ABSTRACT: Contemporary scholarship (almost) universally argues that Elihu’s speeches in Job 32–37 should, like the speeches of Job’s other friends, be considered unorthodox in their portrayal of the justice of both God and Job. However, the careful weighing of culturally biased interpretive decisions and a better grasp of the context of Elihu’s speeches within the book indicate that a positive reading of Elihu has greater merit than most suppose.
Many of us struggle to know what to make of Elihu’s theological perspective in Job 32–37. After an introduction in Job 32:1–5, Elihu delivers four speeches (32:6–33:33; 34:1–37; 35:1–16; 36:1–37:24) that comprise almost one-seventh of the book. We breathe a sigh of relief when we get to chapter 38 and bow in reverence before the Lord God’s majestic monologue. Yet we may be left scratching our heads over the lack of response to Elihu’s speeches.
Part of the problem is that Elihu is not named when the Lord God says that Job’s three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) have not spoken rightly of him (42:7). Does the silence mean Elihu is implicitly included in this rebuke? Does it imply that he is different? What shall we do with Elihu?
Over the years, I have changed my mind about Elihu. In my first book on Job, I argued that while Elihu was not to be dismissed out of hand, what he says is nevertheless “not authoritative.” He “is not a prophet, speaking accurately for God; but neither is he a false prophet to be utterly condemned.”1
However, while writing a full commentary on Job, I became persuaded that Elihu is indeed a true prophet of God.2 My introduction reflects this change of view: “Although many scholars disagree, and I myself used to feel that his was an ambiguous voice, I am now persuaded that Elihu speaks by inspiration of the Spirit as a true and prophetic voice.”3 Why have I changed my mind?
Soundings from Church History
My positive evaluation of Elihu cuts across the grain of much scholarly opinion. I have twelve commentaries on Job in my study. Eleven of them think poorly of Elihu.4
Nevertheless, some theologians from the past agree — or at least see Elihu in something of a positive light. Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604) thinks Elihu’s teaching is orthodox, even though he repeatedly accuses Elihu of pride.5 Gregory thinks the rebuke in Job 38:2 (“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”) is addressed to Elihu, in spite of the fact that 38:1 explicitly says these words are spoken to Job, and Job is the one who responds in 40:3–5.6
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) agrees that Elihu’s wisdom is superior to that of Job and the three friends, but, like Gregory, he accuses him of seeking empty glory.7 Both Gregory and Aquinas regard Elihu’s teaching as orthodox but criticize his motivation.
John Calvin, however, has not a word to say against Elihu. In her scholarly study of Calvin’s exegesis of Job, Susan E. Schreiner argues, “There are few people in the Bible Calvin admires more than Elihu,” who speaks “as a true doctor of the church.” Indeed “Calvin’s elevation of Elihu is as decisive as that of Maimonides; like Maimonides, he sees Elihu as teaching essentially the same truth declared in the whirlwind speech.”8
Despite my change of opinion, criticisms of Job 32–37 remain. Critiques in modern scholarship have taken one or more of four forms. I will consider each in turn.
1. Elihu’s speeches are a later interpolation.
Since Matthias H. Stuhlmann in 1804, many critics have regarded Job 32–37 as a secondary interpolation (despite the fact that there is no manuscript evidence for this).9 Arguments for this claim have tended to be of two kinds.
First, Elihu is not mentioned anywhere else in the book of Job and, some scholars suggest, these chapters can be removed from the book without losing anything of value.10 In answer, we might say that if Elihu has the role of a forerunner leading to the Lord’s speeches, then there would be no need to mention him at the end of the book.11
Second, it is argued, the language and style of Job 32–37 differ from the rest of the book. These arguments are usually predicated on the assumption that the book of Job is a literary construct — indeed, a literary fiction, like an extended parable — which would make us expect some degree of uniformity of style.
These supposed differences, however, are now generally reckoned not to be indicators of different provenance.12 And if Elihu is a historical character (an idea that would horrify many Old Testament scholars!), then it would not be surprising if his speeches had a distinct style and vocabulary, even after making allowances for the style of the author in reporting them.
2. Elihu’s speeches are in poor style.
Many scholars have lined up to sneer at the style of Job 32–37. For example, John Eaton writes that even when we read the prose introduction (32:1–6), “we may notice that the style is inferior to that of the Prologue, being laboured and repetitious.” When we come to Elihu’s speeches, there is a “markedly inferior” style that is “prolix, clumsy and often obscure.” Indeed, “the pomposity of Elihu is so conspicuous and at times laughable (32:17–22; 36:2–4) that one could almost think the author intended a caricature.”13
These criticisms, however, tell us more about the cultural milieu of those who make them than about Elihu himself. Judgments of style are notoriously subjective. Just because we Westerners dislike the style of a text does not give us liberty to denigrate it.
