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24 Jan

Exploration of Supernatural as a Literary Technique in the Opening Speech of Eliphaz in the Book of Job- Dr Vishnu Somasundaran

Exploration of Supernatural as a Literary Technique in the Opening Speech of Eliphaz in the Book of Job

Dr Vishnu Somasundaran

(Associate Professor, Department of Humanities, Vidya Academy of S & T, Thrissur)


Eliphaz’s first speech in the book of Job (ch. 4-5) in the Bible employs the supernatural as a literary device to buttress his narrative positioning with Satan in voicing the idea of the essential human unworthiness which makes human integrity to God both impossible and improbable. He authenticates his message by his innuendos, ambivalent general statements, allusions to traditional sayings, a hymn to God and a supernatural vision he had in the eerie watch of the night. The present study explores how the author orchestrates various elements such as the mode of reception of the message, ambiguous expressions, rare technical words, creation of the eerie, weird atmosphere and depiction of physiological and psychological effects on Eliphaz to create the effect of supernatural.

The Background of the First Speech of Eliphaz

The integrity of Job, a wealthy Sheikh of Uz in Arabia becomes the apple of discord between Almighty God Yahweh and Satan in heaven. Satan argues that Job integrity is false and it will wither away under test. With God’s permission Satan annihilates his wealth and ten children and affects him with a dreadful malady that leaves him on an ash heap as both a cadaverous and ostracised man. As a counsellor Eliphaz faces a dilemma and presses into the service the element of supernatural in the form of a dreadful encounter with an uncanny apparition in Job 4.12-21(New World Translation with References 1984). The so-called sacred pronouncements from a spirit in the eerie watch of the night expecting that these would serve as additives to make both his counsel appealing and arguments persuasive. The mode of transmission of the vision plays an important role in creating such an impression.

Mode of Reception of Eliphaz’s Vision and its Deviation from the OT Pattern

The book of Job is the first of the five poetic books in the Old Testament and the mode of transmission of the message to Eliphaz differs from the conventional methods of transmission of divine messages in the OT. Employing such a deviation from the traditional mode is deliberate and could be viewed as a literary device. Prophets, seers and priests serve as liaisons through which God communicates his messages to his chosen people of Israel in the OT. Moreover, these messages reflect God’s name variously pronounced as Jehovah or Yahweh, his personality and purpose.

In Dr S. Radhakrishnan’s words, “The God of Hebrews is of a different type. He is personal and active in history and interested in the changes and chances of this developing world. He is a Being who communicates with us”(qtd in Why Should We Worship God in Love and Truth?). Hence as a narrative character any revelations from him conform to the norms of specificity with times, places, persons, and events as exemplified in the OT. The mode of transmission of the messages are marked with a meticulous avoidance of practices related to anything uncanny and weird in view of the OT censor of such practices (Deuteronomy 18. 9-13).

In stark contrast with the OT prophetic messages, the source of Eliphaz’s vision is anonymous. It remains a mystery. The message is not conveyed with the urgency, immediacy and directness of messages from Jehovah. Rather, it is the case when “a word was stealthily brought” (v.12). Evidently, no direct addressing of the receiver is found here. Neither does it provide the historical context of the message nor does it reveal its purpose. All these are obscure. Even when Eliphaz manages to steal some part of the message, the reason for its delivery remains a mystery. These serve as clue to the source of Eliphaz’s message as Satan. Language of the message is yet another consideration.

Special Use of Language and Vocabulary in Eliphaz’s Vision

The language of the typical OT divine messages is never abstract, vague, nor unclear. On the contrary, it is generally unambiguous, lucid, and clear as illustrated by the famous passage from Isaiah that adorn the wall of the UNO, “And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore” (2.4). In most cases the language of revelation in OT is vivid, picturesque and energetic. In this criterion also Eliphaz’s use of language deviates from the norm in OT.                       

The narration of Eliphaz’s confrontation with the spirit consists of the elements of mystery. According to Hartley the author adroitly employs techniques of “the extensive use of indeterminate language” and “piling up of rare and technical words” such as “ “ gunnāb, “came stealthily”; šÄ“meÅŸ, “a whisper”; Å›éippÈ‹m, “troubling thoughts”; ḥezyōnôṯ lāylâ , “night visions”,; tardÄ“mâ “heavy sleep”; paḥaḏ, “dread”; ḥālap, “glided”; rûaḥ, “wind, spirit”; simmÄ“r, “crawl”; mar’eh, “appearance”; temûnâ, “form”; demāmâ, “silence”” and the combined weight of all these words is overwhelming” in order to “heighten the numinous quality” of Eliphaz’s encounter with the supernatural (112). An analysis of these words brings out the skilful creation of the effect of supernatural elements in the vision as a literary device.

A Knocking from the Supernatural and the Responses of Eliphaz

The narration of the vision of Eliphaz opens with the line, “Now to me a word was stealthily brought” (v.12a). The beginning prepositional phrase ‘to me,’ serves a narrative purpose. It emphasises his personal involvement in the vision (Hartley 111). It highlights the privileged position of Eliphaz over other thinkers belonging to the guild of wisdom movement who are custodians of the receptacles of the essence of wisdom. He assumes a position which is higher than his contemporaries and colleagues on account of his privileged position of being privy to the supernatural revelation. After having attested Eliphaz’s qualification as a counsellor, the writer repeats a ‘key word’ from the previous plot movement ‘word’ (2.13b) with a narrative intent.

The expression ‘a word’ dābār (4.12) is significant. It calls back the earlier issues in the first plot movement in chs 1, 2 and establishes a thematic connection to the circumstances that compelled Eliphaz to listen to the tapping of the supernatural apparition. At the beginning of the second plot movement where Jobs friends arrive to visit Job, the narrator reports their failure to impart a word of comfort to their bosom friend. They became petrified on seeing the plight of their bosom companion deserted on the ash heap as both penurious and cadaverous like a broken vessel of pottery. Narrator sumps up their failure: “No one said a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great” (2.13b, italics added).

The dilemma of the counsellor Eliphaz is twofold. First is the compulsion to speak a word of comfort out of love and concern for his friend. Second is the apprehension whether some words of counsel or comfort would inadvertently offend the suffering friend. The skill of the poet in preparing the mind of Eliphaz to be conducive to the operation of the uncanny spirit prior to the reception of supernatural message is praise worthy. It resembles the process of preparation of the vehicle of reception of oracle in the rites of ancient tribal religions. The time of the transmission is the night watch as indicated by the line, “visions of the night, / When deep sleep falls upon men” v.13b. Terrien comments the nature of sleep to be “trancelike, hypnotic, mantic sleep” (78). The word used here for deep sleep is tardÄ“mâ.

The word tardÄ“mâ used for heavy sleep means “a stupor . . . , blocking out all other perceptions, in order that the person may be completely receptive” (Hartley 112). The deep stupor that fell upon Eliphaz is comparable to the sleep that fell on Adam during the creation of Eve (Gen. 2.21) (Rowley and Black 47). It was “an extraordinary supernatural mood of anaesthesia, in which a person feels and perceives nothing” and is “sensitized to experiencing a divine revelation” (Clines 129).

The time of the vision of Eliphaz is indicated by the word ḥizzāyôn which denotes “the reception of messages from a spiritual world, most often at night” (Hartley 112). After carefully preparing such an atmosphere Eliphaz tells the auditory part of his vision, “And a whisper of it reached my ear” (4.12b). The word šÄ“meÅŸ ‘whisper’ is found only here and in 26:14 in OT which has two different meanings as ‘a little’ and ‘a lot’ “suggesting that it has polarized meanings” (Rowley 47) . The effect of such a word with ambiguous possibilities is that it projects the confusion in the mind of the recipient of the message.         

