I’ve always been fascinated by the character Elihu in the book of Job. What is his purpose in the overall story? Why is he even included? I don’t have total clarity, but in reading through Job a few weeks ago I tried to articulate a few reasons why he seems to me to be a more sympathetic character in the book than Job’s other friends.
1. Elihu’s placement in the overall flow of the book seems to differentiate him from the earlier dialogue. His introduction in 32:1-5 marks the first narrative break after 30 chapters of speeches, and whereas Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad all enter into dialogue with Job, there is no response from Job to Elihu’s speech. In other words, chapters 32-37 seem to me more like a bridge between 3-31 and 38-41 than an extension of 3-31.
2. Job’s other friends have the same basic message (“you must have sinned”), while Elihu’s message seems more nuanced, drawing attention to the fact of divine providence and God’s redemptive purpose in suffering (e.g., 33:29-33). Unlike Job’s other friends, Elihu seems to have a category for suffering other than as punishment for sin. Also, near its conclusion Elihu’s speech seems to anticipate God’s speech in 38-41 by drawing attention to God’s mighty governance of creation, and Job’s smallness in comparison to it (cf. 37:14-18).
3. Though Elihu has some tough words for Job, his speech is no less against Job 3 friends. 32:3 specifies part of his reason for speaking in the first place as anger at their unjust condemnation of Job, and in 32:12 he states outright that they have not adequately responded to Job: “there was none among you who refuted Job or who answered his words” (32:12).
4. It is noteworthy that Elihu is not rebuked by God along with Job’s other friends in 42:7-9, and that Job does not intercede for Elihu as he does for his companions.
All of this points, I think, to Elihu serving as some sort of denouement before God finally speaks to Job. The remaining question in my mind is: is Elihu’s rebuke of Job on target? I think so, based on its content, placement in the overall flow of the book, and the lack of any negative response to it. But I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that Elihu must be taken on his own terms, not lumped together with Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad.