The role of Elihu (2). Why is it so hard to see the difference between truth and error?

David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness) convincingly lists many quotations or allusions in the book of Job to Deuteronomy. He argues that the book is metaphorical (or perhaps allegorical) and that the key character is the nation of Israel which suffers the torments predicted by Moses in his curses for disobedience listed in Deuteronomy 28. Israel, as Job, argue that they are being unjustly punished. Job, or the writer of the book, is therefore a ‘heretic’ disagreeing with the theology of the Deuteronomistic Historian (hereafter DH).

I personally find this intriguing, for several reasons. Wolfers’ list of Deuteronomic quotations/allusions is convincing. The writer of the book of Job must have been familiar with Deuteronomy. But did he refer to it because he was influenced by it, or because he disagreed with it? I have already argued that the writer of Job has a different view about ‘fallen’ human nature to the writer of the Genesis account of the origins of sin (or at least to Augustinian interpretations of it). Is it possible that he disgreed with the theology of the DH? I suggested earlier that Job is very ‘theatrical’ and I think I touched on the possibility that it contains humour (although I now realise that I should have developed the ‘humour’ idea more, and should perhaps post more about it later). The use of humour in Job may even suggest that the writer is making a parody of the theology of the DH, with which he disagrees.

Before, getting too anxious about the idea that Scripture may contain conflicting views, or that one book of the Bible may be offering an alternative view to another book of the Bible, I should outline what I see as the main differences between Job and the DH.

The DH believed in a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and suffering. Moses spelled it out in Deuteronomy: “But if you will not obey … then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deut 28:15). On the other hand, Moses offered blessings as the reward for obedience. Isn’t this precisely what the Adversary argued in the prologue? “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and … blessed the work of his hands?” (Job 1:9f). This is also the argument advanced by Job’s three friends and Elihu: Job’s sufferings must be the result of sin, and that if he repents he will prosper again.This is also one of the themes of Proverbs: the righteous prosper and the wicked come to nought. It is a theme which is elaborated through the Deuteronomistic histories (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), culminating in Israel and Judah’s captivity because of disobedience.

It seems to me to be a fairly consistent theme of the DH and the Wisdom literature that God blesses the upright and punishes evildoers. Job’s three friends agree with this; so too does the Adversary. However, the Adversary argues that this policy is foolish, as the LORD can never know who is truly serving him without the motivation of a reward or a threat or punishment. In fact, he might be arguing that no one ever serves God without an incentive.

The writer of Job is at least ‘testing’ this theology. Is it possible to be upright, blameless or righteous without an incentive? The only way to test this is to reverse the situation. Make a righteous person suffer for no cause. Remove all the blessings, for no good reason. Job undergoes the ‘test’ and maintains his innocence while denouncing the injustice. In doing so he challenges the Deuteronomistic view that obedience and prosperity, disobedience and suffering, are cause-and-effect. So the writer of Job not only ‘tests’ the theology of the DH, it seems to me that he disagrees with it.

Perhaps this is why commentators find it so difficult to determine if Elihu is speaking for the LORD or for the Adversary. Much of what he said is consistent with other scriptures. And it’s not only Elihu: we find ‘truths’ in what was said by the three friends as well. Much of what they said reflected the wisdom of the book of Proverbs as well as some of the Psalms and other scriptures, at least on superficial readings of them. What we encounter in Job is an argument that this philosophy, or theology, doesn’t match with reality. The righteous do suffer.

I suggest that Elihu represents the relative ‘newcomer’ in the wisdom schools – Israelite wisdom, or the theology of the DH – but that much of this ‘new’ school of thought is actually the same as other ancient Near Eastern philosophy, and has probably been influenced by it. Elihu argues the position which the DH attributes to the LORD, but whose wisdom the Adversary is challenging. The Adversary (ha-satan), as I have previously said, is not an evil or malevolent being: his role is to oppose, to challenge, and to test, and here he is challenging the theology of the DH that the LORD puts a hedge around those who obey and punishes the disobedient.

