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The Role And Character Of Elihu In The Book Of Job

Introduction

The Book of Job is widely regarded as one of the great written masterpieces of history, equally impressive for the depth of the issues it wrestles with and the great literary quality it displays.[1] In this frequently discussed and often disputed book, one of the most frequently discussed and most often disputed figures is the character of Elihu, a young man who suddenly appears following Job’s final speech in Job 31, delivers a series of speeches to Job in chapters 32-37, and then disappears from the scene as quickly as he came when God begins to speak to Job out of the whirlwind in Job 38.

Perhaps no other biblical character has been characterized by scholars in such radically different ways as Elihu. Concerning wisdom, Elihu is described as either an “exceeding wise” man[2] or a “buffoon”;[3] concerning his motivation, he is seen as anything from a divinely-inspired “man of God”[4] to the “person assumed or adopted by Satan” to attack Job;[5] concerning his contribution to the Book of Job, he is considered to be “irrelevant”[6] or “integral”.[7]

This paper will focus on the character of Elihu in the Book of Job, and will seek to determine how he should be viewed and what his role is in the overall context of the book. First, we will consider whether the Elihu speeches were an original part of the Book of Job or a later addition. Then the speeches themselves will be summarized in an attempt to determine what Elihu was trying to say and what theological contributions he makes. Finally, we will draw conclusions about the overall role that Elihu plays in the drama[8] of Job.

Elihu’s Speeches: Are They Authentic?

Before the character and role of Elihu in the Book of Job can be considered, the question regarding whether or not the Elihu speeches are an original part of the Book of Job must be addressed.

Put simply, many scholars believe that the Elihu speeches as we have them now were not part of the original Book of Job. James Ross sums up the standard viewpoint on the inauthenticity of the Elihu speeches saying, “there no longer seems to be any serious doubt that they are a later addition to the work, stemming from an author who was ‘angry‘ both with Job and with his friends….”[9] Variations on this basic perspective include Robert Gordis, who holds an intermediate view on the authorship of the Elihu speeches, suggesting that they were added by the original author later in life,[10] and David Clines who, without drawing conclusions about authorship, suggests that the speeches as we have them today are located in the wrong place.[11]

Although there are many variations, the reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the Elihu speeches basically fall into four categories. First, Elihu is mentioned nowhere in the Book of Job outside of his speeches in Job 32-37. Second, the style of the Elihu speeches is different from the style used in the other parts of the book. Third, Job’s challenge in chapter 31 calls for God, not Elihu, to make an appearance. Finally and perhaps most significantly, Elihu’s speeches supposedly contribute nothing to the Book of Job.[12]

On the other hand, many scholars reject these arguments as unconvincing and strongly believe the Elihu speeches to be an original part of Job.[13]

Although it is certainly true that Elihu is not mentioned in the prologue or epilogue of Job, it is not clear that this is significant. After all, both the Satan and Job’s wife appear only in the prologue, but they are not rejected as inauthentic characters in the book simply because they do not appear in the dialogue or the epilogue.[14] Furthermore, the only reason that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar appear in the epilogue is because they are rebuked by God for what they have said. If Elihu’s words were more pleasing to God than those of the three friends, then there would be no reason for him to appear in the epilogue in the same context.[15]

It is also readily apparent that there are differences in the vocabulary and style of the Elihu speeches when compared to the rest of Job,[16] but these differences could be due to the fact that Elihu, as a younger man, simply spoke in a different manner than the other characters, rather than being indicative of a different author.[17]

In his concluding speech in chapter 31, Job does demand that God appear before him, and in a sense, it is somewhat surprising for Elihu to appear instead.[18] Based on this, some scholars argue that the Elihu speeches are currently located in the wrong place. However, even those scholars who agree that the Elihu speeches are in the wrong place disagree about where they should be located,[19] and this indicates the subjective nature of the argument. Furthermore, if God truly is the all-powerful sovereign that he portrays himself as in Job 38-41, it seems unlikely that Job’s concluding remarks in chapter 31 could in some way compel him to appear. The present location of Elihu’s speeches in Job 32-37 creates distance between Job’s demands and God’s appearance, thereby affirming God’s sovereignty and freedom to act how and when he chooses.[20]

The final argument against the Elihu speeches being an authentic part of the Book of Job is the claim that the speeches make no contribution to the book.[21] However, as this paper has already implied, Elihu’s contribution to the Book of Job is very much debated, and if it could be demonstrated that Elihu does have something significant to add (as this paper will endeavor to do), this argument would lose its merit.

