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384. Job 37:21-24, Elihu’s Final Words
21 “Now men do not see the light which is bright in the skies;
But the wind has passed and cleared them.
22 Out of the north comes golden splendor;
Around God is awesome majesty.
23 The Almighty—we cannot find Him;
He is exalted in power
And He will not do violence to justice and abundant righteousness.
24 Therefore men fear Him;
He does not regard any who are wise of heart.”
Elihu doesn’t go out with a bang. To be fair, however, it really isn’t a whimper, either. In these last four verses he expresses a memorable thought or two, but the thoughts are sandwiched either by an unclear verse 21 or a phrase that doesn’t ring true in verse 24.
We recall Elihu is coming off an unimpressive performance in verses 19-20. Verse 19 may have presented some playful irony (i.e., ‘Go ahead, teach us because we are just enmeshed in our own darkness. . .’), but verse 20 plunged us into confusion. We almost never lose hope, however, in reading the book of Job—hope that clarity will lie around the next corner. So we hope for that clarity in verse 21. Here is what we have:
“And now, they do not look (plural) at the bright light; it is in the sky; and the wind has passed by and purified them.”
Ok, looks like Elihu is going to make us work again. Singulars and plurals togetheroften confuse us, and verse 21 adds to that confusion. Though Elihu seems just to be speaking to Job (see his address to Job in verse 14), here we have a plural verb in the first clause. Translators generally have rendered it either as “people cannot look at” or “No one can even look at. . .” Clines ignores the plural form and goes with “the sunlight is not seen.” He adopts this method, no doubt, because we don’t know who these “people” are to whom Elihu refers.
We ought not to ignore the initial attah, “and now.” It is normally a strong adversative, an adverb that is just a bit softer than “therefore.” If we were to take that insight seriously here, we would see the attah acting in a conclusory fashion. Yet it is hard to see how Elihu is “wrapping things up” with these verses, other than suggesting in verse 22 that God is coming. But the attah doesn’t lead to a dramatic introduction of God (It isn’t, “And now, let me present. . .GOD!”) or a particularly eloquent summary of the main points of his argument.
As we continue in the clause, we are not sure if the bright light is the sun, but we think it is. The word rendered “bright” is the hapax bahir, but it is obviously related to the 12x-appearing noun bahereth, which refers to a “bright spot” on a leprous person. All twelve appearances of bahereth are in Leviticus 13-14. The grammar of Job 37:21 (to the extent that Job follows rules of grammar) allows either looking at the light, which is in the bright sky, or looking at the bright light, which is in the sky.
Thus, we are full of questions (Who are the “people”? What is the light? Does the attah make the last four verses a free-standing conclusion, or are we to link them closely to the preceding?) but, as usual, we have no answers. All we know is that some people are looking at the bright light in the sky. We don’t know if they are happy, sad or stunned. We don’t know if they are hurting their eyes by looking or if they are wearing protective lenses. Many people say that when they get to heaven they want to ask God about the fate of loved ones; I will want to know about the people of Job 37:21.
Just when we think we are fully confused, Elihu kindly plunges us deeper into confusion. The last half of the verse points to wind passing over something and then “purifying them.” Presumably this means that the wind blows. We recall that one of the debates over the interpretation of verse 17 was whether in fact wind was in view. But we know that wind is here now. We don’t know its direction or intensity. It just blows/passes over (the common abar). The verb I render as “purify” is the 95x-occurring tahar. It comes from the realm of purity. Almost one-third of its appearances (30x) are in the section of Leviticus just noted (Chapters 13-14). Hmm. . .maybe Elihu’s words here are not just vaguely reminiscent of but want to take us to the leprosy passage, but it is a real s-t-r-e-t-c-h to see how clouds passing over and “purifying them” can have anything to do with leprosy.
Most scholars give a looser rendering of tahar. The wind blows and “carries them away” is how many might express it (Clines has “clears them away”). But what are the “them?” Ah, maybe we have the return of the clouds, which have been stalking us for over a chapter now. We had hoped that we saw the last of them, but perhaps not. In any case, I will cry “uncle” also with respect to the meaning of verse 21. Even the scholars most committed to finding meaning in this passage are left just with wind blowing clouds across the skies. Hardly the stuff of a ringing conclusion.
We do a little better in verse 22. Literally, it reads,
“From the north comes the gold; about/upon God is fearful majesty.”
