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343. Job 33:23-25, The Interpreter and the Promise of Restoration from the Bed of Pain

 

23 “If there is an angel as mediator for him,
One out of a thousand,
To remind a man what is right for him,
24 Then let him be gracious to him, and say,
‘Deliver him from going down to the pit,
I have found a ransom’;
25 Let his flesh become fresher than in youth,
Let him return to the days of his youthful vigor;

 

Elihu doesn’t believe that the sufferer will remain interminably in the condition of suffering.  Rather, he thinks that God will, through the suffering, speak to and then restore the person to health. But his way of framing that ultimate restoration to health is so imaginative and thoughtful that it gives us pause. Again, not every phrase is crystal clear, but the restoration envisioned seems to consist of two steps:  a) the intervention of an angel or interpreter (vv 23-25), and b) the prayer of the afflicted (vv 26-28).

 

The movement of verses 19-22, if that is the right word, was downward, from the bed to the  pit. Yet, the sufferer only “draws near” (qereb, v 22) to the pit. In that condition something profound happens. Literally, we have in verses 23-24:

 

    “If there is an angel for him, an interpreter, one of a thousand, to declare his uprightness to a 

     man, then he shows him mercy and says, ‘Deliver him from descending to the pit.'  I have found

     a ransom!”

 

First, some interpretive problems. 1) Who is this angel or interpreter that suddenly appears in Elihu's words? 2) The verses begin with an “if”-clause; does that mean that the appearance of this angelic interpreter is conditioned on something else, such as God’s mercy, the attitude of the sufferer, the busyness of the angelic interpreter’s schedule, etc?  3) Who is the “his” of “his uprightness” in the first verse?  Is it the work of the interpreter/angel to declare God’s uprightness or show the human his/her own (i.e. human) uprightness?  If it is the latter, is it pointing to good works in the past or those expected in the future? 4)  To whom does the interpreter speak in the second verse when he says, “Deliver..”   5)  Who says the last words?  If it is the sufferer, then s/he is proleptically announcing his/her restoration. If it is the interpreter, it is as if the interpreter has seen a way for the deliverance actually to happen.

 

There may be no satisfactory answer to most of these questions. The most interesting one, for me, is the first. Just as Job posited a mediator in 16:19 (the witness in heaven) and 19:25 (the Redeemer of his life), so Elihu now talks about some kind of third force in the suffering equation. It isn’t just God and the sufferer, with the former inflicting the suffering and the latter experiencing it. Now there is a third something, a malak (the common term for messenger or angel), who is also called a melits (from the verb luts, 27x). Two-thirds of the appearances of the verb luts are in Proverbs; in Proverbs the word is uniquely translated “scorner.” The luts is someone who derides, scorns or mocks others. With Job sharing the mental world of the wisdom tradition, with Proverbs as the leading exemplar of that tradition, we wonder for a moment if “scorn/scorner” might be appropriate in the Joban context.

 

This Proverbs usage is also the way the word is used in its two appearances in the Psalms (1:1; 119:51). Yet, the term also appears in a completely different sense, leading some scholars to suggest that it is a different word from luts, in II Chronicles 32:31; Genesis 42:23; Isaiah 43:27 and, probably, Job 16:20. In all of those contexts it simply refers to a middleman or mediator, an ambassador or, sometimes, an interpreter. The Genesis 42:23 appearance is most instructive. There we have Joseph’s brothers speaking freely in Joseph’s presence (they don’t yet know it is Joseph) in their native language, confident that Joseph won’t understand them because, previously, Joseph had spoken to them through an interpreter (melits). 

 

Elihu is thinking of this kind of angelic character when he speaks in 33:23. The fact that he introduces the word that Job used in 16:20, the verse after Job introduces his idea of a witness, is significant.  It is almost as if Elihu is adopting not only Job’s terminology but also his mental universe from 16:19-20. Job had talked about a witness in heaven primarily because he was thinking about his legal case and assembling a legal team (the witness in heaven was crucial in this regard); Elihu, however, is concerned with the divine self-communication to Job. To oversimplify matters a bit: for Job it was all about presenting and winning a legal case; for Elihu it is all about restoring a broken relationship.  

 

Job’s thoughts have deeply worked their way into Elihu’s psyche, but now Elihu gives the slightest twist to them. Whereas I argued that Job envisioned a heavenly witness that would stand for Job and against God, Elihu speaks of the mediator who no doubt is doing God’s bidding. Thus, Elihu subtly may be trying to erode some of the most radical aspects of Job’s argument in favor of a more traditional belief structure, though without directly telling Job he is wrong or misguided.  

 

We don’t know anything more about Elihu’s mediator or interpreter, other than it is “one of a thousand.” The phrase is arresting, but the probable meaning is that this interpreter is a rare one, one that has a kind of special divine mission to speak to sufferers on their beds. But the work of this interpreter is to “declare to a man his uprightness.” Does this mean the “uprightness” of God, as if the interpreter is simply a declarer of the divine actions? Or, is the interpreter declaring what is expected by God of a human? Both are inviting possibilities, but the latter seems more reasonable, given that the emphasis here is on the sufferer and his/her restoration.

 

We don’t know who is speaking in verse 24, but it is reasonable to believe the interpreter keeps declaring things. And, if we connect this verse to Job 16:19-20, we see that Elihu is offering a different interpretation of the interpreter’s task. The result is the same—a person restored and delivered, but the means is different. Elihu is not the lawyer; Job is acting like a lawyer as he fashions his case. Indeed, later Elihu will criticize Job by saying, “But you are obsessed with the case of the wicked; judgment and justice seize you” (36:17). Elihu isn’t obsessed with a legal case, but he is interested in the restoration of a sick person.   

 

That, indeed, may be one of the crucial contributions of Elihu to Job’s thought. Rather than looking at Job’s situation as requiring a legal solution, Elihu thinks Job ought to look at it as a spiritual problem. But as many an attorney could tell you, sometimes a client is so dug into their case that it becomes like another child. They love it, nurture it, massage it, hope in it. The case becomes the defining feature of the person’s life. 

 

The mediator commands that the sufferer be delivered from descending to the pit. The verb for “deliver” is a hapax pada, but it is obviously related to the main verb for “deliver/redeem,” padah. But then, either the mediator/interpreter or sufferer says says ‘I have found a ransom!’ I think it makes most sense if the interpreter keeps talking, since the next verse, also continues his thought. He has joy in finding a ransom, a deliverance, a restoration for the sufferer. This then must be read as an anticipatory joy, for the sufferer has not yet prayed for deliverance (vv 26-28).

 

The result of this process is envisioned in verse 25. Though the first word is a hapax, with no related Hebrew term, the meaning is fairly clear because of the parallel construction and the clarity of the second part. That second part is, “He shall return to the days of his youth” (alum, 4x/2x Job). This helps in understanding the first word: rutaphash, a verbal cipher. The old BDB dictionary posited a transposition of letters in the word, suggesting that it derived from another verb tarphash, which itself might be derived from another word, taphash that means something about getting fat, even though the BDB rendered it as “to grow fresh.” Various suggestions have come forth, but I will punt and just say that it looks like a verse that expresses parallel concepts. Thus, the rutaphash has to relate in some way to the restoration of the sufferer’s flesh. I could go with, “His flesh shall be fresher than a child’s. . .”