When the arguments against the authenticity of the Elihu material are considered individually, it is clear that they are not particularly strong and are easily rebutted. This leads to the conclusion that there is no compelling reason to consider the Elihu speeches as anything other than an original part of the Book of Job.

Elihu’s Message: What Does He Say?

With Elihu’s authenticity safely assumed, we now shift our attention to the speeches themselves in an attempt to briefly summarize his thoughts.

After Job finishes speaking, chapter 32 opens with the introduction of “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram…” (Job 32.2),[22] a description which likely designates him as a fellow countryman of Job.[23] We are told in Job 32.2-5 that Elihu is angry with Job “because he justified himself rather than God” and that he is angry with the three friends because they had been unable to adequately answer Job’s arguments. As a young man, Elihu has waited for the older men to speak first, but can now hold his tongue no longer and decides to give his opinion.

Scholars are in general agreement that Elihu’s words can be easily divided into four distinct speeches.[24] In Elihu’s first speech (Job 32.6-33.33), he begins by justifying his intrusion into the debate between Job and his friends. In Job 32.9, he says that “it is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right,” but “the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32.8). This idea that understanding comes primarily from God is important in Elihu’s speeches, and it gives Elihu the courage to speak up despite his youth. After summarizing Job’s claims of his innocence (Job 32.9) and God’s injustice (Job 32.10), Elihu goes on to suggest that God uses both dreams (Job 33.15-18) and physical affliction (Job 33.19-21) to instruct people and turn them away from sin.[25] He then says that God sends a special mediating angel to help people escape from death (Job 32.22-30),[26] before closing his speech and inviting Job to respond in Job 32.32.

When Job fails to answer, Elihu begins to speak again, and in his second speech (Job 34.1-37), he vigorously attacks Job’s denial of God’s justice (Job 34.5-6). In a verse which is representative of the entire speech, Elihu says in Job 34.12 that “God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” He goes on to assert that God justly governs the world without exception (Job 34.24-25),[27] although he does not try to explain Job’s individual case.

In his third speech (Job 35.1-16), Elihu points out the inconsistency in Job’s competing claims that God owes him something because of his righteousness (Job 35.2), and that he is no better off than if he had sinned (Job 35.3).[28] Elihu then claims that God is not affected by righteous or sinful acts of humans, at least in the sense that he is not obligated to respond in some particular way.[29] This idea, in addition to rejecting Job’s claim that God owes him some sort of vindication, also shows that Elihu’s view of retribution is more nuanced than that of Job’s friends in that he rejects the idea that man’s good or bad actions compel God to respond mechanistically with either reward or punishment.

In his fourth and final speech (Job 36.1-37.24), Elihu seems to change his approach.[30] Now, instead of citing Job’s arguments and focusing on refuting them, Elihu focuses solely on God, reaffirming his justice (Job 36.5-7) and his ability to use suffering to teach people (Job 36.22). At this point, Elihu uses the appearance of an approaching thunderstorm (Job 36.27-37.6) as an object lesson to reflect on the greatness of God,[31] anticipating the appearance of God himself in a whirlwind.

Elihu’s Role: What Does He Add To The Book Of Job?

Having examined the content of Elihu’s speeches, we now turn to the role he plays within the Book of Job: what does Elihu have to contribute? Is he to be viewed as a primarily positive or negative character? The responses to these questions fall into three basic categories.[32]

First, many commentators who view Elihu in a negative light basically see him as just a younger version of Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.[33] From this perspective, “Elihu was no more an inspired theologian than were Job’s friends,”[34] and he was bound by the same rigid retribution theology they were.[35]

However, upon close examination, there are several indications that Elihu is more than just another of Job’s “friends”. First, as we have already seen, Elihu appeals to God as the source of his wisdom, rather than experience or the traditions of men. Secondly, as was mentioned earlier, Elihu’s view of retribution is more nuanced than that of the three friends, as he firmly upholds that God cannot be compelled to do anything, including rigidly causing someone to suffer as punishment for sin. Elihu also sees suffering as accomplishing several purposes in addition to punishment.[36] Third and perhaps most importantly, Elihu is different from the friends in the way he approaches Job, calling him by name,[37] giving him the opportunity to respond, and focusing on Job’s sinful attitudes in his present life rather than conjuring up a list of sins from Job’s past that are supposedly the source of his suffering.[38]

The second basic viewpoint of Elihu’s role in the Book of Job is that he is primarily intended to be an ironic character whose self-perception differs greatly from the way in which the author of Job portrays him.[39] Some commentators take this idea even further, suggesting that the Book of Job is intended to be a comedy and that Elihu is the exemplar of the fool.[40]

Although there may be some validity to this viewpoint (after all, Elihu is unable to solve Job’s problems despite his best efforts), any suggestion that Elihu is intended to be viewed as a laughable buffoon surely goes too far for the reasons we have already mentioned. Elihu clearly comes off better than Job’s friends, as he appeals to God as the source of his wisdom, has a more subtle understanding of retribution and suffering and seems more sympathetic to Job in general. Together, this indicates that, whatever his faults, Elihu is intended to be seen in a more positive than negative light.