Eliphaz’s Encounter with the Spirit

The word séÈ‹pÈ‹m for troubling thoughts in 4.13a could mean ‘boughs,’ which portrays the picture of luxuriant boughs that branch off from the trees in diverse direction and in this context picture the intertwined boughs of confused medley of thoughts and opinions resulting in “bewilderment and indecision” (Rowley and Black 47). The imagery pregnant in the word dexterously portrays the psychological symptoms of diverging paths of troubling thoughts in Eliphaz due to his encounter with supernatural. In 4.14, “A terrible trembling came upon me,/ Filling all my bones with dread.”

The imagery of bones delineates the psychological fear of Eliphaz. “The bones, opines S. R. Driver, as the supporting framework of the body, are often in Heb. poetry taken as representing it; and affections, and even emotions, pervading or affecting strongly a man’s being, are poetically attributed to them, or conceived as operating in them” (qtd. in Clines 130). The imagery of filling all his bones as if they were filled with the potions of trembling fear graphically portrays the numbing experience of Eliphaz at his encounter with the uncanny.

The next line emphasises the arrival of the spirit which is similar to a wind Eliphaz recollects with terror, “A spirit passed over my face” (v.15a). There is a play here on the Hebrew word rûaḥ , says Clines which means both “spirit” and “wind,” wherein the “spirit manifested its presence in a gust of wind” (128). The two meanings of the word rûah ,“such as wind, spirit” is dexterously manipulated by the author, first to denote the spirit person that spoke to Eliphaz and second, to retrieve the memory of the diabolic wind that extinguished the spirit of Job’s children to the mind of reader as an effective backdrop for the scene.

The author intensifies the effect on the reader by graphically portraying the transference of psychological terror of Eliphaz into physiological symptoms in 4.15 which says, “A spirit passed over my face; / The hair of my flesh bristled.” The experience is typical of anyone coming face to face with an uncanny apparition. In their book Introduction to Physiology, H. Davson and M. B. Segal bodily phenomenon of bristling of hair as a direct result of intense fear, “The bristling of the body hair, known as pilo-eruction, is a well-known physiological reaction to fear; it is brought about by the arrectores pilorum muscles and contributes to the thermal insulation of the body” (qtd. in Clines 130). The delineation of the hair rising experience of Eliphaz serves as a means of externalization of his internal terror.

The next verse narrates Eliphaz’s firsthand experience with the spirit in these words, “It then stood still,/ But I did not recognize its appearance,/ A form was in front of my eyes;/There was a calm, and then I heard a voice” (16.a,b) where Eliphaz, “uses the imperfect form, equivalent to our historic present, vividly describing his experience as though he is passing through it again” (Rowley and Black 48). The usage brings out the indelible imprint of the dreadful ordeal embedded on Eliphaz’s psyche which is perpetuated by the frequent recollections and reliving of those moments.

Rowley and Mathew Black point to the features of grammar which brings out the abruptness of the terrifying experience of Eliphaz in this verse (48). First, the word “it” denotes that “the subject is the mysterious unnamed object” the vagueness of which “heightens the terror.” Secondly, as a “deliberate technique” of the author, the line is kept short, with only a single word in the Hebrew, instead of the usual three;” and “The breaking off of the line suggests the sudden catch of the breath, as the horror of that moment returns to Eliphaz” (Rowley and Black 48).            

After having painted the experiences of Eliphaz through physiological and psychological symptoms the vision moves on to the message of the auditory vision. The author employs other literary techniques to drive home the point which is illustrated in v.17, which reads, ‘Mortal man—can he be more just than God himself?/ Or can able-bodied man be cleaner than his own Maker?’ The coupling of the expressions ‘mortal man’ and ‘able-bodied man’ by the author highlights a subtle point in Hebrew that helps to bring out the thrust of the message which Eliphaz employs to undermine Job’s course of integrity. It is the literary convention of OT writers to employ the interplay of different words for man in Hebrew to highlight various shades of the reality of human existence. An overview of such a convention is essential in order to penetrate into the quintessence of Eliphaz’s words in v.17.

