Sunday, March 22, 2009

Job 32 - 37: Elihu Puts His Two Shekels In

Job and his three pals have been arguing for 30 chapters, and after last week's reading they were pretty much argued out. Nobody has convinced anybody, so there's an awkward pause in the conversation. This gives a young guy who has been sitting nearby a chance to speak.

His name is Elihu, and he's been keeping quiet out of deference to his elders. Now it all comes spilling out, five chapters worth, although the first chapter is really just a long apology for jumping into the conversation. He is frustrated that Job's three friends haven't been able to refute his arguments, and hopes he can do better than them.

He starts off in Job 33 with a new line of argument. Job has complained throughout the book that God is remote and uncommunicative, but Elihu argues that God is speaking all the time, just not directly.

For God does speak -- now one way, now another
though man may not perceive it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on men as they slumber in their beds,
he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warning,
and keep him from pride,
to preserve his soul from the pit,
his life from perishing by the sword.
Or a man may be chastened on a bed of pain
with constant distress in his bones,
so that his very being finds food repulsive
and his soul loathes the choicest meal.
What this boils down to, as far as I can see -- and again, in the twisty poetry of Job, I often can't see much -- is first, that God speaks to us in dreams and visions. Personally, I find this unlikely, since my dreams are usually pretty dull affairs on the order of "I was in this house where I used to live, but people I didn't know at the time were there too!" But whatever. And after that, we're right back into the argument of "God gives people worldly blessings and punishments according to their behavior, which is the same idea that the three pals have been beating to death all through the chapter and which Job, except for a brief bit in Chapter 21, hasn't done a very good job of arguing against.

Towards the end of his speech, Elihu makes the further argument that the very natural order is in a sense the voice of God. Well, maybe not the natural order so much as weather: lightning, storms, thunder, clouds, winds, Elihu says, all speak for the power and majesty of God. Wanting to speak to such a power, as Job does, he thinks foolish:

37:19 "Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.
20 Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would any man ask to be swallowed up?
21 Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
22 Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
23 The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
That last clause is kind of problematic, though, in that it doesn't follow from what came before. "Really powerful" does not mean, or even really imply, "righteous," as anyone living at any period of history would have to know. This may be an example of why I find is so hard to tell what is going on in the arguments of Job -- they don't seem to be conducting their discussion within the same general framework of logic that a modern dude like me is used to. It's a poem, too, so who knows how important the theological discussion is supposed to be relative to it creating a pleasant effect in the original. Sometimes I have wondered if the whole chapter is not just so much ancient hot air, but then I know that many books have been written about the theology of Job, so there must be SOMETHING in here that is eluding me.

Just to check if there was something obvious I was missing, I checked with the Wiki, which is never wrong. Elihu, it says:

contradicts the fundamental opinions expressed by the 'friendly accusers' in the central body of the text, that it is impossible that the righteous should suffer, all pain being a punishment for some sin. Elihu states that suffering may be decreed for the righteous as a protection against greater sin, for moral betterment and warning, and to elicit greater trust and dependence on a merciful, compassionate God in the midst of adversity.
...and yeah, that sounds about right.

After Elihu's speech, who should enter the conversation but God himself, with a speech that takes up most of the rest of the Book. That seems like it will be worth treating on its own, so we'll break here for now.

Next: "We'll hear it straight from the horse's mouth" sounds pretty sacriligious, but I'm having a hard time coming up with any other way of saying it.

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