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329. Job 32:7-10, A New Theory of Knowledge 


After the absolutely loaded verse 6, Elihu settles down in verse 7 by just repeating what had been said:


   “I said, ‘Age/days should speak and a multitude of years shall make wisdom known.”


It is good to have this little mental break after the fascinating opening words of 32:6. Elihu is stating one of the central beliefs of the wisdom tradition: the old are the carriers of wisdom.


But then, his tone changes in verses 8-10, and he advances a contrary or at least “revised” theory of wisdom. Wisdom doesn’t reside in the aged, but in the person who has the “spirit” in him, the “breath of the Almighty.” Note that verse 8 begins with one of the most powerful particles in biblical Hebrew: aken, “Surely. . .”  Aken appears 18x in the Bible but never more memorably than its first appearance in Genesis 28:16. There Jacob used it after a night’s sleep when he had the most fantastic dream of seeing a ladder extending to heaven and angels climbing up and down on the ladder. His words were:


    “Surely (aken) the Lord was in this place and I didn’t know it!”


Elihu is stating his “new” understanding with clarity and force. “Surely!” he says. Most versions reduce the aken to a mere “but.” Yet this is the “Eureka!” of Archimedes, the sudden realization of truth dawning on a person, a truth that is so life-changing that the world won’t be the same after it is shared with the world. Elihu’s new understanding may sound tepid or uncontroversial, but it really shakes the wisdom tradition to its foundations.

When he says that it is the spirit in a person, the breadth of the Almighty, that “gives understanding” (the common wisdom tradition verb bin, “to understand/give understanding”), he is uttering a Copernican principle of transformation of that tradition. Rather than the “earth" being at the center of the wisdom tradition (i.e., human experience and age) it is the “sun” (a person’s spirit or breath from the Almighty). This destabilizes the tradition because it suggests that the key to understanding a dilemma before one may reside in the youngest and most unprepossessing person standing before you.

Lest we lose the point, Elihu repeats himself, in slightly ambiguous language, in verse 9:


    “It is not the great (rab) that have wisdom (the common chakam); nor 

    do the aged (zaqen) discern (bin again) judgment (the common mishpat).”


The ambiguity rests with the noun rab. It normally is translated “great” but that might be unclear here, so most versions and individual commentators have rendered it in parallel construction with 9b, “It is not only the old (rab) who are wise. . .”


Elihu, who has just upended the central principle of the wisdom tradition by suggesting that it is the spirit/breath in a person, rather than age, that may be the surest sign of wisdom, now quickly retreats to common wisdom tradition language once the damage has been done. Yet his repetition of common wisdom language is now in service to his new theory. The people who formerly were most respected were the “great” (rab) because they had wisdom (chakam). But the elders (zaqen, also used in 32:4 and, on Job’s lips, in 12:20) didn’t discern (bin, the very thing they were supposed to do) mishpat, judgment or justice (the favorite word of Job to describe his case, 13:18, but also used by Job to describe the justice that he brought—29:14). All the precious wisdom concepts that are captured in chakam, zaqen, mishpat, bin are now not of primary importance. “Spirit” is.


While the audience is no doubt shocked and silent, perhaps reacting to Elihu the way he said he had responded to them when they were speaking, Elihu utters his last words of introduction in verse 10:


    “Thus, I say, ‘Listen to me. I will declare my knowledge. Certainly I.”


I gave a literal rendering of verse 10 because of the central importance of “I.” Five of the nine words in this verse have some reference to “I.” 


  1. “I” will speak; 

  2. Listen “to me”; 

  3. “I” will declare (the rare chavah, which is, except for one appearance in Psalm 19, also a uniquely Joban word, being spoken just by Elihu—5x—and Eliphaz—once); 

  4. “my” knowledge; and 

  5. “even/also/certainly I.” 

The last two words (“even I”) are unnecessary to establish meaning, but they establishe the new kind of authority that Elihu claims to bring to this encounter. No longer will age and hoary heads be deferred to. It is the spirit of a person and the breath of the Almighty that is paramount. Elihu claims to have it, by using “I” five times in very 10. And, most interesting, he claims to have it as a result of only five verses (32:6-10) where he used at least three words that were almost unique to him or to the Book of Job (yashish, dea, chavah).  He will be the possessor and speaker of unique knowledge, knowledge that is given to his Spirit, knowledge that may upend the wisdom tradition, knowledge that can be spoken in a new language. In the words of the highly-regarded Protestant theologian of the last generation, Robert McAfee Brown  (1920-2005), this is "theology in a new key."  


How anyone could suppose that Elihu is simply a buffoon or an upstart youngster who now wants to speak is beyond me. He is laying the groundwork for a potentially new theory of knowledge.   

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