Few translators leave the first part untouched; they usually render it “golden splendor” or a “golden glow,” though some translations just say “from the north he brings gold.” A lot of people, we think, might like that kind of God. It makes most sense to see this verse as announcing the coming of God, even though the typical theophany language isn’t present here. Are we to think of God as shining more brightly than the sun and that therefore the “golden splendor” is like a “super sun” that comes blazing? Since we were just in realms of darkness in verse 19, the coming of the shining or golden influence from the north would bathe the world in light.
But the opening phrase is still odd. Odd is the appearance of “gold” in the singular. Odd is the reference to this golden splendor coming from the north (tsaphon), when normally one would think of the sun coming from the east—if the sun, in fact, is in view. A slight clue to a plausible interpretation of the phrase is through the somewhat unusual verb for “come” (athah, 21x). The normal verb for “come” is bo, but athah is used to describe God’s special “coming” in Deuteronomy 33:2, though the same verb is used for the “coming” of the Tribe of Gad later in that same chapter, in Deuteronomy 33:21. The combination of “north” (tsaphon) and athah also appears in consecutive clauses in Isaiah 41:25, where God is said to stir up people from the north (tsaphon) so that they come (athah). Thus, we see that this language, though possibly compatible with theophany language, finds its home in the general speech and experience of the people.
Something “gold” or “golden splendor” comes from the north. It is a good guess to say that this “something” is “God,” since God is the subject of the second clause. We are stymied at first when we see the preposition al before “God,” for al generally means “upon” or “on top of.” We might best see it here as similar to sabab, “round about.” There is a nora hod surrounding God. Various translations of that phrase are: “awesome majesty” or “terrible/fearful majesty” or “awesome splendor.” Nora is derived from the verb for “fear.”
God is coming, though without the usual bells and whistles accompanying a divine theophany. We would hope that verses 23-24 would simply say a word or two more in praise of God and then turn the mike over to Him. But Elihu chooses a different route in verse 23:
“The Almighty, we cannot find him; He is excellent in power and judgment. He does not oppress/pervert/humble great justice.”
Just at this crucial last moment, then, Elihu brings us two thoughts that either are confusing or not well-said. The confusing thought is the first. God is coming, but we can’t find him. Well, perhaps you might respond that God will find us, and that is really all that matters, but the clause is perplexing at first. Then, we recall Job’s frustration in 23:8-9 where he searched high and low without finding God. Perhaps Elihu is trying to remind Job that this is the plight of humans; we can’t find God, even though God is good. God will find us at the crucial time.
God is called “excellent in power and judgment,” where the word “excellent” is the rare saggi, an Elihu-only word we saw also in 36:26. Sometimes it is rendered “exalted.” The “power and judgment” are koach, mishpat—words that are at the heart of the character of God in Job, even though mishpat, as has been shown, has a range of meanings including Job’s “complaint” or “case.”
Our real problem with this verse, however, is the verb in the last phrase. It is the common verb anah, which sometimes means “to answer,” though another verb of the same spelling is probably in view here. That verb, anah, is one of the most polysemic in Hebrew. A few of its definitions are: "defile/violate" (Genesis 34:2); "oppress or deal harshly with" (Genesis 15:13; 16:6); "mistreat/afflict" (Genesis 31:50); "humble or be humbled/bowed down/afflicted" (Psalm 116:10); "be depressed (Isaiah 31:4)", "destroy." But none of these really “work” here. Thus, Clines and others have chosen “pervert” so that the final clause reads that the Almighty doesn’t pervert justice. It is a commonplace, and no one will disagree, but it is hard to get “pervert” out of anah. But even if we said “God will not oppress,” we haven’t said much.
Now we have the real “therefore” (laken) in the final verse. Because all of this is true—that God comes with the golden splendor, that God is excellent in power and judgment, that God doesn’t oppress anybody:
“Therefore people fear Him; for he doesn’t look upon/show partiality to the wise.”
The thought is a little jarring because we have thought all along that the wise are precisely the ones whom God considers favorably. This has led some scholars to add an additional thought to “wise,” such as the NRSV’s “wise in their own conceit” or the NASB’s “wise of heart.” But that is definitely not what the text says. It simply is “wise.”
I think what is going on here is not the centrality of ideas but of sounds. Two verbs, very close in form, are being used: “fear” and “see.” The actual words in the text are yerehu/yireh. I think that is what the final thought is about—sound. What Elihu is ultimately doing in this last verse it to prepare us to hear the most stunning sound in the universe—the voice of God.