bad is wrong.

Instead of being a book about why bad things happen to good people I believe Job is more focused on how we react to this situation. Two incorrect routes are laid out in Job – accusing the victim of some secret sin and, for the victim, railing against God under the assumption that the victim could do a better job of justice than God. This, I believe, is the point of Job.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    June 6, 2013 10:47 am

    I know it’s been over a year since you wrote this, so I don’t necessarily intend to change your mind on anything, or even expect a response. I’ll just put my short comment down as a way of challenging readers who have read your response.

    I think the other posts on Job you did really encapsulated the thoughts and the line of reasoning between Job and his friends very well. What I am unsure of is how you came to the conclusion that Elihu is right, when he essentially rephrases the arguments of the three friends. Further, he purposefully quotes Job out of context, which leads us to question Elihu’s integrity as he makes his argument.

    Also, another thing to look at is when God appears, He acts in a manner that appears consistent with the picture that the three friends have presented of Him to Job. Yet, as you rightly pointed out in a previous post, God says that Job, not the three friends (Elihu, of course, being unmentioned), was right in what he said. And Job is still considered righteous at the end, even more so than the beginning. I raise these issues to question the premise that Elihu was right, since Elihu constructs a straw man in place of Job’s actual beliefs and tears down the straw man.

    Anyhow, I hope that gives others who read this post some further ideas for inquiry into Job, since it is an amazing book and really serves to demonstrate the fine line separating sound and unsound theology. The difference between the Spirit that leads one to repentance and the spirit that led the Jews to crucify Christ is razor thin.

    • Eric permalink
      June 6, 2013 9:53 pm

      Thank you for you thoughts. There are a couple of reasons to believe that Elihu is correct which, as you pointed out, I didn’t exactly lay out here.

      1) God specifically condemns the other three friends but not Elihu.

      2) Elihu apparently thinks there is a big difference between what he is saying and what the three friends have said since he begins by calling them idiots (more or less). I think a lot of what is happening in Job is hard for us to see because we have centuries of Christian theodicy coloring our approach to these issues while Job and his friends are arguing from what are probably very different background assumptions and attitudes. Elihu also doesn’t seem to claim that Job must have been guilty to begin with but takes issue with his conduct since the argument began.

      3) God responds to Job after Elihu speaks and does so in a confrontational manner – God, apparently, does have an issue with Job. In fact, Job’s last statement in the dialog section of the book is that he repents.

      4) One of the trickier things to notice about the book of Job is the manner in which the arrangement of the sections makes a point. In the first large section each friend (except Elihu) speaks and most of the friends speak three times. However, after each friend speaks Job responds and Job gets the last word – a very long last word in which he thoroughly discredits his friends’ arguments. Even without knowing anything about the content of the arguments we could deduce that Job is in a strong position just by this pattern. However, once Elihu speaks Elihu gets a long block of text (roughly equal to Job’s closing speech) and Job does NOT get a reply. Instead, God jumps in and continues to lay into Job. The next time Job speaks after Elihu has begun speaking is when Job speaks to apologize to God.

      What this looks like to me is that Job’s three friends are wrong and Job is right in the first section but that Job is also wrong in a different way and that Elihu then comes in to correct this (backed by God). Honestly, it would be easier if we just had the first main section and we closed on Job’s impassioned defense (and then maybe the last block of text where God vindicates Job and restores his fortunes) but we don’t. Instead, we have a second section that looks like the first but backwards, sort of. I think the task of reading Job is to figure out what the critical difference is between the arguments of the three friends and of Elihu and God.

      I’m also not sure that Elihu’s quotations of Job fall outside the allowable bounds for his culture.

      I also think that Job is in some ways less about theology than attitude. Job is probably factually correct all the way through but his attitude towards the end of his speeches gets rather high-handed towards God’s justice and I think that is what he repents of at the end of the dialog section of the book.

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