Job 32-37 — Elihu Confronts Job

Elihu, whose name means “he is my God,” appears from nowhere. He is neither named among the friends who come to comfort Job in the Prologue nor among the friends in the Epilogue whom God rebukes. He only appears here in Job 32-37.

This has generated considerable speculation. Some, perhaps the majority of contemporary scholarship, think the Elihu speeches were added by a later (or final?) editor who was dissatisfied with the Yahweh speeches and the coherence of the book as it appeared at the time.  In this view Elihu is either a defender of orthodoxy or a shrewd commentator on the previous dialogue that neither sides with the friends nor Job. The interpolator “corrects” the version of Job that had come down through tradition.

However, there is nothing compelling about this scenario. There is no textual tradition that supports this conclusion. On the contrary, structurally, the three monologues in Job 29-42 (Job, Elihu and Yahweh) parallel the three dialogue cycles in Job 3-27. But the key question is theological and rhetorical, that is, what is the function of Elihu’s monologue in the present form?

Does Elihu side with the friends by reiterating some of their arguments? In other words, does he agree with the friends but thinks they did not do a very good job in refuting Job? Viewed in this way, Elihu is another protagonist; he responds to Job’s monologue just as the friends–who have now given up as indicated by Zophar’s silence in the last cycle of the dialogue–had previously responded to Job.

Or, does Elihu attempt to arbitrate between Job and God? In other words, he prepares us for the Yahweh speeches while at the same time he rebukes Job for his overreaching arrogance and self-righteousness. Elihu, then, appears more as a mediator than a protagonist even though he does confront Job regarding his excesses.

Or, is it some mixture of the two? In general, what Elihu says about Job is inaccurate or misapplied, but what Elihu says about God prepares us to hear the Yahweh speeches. In this light, Elihu’s four speeches may read in the following way:

  • First Speech (32-33): Job is self-righteous and God disciplines such.
  • Second Speech (34): Job deserved suffering and God is just.
  • Third Speech (35): Job is wicked and God is transcendent.
  • Fourth Speech (36-37): Job must listen and God is active.

So, why is Elihu absent from the Prologue and the Epilogue? Of course, one explanation is that the Elihu speeches were added after the Prologue and Epilogue or another is that Elihu’s words are sanctioned by the narrator/editor.  But it is also possible that something more subtle is at work in the rhetoric. Elihu is introduced by the narrator in Job 32 as a young man who thinks he can do better than the traditional and aged wisdom of the friends. He even denies that wisdom is associated with age and years (experience; 32:9). His youth is underscored and youth usually thinks it can do better. And, in fact, he does worse  in some ways (as I hope to demonstrate below). His youthful intrusion into the discussion among his elders is itself arrogant and angry (noted four times in the narrator’s introduction of Elihu in Job 32). In this way he sides with the friends as he wants to improve their arguments rather than contravene them. When God condemns the words of the friends–naming Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar–in the Epilogue that condemnation includes Elihu.

At the same time, his last speech–as well as occasional flashes in other speeches–soars high in its account of God’s relation to creation. In this sense, Elihu moves the drama toward the Yahweh speeches. But Elihu’s speeches are flawed in the way they treat Job.

It is Elihu who is self-righteous. As Bartholomew and O’Dowd (Old Testament Wisdom Literature, 143) note, “Where God and the narrator declare Job ‘upright’ (yoser), Elihu claims to speak from an ‘upright’ heart (Job 33:3) and claims that God could send an angel (perhaps Elihu?) to teach Job what is ‘upright’ (Job 33:23) so that Job might in turn repent and confess that he perverted what was ‘upright’ (Job 33:27).” In essence, Elihu denies Job the very commendation that Yahweh gave Job in the Prologue. Elihu, like the friends, thinks Job is a sinner and has been disciplined for his wickedness. The condemnation of the friends, then, is also the condemnation of Elihu.

What does Elihu say?

First Speech (32:6-33:33).

Elihu is confounded by the silence of the friends after Job’s monologue (32:15) and he cannot sit idly by while God is defamed by Job. So, he must answer (32:17) or else he will burst like new wineskins (32:19). And he will tell it straight without flattery and without deference to their age. After this introduction, Elihu addresses Job directly (33:1-33). The Spirit of God, he claims, moves him to speak and he will do so out of the uprightness and sincerity of his heart (33:3-4).

Elihu gets to his point by quoting Job in 33:9-11. He summarizes Job’s protestations of innocence (cf. 9:21; 10:7,13; 13:24,27; 16:17; 19:11; 23:10; 27:5; 30:21). But the quotations are not exact. Elihu uses a word for “pure” or “clean” that only appears here in the Hebrew Bible. Further, Elihu absolutizes Job’s words, e.g., “without transgression” and “there is no iniquity in me.” Though Job did view God’s attack as an expression of hostility, Job never intimated that God invented sins (“occasions”) in order to assault him. Elihu denies Job’s innocence, but this is the substance of the Prologue.

