Bill Long 5/10/05
Once Eliphaz has laid out his basic theological principle in 4:8, and has implicitly criticized Job through the ambiguity of his language in 4:1-11, Eliphaz turns to a dramatic vision he experienced. The vision is almost unparalleled in the Old Testament for its eerieness and immediacy, and is most unexpected because of what Eliphaz claims to be: a teacher of the wisdom tradition. This and the next essay will attempt to do three things: to speak about divine theophanies by briefly examining Rudolf Otto's category of the mysterium tremendum; to examine the language Elihpaz uses to describe his own experience of the unidentified spirit which visited him; and to unpack the dense phrasing of 4:16.
The Idea of a Theophany
The classic treatment in the history of religions of the power unleashed by the revelation of the "Holy" is the 1917 book, "The Idea of the Holy" (Das Heilige) by German philosopher Rudolf Otto. In the first few pages of his book he presents his interest: to describe the ineffable but widely attested belief in world religions of a "numinous" experience of God. This experience he is speaking about is the "holy" minus its rational and ethical components. It is the naked, awe-inspiring, dread-inducing presence of a power that overwhelms the religious devotee and inspires a feeling of humility and unworthiness.
The paradigmatic biblical example of this numinous feeling, or what Otto calls the experience of the mysterium tremendum, is Is. 6:1-9. Isaiah "saw the Lord" high and exalted above the cherubim in the temple. He was overcome by this vision and felt unclean, calling out that he was a man of unclean lips, dwelling among unclean people. A cherubim took a burning coal from the altar, touched his tongue and bade him preach. Otto will also emphasize that this experience of the mysterium tremendum is not only fear-inducing. It may be comforting, sweeping like a gentle tide over the soul, inspiring the devotee to religious commitment as well. A more detailed treatment of Otto's work may be found here.
It might seem strange at first that Eliphaz had some kind of vision of the holy at all. After all, what we expected from the first encounter with the friends as well as from 4:1-11 was to find a person/people steeped in the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel or of the Ancient Near East. Such a tradition was rational, practical and non-revelatory. What I mean by that is that the wisdom tradition was distilled experience; it consisted of aphoristic observations about life culled from the long experience of living and boiled down so that the "proverbs" are easily learned and mastered. The quintessential wisdom instructor has no need for a "Thus saith the Lord" (Indeed, I do not believe that this phrase occurs at all in the Book of Proverbs), not because he doesn't believe in divine revelation but because his mode of truth-communication is through nuggets of wisdom gleaned from experience and observation of the world. It is the glory of kings to search things out (Prov.25:1); and the wisdom teacher is ever at the ready to help the king learn what the results of that search should be.
Thus it is surprising to me that Eliphaz will appeal to the authority of a vision he experienced as he talks with Job. He speaks earlier about what he has seen (4:8), and he will close his speech by emphasizing that the tradition has searched out all these things and knows them to be true (5:27), but in 4:12-16 he speaks of an encounter with an unnamed force which reveals something true about the world to him. No doubt, this force is meant to be God, the God whom Eliphaz and the friends worship, though he never comes out and directly says that he "saw" or "heard" God. Yet this experience will be rich not only for Eliphaz but also for Elihu when he enters the picture (Job 32-38). When Elihu tries to give Job insight into the nature of his sufferings and the way that God communicates to him in suffering, he quotes 4:14 almost verbatim in 33:15. Elihu will say that speaking to humans through a night vision is the first way God communicates to mortals--surely he is thinking of Eliphaz's moving recitation of that experience in this passage.
But Eliphaz's vision here is unusual not only because the wisdom tradition does not emphasize the vision of God, but because it stresses what we might call the "interior" dimension of theophany. When God reveals Himself throughout the Bible, it is usually with many powerful external indicia of his presence: mountains quake, thunder claps, lightning pierces the cloudy skies. An indication of a divine theophany as recorded in the prophetic tradition appears in Nahum 1.
"His way is in the whirlwind and storm, and th ecoulds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry ...The mountains quake befoer him and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it" (Nah.1:3-5).
Here, however, Eliphaz only presents the interior feelings of the theophany. The next essay will present some of the language of Eliphaz's theophany, with special emphasis on the culminating words in verse 16.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long