The Enigma of Elihu

Elihu, the fifth wheel, the young upstart, the babbler—he has been caricatured as all of these. He’s even been called a disguise for Satan. Many of the standard commentaries treat him dismissively. Elihu is not mentioned in the prologue or the epilogue of Job where the visiting friends are mentioned. He speaks with a stronger Aramaic influence evident in his language. Whether he even belongs in the book has been questioned.

Stephen Mitchell, in a vibrant translation of the book of Job, omits Elihu entirely, mentioning only in the endnotes, “The Elihu interlude, which has long been recognized as an addition by some later, much inferior poet…[has] been left out….”[1]

Eminent Edinburgh professor and Hebraist, A. B. Robinson described Elihu’s deportment as “self-confident and boisterous…the creation of a writer of less severe taste and feebler dramatic power than the author of the other characters manifests.” He concluded, “...the author of the Elihu speeches was one who was not endowed with the brilliant powers of the writer who composed the body of the poem.”[2] Ouch.

The nineteenth-century German scholar, F. W. C. Umbreit, was even more excoriating, calling Elihu’s speech the “uncalled-for stumbling in of a conceited young philosopher into the conflict that is already properly ended.”[3]

I beg to differ. I’ve long felt Elihu was underrated. Regardless of the position one takes of the composition history of the book of Job, we find discrete viewpoints, even philosophical outlooks, presented by the protagonist, the foils, and the respondents in the book. There are several to grapple with: Job, the three friends, Elihu, God, and the frame of the prologue and epilogue.

Elihu represents a third view, not expressed by Job or the three friends. Whether one takes the position that he is an historical person or a literary creation to express a philosophical argument, it is worthwhile to unpack his perspective. About what is his voice so agitated?

With this in mind, it is helpful to ask, “What is Elihu’s basic argument and how does it differ from the others?” What viewpoint has gone unsaid that is now articulated?

Is it significant that Job gives no response to Elihu? Does this suggest the author believes Elihu has contributed some important insight that cannot be countered? Elihu’s speeches seem more a criticism of the whole book of Job to this point than of Job himself. In his argument, he presages God’s response.

Elihu opens his discussion with what he perceives to be the problem with Job’s claims: “Job says, ‘I am innocent, but God denies me justice.” (Job 34:5)[4] “I am pure and without sin…yet God has found fault with me;” (33:9-10). For Elihu, Job is calling into question God’s justice or righteousness. Unlike the three friends who simply argued Job was guilty and God was punishing wickedness, Elihu is more charitable. He wants to defend God but doesn’t come down as hard on Job. For Elihu, pain and suffering are not punitive but are a disciplinary measure. “He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction.” (36:16). Job is excused in not understanding: “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (36:26).

Elihu asserts (Chapters 34-36) that God is gracious, just, and great. These qualities are not as easy to package together as might first appear. God’s goodness weighs against God’s omnipotence. As is often questioned, if God is all good and all-powerful why then suffering? Theologies through the centuries have tended to emphasize one or the other of these in their responses to the human condition. And when one is emphasized at the expense of the other, the pendulum eventually swings the other way. This is also evident in the other classical theological dichotomies: God’s foreknowledge vs. human freedom; an immanent vs transcendent God; the divine vs. human nature of Christ; a theocentric heaven of eternal bliss in the presence of God vs. an anthropocentric heaven of human delights.

Elihu seems certain that suffering is for the greater good. Job’s affliction is already God’s answer to him that will bring about spiritual blessing if he will only accept the medicine. But above all God’s righteousness must be maintained. Job on the other hand has emphasized that he is not culpable for the catastrophes encountered.

Both can be right. But to comprehend this requires the mind to shift from deductive logic to inductive wonder at the unknowns. This Elihu does next, and in so doing presages the very response of God in Chapters 38-41.

With Chapter 37, Elihu shifts to his affirmation of a third attribute of God—majesty. The language and illustrations point to the grandeur of Nature as indicative of the majesty (greatness) of God. “Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders.” (37:14) The examples given fall short for the modern mind. Yes, we know much about atmospheric electricity, thunder, and snow and rain. But that is not the point. His instinct is right, “Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.” (37:19) It is not the God of the Gaps that must be addressed; it is the impossibility of stepping outside our universe to see things as they really are. It is the philosophically challenging problem of answering when we don’t see the whole picture. You have to choose your anchors. Rationality? A Divine Ground of Being? Ultimate meaning? Possibly yes to all—even when they seem mutually exclusive.

So why do I like Elihu? It’s as if Elihu says, “Something is wrong with that picture. That can’t be right.” Our moral judgment may be the last defense of what is good and right. Societal norms and theological traditions may fall short. As Elihu admonishes, “Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.” (34:4) We might need to say, “That doesn’t fit with the God I know.”

