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326. Job 32-37 Enter Elihu
Elihu is a cipher. Even though he is introduced with more fanfare and a greater number of family connections than any of the other participants, we don’t really know who he is. As one scholar has said, the names of his ancestors have both an “Arabian” (southeastern) and “Aramaean” (northeastern) flavor to them, which tells us a little more than nothing. We don’t know at first what his role is in the discussion. Is he inserted for comic relief, since some of his bloviating language at the end of Job 32 makes us smile? Or is he a serious participant in the discussion? If so, for whom is he speaking or what perspective does he represent? Maybe he is inserted to speak for God, as a sort of warm-up act, before the divine entrance in Job 38. A third approach is to see Elihu's material as later inserted into the original Job narrative with Elihu functioning as the first "interpreter" of the Job story.
Then, there are questions about the placement of his speeches. Some have argued that it is natural that the story goes directly from Job 31:40, where Job’s words end, into the divine speeches (Job 38-41). Anything else takes away from the drama that has been slowly building. Thus, Clines moves Elihu’s speeches from just before the divine entry to a point before Job’s peroration in Chapters 29-31. Yet, an equally powerful argument can be made for maintaining the current order of speeches. The friends have spoken; Job has finished speaking. The dust has not yet settled. We need a bit of an interlude, a break, before God appears. Some who make this argument assume that Elihu’s words are relatively insignificant, though I will argue the opposite below. I will maintain below both that the current placement of Elihu’s speeches makes most sense and we have an Elihu who speaks significant things.
Another issue has to do with the length of Elihu’s speeches. When you add up all the verses of Job 32-37, you realize that he speaks 50 more verses than the most loquacious of Job’s interlocutors, Eliphaz. Giving Elihu so much air time certainly can’t be just a way of buying time for God to clear the divine throat before speaking in Job 38. Something else is going on.
I would like to advance a tentative hypothesis here about the Elihu speeches, and then use the exposition below to test that hypothesis. It is that Elihu contributes further to the fourfold destabilization that is going on in the Book of Job that I spoke of in the introduction to this commentary. The two destabilizations mentioned there that haven’t received much attention so far are the upending/destabilization of the wisdom tradition and of faith itself.
My tentative thesis is that Elihu is important because he purports to speak as a representative of the wisdom tradition, but he undermines that tradition. He undermines it by long-winded rather than brief and terse statements but, even more, he upends it by suggesting that age and wisdom are unrelated concepts. Rather than a person’s age and experience being crucial for giving insight, insight which might lead to lapidary statements of eternal wisdom, it is the undefined “spirit” of a person which ought to be respected (32:8). It is the “breath” of the Almighty, rather than patient study, discipline, mastery of useful life principles, teaching these to the young and living faithfully in accordance with these principles that is paramount. That is a very destabilizing statement.
Even more important, I will argue in this section that Elihu gives Job additional tools to undermine faith, if he so chooses to go in that direction. Elihu no doubt doesn’t intend to do so, but I think Job’s “hearing” of Elihu, especially some of his comments in Job 36, combined with the growing independence of his mind as reflected in his confidence in a Redeemer of his life, provides Job all he needs to craft a different understanding of faith. The real drama of the Book of Job, then, will be to see how Job takes this new understanding and applies it to God’s forceful speeches of 38-41.
But first we need to hear Elihu and form our own judgment of what he is trying to do. Most agree that this section contains four consecutive speeches of Elihu, broken up by the words “Then Elihu continued and said” (34:1; 35:1; 36:1). Thus, the four Elihu speeches are Job 32-33; 34; 35; 36-37.