The third and best understanding of Elihu’s role in the Book of Job is that he helps to prepare Job for God’s appearance in the whirlwind.[41] This can be seen in several ways.

First, the name “Elihu” is a variant spelling of the name “Elijah”, and Elihu’s actions in the Book of Job suggest a strong connection to the great prophet. Elijah was described as a defender of God (1 Kings 17-21) and God’s forerunner (Malachi 4.5-6), and in a similar way, Elihu has vigorously defended God’s justice and immediately preceded God’s appearance with a speech focused on his greatness.[42]

Secondly, as mentioned before, Elihu’s final speech in particular shifts Job’s attention away from his personal suffering and toward God. As Larry Waters points out, “before Elihu’s intervention the debate had been anthropocentric and not theocentric. Elihu rectified that situation and injected a recognition of the divine into the discussion.”[43] It is only after Elihu speaks that Job is ready for the solution to his problem[44] because ultimately, God himself is the solution, and it is not until Elihu speaks that Job is ready to focus on God rather than himself.

Third and finally, even the style of Elihu’s final speech prepares Job for God’s appearance, as the series of rhetorical questions that Elihu asks in Job 36-37 to demonstrate God’s greatness and incomprehensibility clearly foreshadow similar questions that God asks in Job 38-41.[45]

Conclusion: What Are We To Make Of Elihu?

An enigmatic character in a difficult book, Elihu deserves better treatment than most commentators have given him. Though he has been quickly dismissed by many authors as a later and unnecessary addition to the Book of Job, as we have seen, these arguments are not convincing.

Furthermore, upon closer examination of Elihu’s speeches, it is clear that he is commendable in much of what he says—he is more nuanced and accurate in his views of suffering than the three friends, and he is more understanding of Job as well.

Nevertheless, Elihu’s arguments fail to really help Job, maybe because his more refined view of the purpose of suffering still does not apply to Job’s specific situation. His words seem to fall on Job’s deaf ears, and perhaps sensing this, Elihu changes his approach and shifts the focus of his speeches toward God. This is Elihu’s real contribution to the resolution of Job’s problem—not that his words contain the answer to Job’s suffering, but that they serve to center Job’s attention on the God who in himself is the answer that Job is looking for.

In the end, Elihu is the forerunner who prepares Job for God’s appearance and as such, he plays a vital role in Job’s life and story.


[1]Gregory W. Parsons, “The Structure and Purpose of the Book of Job,” in Sitting With Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992), 17; Robert Gordis, “The Language and Style of Job,” in Sitting With Job, 79.

[2]Charles H. Spurgeon, “Songs in the Night,” in Great Pulpit Masters Volume II (New York: Fleming H. Revelle Company, 1959), 211.

[3] William Whedbee, “The Comedy of Job,” Semeia 7, (1977): 20. Whedbee goes on to say that, “Though there may be ‘no fool like an old fool,’ Elihu, as a young fool, comes close.”

[4]Thurman Wisdom, “The Message of Elihu,” Biblical Viewpoint 21 (November 1987): 27, 29-30.

[5]David Noel Freedman, “Is it Possible to Understand the Book of Job?” Bible Review 4 (April 1988): 29.

[6]H. H. Rowley, “Job,” in The Century Bible, New Series (London: Nelson, 1970), 263.

[7]Lindsay Wilson, “The Role of the Elihu Speeches in the Book of Job,” The Reformed Theological Review 55, no. 2 (May-August 1996): 94.

[8]The term “drama” is not meant to imply doubt in the historicity of Job, but is simply an acknowledgment of the literary nature of the Book of Job. The character of Elihu, whom I believe to be an actual historical figure, also fulfills certain literary purposes in the Book of Job.

[9]James F. Ross, “Job 33:14-30: The Phenomenology of Lament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 94, no. 1 (March 1975): 38. Other commentators who hold to this same basic viewpoint include David Noel Freedman, “The Elihu Speeches in the Book of Job: A Hypothetical Episode in the Literary History of the Work,” Harvard Theological Review 61 (1968): 51; Marvin E. Tate, “The Speeches of Elihu,” Review and Expositor 68, no. 4 (Fall 1971): 487; A. S. Peake, “Job: Introduction, Revised Version with Notes and Index,” in The Century Bible, ed. Walter F. Adeney (Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1905), 274-75; Rowley, 262-63.