Eliphaz’s Use of Dimensions of ‘Man’ in the OT as a Literary Technique

The article ““Man” in the Hebrew Scriptures” explains the use of different words for ‘man’ in the Old Testament such as ish, adám, enósh, and geber and how OT writers employ these to create literary effects. When the writers want to emphasize different aspects of human life, they adopt a unique device of meticulously choosing the distinct Hebrew words used for man where each word helps to view man from a certain distinct standpoint. Many Bible translations in modern English do not give attention to these details. However, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures with References – 1984 edition is a literal translation that brings out such distinctions.

It renders the distinction of four main words as ish, meaning simply man; adám, meaning human or earthling; enósh, meaning weak or mortal; and geber, meaning a physically strong or able-bodied man. The policy of ‘uniformity of rendering’ which means using the same expressions for the same words wherever the context permits, makes it a good choice for those who want to undertake the literary study of the Bible, since it helps in tracing the reiterative patterns of key words which is a major literary convention in the Hebrew narrative (Vishnu 113).

 When Eliphaz repeats the message he received from the spirit in 4.17, ‘Mortal man—can he be more just than God himself? / Or can able-bodied man be cleaner than his own Maker?’ the peculiar coupling of terms such as enósh ‘mortal man’ and geber ‘able-bodied man’ are used to portray the innate inferiority of humans in the general frame of a message to highlight Eliphaz’s thesis about the condition of humans including Job.

In an endeavour to substantiate his claim, Eliphaz introduces the themes of human fragility, human mortality and their susceptibility to sudden death in 4.17 using the imagery of the perishing moth and the pulling out of tent pins to highlight the transitory human existence in which the ideal such as integrity to God is alien. The fundamental opposition latent in the creator/creation polarity in the imagery sets the framework for interpreting the moral structures that portrays God as potter or the Maker ‘ōśe who forms humans out of clay or dust ‘āpār that symbolize their fragile and transitory nature (Habel 129).

Clearly from the standpoint of the world view and theological impulse of the OT the vision shared to Eliphaz leads to purposelessness and chaos for the one who wants to keep integrity to God. Eliphaz’s reliance on a message from occult source identifies his narrative position with Satan in Joban narrative. In this also the use of supernatural as a literary device is evident.


The first speech of Eliphaz in the Book of Job explores the possibilities of employing supernatural as a literary device to project Eliphaz as an aide of Satan who wants to turn Job away from his path of integrity to Jehovah. Eliphaz’s employs the vision he had from a supernatural spirit at the eerie watch of night to dissuade Job. The author dexterously employs the elements of supernatural in articulating the narrative position of Eliphaz.

The mode of reception of the message and the negative content the message deviate from the traditional OT pattern of divine messages. Moreover, the use of uncanny power is prohibited in the OT and Eliphaz’s using such supernatural sources identify his narrative position with Satan. The author employs linguistic and stylistic techniques, literary features such as the use of rare technical words, words with multiple meaning, words to create the atmosphere conducive to uncanny, special use of Hebrew grammar, the description of psychological and physiological responses of Eliphaz, the use of special word play, the use of different words for man to depict different aspects of human existence and apt imagery imagery to intricately interweave supernatural elements into the fabric of the first speech of Eliphaz. In all these prolific ways the author has crafted the first speech of Eliphaz in the Book of Job as a rare specimen in the Hebrew Scriptures with the masterly manipulation of the dimensions of supernatural as a literary technique.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. USA: Basic Books, 1981. Print.

Clines, David J. A. Word Biblical Commentary. Job 1-20. Vol.17. Texas: Word Books, 1989. Print.

Habel, Norman.C. The Book of Job: A Commentary. Philadelphia: the Westminister Press, 1985. Print.

Hartley, John. E. The Book of Job. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. Print.

 ““Man” in the Hebrew Scriptures” The Watchtower. 1 Jan. 1962 : 56-59. Print.

New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures: With References. Brooklyn: Watchtower,1984. Print.

Rowley, H. H. & Mathew Black, eds. Peake’s Commentary on the Bible. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Terrien, S. The Elusive Presence. New York: Harper and Row, 1978. Print.

Vishnu, S. “The New World Translation: A Modern Literal Bible for Literary Study.” Conspectus: A Journal of English Studies 3 (2006): 107-119. Print.

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