We’ve just written essays on the book of Job, and I’ve been looking at whether or not the text answers questions of suffering.
Does the book of Job provide an explanation to suffering? There are a number of angles through which we can work this out, but I want to focus on just one here: the speech of Elihu (Job 32-37). Elihu is a younger man who has been biding his time in the debate (32:4), and he steps up to refute Job after the three other men run out of steam.
Elihu’s speech is both a strange one and highly significant in the flow of the book. It comes immediately before the entrance of God. For some reason, even though Elihu makes the longest single speech of any of Job’s friends, no one responds to him at all!
Maybe what Elihu says is correct. John Piper reckons that Elihu provides ‘the truth as our inspired writer saw it’ — Elihu’s speech is ‘the first step in solving Job’s problem’. For Piper, Elihu paves the way for God’s entrance because Elihu takes the right approach to Job’s situation. Is this the case?
Elihu does introduce something new to the debate. Unlike Job’s three companions, Elihu actually presents a theodicy — an attempt to defend God by giving an explanation for Job’s suffering. Whereas the other characters focus on Job’s sinfulness, Elihu emphasises God’s purposes. His idea is that Job’s suffering is a form of education or discipline from God (33:19ff).
Job’s friends view divine retribution as a rigid equation: the people who prosper must be righteous; the people who suffer must be wicked. Elihu is right to criticise this.
Elihu’s theodicy is misplaced, however. The test established in the prologue is really a test of God’s rule rather than Job’s faith. The text does not leave us expecting Job to be disciplined, because he is righteous and refuses to follow God just for the perks (1:1, 1:8, etc). There is no suggestion that Job is meant to learn something from his suffering, only that he is expected to continue being upright no matter what befalls him.
The other problem is that, just like Job’s other friends, Elihu still seeks to ascribe a particular purpose to a particular experience of suffering. This is presumptuous: the only ones privy to the ’causes’ of Job’s suffering are God, his court, and the reader.
Was God using the 2004 tsunami to punish the people of South East Asia, as Job’s friends might claim? Of course not — but neither did God send the tsunami to discipline the Christians, as Elihu would have it. Elihu’s perspective turns out to be as rigid and ignorant as that of Job’s friends.
Elihu the windbag
If Elihu has got it wrong, why does his huge speech seem to be ignored by everyone else, including God? Elihu is not condemned by God but neither is he affirmed, as Job is — he’s simply ignored.
This is where a rhetorical perspective is helpful. Elihu puts himself forward as a true sage. He is eager to speak on behalf of God and eager to make pronouncements about Job’s situation. He spends a whole chapter just introducing himself and explaining his credentials!
Is the book of Job actually endorsing Elihu’s eagerness? The frame narrative mentions Elihu’s anger three times in 32:2-5. As it quickly becomes apparent, this is not righteous anger but hot air. Elihu says he is bursting with words (32:18-20), which ironically makes him just like the fake sages Eliphaz warned against (15:2-3). He is quite literally a windbag! Elihu’s speech is packed with ironies like this.
“Job opens his mouth with empty talk; without knowledge he multiplies words”. Elihu continued: “Bear with me a little longer and I will show you that there is more to be said on God’s behalf. I get my knowledge from afar; I will ascribe justice to my Maker. Be assured that my words are not false; one who has perfect knowledge is with you”. (35:16-36:2-4)
Of course Elihu has no basis for such an audacious claim to knowledge. He’s no prophet. His credentials are not from God but from himself. It is actually Elihu who speaks ’empty talk’.
It turns out that Elihu is the worst of the lot, an arrogant young man, zealous but foolish. He’s the self-righteous blogger who feels entitled to write his own systematic theology. He’s the ‘helpful’ guy in small group who eagerly quotes Romans 8:28 at someone else’s tragedy. He’s the Reformed Christian who loves criticising others.
As Norman Habel puts it, Elihu’s speech is ‘a deliberate, ironic anti-climax. Job asked for God, but he first got the “little god”, Elihu’. The others ignore him because he does not even deserve an answer.
Elihu’s speech does not exactly reveal the purpose of the book of Job but rather what the book is not. If Job does indeed need a theodicy, the book is skeptical of such a thing — we could even call the book an anti-theodicy.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.