[10]Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), 105-114. Gordis believes that, at an advanced age, the original author became more convinced of the disciplinary function of suffering, and wanted to give this idea a place in the story without taking away from the primary answer given in the God speeches.

[11]David J. A. Clines, “Putting Elihu in His Place: A Proposal for the Relocation of Job 32-37,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29, no. 2 (2004): 243-53.

[12]Don H. McGaughey, “The Speeches of Elihu: A Study of Job Chapters 32-37” (master’s thesis, Harding Graduate School of Religion, 1957), 62.

[13]Scholars upholding the authenticity of the Elihu section of Job include McGaughey, 62-74; J. Gerald Janzen, “Job,” in Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 217-18; Larry J. Waters, “The Authenticity of the Elihu Speeches in Job 32-37,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (January-March 1999): 38-41; Wilson, 81-94; Walter L. Michel, “Job’s Real Friend: Elihu,” Criterion 21 (Spring 1982): 30.

[14]Wilson, 82.

[15]McGaughey, 63; Wilson, 83.

[16]Tate, 487-88, mentions Elihu’s use of a different name for God, his preference for the first person singular pronoun, and his tendency to directly quote Job’s statements as all being distinctive. Nevertheless, he ultimately concludes that “…the arguments from style are difficult to sustain.”

[17]McGaughey, 65-66; Waters, 40.

[18]Whedbee, 18.

[19]For example, Freedman, “Elihu Speeches,” 51-59, suggests that the Elihu speeches were part of a major revision project, were originally divided into four distinct speeches, and were intended to be placed at certain points in the dialogue. Meanwhile, Clines, 248-53, suggests that the Elihu chapters are intended to be kept together, but should be moved after the third cycle of the dialogue ends in chapter 27, before the poem on wisdom in chapter 28, and Job’s final speech in Job 29-31.

[20]Donald Arvid Johns, “The Literary and Theological Function of the Elihu Speeches in the Book of Job” (PhD diss., St. Louis University, 1983), 182. “For God to appear at the summons of Job, and then present a powerful speech on his sovereignty over the universe would be very inconsistent.”

[21]Gordis, The Book of God and Man, 109, actually calls this the “heart of the argument” against the authenticity of the Elihu speeches.

[22]All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.

[23]Scholars disagree about the exact implications of the detailed description of Elihu’s familial background. Wisdom, 29, states that the formal identification points to the importance of Elihu’s character and message. John E. Hartley, The Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 429, says that the full genealogy “reflects Elihu’s youth and lack of personal accomplishment” but also that his name is similar to the name Elijah and reflects his role in the book as God’s forerunner. Tate, 489-90, mentions that the references seem to make Elihu a countryman of Job and hint that he is more closely related to the Hebrews than the three friends.

[24]Hartley, 430; Rowley, 262-91; Freedman, Elihu Speeches, 51. Even those commentators who typically count five speeches only differ in that they count Elihu’s introductory comments in chapter 32 as a separate speech. See Matthew J. Lynch, “Bursting at the Seams: Phonetic Rhetoric in the Speeches of Elihu,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30, no. 3 (2006): 349-60.

[25]Hartley, 430.

[26]Ross, 38-46, focuses extensively on this idea of an “angelic spokesman.”

[27]Hartley, 430.

[28]Robert V. McCabe, “Elihu’s Contribution to the Thought of the Book of Job,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 2 (Fall 1997): 58. “On the one had, Job feels his innocency and God’s denying him justice should qualify Job for a legal hearing…On the other hand, Job claims that his righteous lifestyle has had no effect on God.”

[29]Hartley, 430.

[30]McCabe, 60.

[31]Hartley, 475; McCabe, 61.

[32]In addition to these main viewpoints is the perspective of H. D. Beeby, “Elihu—Job’s Mediator?,” South East Asia Journal of Theology 7, no. 2 (October 1965): 33-54. Beeby sees Elihu as a “Covenant Mediator” who makes possible the presentation of Israel’s faith to Job, a Gentile. Beeby’s viewpoint, while interesting, is not supported by other commentators.

[33]Tate, 495.

[34]H. L. Ellison, From Tragedy to Triumph: The Message of the Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 107.

[35]Norman C. Habel, “The Book of Job,” in The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 182.

