Sound the sirens, Shmoopers: Job is a combination of poetry and prose, and the Bible never merges two styles lightly. What does this mean for you, the alert reader? Read on to find out.
The frame story (chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17) is written in prose and tells us about God, Satan, the divine court, Job's initial misfortunes, and finally Job's restoration.
This whole section is very A happens, B happens, C happens. There are no flashy images, no metaphors, and nothing poetic—just events taking place. It reads like a screenplay rather than a piece of philosophy. For example, in the last few lines of the book, the narrator tells us, "After this Job lived one hundred forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days" (42:16-17).
Hmmm. This sounds like a big section to skip. Job has gone from being incredibly annoyed at God to being joyous and happy with all that he has. The philosophy, the feelings, and the debates aren't the issue anymore; the author just wants you to know the outline of the story and how it all goes down.
Other things to notice about the prose section?:
These tidbits have led scholars to assert that the prose frame was composed at a way different cultural moment than the poetry section. What do you think?
The poetry section is different from the prose in about a zillion different ways. Since we don't have a zillion bullet points at our disposal, we'll narrow it down to a few, focusing on the style:
The poetry of Job contains some of the most famously epic lines in the Bible. Think "Your own lips testify against you" (15:6), and "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4). Yeah, there's nothing like this in the prose. This author was a poet, make no mistake.
In our humble opinion, God's speech in Job is one of the most poetic in the Bible. Boy, can that guy write. After Job, Elihu, and the three mourners have been asking questions in—let's face it—kind of a blubbering way, God comes in and asks questions like this: "Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?" (38:12) Um, no, God, no we haven't.
God's questions bring the debate to a whole new level. It isn't just a matter of "just" or "unjust" divine law, as Job and his friends have been talking about, it's now about all the complexities of the universe that humans have no capacity to understand.
We're always calling the prose section a "frame story," but let's think about what that means for a minute. A good frame, on a painting, enhances the picture by setting certain features off: the colors, the unicorn right in the center of the canvas (all good paintings have unicorns: Art History 101), or some other element of the composition. What does the prose section set off?
First, the prologue tells us who's "in the right," so to speak. Job's friends tell him he's done something wrong, but we know he hasn't. It's a nice way to achieve dramatic irony, where we, the audience, are let into the birds-eye view of God and Satan's heavenly machinations, and then we get to watch the mortal squabble over what just went down. We know that Job is right and the friends are wrong. Which is a pretty big giveaway.
The epilogue, however, signals that the dialogue isn't the end of the story. In the poetic section, we read that humans can never hope to understand God's workings and that there is no necessary relationship between what humans deem to be "good" and God's actions. The poetic section, basically, tries to make us understand that we'll never understand. Which is an understanding in itself (ow, our brains...).
But, right after this, the prose story closes things out by telling us that Job gets all his stuff back as compensation for his suffering. Hey, look, a relationship between what humans deem to be good and God's actions! It exists! Right?
That's the inconclusive conclusion of the Book of Job. Only one entity can answer that question—and it's not you.
The prose and poetic sections are nearly impossible to harmonize perfectly, but maybe there's a reason for that: since the overall moral of the Book of Job is that some things are beyond our comprehension, is it any wonder that the literary structure reflects that?
The title of this book is one of the very few cases where the Bible just says what it means—no deceptive advertising here. "Job" (pronounced y-obe) means hate or persecution in Hebrew. Makes a good amount of sense to us. Just like any good superhero—Spiderman, Superman, Aquaman—Job's name tells us a little bit about his story.
At the end of the Book of Job, God speaks. Whether there was a booming echo, we can't be sure, but it sure shuts Job up. For all of his yammering throughout the book, once God starts speaking, Job pretty much goes silent. All he says is that he's heard of God before (let's hope so!), but had never really seen him.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Enter God. End story.
Not so much. In some ways, Job is basically saying "I had to see it to believe it." But he can't have really seen it, since God is unknowable. Isn't that the whole point of the story? The authors just spent the whole book talking how God is a figure who works in mysterious ways, and who owes humanity no explanation. And now…God comes in and explains himself? What gives?
On the other hand, Job does finally gets it at the end. What does he get? That he can't understand everything. Job finally realizes that God's scope is way beyond his comprehension.
One last question, just to get you thinking: What do you think about Job being restored to his former glory? Is the book saying that if you complain enough, God will come down and give you back what was taken from you? Would the moral have been more powerful if Job had been left in the ashes?
