Bill Long 5/25/05
Returning to Safer Ground
My thesis regarding Eliphaz's first speech is that by 5:7 he has backed himself into a corner or, to change the metaphor, dug himself into a deep hole. Perhaps, as I argued earlier, his emotions got the better of him. However, his emphasis on people being crushed, his use of ambiguous terminology, and his uncertainty regarding whether he thinks that great distress is just part of the human condition or is brought about by sin (culminating in 5:7), show that he is skating on very thin intellectual ground in 4:7-5:7.
Job will interpret Eliphaz's speech to him as an expression of fear (6:21), and I think Job is probably correct. In any case, the remainder of Eliphaz's speech (5:8-27) retreats from the uncertainties of 4:7-5:7 and takes us to the nice rhythmic simplicity of divine control in the world. That is, I think what has happened is that Eliphaz temporarily looked into the interpretive enigma caused by great loss and then had to retreat to the safe ground of wisdom theology. Looking into the cavernous reality of loss and its attendant emotions was an experience too vertiginous for him. He drew back from it and sought safer and firmer ground.
Job 5:8-16 is the means by which Eliphaz "drew back" from the uncertain world he created for himself in 4:7-5:7. In 5:8-16 Eliphaz celebrates two common biblical traits of God: God's salvation of the lowly (8-11) and his bringing low the lofty and crafty (12-16). This and the next mini-essays will consider the former trait and the way Eliphaz expresses it.
Interesting to me are the abruptness of the transition, the emphatic reference to the first person and the centrality of the sound "el" in 5:8. The first word of the verse (ulam) appears 19 times in the Bible, with 10 of them being in Job. It expresses a very strong adversative, a sort of "on the contrary," or "nevertheless." One of the other appearances of ulam in Job is particularly appealing to me. In Job 14, Job goes on an incredible mental journey of hopelessness and hope. He realizes, and nature teaches him, that trees and bushes and other things come back to life after they seasonally die but, unfortunately, humans do not. Humans die, and where are they? Letting this reality sink in, Job then conducts a thought experiment in 14:13-17, where he imagines God tucking him away in Sheol for a time until God gets over his anger. Then, as Job further imagines, God and he would have a time of renewed covenantal intimacy. The vision of that reality is so powerful for Job that the reader can almost taste it. Then, Job returns to his "senses" in 14:18 and realizes that this will simply not happen. Nature might teach that trees and bushes can come back to life; but humans are a different "animal." Humans don't come back to life. God destroys human hope (14:19). The word used to bring Job back to his present reality in 14:18, to express the strong contrast between his hope in 14:13-17 and the stark reality of his pain in 14:18-22 is ulam. "But surely the mountain falls...." Therefore, when Eliphaz uses the word ulam in 5:8, we can expect an abrupt shift in thought.
Use of "I" and "el" in 5:8
How does Eliphaz shift thought? By using the first person singular. He has used this form previously, for example, where he says "I have seen" that the sowers of evil reap evil rewards (4:8). But here he not only uses two verbs in the first person singular ("I would seek" and "I would place (make, direct)" but he makes use of the emphatic personal pronoun ani ("I myself"). A very expanded translation of these few words is, 'Well, as for me, Job, if you ask me, I would do the following. Yep, I, Eliphaz, the expert in wisdom, would seek God and direct my prayer to God. Yep, that is exactly what I would do.' Eliphaz is pulling himself back from Job's situation by focusing on himself and what he would do. Job really has not asked Eliphaz what he would do in a like situation, but Eliphaz is not reluctant to share his advice. He would seek God. A parallel verse from Isaiah puts more substance on this process of seeking:
"Seek (d-r-sh; same root as in Job 5:8) the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return tot he Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Is. 55:6-7).
Eliphaz urges Job to pursue the kind of pious life for which he was known (1:1). Job listens to Eliphaz, and will seek God's explanation, beginning in 7:11. I think, however, that Job will seek God in a way that Eliphaz didn't imagine.
Then, we must also recognize that another means by which Eliphaz makes a transition from the disastrous 4:7-5:7 and 5:8 is his clever use of the sound el. In Hebrew el is God, the God of all the world. But, the preposition "to" or "unto" is also spelled el, even though there is a slight difference in pronunciation between the two "e" sounds. Nevertheless, after Elihpaz says, in the first three Hebrew words, "nevertheless I myself would seek," he uses several words that are all "els." That is, the Hebrew of the next few words runs as follows:
"el el va el elohim." Translated it is, "unto El, and unto El"
The Hebrew really is very striking. By using four consecutive sounds, each of which suggests the reality of God, Eliphaz is trying to shift Job's focus to God.
Thus, I think that Eliphaz has made quite a powerful transition in 5:8. He will try to get Job's attention off of himself and direct it to what Eliphaz would do. What would Eliphaz do? God..God..God..God. It is now all God. Great spiritual advice. But, when you consider that it may have been engendered by his own fear, it makes you wonder to what extent spirituality is often a cover for our unspoken or unexplored fears.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long