If Wolfers is correct then this is not just an academic argument. He is writing for a nation that has gone into exile and questioning the justice of their fate; a nation that is turning to its religious leaders for answers. On the one hand they are being told (by the DH school) that their suffering is the result of sin (but whose sin? Kings seems to place the blame for the captivity on the shoulders of Manasseh), while on the other hand the  writer of Job challenges the idea that their suffering is the result of sin and promises a restoration of their fortunes.

4 comments on “The role of Elihu (2). Why is it so hard to see the difference between truth and error?

  1. Regina says:

    Hi Steve 🙂 You wrote: “I suggested earlier that Job is very ‘theatrical’ and I think I touched on the possibility that it contains humour… The use of humour in Job may even suggest that the writer is making a parody of the theology of the DH, with which he disagrees.”

    Concerning the treatment of DH theology, I’m not sure that “parody” (in the sense of intentional mocking) or any form of intentional ridicule takes place in Job. I agree there is something like a sense of humour at work along the lines of a playful exploration, i.e. deploying the idea of “what if…” that seems to be the function of the heavenly court scenes between God and Satan (1:6-12, 2:1-6). The bringing together of the fanciful divine dialogues, sober speeches concerning God’s justice (i.e. as it appears to reflect DH) and unexpected events in the form of Job’s suffering (i.e. despite his righteous state) seem to be the outcome of “what if what we think we know or accept as the truth about God’s justice is…?” – the implication of which is to question or disrupt, as well as to expand the limits of human knowledge of divine justice. Poetic form is undertaken (to best effect) as a process by which something not already known might be discovered/unearthed. To take into account the possibility that the poet of Job was not entirely in control (although in control of the poetic form used) of the narrative’s semantic formation supports a view of the text as epistemological exploration of accepted normative theology.

    More and more I find that Job is all about the limits of human governance (what is known) in relation to divine governance (what is not known except as a matter of faith). Prayer, sacrifical rites, rituals and indeed the constitution of religious exercise represent the human desire (or inclination) to participate in divine governance and this is how Job is presented to the reader at the outset (1:5), not unlike a thesis that is considered more deeply or put to the test theatrically.

  2. Stephen Cook says:

    Regina, I agree that “parody” may not be the best word. The humour is almost certainly a theatrical device which is used here very effectively to question, challenge and test the current theology/philosophy, but whether or not it goes beyond that into the realms of parody is speculation. I like what you say about the limits of human and divine governance being defined or tested.

    Is the writer of Job attempting to give us answers, or is he just asking questions? I am inclined to think that his ‘play’ was designed to get us thinking and to challenge the contemporary theology/philosophy, but I’m not certain that he was proposing any better explanation himself.

  3. Regina says:

    Answers or explanations to be found will have a lot to do with what is expected by the reader no doubt. A forceful speech that reconciles all and makes cogent sense of Job’s situation is not apparently forthcoming but, consistent with poetry it seems to me, the Book of Job is a kind of saying without saying (or at least not saying in plain or explicit ways). The ambiguity in Job is not so much uncertainty or lack of meaning as preponderance of meaning or polysemy. Despite the many and various speeches constituting the text, I suspect that value/attention is being given to silence or the withholding/setting aside of speech, particularly those in the form of a reproach or judgement concerning God’s justice.

  4. Bruce Philp says:

    If we understand Job to be drama (I do) then how Elihu is played is a matter for the director and actor; but the text gives us plenty of clues that Elihu is a self-important young buffoon, for comic relief before the climax. When Job (in the 7th Century first performance understood to stand for the father-king of suffering Israel) has eventually had the last word in the conflict with the three friends and thows down his final challenge to God, Elihu pops up and breaks the silence, says he can’t hold back any more, complains about his wind problem, says how quiet he is and insultingly tells everyone to listen to him anyway. Then (in the theatre of my mind, at least!) he carries on like the world’s best preacher, saying a whole lot of fine things that may be correct but are out of place and not wanted. When the preacher finally shuts up, God speaks from the whirlwind.

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