The story is set in the land of Uz, which, it should be noted, is not part of Israel. You could guess that this officially classifies Job as a non-Israelite (a pretty shocking characteristic for a hero in the Hebrew Bible). But the story sets itself in the patriarchal age, way back before Moses and Joshua led their people into the land God promised them; i.e., before Israel was really a thing.
So it's not necessarily a strike against him, in the writer's eyes, that he's an Uzzian (we're sure that's what they were called.) Plus, Uz (a poetic name for a land called Edom) had a reputation among Biblical authors as being a legendary home of wisdom (see 1 Kings 5:10). So, in a nutshell, Job is a product of a slightly different world than his Israelite audience inhabited, living in the wise old land of yore.
In terms of micro-setting, most of our poetic dialogue happens in Job's burned out house, where he sits "among the ashes" and speaks to his friends (1:8). The whole scene is so bleak that Job's friends "did not recognize him" "when they saw him from a distance" (2:12). Depressing, we know.
If you were directing Job as a play, you'd only need one minimalistic set. In many Bible stories, setting is hugely important, but Job is a much more philosophical text. The focus is on one man and his relationship with God.
Heads up, Shmoopers. There is some major disagreement about when Job was written down, and it's kind of a firestorm in the academic community. But don't worry, we're here to help.
First, it's important to remember that dating any Biblical text is very difficult. When Harry Potter came out, it came out. The text was finished, edited, and published in its current form. But in the ancient world, there were no publishing houses, most people couldn't read, and literacy was confined to kingly courts. That makes dating these things pretty tough.
Even if we could date a biblical text, all that would tell us is when the story was written down—not when it emerged on the cultural scene. That means a story like Job could have been around in different forms (told by different storytellers in different cultures) for millennia before somebody decided to write it down. And even once it was written down, somebody may have picked that document up, hummed "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain When She Comes" to themselves, and changed whatever they wanted. So we're talking multiple layers of changes, additions, and alterations, all of which work in service to the political motivations of whoever was writing at the time. Confused yet? So are we.
That said, in terms of Job, we have to consider the differences between the prose frame story and the poetic middle section. Let's start with the frame story.
The reference to some sort of divine court and the "sons of God" smacks of a monotheism that isn't all the way developed just yet, which might suggest a pre-exilic date (after the tragedy of the exile to Babylon in 586 BCE, the Israelites really hunkered down and tried to stop cheating on God with other gods, thinking that their disloyalty led to the exile). Thanks to this, some old potential parallels in Ancient Near Eastern literature, and the folk-taley feel of the text, scholars feel pretty comfy putting the frame-story in the pre-exilic period, or, at the very least, before the poetic section.
Meanwhile, the poetic section seems to give a shout out to some pretty serious theological critiques, in the context of a strict monotheism (no divine court in the dialogue). And we know from studying the rest of the Hebrew Bible that these two factors almost always flag post-exilic literature. After the exile, the Israelites simultaneously strengthened their monotheism (no more cheating), and started lobbing some serious gut-wrenching questions God's way (one upside of monotheism is you only have one door to knock on, after all). The big one: why do bad things (the exile) happen to good people (the chosen Israelites)? Not easy to answer.
There's more evidence that you don't need to worry about (linguistic blah de blah and some literary dependency something or other), but here's the nutshell: the prose frame story is probably pre-exilic and was composed before 586 BCE, and the poetic dialogue is likely post-exilic (general consensus is 6th century, but it's a hot topic). The poetic author likely used the widely-known prose frame-story to pose the question, then composed his poetic epic to provide an answer.
If there is an answer at all...
Sounds like the world's most boring dissertation of all time. Fear not, Shmoopers. We've got you covered.
We all have rituals surrounding death and what the living do when they lose a loved one. Some people scatter ashes, some focus on burial, and still others mummify their dead (hello, ancient Egypt). Why are humans so concerned with death? Because—spoiler alert—we'll all experience it.
The ancient Israelites were no different. We learn this the hard way in Job when all of Job's family—except his wife—dies. Yep, all of them. Sounds like a perfect opportunity to show how a culture responds to this kind of thing.
When an Israelite died, the common mourning practice of was to tear your clothes, put on some sackcloth, and cry your eyes out. In fact, Israelites did this when there were national disasters, too—you know, city-sacking, exile, and all that jazz.
We don't know exactly when Job was written, but it was probably composed at a time when many Israelites were asking themselves big questions like "Why was our culture destroyed?" or "Why did God allow our cities to burn when we were faithful?"
Of course the questions in Job are universal, but in a political sense, these questions could definitely have been referring to the Babylonian exile. If it was all compiled around or after the 6th century BCE (check out "Setting" for more on that), that puts us right smack dab in the middle of all that. So if you're an Israelite writer hanging out on the banks of the Euphrates in exile, or ruminating on the fact that such a tragedy even happened, you might want to recombine this old Israelite myth with some newer ideas (like Satan) that would relate to people's modern situation.
Job spends his entire book in a position of sadness and loss. Most books of the Bible take place on larger stages, but the Book of Job goes down at a very specific and narrow point in the human life cycle: mourning. If we were to film this book, the whole movie would take place on a single set, probably in a single day. Sounds artsy. It's no wonder we're made to think pretty hard about death.
Picture it. Job's entire life is destroyed and his skin is nastified, and what does he do? He "took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes" (2:8). That's right: he scrapes his sores with a broken piece of pottery. Folks, it doesn't get any more physical than this. Job is sitting in the ruins of his house, covered in sores, rubbing at them with a piece of broken china.
You're probably not surprised to hear that angels are all over the Bible. They may stand behind the curtain at times, but they're dynamic, powerful characters who help God and sit in his divine court. Just remember that heavenly beings and angels aren't winged cherubs yet. They're a big deal, but they haven't quite gotten the Miltonic treatment.
Satan and pals are really only around in the frame story. God does mention them in his speech at the end, but at that point, they only really sing his praises. In the frame story, on the other hand, the angels are kind of like members of the divine office. They go to meetings with God, interact with him, and even challenge him—Satan, we're looking at you.
You might remember that Eliphaz compares angels to humans. He basically says that if angels aren't perfect—which they aren't—there's no way humans are. So wait, we're comparing humans to divine beings? Yep. In fact, Satan himself tells God twice that he spends his time hanging out on the earth, "walking up and down on it" (1:7). And God definitely joins in on the human banter, too.
If you're thinking this is a bit strange, you're right. In fact, it's not like this anywhere else in the bible, really—we dare you to find another spot in the Bible where God and his posse seem so human.
All of that human-like stuff went down in the prose section. But in Elihu's speech—right smack dab in the middle of the poetry—we hear that that angels can act as guardians for the righteous (33:23-24). Doesn't that imply that angels are better than humans? So which is it? Is their power designed for the good of the righteous, or are they around to make wagers with God?
Watch out, folks. These combinations of ideas from different eras can get a bit dicey.
[Other places where angels are mentioned include 1:6, 2:1, 4:18, 15:8, 15:15, 38:7, and 41:9. Check 'em out for yourself.]
The Israelites had an idea about Heaven, but it was nothing like how we think about it today. Back in the day, Heaven was a purely divine domain, not somewhere you went when you died. Basically, it was the spot where Satan and God hung out, chatting about humans.
There had to be some conception of the afterlife, right? Yep. And that's where we get Sheol. Sheol is the Biblical underworld—think Hades in Greek mythology. When you die, you go to Sheol, a grim underworld where God forgets about you and your voice is silenced. We never really get a precise idea of what Sheol looks like, but it's definitely not a destination resort.
Sheol is especially important in Job because, as you may remember, his family is dead, his property is burned by fire from the sky, and he is himself diseased. Sounds like he has one stop left on the train, right? The ancients sure would have thought so.
This begs the grim question, "What's the point in waiting around?" In fact, Job's wife asks him flat out: "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" (2:9). But rather than die, Job chooses to stick around and ask God about life on behalf of mankind.
[Want to see Sheol for yourself? Check out 10:21-22, 11:8, 14:13, and 17:12-16.]
Back in the day, sea monsters were huge opponents of the god(s). They had different names and took on different forms (Rahab, the sea dragon, and the Leviathan), but they all played the same role. It was like passing the bar, but for ancient gods—you have no street cred unless you take on this dragon.
In the Book of Job, God shows up late in the game to say his piece about divine power. And how does he do it? Well, he describes his power in terms of defeating the sea dragon. In fact, Job is one of the only places in the Bible where we get a long, healthy description of what this thing looked like, and, by all accounts, it was epic.
Picture the scariest, biggest sea monster you can. Oh, and it breathes fire. Not enough for you? How about this? Its "sneezes flash forth light/ and its eyes are like the eyelids of dawn./ From its mouth go flaming torches;/ sparks of fire leap out" (41:18-19). But wait, there's more: "terror dances before it" and "its heart is as hard as stone" (41:22, 24). Hmmm…what could take on this kind of sea beast? A storm god, perhaps? And that's just what God is.
But why does God spend his time talking about this thing? Maybe because this sea monster embodies untamed, natural chaos; it's malevolent, evil, and totally destructive. God is basically telling Job, "Look, man. I am the only thing standing between you and this vast, powerful creature that wants only your destruction. Choose me. Seriously."
[Other places in the text where Nessy pokes his head out of the water are 3:8, 7:12, 9:8, 9:13, 26:12-13, and 26:41.]
This isn't exactly Eden, but the garden motif definitely pops its head in. Remember, in ancient Israel, farming was a huge part of life. Even if you lived in an urban area, you still ate food produced by farmers living outside the city. It's so Portland, we know.
Nature was intrinsically tied to religion back in the day. Religious ceremonies were harvest festivals, and if your crops didn't grow, it was because God was unhappy. That's probably why the Biblical writers often used gardens as metaphors—it was just in the cultural mainstream. Today, we do it with sports. Guess we're just a little more athletic.
The writers of Job definitely got all poetic on us—they like to compare human devotion to a garden that needs to be tended. The writers were intent on making sure that people followed the rules of devotion, and those who didn't would be punished.
Bildad describes this process of belief with a question: "Can papyrus grow where this is no marsh?" (8:11-19). After many long years in the papyrus production business, Shmoopers, we can tell you definitively that you need a good marsh. To translate, Bildad is saying that to be rewarded, you have to constantly practice devotion to God. Since Job is being punished, Bildad is pretty sure he's not super faithful.
Job's response? "I see your garden reference, and I'll raise you one more": "there is hope for a tree,/ if it is cut down, that it will sprout again/ […] But mortals die, and are laid low" (14:7, 10). Sure, humans are a part of nature, but there are some major difference. So Bildad's nature reference isn't enough of an explanation for him.
It seems to us like everyone in the story uses the garden metaphor to suit their own arguments and thoughts. After all, nature is a big place, right? Lots of metaphor opportunities to go around.
A couple examples: Eliphaz says that a sinner's "branch will not be green," and that sinner's fields will lie fallow (un-nurtured) forever (15:32-35). Land is later portrayed as being tied to the fate of the faithful when Job asks of God, "If I have eaten [my land's] yield without payment [devotion to God],/ […] let thorns grow instead of wheat,/ and foul weeds instead of barley" (31:39-40). No beer for this guy.
Aside from being a little heavy on the heart, Job is mostly a philosophical discussion. Sure, Job has some nasty skin diseases, but we don't hear them described in that much detail. This is pretty tame stuff for the Bible.
J.B. by Archibald MacLeish
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play, published in the early 1950s, retells the story of Job through the eyes of two circus performers who take on the roles of Satan and God. Job is a banker who loses everything, and in the end, he refuses to take his old life back. Wait a second…that's not how we remember it going down....
God's Favorite by Neil Simon
This old-school Broadway play acts out Job's drama in a mansion in Long Island. In this adaptation, Job ends up on the out and out. What do you think—is Job better or worse with a happy ending? We know it's a bummer to leave him in the ashes with no new life, but wouldn't it make more sense?
Job: A Comedy of Justice, Robert Heinlein
This sci-fi rendering of Job won the Nebula award back in the '80s. In this version, the Job character ends up visiting both Heaven and Hell (hey, it's sci-fi) where he finds more than he bargained for. We love us some Robert Heinlein, and this is no exception.
South Park, Season 5, Episode 6
Welcome to Cartmanland, where no one except Eric Cartman is allowed in. When Kyle gets bummed about Cartman's success, his parents read him the Book of Job. Kyle is not amused, and renounces his Jewish faith after hearing the story. Oops.
Manhattan, Woody Allen
In this classic film, Woody Allen drops one of the best compliments ever. He says that if his girlfriend Tracy were around back then, God would have solved Job's problems by pointing to Tracy and identifying himself as her creator, too. Job, upon seeing such a beautiful a woman, would have immediately laid down his arms against God in the knowledge that hey, he got the short end of the stick, but God is A-okay.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
When summoning the Kraken, Davy Jones channels the Book of Job, saying, "Let this day be cursed by we who ready to wake the Kraken." The Jobiness we here is "Let them curse it that curse the day, who are ready to raise up their mourning" (3:8). Pop culture is sneaky, see? It channels biblical literature and makes it its own.