[36]Larry J. Waters, “Elihu’s Categories of Suffering from Job 32-37,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (October-December 2009): 405-20, says Elihu suggests that suffering can be preventive, disciplinary, educational, glorifying, revelational, organizational, relational, and judgmental. This stands in contrast the three friends, who argued that “punishment for evil is the only reason for suffering,” p. 416.

[37]J. W. McKay, “Elihu—A Proto-Charismatic?,” The Expository Times 90, no. 6 (March 1979): 168.

[38]Wilson, 86; Johns, 163: “Elihu is not nearly so harsh in his attitude towards Job as many commentators have led us to believe. He comes down hard on Job only for specific statements made during the course of the debate.”

[39]Lynch 345-64, suggests several ways in which Elihu’s self-perception could be called into question, including Elihu’s burning anger as emphasized by the narrator in Job 32.2-5, and his declaration that he is “full of words” (Job 32.18), despite the fact that Job is already tired of the many words of the three friends and has suggested that wisdom is indicated by silence (Job 13.5).

[40]Norman C. Habel, “Literary Features and the Message of the Book of Job,” in Sitting with Job, 108; Whedbee, 20, is particularly hard on Elihu, calling him a “caricature” of the three friends and saying that he “…emerges in the total context of the book as a comic figure whom the author exposes and ridicules.”

[41]There are many scholars who hold this view including Hartley, 427; Gordis, The Book of God and Man, 115-16; Wisdom, 29; McKay, 167; McGaughey, 72; McCabe, 79-80; Johns 169-70; Parsons, 20-21.

[42]Gordis, The Book of God and Man, 115-16; Johns, 163-66, lists more similarities between Elihu and Elijah, but those mentioned above are the strongest connections.

[43]Larry J. Waters, “Elihu’s Theology and His View of Suffering,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (April-June 1999): 144.

[44]Michel, 30: “Why is it possible for God to speak to Job and for Job to hear God only after the Elihu speech?”

[45]McCabe, 62; Johns, 169-80, gives a detailed comparison of Elihu’s final speech and God’s speech.

7 Comments

  1. … I … LOVE … THIS … POST.

    Well written, well done. I am first of all ecstatic to hear you talk about Job, and thrilled to hear more about Elihu. I have always liked this character, but have never done formal research into him. Thank you for presenting your hard work to us. Enlightening. I am pleased to see that you also feel that Elihu’s place in Job is crucial (and that after extensive research).

    Look forward to reading more of your work. Are you going to publish this?

  2. Justin,

    Thanks.

    Elihu is a pretty popular guy for people to write about, so there was a lot of material to sift through. It really was interesting to see the wide array of opinions on him.

    I’ve enjoyed studying Job a lot, and my perspective on it has shifted somewhat. Specifically in regards to the Wager between God and Satan in chapter 1, and the way that God bets on Job. The implications of that are mind-blowing to me.

    As far as publication…well, it’s published on my blog. That’s probably all it deserves. 🙂

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thank you for your excellent work on Elihu. After reading Hartley’s commentary, I felt compelled to read more and I am thrilled by your analysis. I am forwarding your work to a couple of my friends. BTW: in Judaic tradition, Rabbi Moses Maimonides also consider Elihu to be the key to understand the Book of Job.

  5. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the kind words!

    I actually entered into my research very unsure as to Elihu’s role in the Book of Job, but by the end, came to conclude that he plays a crucial role in preparing Job to hear what Yahweh has to say to him.

    Also, I appreciated your mention of Rabbi Maimonides—I didn’t cite him in the paper but did come across his perspectives in my research.

    Thanks again for the comment!

    • Respectfull text.
      You compare Elihu to Elijah. That is not the case in the book. Two questions would solve that> 1.Exact meaning of Elihu in hebrew 2. What is the Name of God, Who is HE
      The stone that builders rejectet became the chief corner stone Halleluyah
      God blesss

      • Luke

        February 28, 2017 at 9:45 AM

        Asparuh,

        Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

        The Divine Name is generally transliterated as YHWH, but in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is referred to by a variety of names and titles in addition to YHWH/Yahweh/Jehovah. “Elijah” literally means “The LORD is my God” with “LORD” being a reference to the Divine Name. “Elihu” is, truly, a variant, meaning “He is my God.” Almost certainly, this would also be a reference to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, the two names are similar, which is the claim I made above.

        Also, I am not intending to equate Elijah with Elihu (either the name or the person), but I do think that we should read the bible canonically, and allow texts to interpret one another. It does seem to me that there are a lot of intentional similarities between the two characters (as described above in the main post), and by looking at the better known and more clearly-described Elijah, we can perhaps get a clearer picture of the less-clear Elihu.

        Thanks again for the discussion; blessings to you!

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