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38. Job 4:17-21, A Vision in the Night, Essay Two
17 ‘Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker?
18 Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
19 how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like a moth.
20 Between morning and evening they are destroyed;
they perish forever without any regarding it.
21 Their tent-cord is plucked up within them,
and they die devoid of wisdom.’
The problem with the “mountaintop experience” of religious intensity or, in Eliphaz’s case, the “vision that stood still,” is that you can’t stay on the mountain forever. You have to come down to earth, to mingle with the people who probably now don’t really understand what happened to you atop the mountain or in your experience. Moses had an experience of incredible intimacy and unforgettable power on Mount Sinai with God, yet the grumblers below just said, “But as for this Moses, we don’t know where he has gone” (Exodus 32:1). So, the person of religious vision often has to re-enter a world that simply won’t understand or sympathize where he or she has been.
To make matters worse, when the person who has had this experience speaks, it often comes out as a string of banalities that really don’t seem worthy of the world-shattering experience on the mountain. That is why the most powerful way to tell the story of what happened “on the mountain” or in religious intimacy with God is either just to describe the experience (as Eliphaz has done) or to be silent about any meaning it might have.
But Eliphaz pushes on and tells us the words of the voiceless voice that spoke to him. In pleasant poetic parallelism, with two different words for “man/male” starting and ending the verse, he says, “Shall a man be righteous before God? or shall a man/warrior be clean before his Maker?” (4:17) It would also be a correct translation to take the mem (Hebrew “m”) before the words “God” and “Maker” as a comparative: “Shall a man be more righteous than God. . .?” If we go with the latter translation, we would see in it an implicit criticism of Job by Eliphaz for perhaps trying to claim that he was “more righteous” than God. But I am not eager to go there; Eliphaz at this point isn’t really criticizing Job’s ideas; he is still in an encouraging, though “testing” mode. But he is referring to Job, by selecting the special word geber (warrior, man) used in 3:3, 23 to describe Job.
Eliphaz's content is rather banal. “Can a person be righteous before God?” Of course not. Even though Job is called “upright and blameless” in 1:1 and elsewhere, no one believes that this implies complete purity or sinlessness. The entire system of Israelite religion assumes that people violated the divine law and needed forgiveness for this. No one, least of all Job, is arguing for his sinlessness. He just feels that he has been treated improperly in this instance and, eventually, would like an explanation for it. The content of Eliphaz’s vision, thus, misses the mark slightly. What he “heard” is not really the point of the discussion, even though it isn’t a bad point.
Yet, the rest of the chapter has Eliphaz take us down yet another “rabbit trail” on the frailty of humans the and ultimate judgment awaiting them. We recall that his first “rabbit trail” led to teeth of young lions being broken and various other types of lions being scattered (4:10-11). We don’t really know if this is the point of what he is trying to say, or is just an interesting “branch” on the “tree” of his argument, and that he wants to take a diversion to investigate all the nice little leaves on that branch before returning to the main trunk of the tree.
In verses 18-21, Eliphaz just keeps pounding away on human impurity. We actually don’t know if the words communicated by the spirit were only captured in verse 17, with the rest of the passage being Eliphaz’s interpretation of those words, or whether the spirit’s words through Eliphaz continue in verses 18-21. But in verses 18-19 he compares humans unfavorably to angels. God doesn’t put trust in (aman, 108x, the common verb for “support, confirm, trust”) the divine servants. Rather God places (the common sim) “error” (the hapax toholah) on angels. Much scholarly ink has been spilled trying to translate toholah properly (is it “folly” or “error”?), but the point will be made through what rhetoricians call an a fortiori argument. Literally meaning “from the stronger,” it is an argument from comparison. Here it runs as follows: If God doesn’t have confidence in these "higher" creatures, how much less would he have confidence in or trust humans?
Eliphaz is gently trying to suggest to Job that he, too, ought to recognize and embrace his impurity in this instance and confess that to God. Though, truth be said, he never explicitly accuses Job of fault in this instance. But perhaps, Elihpaz muses, the world would be a better place if Job just recognized his impurity. Before we dump on Eliphaz, though, we ought to realize that this point isn’t much different than God’s major point in Job 38-41, though there God's focus is a bit more on Job's puniness than his impurity.