The Purpose of Job's Affliction.
The language of Elihu's last speech becomes incredibly compressed and tantalizingly elusive especially when Elihu begins to speak about his interpretation of Job's distress. Yet, there is enough coherence in the words to extract a meaning that is arresting and potentially life-changing. We begin with 36:15.
Job 36:15, Affliction as Opening the Ear
Elihu is committed to the educational value of suffering. If righteous persons are afflicted and "bound in fetters (36:8)," God "opens their ears to instruction (36:10)." Affliction becomes the means by which God delivers people. Elihu then states the broad, general principle:
"He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity (36:15)."
The phrase translated "by their affliction" renders one word in Hebrew: it is, at the same time, a preposition, a noun and a possessive. The preposition ("buh") can be translated "by means of" or "in," thus giving the translation possibilities as: "he delivers the afflicted by means of their affliction," or "he delivers the afflicted in their affliction." Affliction either is the means of God's delivery or is the arena in which God delivers. In either reading, suffering and pain is the laboratory for deliverance.
This construal of pain by Elihu has an intuitive psychological appeal. It recognizes that affliction is the great continuing education possibility in life; it "opens the ear" to new noises and sounds, and it leads us into new paths that we hitherto have not trod. In other words, affliction becomes the means for a possible reorientation of our mental furniture. What often is the case, however, is that we fall into a situation in life in which we cannot distinguish between our distress and the interpretation of our distress. They become so fused in our mind that our suffering can only mean ONE THING. That is what happened to Job. Elihu's speeches explore the idea that there might be other meanings to his distress than the meaning Job has put on it.
Job 36:16, Affliction as Teaching Freedom
Elihu is not shy about giving his interpretation of what he believes God is trying to communicate to Job through his distress. Though no translation is adequate here, the NRSV will suffice:
"he also allured you out of distress into a broad place where there was no constraint, and what was set on your table was full of fatness (36:16)."
These 27 English words translate 12 Hebrew words. The literal flow of the Hebrew is as follows: "Certainly also he enticed you (or "he is enticing you" or "allured/ing" or even "incited/ing" are good translations) from the jaws of distress; a broad space without limitation instead of it [the cramping of distress?] and the setting down of your table fills fatness (i.e., "full of fatness")." Elihu is trying to say that Job's distress is the means by which God is leading him to a broad and abundant place in life.
The biblical cadences and echoes of "broad place" and "fatness" are unmistakable. The "broad place" ('rahab') is mentioned in Psalm 18 in the context of deliverance when it says that God "brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me (18:18)." The "broad place" is the place in which new possibilities for life exist. And the image of the table and fatness is not only suggestive of the Psalmist's brimming confidence in Ps.23:5, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies," but also of the spiritual satisfaction experienced by David when he says, "My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast (literally, "with fat and fatness"), and my mouth praises you with joyful lips... (Ps. 63:5)." Rather than taking a line from Eliphaz, who expected good things for Job's future (5:19-20) or Bildad, whose first expression of hope was for Job's "latter days" (Job 8:7), Elihu directs Job's attention to the here and now. 'Now,' he suggests, 'and in this distress, through this distresss, by means of this distress, God is bringing you into freedom.' That is the ultimate interpretive key for Job's new life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long