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The Enigma of Elihu


 Elihu, the fifth wheel, the young upstart, the babbler—he has been caricatured as all of these.  He has even been called a disguise for Satan.  Many of the standard commentaries treat him dismissively.  Elihu is not mentioned in the prologue or the epilogue of Job where the visiting friends are mentioned.  He speaks with a stronger Aramaic influence evident in his language.  Whether he even belongs in the book has been questioned.

Stephen Mitchell, in a vibrant translation of the book of Job, omits Elihu entirely, mentioning only in the endnotes, “The Elihu interlude, which has long been recognized as an addition by some later, much inferior poet…[has] been left out….”[1]

Eminent Edinburgh professor and Hebraist, A. B. Robinson described Elihu’s deportment as “self-confident and boisterous…the creation of a writer of less severe taste and feebler dramatic power than the author of the other characters manifests.”  He concluded, “…the author of the Elihu speeches was one who was not endowed with the brilliant powers of the writer who composed the body of the poem.”[2]  Ouch. 

The nineteenth-century German scholar, F. W. C. Umbreit was even more excoriating, calling Elihu’s speech the “uncalled-for stumbling in of a conceited young philosopher into the conflict that is already properly ended.”[3]

I beg to differ.  I’ve long felt Elihu was underrated.  Regardless of the position one takes of the composition history of the book of Job, one finds discrete viewpoints, even philosophical outlooks, presented by the protagonist, the foils, and the respondents in the book.  There are several to grapple with:  Job, the three friends, Elihu, God, and the frame of the prologue and epilogue. 

Elihu represents a third view, not expressed by Job or the three friends.  Whether one takes the position that he is an historical person or a literary creation to express a philosophical argument, it is worthwhile to unpack his perspective.  About what is his voice so agitated?

With this in mind, it is helpful to ask, “What is Elihu’s basic argument and how does it differ from the others?”  What viewpoint has gone unsaid that is now articulated?

Is it significant that Job gives no response to Elihu?  Does this suggest the author believes Elihu has contributed some important insight that cannot be countered?  Elihu’s speeches seem more a criticism of the whole book of Job to this point than of Job himself.  In his argument, he presages God’s response.

Elihu opens his discussion with what he perceives to be the problem with Job’s claims: “Job says, ‘I am innocent, but God denies me justice.” (Job 34:5)[4] “I am pure and without sin…yet God has found fault with me” (33:9-10).  For Elihu, Job is calling into question God’s justice or righteousness.  Unlike the three friends who simply argued Job was guilty and God was punishing wickedness, Elihu is more charitable.  He wants to defend God but does not come down as hard on Job.  For Elihu, pain and suffering are not punitive but are a disciplinary measure.  “He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction” (36:16).  Job is excused in not understanding: “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (36:26).

Elihu asserts (Chapters 34-36) that God is gracious, just, and great. These qualities are not as easy to package together as might first appear.  God’s goodness weighs against God’s omnipotence.  As is often questioned, if God is all good and all-powerful, why then suffering?  Theologies through the centuries have tended to emphasize one or the other of these in their responses to the human condition.  And when one is emphasized at the expense of the other, the pendulum eventually swings the other way.  This is also evident in the other classical theological dichotomies: God’s foreknowledge vs. human freedom; an immanent vs. transcendent God; the divine vs. human nature of Christ; a theocentric heaven of eternal bliss in the presence of God vs. an anthropocentric heaven of human delights. 

Elihu seems certain that suffering is for the greater good.  Job’s affliction is already God’s answer to him that will bring about spiritual blessing if he will only accept the medicine. But above all, God’s righteousness must be maintained. Job, on the other hand, has emphasized that he is not culpable for the catastrophes encountered.

Both can be right.  But to comprehend this requires the mind to shift from deductive logic to inductive wonder at the unknowns.  This Elihu does next, and in so doing, presages the very response of God in Chapters 38-41.

With Chapter 37, Elihu shifts to his affirmation of a third attribute of God—majesty.  The language and illustrations point to the grandeur of Nature as indicative of the majesty (greatness) of God.  “Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders.” (37:14) The examples given fall short for the modern mind.  Yes, we know much about atmospheric electricity, thunder, and snow, and rain.  But that is not the point.  His instinct is right, “Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness” (37:19).  It is not the God of the Gaps that must be addressed; it is the impossibility of stepping outside our universe to see things as they really are.  It is the philosophically challenging problem of answering when we do not see the whole picture.  One has to choose anchors.  Rationality? A Divine Ground of Being?  Ultimate meaning? Possibly yes to all—even when they seem mutually exclusive.

So why do I like Elihu?  It is as if Elihu says, “Something is wrong with that picture.  That can’t be right.”  Our moral judgment may be the last defence of what is good and right.  Societal norms and theological traditions may fall short.  As Elihu admonishes, “Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (34:4). We might need to say, “That does not fit with the God I know.”

Sometimes that is the best we can do.

Kent V. Bramlett is Associate Professor of Archaeology and History of Antiquity and Curator and Associate Director of the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology at La Sierra University.


[1] Mitchell, Stephen, The Book of Job, (North Point Press: Berkeley. 1987), 97.

[2] Davidson, A. B., The book of Job with notes, introduction and appendix, (Cambridge University Press: 1903), 1.

[3] As quoted in Keil-Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 6, Job.

[4] All texts quoted are from the New International Version.


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