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?:
- The narrative voice is always in the third person.
- The prose section has a very different notion of God than the poetry section. Check out God's "Figure Analysis" for more on this.
- Satan appears only in the prose.
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 section is longer. That one's easy.
- The poetic narrative is filled with dialogue, giving us insight into a bunch of different perspectives.
- Oh, and the poetry section is…poetry.
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?