Sometimes that is the best we can do.

Kent V. Bramlett is Associate Professor of Archaeology and History of Antiquity and Curator and Associate Director of the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology at La Sierra University.<.em>

[1] Mitchell, Stephen, The Book of Job, (North Point Press: Berkeley. 1987), 97.

[2] Davidson, A. B., The book of Job with notes, introduction and appendix, (Cambridge University Press: 1903), 1.

[3] As quoted in Keil-Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 6, Job.

[4] All texts quoted are from the New International Version.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7787

Seventh day Adventists are NOT taught HOW to be Elihus. SDAs are NOT allowed to be Elihus.
“Let us DISCERN [SDAs do NOT do this.]” WE have the Red Books. WE have the SDA Bible Commentary. WE have our Theological Seminary Ph.D’s who TELL us What and How we are to believe and live.
And if we Do Not, then we are NOT TRUE Sda’s.
"Let US discern for ourselves what is right, LET US LEARN TOGETHER [in community discussion – discernment] what is Good.“
SDA’s Do Not do this. SDA’s are NOT Allowed to do this.
If we WERE allowed to do this, we would have a much more open, more compassionate, more embracing community of congregations facing the local community, neighborhoods, society.
We would be Embracing those who are being given the Gifts of The Spirit, based not on Gender or Orientation. But the Spirit in Each Individual.
We WOULD be Prepared to be Lights to the world, to be Salt to the world so living would be much more
tasteful and enjoyable. We would be able to SHOUT! ARISE! SHINE! For Your Lite is shining.” Let US shine Together!

Elihu! What a great message for ADVENT! The Lamb of Revelation IS coming!

Sirje — Within the Zen tradition there is a story about two fish. One fish tells the other a strange experience it had.
"I was swimming along and noticed a tasty morsel. I grabbed it, but a sharp, shiny, hard thing got stuck in my mouth. Suddenly, I was pulled from the water and the next thing I knew I was in a whole new world. A great big thing grabbed me and pulled the sharp, shiny, hard thing from my mouth and threw me back into the water."
The other fish looks shocked and asks, "Water? What water?"
The last animal to discover water would be a fish, just as we are the last ones to discover our assumptions about reality because we are so immersed in them. Assumptions play such a central role in day-to-day life that, for the vast majority of time, we never notice them.
An important thing assumptions do is act as building blocks of our beliefs. There are a number of ways to change beliefs. One of the most effective ways is Check And Adjust The Assumptions that support the belief. — “Teaching An Anthill to Fetch”:, Stephen Joyce, pg 9.

Harry – YES! WHY Thunder??[Scare our pets??] WHY Lightening??
I have read that Lightening releases Nitrogen from the atmosphere and allows it to go into the ground.
Lightening DOES start fires which are good for the earth in some ways.
Why is Oxygen only 20% of the atmosphere? Why such a high % Nitrogen atmosphere?

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Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, remembers, as a child, visiting the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, watching carp swimming around in the pond. His childhood imagination wondered at how different their world was from his own, musing, The carp and I spent our lives in two distinct universes, never entering each other’s world, yet were separated by only the thinnest barrier, the water’s surface. He then imagined what the carp would think if he put his hand in the pond and picked one of them up, out of the water. To the rest of the carp, it would be a truly unusual event; and when he returned the fish back into the water, it would seem like a miracle.

We can’t step out of our universe to see what it’s really about. This makes all our suppositions about God and His function and power, as it relates to this universe, seem pathetic - even more so within the SDA construct of heavenly rooms etc. Maybe if we kept that in mind as we struggle with all our petty issues about ordination and how and when we worship, we could find more in common than we seem to have.

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Job Is a poetic parable and oiled be read as such. tZ

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Thanks, Kent V. Bramlett, for this great essay. It will reward repeated reading and consideration.

I was listening to one of my favorite preaching pastors, this week, the late Ray Stedman, on Elihu. He takes a similar approach to yours, and, like yours, one different from that which the lesson provides. In essence, it’s that Elihu is a subtle reframing of the discussion, and an on-ramp to the response that God gives, subsequently.

However, toward the end of your essay, you say this:

This is wonderfully put. Again, Elihu’s focus anticipates God’s, and, as well, Job’s final response.

But then you urge this:

I’d argue that the examples fall short only for modern minds that do not truly comprehend the complexity of these phenomena, or that do not grasp how little we understand about them.

Indeed, I’ve long held that a powerful aspect of God’s inquiry is that not only does Job not know how to answer God’s questions, but that, even today, no one else does, either.

