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328. Job 32:6-10, Elihu Speaks:  Caution at First, Then Throwing Off Restraints

 

6 So Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite spoke out and said,

“I am young in years and you are old;

Therefore I was shy and afraid to tell you what I think.

7 I thought age should speak,

And increased years should teach wisdom.

8 “But it is a spirit in man,

And the breath of the Almighty gives them understanding.

9 “The abundant in years may not be wise,

Nor may elders understand justice.

10 “So I say, ‘Listen to me,

I too will tell what I think.’

 

Elihu waited (v 3; the unexpected word chakah, 14x; one might have expected qavah or  yachal) but didn’t hear convincing words from the mouths of the three friends. He waited, but only heard words of self-justification from Job. He waited because these speakers were old and therefore, according to the wisdom tradition, more likely to possess wisdom. But as he waited his anger grew until finally, in this and the next passage, it explodes in his own words.

 

This passage, thankfully, contains few mysteries and few linguistic difficulties. Instead, we listen to Elihu for the first time and thus are interested to “hear” the way he frames his words. Everyone has his/her own idiolect, the way of using the words at their disposal. Elihu is of interest to us not simply because he is a new character, speaking his own language, but also because we are anxious to see how he “locates” himself in the roiling debate before him.

 

The younger the person, the longer the title. We now are presented the “answer” (the common anah) of “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite.”  Certainly “Barachel” and “Buzite” meant something to someone at some time, but that time is not today. He speaks in a seemingly self-effacing way:

 

    “Least/young/small I am in days, but you are old. Therefore, I shrunk back and was afraid to 

    declare my knowledge to you.”

 

We begin with tsair (“young”, 22x), a word completely absent from the rest of the wisdom tradition, though used once previously in Job (30:1). The word is usually used in a relational context to describe the younger or youngest of a group of people, and that meaning fits here. In its most frequent group of appearances (Genesis, 8x) it is used to describe a younger/the youngest sibling in a family.  Elihu is “younger/est” in days among the participants.

 

His addressees are “old” (the Joban word yashish, 4x). Yashish is particularly telling and appropriate here because two of its other three appearances are specifically related to wisdom (12:12) or the relation of young and old (29:8). In 12:12 Job asks a rhetorical question, “Is wisdom with the aged” (yashish)? The assumed answer is, “Yes.” But, when Elihu uses yashish in 32:6 it will be to prepare for his statement that wisdom is not with the aged. Also, when Job appeared in town to sit as a judge in Job 29, the young men withdrew and the old men (yashish) stood in silence (29:8). Now, in Job 32, a slightly different idea is expressed. Elihu had shrunk back but the old men spoke. A reversal of basic principles of the wisdom tradition is in progress. So, the seemingly innocent use of terminology to describe the participants may itself be laced with deeper levels of meaning. 


As a result of the age disparity between himself and the interlocutors, Elihu at first “shrunk back” (zachal, 3x). We so wish we had more appearances of this verb, but it elsewhere appears only in the poetry of Deuteronomy 32:24 and Micah 7:17. In both of those instance it is connected with reptiles and their crawling. Deuteronomy 32:24 speaks of “the venom of crawling things (zachal) of the dust” while Micah talks of the result of judgment on the nations. These judged nations shall “lick the dust like a snake, like the crawling things (zachal) of the earth.”  

 

Now the picture of Job 32:6b is brilliantly clear. Elihu had retreated from the debate like a snake slithering away in the dust, unobtrusive and silent. This kind of picture is much superior to the run-of-the-mill English translation of this part of 32:6:  “I was shy” or “I was timid” or, ignoring the verb zachal and simply going to the next verb in 32:6 (“to fear”), “I was afraid. . .” Elihu, though, is not simply afraid. He was slithering around in the dust, not necessarily defeated like an enemy but simply trying to evade detection while the big guys debate.    

 

Interestingly, we have another reference to slithering around or crawling like a snake in the Greek verb ἑρπύζω, which is functionally identical to ἕρπω, from which we get words like herpes or herpetology. Athena, in her disguise, used that word to describe the crawling motions of Odysseus’ aged father Laertes who, in his grief at the apparent loss of his son, had retreated to his country estate. But, in his condition he couldn’t really tend the fields very well, and so he “creeps/crawls” up the hills of the property. Elihu shrunk back, slithering and silent, because he was overawed by the presence of the elders; Laertes, in contrast, creeps along the lonely hills of his estate because he is broken in mind and body (Odyssey 1.193).  The triad of zachal (Hebrew), ἑρπύζω (Greek) and serpo (Latin) captures these slithering, creeping and crawling motions.

 

Thus, we see in his first 12 words not only that Elihu is no dummy but that he can carefully select words of theological or visual significance to get his ideas across. This ought to be a signal to readers of Job that Elihu will be a person of substance; the school of thought that laughs him off as a buffoon or bloviating narcissist hasn’t listened closely to his opening words.

 

Elihu concludes his first twelve words in 32:6 by saying that he was, literally, “afraid to declare my knowledge with you.” We understand the fear, but the phrase “to declare my knowledge” is intriguing. He repeats this phrase twice more (32:10, 17), where it is translated by the NRSV and many versions as “declare/tell my opinion.” But it really isn’t his “opinion” that Elihu wants to speak. It is his dea, a Joban word (5x) that only appears on Elihu’s lips and always points to a kind of special knowledge possessed by Elihu. In 36:3, for example, he talks about how he “fetched my knowledge (dea) from afar.” The noun is obviously derived from the common verb yada, “to know.” Elihu not only has his own language, as all of us do, but his own knowledge, and he will bring it to bear in speaking to the group.

 

Before moving on, we should reflect on the fact that Eliphaz’s first 12 words in 32:6 constitute the most impressive verbal debut of the friends in the Book of Job. Eliphaz may have demonstrated a spirit of firm gentleness in 4:2-3; Bildad a spirit of intolerance and challenge in 8:2-3; and Zophar a spirit of impatience in 11:2-3, but none of them really can match Elihu’s humility (young/shrinking back) and confidence in knowledge (declare my knowledge) in 32:6. Finally, in verse 6, Elihu also uses a rare term for “declare/tell” (chavah, 6x). Except for an appearance in Ps 19:2, where “night to night reveals (chavah) knowledge,” the word is also only a Joban word, with all of their usages either in Elihu’s (4x) or Bildad’s (1x) mouth. Thus, Elihu is almost crafting a unique vocabulary to declare his knowledge.