Elihu believes, contrary to Job’s perception of divine silence, that God is actually speaking to Job in the circumstances of his suffering. Elihu contends that God is speaking through Job’s nightmares (33:15-18) and through the pain Job endures (33:19-22). And now, it seems, God is speaking to Job through Elihu, a messenger (angel) of God (33:23). Elihu will mediate God’s grace to Job. If Job repents and prays to God, then God will refresh him and repay Job for his conversion (33:26-28). According to Elihu, God is using this suffering in order to move Job to repentance (33:29-30). Job must confess his sin (33:27). This, Elihu assures Job, is wisdom (33:33). This is the same message that Job heard from his three friends in the dialogue and significantly parallels Eliphaz’s first speech in Job 4-5.

Second Speech (34:1-37).

Now Elihu addresses the friends (“wise men,” 34:2) and speaks of Job in the third person (cf. 34:5). He talks to the friends about Job in front of Job, which appears rather insensitive. His imprudence is indicated by his second misquotation of Job (34:5-6; cf. 9:15, 20; 13:18; 16:8; 27:2, 6). He quotes him as saying he is “without transgression” (34:6). And he accuses Job of walking with the wicked and sharing the company of evildoers (34:8). He proves this by quoting Job again in 34:9:  “For he has said, ‘It profits me nothing to take delight in God’.”

But this is the opposite of what Job actually said in 21:15-16 (cf. 9:22; 21:7; 24:1). Job quotes the wicked as saying that there is no profit in serving God, and he explicitly rejects that orientation. Elihu’s approach entails that the satan was correct–Job only serves God for profit and now has cursed God when God failed him. Elihu has manipulated Job’s words.

Yet, on the basis of this misapplication of Job’s words, Elihu appeals to the friends (the verb in “hear” in 34:10 is plural) to judge Job. God does only what is just and repays the wicked for their deeds. The point, it seems, is that the friends should see what happened to Job as a just judgment.

In 34:16, Elihu turns attention to Job (“hear” is now singular). He condemns the way Job has approached God. Job has no right to speak to God as he has. It is Job who is unjust and Job’s accusations against God are a case of the pot calling the kettle black (34:17-20).

Elihu clearly considers Job one with the “evildoers” (34:22), burdened with “wickedness” (34:26), and sharing the life of the “godless” who afflict the poor (34:28-30). And he appeals–in the second person singular (“you, Job”; 34:30-34)–to Job to repent, to choose submission. Job’s arrogance is beyond measure, and Elihu wishes that he “were tried to the limit” (34:36) though it is difficult to imagine what more Job would need to endure in order to fulfill Elihu’s wish-prayer.

Third Speech (35:1-16).

Elihu now rehearses the same argument based on divine transcendence that Eliphaz and Bildad employed. In attempting to apply the meaning of the chasm between God and humanity, Elihu–like the friends–undermines the dignity of humanity. What is God to humanity? Nothing, according to Elihu.  But actually humanity is highly valued by God and worth his attention, as the Prologue indicates (cf. Psalm 8).

This high view of transcendence, however, means that God will not hear Job, according to Elihu. He again quotes Job in 35:2, “You say, ‘I am in the right before God’.” On this ground, Job expects God to listen and hopes for vindication. Elihu regards this as the height of arrogance. If oppressed humanity cries out and God does not answer, why should Job expect God to answer him (35:9-15)? Elihu concludes that Job speaks “words without knowledge,” but the ignorance Elihu perceives is Job’s mistaken notion that God would actually listen to Job’s arrogant cries for relief.

Fourth Speech (36:1-37:24).

Strikingly, Elihu claims integrity (“perfect in knowledge.” 36:4), and he uses the same word that describes Job in the Prologue (“blameless;” 1:1, 8; 2:3, 9). Who do we believe? Whose integrity is in tact?

Elihu assures us that God “does not keep the wicked alive” and “does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous” (36:6-7). When the righteous are afflicted because of their sins, God will “complete their days in prosperity” if they will listen, repent and serve God (36:9, 11). And if they do not listen, then they will die with the wicked (36:12). Elihu is responding to Job’s question about the prosperity of the wicked (36:17-23) and he assures Job that they will be punished, even dying in their youth (36:13-14), but God wants something better for Job if only Job will repent (36:15-16).

It is at this point that Elihu prepares us for the Yahweh speeches. As he speaks of the transcendence and mystery of God within the world–who can prescribe the way for God? (36:23)–Elihu anticipates Yahweh’s own accounting of his transcendence. “Surely God is great, and we do not know him” (36:26). He even anticipates Yahweh’s questioning of Job. “Do you know…” (37:15-16)?