So, take thunder, for example. One can say that we know how it is made, today, while the ancients didn’t.

I’d say:

a) Elihu’s point is that thunder is inevitably awesome. In 2016, anyone who has jumped at its sound, or heard a thunderclap so overwhelming that they wondered how much louder the storm could get, would have to agree. Our modern mind has not dulled this sense.

But, even more:

b) Our knowledge about how thunder is made is incomplete. Consider these excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on this subject:

“The cause of thunder has been the subject of centuries of speculation and scientific inquiry. … In the 20th century a consensus evolved that thunder must begin with a shock wave in the air due to the sudden thermal expansion of the plasma in the lightning channel.”

But then:

“Experimental studies of simulated lightning have produced results largely consistent with this model, though there is continued debate about the precise physical mechanisms of the process.”

In other words, the model is incomplete. God’s knowledge is not. This means anyone who looks at these natural effects and is underwhelmed really has no idea what is actually going on.

Further, the above explanation only addresses the question of how thunder is made. We can’t say, for sure or not, what is the purpose of thunder; its role in the ecology of the planet. (Indeed, on the Wikipedia page, there is no subheading for “Purpose.”) Thunder may play a role in how Earth works that we’ve not yet anticipated.

Of course, in concept, all of the above is true, as well, for atmospheric electricity, snow and rain. Given this, then, how can Elihu’s exclamations fall short for modern minds, save for closed ones?

HA

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Tom, the only problem I see with that is the prophets who wrote of Job don’t treat him or the book as a parable, but rather as a real historic figure who experienced those things. For example:

Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness. (Ezekiel 14:20)

Now you may believe Noah wasn’t a real historical person. But Daniel?

Also, James (5:7-12) encourages his readers to be patient in suffering. He mentions Job as an example to follow:

Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (Jam. 5:11)

If someone is going through genuine suffering, you don’t tell them a parable and then say, “See! Be patient like that guy in my parable.” No, you give them real examples, of real people going through real suffering. That is what James did.

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (JFB) commentary puts it like this:

Job—This passage shows the history of him is concerning a real, not an imaginary person; otherwise his case could not be quoted as an example at all. Though he showed much of impatience, yet he always returned to this, that he committed himself wholly to God, and at last showed a perfect spirit of enduring submission.

“otherwise his case could not be quoted as an example at all.”

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Have you ever quoted a poem for it’s insights?

Yes it is part of the Wisdom lit. Of the Old Testament. I find Job interesting and a source of inspiration. Jesus spoke of the Rich Man and Lazarus etc. I believe in the Flood story and of course Daniel, but one has to accept that Daniel. Is at least two book written in different languages. Some even find three. But there is no way one can make 2300 years out of daily sacrifices. Frankly, I find my assurance in the writing of Paul John, and the author of Hebrews. Tz

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It’s telling that this essay ends with a musing which implies that we should just decide to stop trying to get God if God does something that doesn’t jibe with the guy we’ve created. I think that’s what most people do lately.
I’d rather understand God in light of what he’s allowed us to know about Him. It makes my understanding multidimensional.

Hi Sirje, I was mainly dealing with the claim of it being a parable. Not that there cannot be insights into such things. Of course there can be.

Hello Tom, @tjzwemer I feel as though you too did not deal with what I brought up. I laid out for you the only 2 passages which mention Job (outside of the book of Job of course - there is also another in Ezekiel 14:20 which pretty much says the same thing as in 14:14). I believe I also showed how those prophets who wrote about him saw him as a real historical figure. For your claim to stand you would need to show how I (and others, such as in that commentary) are wrong. By simply asserting that it is a parable wont do.

Edit:

Sirje, I feel as though you’re not reading my comments.

I was interested in how other prophets dealt with Job - parable or a real historical figure.

Edit:

They’re not like me and you. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what they did. And I don’t think anyone here would argue God didn’t know Job. And seeing as my post is getting so long now, I would direct you to my 1st comment to Tom.

Thanks.

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You read it your way, I will read it my way. I think either way, it tells us a lot about God and man. TZ

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Thanks to Kent Bramlett for this refreshingly original and really insightful commentary. There was much to think on here. Elihu brings a philosophical bent to the discussion in Job, and the idea that it is an inferior, late addition to the discourse is one I find really puzzling! It clearly has its own poetic magnificence. Thanks again.

I got that, Tony. Parables can teach, even if they’re not historic. An example would be the book 1984. The society described there is being played out today, and it can be quoted even though it’s only a novel - being real in its message. The book of Job, doesn’t have to be historic to teach us truth.

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Tony, Those prophets quoted/referred to Job the same way we do.None of them knew him personally. The emphasis was on what Job stands for - steadfast faith in God’s justice.

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