3. Elihu’s motivation is wrong.
Criticisms of Elihu’s motivation focus on three areas: anger, pride, and cruelty to Job.
First, the narrator mentions Elihu’s anger four times in the introduction to his speeches (32:2–5). Some, therefore, deride him as “an angry young man,” or one who is “passionate and hotheaded.”14
But anger may or may not be a bad quality. Jesus got angry, after all. Elihu is angry with Job “because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2); that is, he placed himself in the right in such a way as to place God in the wrong. Elihu is angry with the three friends “because they had found no answer” (32:3); that is, they had failed to persuade Job of the wrongness of his words. These motivations are arguably virtuous. It seems to me that Elihu’s anger is a commendable ire. Besides, God himself will later rebuke Job for justifying himself rather than God. So, in this respect at least, Elihu is on message with the divine speeches that follow.
Second, Elihu is confident that he is right. Therefore, those who think he is wrong consider him to be proud. But what if he is correct? To speak God’s truth with confidence is not pride. So, the key question (to which we shall come) is this: Is Elihu right or wrong?
Third, some have criticized Elihu for a lack of sympathy toward Job.15 Against this, Katharine Dell argues that “we should adopt a more favorable attitude to his motivation for intervention than has traditionally been the scholarly case.”16
Along with others, Dell notes that, unlike the three friends, Elihu addresses Job by name (33:1, 31; 37:14). She suggests that Elihu “takes a genuine interest in carefully summarizing the arguments of Job, and indeed of the friends, before he makes his own view clear. He is like a listening friend who, before moving to any kind of opinion, carefully seeks to understand what he is hearing out of respect and consideration for his friend.”17 When he disagrees with Job, “The key point is that he is not against Job in a personal way, it is Job’s theological stance that he objects to.”18 Elihu, argues Dell, speaks as a true comforter, a constructive mediator, a wisdom instructor, and one who answers both Job and the three friends.19
Assessing Elihu’s motivation is very difficult. It is at least arguable that his concern for God’s honor coexists with a robust kindness toward Job, that his words are the faithful wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6).
4. Elihu is simply wrong.
This is the most important question. Whatever we think of Elihu’s style, and however we assess his motivation, the critical question is this: Is he right or wrong in what he says?
Before venturing an answer, let me say first that it is not at all easy to assess content in the speeches of the book of Job. The characters say so much, and usually in poetry, that it can be quite bewildering to try to sort out the core convictions that underlie their words.
We can consider Elihu from two angles. First, where does he appear in the book of Job, and how does this section (chapters 32–37) fit into the flow and purpose of the book? This angle, if you like, considers Elihu from outside of his speeches. Second, we need to ask what Elihu actually says, to consider not simply the context in which he speaks but also the content of his speech.
1. Contextual Factors
Content (what someone says) cannot be understood except in its context (where he says it). Indeed, someone may say something formally similar to what someone else says, and yet the different context puts a different slant on his words. I believe this is so for Elihu. Understanding the context of Elihu’s speeches will help us to determine how best to understand their content. Four contextual arguments weigh with me.
THE NARRATOR’S INTRODUCTION
Elihu is “the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram” (32:2). In general, a genealogy indicates that someone is a person of weight. We may rightly expect, then, that Elihu is going to prove himself a man of significance in the book. Robert Gordis notes that “Elihu is the only character who bears a Hebrew name,” a name similar to Elijah. His elaborate pedigree (32:2) “would suggest to Hebrew readers . . . that as the scion of a distinguished family (Ram) he was the authentic defender of God’s cause.”20
ELIHU’S CLAIM TO INSPIRATION
In 32:8, Elihu speaks of “the spirit in man, / the breath of the Almighty” as giving someone understanding. And then in 32:18–20, he describes himself as “full of words,” constrained by “the spirit” within him, like a wineskin ready to burst (cf. Jeremiah 20:9). It is natural to understand Elihu as claiming inspiration. God has filled his spirit with understanding such that he simply must speak. In Calvin’s words, “God has imprinted such a mark on the doctrine of Elihu and . . . the celestial spirit has appeared in his mouth so that we ought to be moved to receive that which he says.”21
It seems to me that unless we are given strong reasons to reject this claim, we ought to accept it. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, when false prophets speak, we are given clear indications that their words are false (see, e.g., 1 Kings 22). The narrator gives us no such indication with reference to Elihu.
ELIHU’S PROMINENT PLACE
Many have noted the uniquely significant placing of Elihu in the book of Job. He speaks, in four unanswered speeches, after “the words of Job are ended” (31:40) and before the covenant Lord speaks directly out of the storm (chapters 38–42). If he is a forerunner — rather like Elijah or John the Baptist — then this prominence makes complete sense. If, however, he is something else, then those who think so must persuade us as to why he is given this prominent position.