Elihu grounds the greatness of God in God’s presence in the creation.  From 36:27 to 37:13 Elihu offers a doxological poem on God’s activity within creation. God sends rain on the wastelands and his voice thunders over the land. All creation “accomplish[es] all that he commands” (37:12). Moreover, God is active for a purpose–“for correction, or for his land, or for love” (37:13). God is at work within the creation to accomplish his purposes.

What does this mean for Job? Elihu will not leave Job with any doubts (37:14-24).  “Hear this, O Job,” Elihu announces. Given God’s sovereign work within the creation, “mortals fear him” but “he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit” (literally, “heart”; 37:24).  Job, did you hear it?

According to Elihu, Job is conceited and arrogant. Job does not fear God. God will not listen to Job. God will not answer Job because God does not listen to the pleas of the wicked.  Only if Job would repent, then God would answer him.

Elihu was probably more surprised than anyone when God showed up and answered Job.

11 Responses to “Job 32-37 — Elihu Confronts Job”

  1.   Jason Says:

    If overall the book of Job depicts a great trial of God’s love for humanity – in that Job’s integrity validates God’s love and conversely Job’s failure of integrity would validate the satan’s disregard for humanity, then, could Elihu be the satan?

    Elihu injures Job yet again by depicting God is distant and removed. Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm…

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Elihu sees himself as a messenger from God, not an opponent of God and even extols/praises God (hymn of creation in chapter 36, for example). But he, unwittingly, supports the satan’s accusation as he calls for Job to repent in order to again receive God’s blessings.

      I can see that an argument could be made for the position you suggest. However, I think the absence of the satan since chapter 2 as well in the Epilogue suggests an alternative. I do not think the satan is the evil Devil myself.

      In any event, Elihu does not offer Job good advice.

  2.   Alan Scott Says:

    I thought your presentation of Elihu was overall fair, until your last paragraph. I think Elihu not only expected God to respond next, I think Elihu saw his monologue’s conclusion as an introduction of God coming onto the stage.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks, Alan. I appreciate your comment.

      I would agree that the narrator/editor used Elihu’s last speech as an introduction to the Yahweh speeches, but I don’t think the participant (Elihu himself) expected God to respond to Job. I think Elihu believes he has given the final answer, but the narrator lets us know that he was only a teaser in his last speech that anticipated the Yahweh speeches.

      Elihu believes that God has already spoken to God–he is speaking to Job through his dreams/nightmares and the pain of his bed (Job 33:14-22). I think Elihu actually says he does not expect God to answer Job since God does not answer the arrogant (Job 35:12-14).

      •   Alan Scott Says:

        John Mark,

        I’m looking more at chapter 37 where Elihu proclaims God speaking through the creation, specifically through the storm. Which is exactly how God did respond in chapter 38. I cannot see how this can be coincidental, either from Elihu’s or the editor’s viewpoint.


      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        I see your point, Alan. I can appreciate it. Elihu does call Job to “listen” to God’s voice (37:2; also 37:14).

        However, I don’t think this is reference to a coming response to Job’s challenge but rather the ongoing speech of God within the creation. Just as God speaks through dreams and bed’s pains, so God speaks through the creation, including storms. It is present activity to which Elihu calls Job to listen and not to a coming voice of God.

        The word “storm” in 38:1 is not used by Elihu which I think might be expected it we were to explicitly connect Elihu’s language with the Yahweh speech. Instead, what we get in Job 38 goes beyond Elihu’s language. It is no mere speaking of God through creation but a theophany, an encounter. I don’t think anyone in the drama of Job anticipated that.

        In any event, we will agree to disagree though I appreciate the dialogue and the helpful questioning.

  3.   riverwindfire Says:

    Hi, John Mark — thanks for continuing to share a very accessible and helpful view of Job and his crisis.

    Re Elihu – are you familiar with the late Dr. John McKay’s little 1994 book “When the Veil is Taken Away: Biblical Theology and the Spirit-Filled Life”? His characterization of Elihu seems somewhat more positive: a younger man reluctant to speak because of the social conventions of respect for age, but he claims words from the Spirit which must be spoken. “Here is one who indeed speaks like a charismatic, not debating but preaching, his words, unlike those of Job’s older friends, become increasingly full of God-talk that is praise-oriented. He, as it were, brings Job into God’s presence, and the end of his speech in ch. 37 passes almost imperceptibly into the words of God Himself, for God continues it by saying the same things that Elihu had led Job to consider, about the majesty of the Creator. Elihu’s words are like a bridge that carries us from theological debate which leads nowhere to praise that leads directly into God’s healing presence … Job’s final confession acknowledges the transition …” “The book of Job is an excellent example of charismatic ministry in action. It highlights many of the tensions that exist between theological debate and experiential religion … directing sufferers away from themselves and their problems to God.” (pp. 45-46)

    Yes, Elihu calls Job to repent, but Job himself says to YHWH that he “repents.” Is Elihu using the argument and premises of the 3 friends, or is he calling Job to “repent” of the folly of viewing YHWH through the lens of his experience, instead of trusting God’s justice? Certainly something like this seems to be what Job is “repenting” of.

