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348. Job 34:1-9, Characterization and Condemnation of Job’s Words
1 Then Elihu continued and said,
2 “Hear my words, you wise men,
And listen to me, you who know.
3 For the ear tests words
As the palate tastes food.
4 Let us choose for ourselves what is right;
Let us know among ourselves what is good.
5 For Job has said, ‘I am righteous,
But God has taken away my right;
6 Should I lie concerning my right?
My wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’
7 What man is like Job,
Who drinks up derision like water,
8 Who goes in company with the workers of iniquity,
And walks with wicked men?
9 For he has said, ‘It profits a man nothing
When he is pleased with God.’
We might profitably divide this chapter more specifically as follows:
Job 34:1-9, Characterization and Condemnation of Job’s Words
Job 34:10-15, God Won’t Act Wickedly
Job 34:16-28, Addressing Job: It’s Inconceivable That God Could Be Unjust
[*Job 34:29-37, Job Speaks Without Knowledge.
* Several of the verses are obscure in this section and a proper division is difficult.]
Job 34 begins with two common verbs: anah, amar. “And Elihu answered and said” (v 1). It is a sign that a a new speech is beginning. Job 35 will begin almost identically. Job 36 begins with “Elihu added to it and said.” These introductions mark the beginning of Elihu’s last three speeches—34; 35; 36-37.
We might further divide the first nine verses of Job 34 into the introductory words of verses 1-4; Elihu’s summary of Job’s case in verses 5-6; and Elihu’s unexpectedly harsh evaluation of Job in verses 7-9.
Elihu begins by addressing the “wise men” (chakam) and “those who have knowledge” (yada). Most scholars assume he is only addressing the three friends at this point, but a wider audience may also be in view. Like Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where each term moves us into broader categories of people, so Elihu’s use of chakam and yada might also point to broader circles of people. He uses the common pairing of verbs, “hear” (shama) and “give ear” (azan), a pairing we have just seen him use in 33:1 when addressing Job. In fact, the verb shama has occurred three times in the previous five verses (33:31, 33; 34:2). In 33:31, 33 Elihu was addressing Job, asking him to “hear” (shama) and “keep silence” (charash); now he wants the wise and those with knowledge to listen.
Before going into what he wants them to hear, he utters a proverb in verse 3 which Job had previously used in 12:11,
“Because/for the ear tries/tests (bachan) words; and the palate tastes (taam) food.”
Job used the proverbial statement to drive home the point that “the hand of the Lord has done this” (12:9; i.e., brought him distress). He uses it to affirm the capability of the human senses not just to perceive objects but to understand the meaning of things. Elihu has, in Job 32-33, already shown his willingness to use Eliphaz’s method of gentle approach and his actual experience of a vision or dream (4:12-16) to shape his speech; now he is drawing upon Job’s earlier words. But this isn’t just quotation of earlier material such as one sees in Greek epic literature, where whole lines become used repeatedly to describe similar events at different times (e.g., how eagerly people dig into a banquet; how one character urges another to listen carefully, etc). Here Elihu uses selective quotation from earlier speakers to reinforce his argument. His ear tests words; his palate tastes food. He is the one who can discern right from wrong, faithfulness from infidelity.
Verse 4 appears to have a straightforward meaning, consistent with verse 3, but is more subtle than at first glance:
“Let us choose what is right (mishpat) for ourselves; let us know the good in our own eyes."
He isn’t arguing for moral relativism in this verse; he simply is reasserting the point from verse 3—we “wise ones” have the capacity to weigh arguments and come to conclusions about actions. He, then, is the right one to be passing judgment on Job’s claims. Seen from this perspective, verse 4 is a great lead-in to his summary of Job’s case in verses 5-6.
Yet there is a certain subtlety to the words. When he says, “Let us choose” (bachar), he uses a word that sounds similar to the bachan (test/try) of the previous verse. Bachar/bachan; though he will be evaluating arguments, we as readers are reminded that meaning may also reside in the sounds and rhymes.
But more to the point is his use of mishpat (translated here as “what is right”). Mishpat is among the most common nouns in the Bible (421x). It derives from the verb shaphat, which means “to judge,” and so mishpat is generally rendered “judgment” or “justice” with little comment. But just as the verb yakach, especially in Job 13, has a range of meanings stretching from the beginning to the end of a judicial case, so mishpat can mean the following in the Book of Job:
a) the basic “right/rights” of a human;
b) the principle (i.e., “justice”) that should recognize those rights;
c) justice in a particular case (i.e., to have one’s “right” recognized);
d) the process (“judgment”) through which these rights are upheld or recognized;
e) the preparation or “case” that will become the focus of a judicial determination;
f) the “court” or venue where all of this takes place.
Mishpat appears more than 20x in Job, but eleven of them are in the speeches of Elihu and six of these are in Job 34. I see Elihu playing with several of these meanings of mishpat in Job 34-36. For example, in 34:4, the impression given is that Elihu wants justice in a particular case (definition c) and in 34:5 that Job is complaining about his “right” (definition a) being taken away. But then, in 36:16, Elihu gives the impression that Job is clinging to his “case” (mishpat; definition e) rather than to a potential relationship with God. Thus, the word mishpat must be treated with care to understand exactly how the author seems to be using it.