Three main suggestions have been made. First, some argue that chapters 32–37 form a kind of interlude after the debates have run into the ground.22 The reader needs a break, and Elihu provides it. Elihu “is reinvigorating and renewing an exhausted and stalled debate.”23 But an interlude that comprises 13 percent of the book and includes some detailed arguments seems like a strange sort of breathing space.
Second, others contend that Elihu is like a comic turn. John Hartley writes that the portrayal of Elihu as an angry young man “offers comic relief to the tension built up by Job’s solemn oath [31:35–37]. . . . An ancient audience, feeling the full weight of that tension, would be relieved and amused by the bombastic Elihu.”24 But humor is profoundly cultural, and we ought to be cautious about appeals to supposed humor, especially when they shape — in this case deeply — the understanding of a text.
The third suggestion (and the most significant) is that Elihu voices the views of moral orthodoxy, much as the three friends have tried to do, before being overridden by God’s speeches.25 If this is so, then perhaps Elihu offers an alternative resolution of the book, such that the reader is forced to choose between the “orthodoxy” voiced by Elihu and the words of God himself. Elihu is the fool who makes us realize how wise God is by contrast.26
Janzen suggests parallels with Genesis 3 and 1 Kings 22, in each of which false words (the snake, the false prophets) are followed by true words (God in the garden, Micaiah the true prophet).27 This might be an attractive solution if there were any explicit indication in the book of Job that this is the case (as there is in Genesis 3 and 1 Kings 22).
Dell wonders “whether the author of Job is not playing with us just a little when he introduces us to Elihu. He gives us, through the mouth of this unexpected arrival, a first answer, more along the lines of the answer that we might be expecting. Then he gives us the second answer — from God himself. We are given a choice as to which answer to listen to.”28
The key question, therefore, is this: Does Elihu offer an alternative resolution to that given in the Lord’s speeches, or is his answer essentially the same as God’s?
ELIHU IS NOT CONDEMNED
Arguments from God’s omission of Elihu in 42:7 necessarily build from silence. Many consider that God omits Elihu because he is beneath contempt; he is “treated with contemptuous silence,”29 “not even deemed worthy of separate mention in 42:7–9.”30 But perhaps he is not condemned because he does not merit condemnation.31
Further, if Elihu claims to be a prophet, then he must be either true or false. If he is a false prophet, it is surely imperative that he be rebuked. The fact that he is not suggests — at least to me — that he is a true prophet.
Elihu’s final speech also prepares the way admirably for the Lord’s first speech; his final words set an appropriate tone for the Lord’s first words.32 There is, if I may put it this way, no crunching of gears as we move from 37:1–24 into 38:2–40:2. If Elihu were offering a resolution that conflicts with God’s, we might expect a sharper disjunction.
These four contextual factors ought, I think, to predispose us to expect that Elihu will be a true spokesman of God.
2. His Message
This brief essay cannot address the details of Elihu’s contribution. (For my attempt to understand each of Elihu’s speeches, see my commentary Job: The Wisdom of the Cross.)33
Some suggest that Elihu does little more than repeat the arguments of the three friends. Elihu may claim, “I will not answer [Job] with your speeches” (32:14), but many think this is, in fact, what he does.34
But Elihu offers several distinctive answers to Job. Gordis argues that Elihu cites, and then answers, Job’s three main contentions, as follows:
- Job says God has ignored his sufferings (33:8–9); Elihu rebuts this charge (35:1–16).
- Job says God is unjust (33:10–11); Elihu contradicts this assertion (34:1–37).
- Job says he is innocent (33:12–13); Elihu attacks this claim (33:1–33).35
Hywel Jones writes, “Elihu does not address Job in the way that the Friends had done. They said that Job was suffering because he had sinned. Elihu says that Job has sinned because he was suffering. That is a vital difference to bear in mind.”36 I agree. The rebukes Elihu levels at Job are in this important respect different from the accusations of the friends. And these rebukes are echoed in the divine rebuke in chapters 38–41.
Let me return to Calvin’s positive appreciation of Elihu. Calvin perceived in Elihu an understanding of the deep sinfulness of human nature, the impossibility that any human being has natural merit with God, the underlying justice, therefore, of suffering, the inability of human beings to plead against God, a correct doctrine of providence, and a perceptive recognition of the hiddenness of God such that his providence is inscrutable.37
It has not been possible in this brief essay to consider Elihu’s speeches properly. But I hope I have given at least some headline reasons as to why I came to agree with Calvin that Elihu is a faithful spokesman for God.