    I realize you’ve responded a lot to other comments already 😉 Any further thoughts? Thanks.

    PS – Dr. McKay was a former Senior Lecturer in Theology at Hull University, East Yorkshire, UK. He wrote a very intriguing article (with the same name) re the challenge of integrating academic interests and experience of the Spirit …

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Elihu is one of the more significant hermeneutical problems in the book. There are a wide variety of understandings–do we read Elihu as a positive mediator between God and Job or is he yet another version of the Orthodox version of the friends. So, it is not surprising that this would be a point of significant dialogue.

      I have not read McKay’s book though it sounds quite interesting. I will comment on two points.

      First, the claim for God’s charismatic speech is rather dubious, I think. I don’t doubt that God spoke through others, of course. But it is whether the claim is to be believed in this context. Eliphaz claimed such a word from God as well in 4:12ff. Elihu claims that God has spoken to Job through dreams and nightmares in 33:14ff, and Elihu claims to be a mediator (33:23). My estimation of Elihu is based on his misquotations of Job and misapplications to Job that rival what the friends do in the previous dialogue.

      Second, I don’t think “repent” is a good understanding of Job’s language in Job 42:6. I will post a specific blog on Job’s response to Yahweh’s second speech since I think it is the “resolution” (if we can call anything that) to which the drama points. I will save that for later except to say that I don’t think Job is repenting of any evil or wickedness (in deed or speech or attitude) but rather is submissive and accepting of God’s gracious encounter and assurance.

      Thanks for contributing. Your perspective, as Alan’s, needs to be heard.

  4.   Steven Fletcher Says:

    Just out of curiosity, I’m wondering what you have to say about the similarities between the Book of Job and the Legend of Keret (or Kirta in some translations).

    A character named Elihu (or Ilihu, depending upon the translation) actually appears in the Legend of Keret in a similar role to Elihu’s in the Book of Job. Keret is sort of a David-like figure who is afflicted in a similar manner to Job.

    I will summarize the Legend of Keret as best as I can remember:

    1) Keret follows El’s orders to launch a military campaign and find a wife. On the way there, he promises Asherah (El’s wife) that he will give Asherah silver and gold equal to the weight of his wife if she helps him succeed.

    2) Keret acquires his wife and has children (I believe it’s 6 daughters and 2 sons).

    3) Keret forgets to give Asherah the silver and gold, so she curses him with some sort of disease (or possibly old age).

    4) Elihu (Keret’s younger son) tells him that he should give up his kingship because he is no longer strong enough to rule the kingdom. It’s a much shorter version of Elihu’s speech in the Book of Job, though there’s no other commentators.

    5) Job sends his youngest daughter, Thitmanit, to pray to El. El says that Keret’s punishment is too great and creates someone named Shataqat, who cures Keret.

    6) Yassub (Keret’s older son) rebels against Keret because he thinks Keret is still weak.

    The end of the story is lost. It sounds sort of like it was going to have a story like where King David’s son (I think his name was Absalom, but I can’t remember for sure) revolts against him. Within the story itself, the various gods predict that all of Keret’s children will die except for Thitmanit, who will be Keret’s only heir.

    It sounds like the Book of Job could is almost a retelling of a section of the story with far more dialogue added.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks for calling attention to this.

      This is one Ugaritic (Canaanite, Bronze Age) composition that has similarities with Job just as there are Mesopotamia parallels (such as the Sumerian work “A Man and His God” to which most point). There are Egyptian parallels as well. This reflects that the genre of disputation, theodic protest, etc., were part of the ancient culture in which Israel arose and lived.

      Keret has a narrative framework with some commonalities to Job, but it is really a different story and lacks the poetic dialogues. Once Keret offers ritual prayers, his fortunes turn around. But with Job he received tragedy despite his rituals and turned to protest and argument. Nevertheless, parallels are worthy of study to see differences as well as similarities.

      Ultimately, Job’s story is rather unique in the final form in which it comes to us.

  5.   Steve Sponsler Says:

    I think you have it exactly Wrong. In all ways..ELIHU is akin to The Spirit of ELIJAH…he speaks like JOHN in his opening prologue. ELIHU never had to repent. If he had been so awful..he would have had to repent. Job was self-righteious..Job saw Himself as good as JESUS JOB 29. It sounds like a description of Jesus…if JOB had not realized that is how he saw himself and now did in The LIGHT..he would not have repented in JOB 42 which soulds much like Psalm 42.

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