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351. Job 34:12-15, Continuing the Thought

12 “Surely, God will not act wickedly,
And the Almighty will not pervert justice.
13 Who gave Him authority over the earth?
And who has laid on Him the whole world?
14 If He should determine to do so,
If He should gather to Himself His spirit and His breath,
15 All flesh would perish together,
And man would return to dust.


Elihu just keeps hammering at the same theme in verse 12:


    “It is most certain that God doesn’t do evil, and the Almighty does not pervert judgment."


Though Elihu merely repeats the idea of verse 11, he does so here with eye-catching words. The first two words are two emphatic particles, when one would have been sufficient to express meaning. Aph is a commonly-used conjunction meaning “indeed” or “surely.” It appears three times in the same Genesis 18 narrative where chalilah makes its first biblical appearance. It is almost as if Elihu had “Abraham on the brain” here. Omnam, 12x, means about the same thing as aph. Job is especially fond of the term (6x). Normally omnam appears by itself, but on one other occasion Job has also said aph-omnam (19:4), where Job says, with quite some emotion, “And even if, really truly, it is the case that I have sinned. . .”  Perhaps Elihu liked Job’s double asseveration of the aph-omnam of 19:4 and put it to work here to express his utter commitment to what he will say.

What is that thing? The commonplace that God will not do evil. Yet, the second part of the verse is more interesting. God won’t “pervert (avah, 17x/4x Job) justice” (mishpat).  Elihu picks up the verb avah also from one of the previous speakers—Bildad. Bildad had twice asked in 8:3:


    “Does God pervert (avah) justice (mishpat)?  Or does the Almighty pervert (avah

    righteousness (tsedeq)?”


There is no better way to win friends than to quote their words in an approving manner.  Elihu does that here. “Justice” (mishpat) is used here either in the sense of the general principle of justice or the actual practice of rendering judgment.  

Now that Elihu has stated his point clearly, even quoting one of the friends, he asks a rhetorical question in verse 13 and then concludes this section with a two-verse couplet in verses 14-15.  

The rhetorical question is also a bit roughly expressed in Hebrew, though meaning can be gleaned from it. We have:

    “Who has appointed (him) over/toward the earth? Or who has placed the whole inhabited world          (under his care)?”

The verb rendered “appoint” here is the common paqad, which can mean “to attend, take note of, visit, muster (an army), take care of, appoint,” or a few other things. The way it makes most sense here is to read it as in the four instances of the early Joseph story (Genesis 39:4, 5; 40:4; 41:34), where it talks about Joseph being appointed overseer (paqad) over the house of Pharaoh. So, the question in Job 34:13, then, is “Who has appointed God over the earth?” (literally “upon it, toward the earth”). The second clause literally says, “Who has set/placed (the common sim) the entire inhabited earth?” Most scholars see the “over it/upon it” of the first clause to be distributed to the second clause—so that it would be who has placed him over the entire inhabited world.  


Though the grammar is a bit rough, the meaning is clear. No one has ever been in the position of having appointed God to oversee the world. The Lord of the world, the Almighty, is not some bureaucratic functionary that willingly fulfills His master’s desires. God does, therefore, as God pleases. One sign of the Almighty’s power and independence is stated in verses 14-15.


    “If he (God) sets (sim) his heart upon/over him, and gathers his spirit and breath to himself, then

     all flesh would perish together, and man would return (shub) to the dust (aphar).”

There is a stark and simple majesty to these words, words that echo both the creation story in Genesis (“dust you are, and to dust (aphar) you shall return (shub),” Genesis 3:19) and the glorious poetic stanzas of Psalm 104. There also is a haunting reference to Job’s words in 7:17, where Job asked, in desperation, “What is man…that you set your heart on him (using the same phrase as Elihu uses in 34:14)”? 


The reference to Psalm 104 ought to be pointed out with more care because of its multiple correspondences with Job 34:14-15. Psalm 104 says:


    “You hide your face, and they are terrified; you gather (asaph, same as in Job 34:14) their 

     breath (ruach, same word as in Job 34:14) and they die (gavah, same word as in Job 34:15)

     return (shub, same word as in Job 34:15) to their dust (aphar, same word as in Job 34:15).”


Elihu’s words in this section are a veritable harvest of earlier statements made by the friends and Job, as well as clever references to significant and influential biblical passages. Note that the thought of verses 14-15 begins with a common and simple verb sim (“put/place/set”) and ends with the common and simple verb shub (“return”).  Elihu has shown that he can enter powerfully into the thought world of the friends, of Job, and of the Scriptures in general. Though he seemingly started out as a young buffoon in Job 32, by now we see him as a good listener as well as a mature and thoughtful commentator on the religious traditions of Israel.

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