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Without provocation, another friend, Elihu, suddenly enters the conversation. The young Elihu believes that Job has spent too much energy vindicating himself rather than God. Elihu explains to Job that God communicates with humans by two ways—visions and physical pain. He says that physical suffering provides the sufferer with an opportunity to realize God’s love and forgiveness when he is well again, understanding that God has “ransomed” him from an impending death (33:24). Elihu also assumes that Job must be wicked to be suffering as he is, and he thinks that Job’s excessive talking is an act of rebellion against God.
God finally interrupts, calling from a whirlwind and demanding Job to be brave and respond to his questions. God’s questions are rhetorical, intending to show how little Job knows about creation and how much power God alone has. God describes many detailed aspects of his creation, praising especially his creation of two large beasts, the Behemoth and Leviathan. Overwhelmed by the encounter, Job acknowledges God’s unlimited power and admits the limitations of his human knowledge. This response pleases God, but he is upset with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar for spouting poor and theologically unsound advice. Job intercedes on their behalf, and God forgives them. God returns Job’s health, providing him with twice as much property as before, new children, and an extremely long life.
The Book of Job is one of the most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, not only because it explores some of the most profound questions humans ask about their lives, but also because it is extremely well written. The work combines two literary forms, framing forty chapters of verse between two and a half chapters of prose at the beginning and the end. The poetic discourse of Job and his friends is unique in its own right. The lengthy conversation has the unified voice and consistent style of poetry, but it is a dialogue between characters who alter their moods, question their motives, change their minds, and undercut each other with sarcasm and innuendo. Although Job comes closest to doing so, no single character articulates one true or authoritative opinion. Each speaker has his own flaws as well as his own lofty moments of observation or astute theological insight.
The interaction between Job and his friends illustrates the painful irony of his situation. Our knowledge that Job’s punishment is the result of a contest between God and Satan contrasts with Job’s confusion and his friends’ lecturing, as they try to understand why Job is being punished. The premise of the friends’ argument is that misfortune only follows from evil deeds. Bildad instructs Job, “if you are pure and upright, / surely then [God] will rouse himself / for you” and he later goads Job to be a “blameless person” (8:6, 8:20). The language in these passages is ironic, since, unbeknownst to Job or Job’s friends, God and Satan do in fact view Job as “blameless and upright.” This contrast shows the folly of the three friends who ignore Job’s pain while purporting to encourage him. The interaction also shows the folly of trying to understand God’s ways. The three friends and Job have a serious theological conversation about a situation that actually is simply a game between God and Satan. The fault of Job and his friends lies in trying to explain the nature of God with only the limited information available to human knowledge, as God himself notes when he roars from the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkness counsel / by words without / knowledge?” (38:2).
The dominant theme of Job is the difficulty of understanding why an all-powerful God allows good people to suffer. Job wants to find a way to justify God’s actions, but he cannot understand why there are evil people who “harm the childless woman, / and do no good to the widow,” only to be rewarded with long, successful lives (24:21). Job’s friends, including Elihu, say that God distributes outcomes to each person as his or her actions deserve. As a result of this belief, they insist that Job has committed some wrongdoing to merit his punishment. God himself declines to present a rational explanation for the unfair distribution of blessings among men. He boasts to Job, “Have you comprehended the / expanse of the earth? / Declare, if you know all this” (38:18). God suggests that people should not discuss divine justice since God’s power is so great that humans cannot possibly justify his ways.
One of the chief virtues of the poetry in Job is its rhetoric. The book’s rhetorical language seeks to produce an effect in the listener rather than communicate a literal idea. God’s onslaught of rhetorical questions to Job, asking if Job can perform the same things he can do, overwhelms both Job and the reader with the sense of God’s extensive power as well as his pride. Sarcasm is also a frequent rhetorical tool for Job and his friends in their conversation. After Bildad lectures Job about human wisdom, Job sneers, “How you have helped one / who has no power! / How you have assisted the arm / that has no strength!” (26:2). Job is saying that he already knows what Bildad has just explained about wisdom. The self-deprecating tone and sarcastic response are rare elements in ancient verse. Such irony not only heightens the playfulness of the text but suggests the characters are actively responding to each other, thus connecting their seemingly disparate speeches together. The poetry in Job is a true dialogue, for the characters develop ideas and unique personalities throughout the course of their responses.