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338. Job 33:12-18, God Speaks Through Dreams
12 “Behold, let me tell you, you are not right in this,
For God is greater than man.
13 Why do you complain against Him
That He does not give an account of all His doings?
14 Indeed God speaks once,
Or twice, yet no one notices it.
15 In a dream, a vision of the night,
When sound sleep falls on men,
While they slumber in their beds,
16 Then He opens the ears of men,
And seals their instruction,
17 That He may turn man aside from his conduct,
And keep man from pride;
18 He keeps back his soul from the pit,
And his life from passing over into Sheol.
Elihu has just made a fair summary of Job’s case. Job says that he is pure; that God treats him as an enemy; that God looks for occasions to make Job’s life miserable. Very fine summary. In the rest of the chapter Elihu will respond to these allegations, but will do so in a novel way. His point will be that what God is really doing in a person’s life, through the two means of visions/dreams and subjecting them to bodily affliction, is to communicate with them, to get their attention. This is a rather bold attempt by Elihu to reframe Job’s complaint, taking it out of the realm of rancor and conflict into the realm of instruction and discipline. Let’s hear how he does it.
Elihu begins by expressing his disagreement with Job, but he does so in a way that may lead to potential knowledge rather than constrained conflict. Elihu says in verse 12,
“Lo, you aren’t right in this—that is how I answer you—because God is greater than humans."
One danger experienced by those who suffer is the tendency to see all life telescoped into their suffering or interpreted by their suffering. It is as if the sufferer enters or falls into a pit and cannot see out of the pit except directly above his/her head. One may see the sky, but that is all. Everything else is darkness, dank mud, uncomfortable surroundings. One’s interpretations of life, therefore, are likewise limited. That is really the nub of what Elihu is saying here. By speaking as he has, Job has missed a crucial factor in all of this—that God is greater than humans. God is a power and interpretive source that far exceeds that of mortals. The implication of Elihu’s statement is that Job has been treating God just like another one of his friends, complaining against God, demanding answers on Job’s timetable, becoming impatient just like one might act towards a friend.
Elihu suggests this is the heart of Job’s problem, and why he isn’t “right” (the common tsedeq). Job has seemingly forgotten who God is. God is far greater (and the implication is also that God is far more able to help) Job than Job can imagine. We don’t know where this argument is going, but we can see that Elihu, at least at this point, seems to want to enlarge Job’s perspectives. I can almost hear the echo of Psalm 119:32 behind Elihu’s words, “I will run in the way of your commandments when you make my heart large” (rachab; the verb for “to be greater” in Job 33:12 is the similar rabah).
Verse 13 can be taken in two ways. I will read it according to the Masoretic text, while the other reading suggest a slight emendation that changes the meaning. First, my reading:
“Why do you strive against him? For he will not answer any of his ways.”
This reading does two things. First it characterizes Job’s approach to God as a “strife” (the common verb rib). Job may disagree with Elihu. In 19:7 he plaintively says that he cries out, rather than fights or strives, without receiving any answer (anah, same verb as here in v 13). Yet, the overall tone of Job’s words is of contention rather than quietly or faithfully crying out. Even in Job 23, where Job also laments God’s silence when he cries, he quickly adopts the language of the courtroom, “I would arrange my cause before him” (23:4, using the verb for drawing up a legal case—arak— and the noun for such a case—mishpat). Elihu’s selection of the verb “to strive” (rib, 67x/8x Job) just mirrors Job’s frequent use of the verb rib to describe what he is doing. Job speaks of disputing with God (9:3), of how his friends contend with him (10:2); of his doubts that any will contend with him (13:19); of his confidence that, in the end, God wouldn’t contend with him (23:6). Elihu’s question in verse 13a, then, is well-spoken.
The second half of the verse suggests that God really ought not to be treated like Job is treating God. That is, God isn’t under the same constraints as humans are in a lawsuit. Humans have to answer when a complaint is filed. God doesn’t have to give an account of the divine ways. Yet the language still is a bit confusing. It literally says “Because all his words he will not answer.” To answer (respond) and to answer for (take responsibility for) are different concepts. Thus, some have suggested, keeping the language as is, that the “his words” reflects human words—God won’t give an answer to the words thrown his way by humans. I think the traditional suggestion that God isn’t accountable to humans through an answer for any of the divine deeds is the better solution.
Many scholars aren’t content with these readings and suggest an emendation/correction of the text to read, “He answers none of my ways.” The slight change in Hebrew would suggest a thought consistent with Job’s words throughout the book—that God simply is silent. The point isn’t a major one, but it continually reminds us that what we are dealing with is a most difficult text!