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337. Job 33:9-11, Job’s “Case,” According to Elihu
9 "‘I am pure, without transgression;
I am innocent and there is no guilt in me.
10 ‘Behold, He invents pretexts against me;
He counts me as His enemy.
11 ‘He puts my feet in the stocks;
He watches all my paths.’
Verses 9-11 give Elihu’s summary of Job’s case. Let’s go verse by verse, beginning with verse 9:
“Pure am I, and without sin; innocent am I, without iniquity in me."
Elihu gives us four terms or concepts to describe Job’s claims about himself. First, the words. “Pure” is zak (11x/4x Job/3x Proverbs). Then, the word for “sin” is the common word pesha (93x/10x Job). We have a hapax with the word translated “innocent” (chaph); biblical Hebrew usually uses naqiy (43x/6x Job) to express the concept. Finally, the word “iniquity” is the common avon (more than 230 appearances). Thus, Elihu mingles familiar and rather rare terminology to summarize Job’s self-description.
The words of 33:9 all deal with one area of life: personal purity or blamelessness. Elihu says that Job is claiming sinlessness or blamelessness. Some readers immediately jump on Elihu and say that his statement isn’t nuanced enough—Job, they say, never claimed complete sinlessness. All he claims is blamelessness in this instance or a disproportion between whatever his (minor) sins might have been and the disasters visited on him.
Yet there may not be such a huge leap between Job’s claim of his prayer being pure (zak, 16:17) and the notion of his heart’s being pure or his actions being pure. We know he has been described as tam and yashar, by no less than God; the meaning of these words is “blameless” or “upright.” To try to drive a wedge of meaning between the world of ‘purity’ words in Job and ‘uprightness’ words in Job may be a task that even eludes a skilled woodsman.
Zophar had also summarized Job’s words in 11:4. “For you say, my conduct is pure (zak) and I am clean (bar) in his sight.” So, Elihu isn’t the only one who has “heard” Job claiming purity. Bildad had used the term zak in parallelism with yashar in 8:6, when he says, “If you are pure (zak) and upright (yashar), surely he (God) would awake/wake up for you.” But it isn’t simply the friends in Job who use the word zak or connect it with yashar. Proverbs, that most orthodox statement of wisdom, could say (20:11):
“Even children make themselves known by their acts,
by whether what they do is pure (zak) and right (yashar).”
Thus, even though all the lines are not neatly drawn in Scripture, I would claim there isn’t much moral difference between the words zak, tam, yashar, and bar as used by the characters in Job. We even have the verb zakak, to be pure, that appears 4x in the Bible and 3x in Job (9:30; 15:15; 25:5); one might add tsedeq (“righteous”) to the mix.
Elihu says that Job claims he is without sin (pesha) and without iniquity (avon). Again, one would be hard-pressed to try to drive a wedge between these two terms, along with chata (both noun and verb, “to sin/sin”) and other terms for “iniquity, sin, transgression, unrighteousness.” Some might argue that Job has denied his sinlessness (i.e., he speaks of the sins of his youth in 13:26), but this misses the point. The point of the debate is not to measure the quantity of Job’s iniquity but the disproportion between his action and his suffering.
We are surprised and intrigued that Elihu introduces a hapax, chaph, also to describe Job’s innocence. Clines tells us that the verb chaphaph in later Arabic and other Semitic languages emphasizes washing or purity. Thus, we have Elihu’s summary of Job’s claims about his person. In an interesting sort of way, these four concepts or terms line up fairly neatly with the opening description of Job in 1:1. There he was (just using the dictionary entries of the words):
“tam, yashar, yare elohim, sur ra”. Here he is
“zak, lo pesha, chaph, lo avon.”
They map onto each other pretty neatly, giving us a healthy introduction to biblical language for sin and purity.
Elihu continues in verse 10 by describing what Job believes about God:
“Lo, he finds occasions against me; he considers me his enemy.”
Again, the language is succinct and to the point. The only rare word is tenuah, translated here “occasions” (the NASB has the word “pretexts”) but worthy of some reflection. It only appears one other time in the Bible (Numbers 14:34) where its best rendering is probably “displeasure” or “opposition” as it describes the divine feelings when Israel has second thoughts about attacking the land of Canaan. Tenuah is derived from the verb nu (8x), which usually means “to oppose” or “forbid” or “disallow” or “frustrate.” If we take seriously that Elihu is speaking in a parallel construction here, then the tenuah of the first part is to be rendered consistently with “consider as enemy” in the second part. So, God is doing something through tenuah, such as seeking pretexts, or finding occasions, or expressing displeasure or even directly opposing Job.
Though we have a hard time coming up with a precise meaning for tenuah, it may be a surprisingly useful word to capture Job’s feelings of what God has done to him. Tenuah might be a good one-word description of Job’s complaint in 7:17-19, where Job has asked God to give him some breathing space so he might swallow his spittle. God has, for some inexplicable reason, sought to destroy Job’s life.
The second half of the verse has direct parallels in Job’s earlier words. Elihu has just said, “he considers me his enemy.” Recall that Job had said:
“He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me
he has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes against me,” (16:9).
In this verse Job calls God his “adversary” (tsar). He renews that language in Job 19:11, where he now says God considers Job as the divine adversary:
“He has kindled his wrath against me, and considers me his adversary."
The last phrase is almost identical to Elihu’s phrase in 33:10. The verb chashab (“consider/reckon”) appears both places. God considers Job either an adversary (tsar) or an enemy (oyeb). Tsar and oyeb are synonyms.
Verse 11 is likewise laconic. “He places my feet in the stocks; he guards all my paths.” If we just had the second half of the verse alone, we could render the common verb shamar as “guard” or “preserve” or “keep” and have the uncontroversial notion that God watches over the paths of a person. This would place God in a favorable light, doing the thing that God is most skilled at doing. Indeed, that thought is consistent with the wisdom tradition, as the word used here for “path” (orach, 59x) appears 19x in Proverbs. The goal of life, according to the wisdom tradition, is to keep to the path of life.
But the first half of 33:11 blows that hypothesis out of the water, because we see that God puts Job’s feet in the stocks. It is a riveting (not to mention confining) image, made more powerful because it actually quotes Job’s words in 13:27. There Job had said, using the identical three words,
“You place my feet in the stocks.”
Come to think of it, Job 13:27 also goes on to say what Elihu repeats in 33:11, “And you watch closely (shamar) all my ways.” But this isn’t the preserving or watching of a benevolent creator, making sure that no harm befalls the faithful person. This is the watching of a deity who has been torturing his beloved servant through constraints, injuries, and weakness. This is the watching of a deity that won’t take his eyes away from Job so that he can even enjoy one moment of freedom or relief. It is a relentless attack upon Job’s very existence.
In my judgment, Elihu has more than adequately summarized Job’s mental state (purity/righteousness); Job’s belief about what has happened (God treats him as an enemy) and God’s action against him (constricting his freedom). Whereas my general point is that Elihu believes Job is claiming sinlessness while Job only is talking about disproportion, we see that Elihu has taken more care than the others in summarizing Job’s case. We begin to think that Elihu really might have something to say.