If Shir HaShirim is the most problematic book in the Bible, then Job is the most enigmatic. Much of the difficulty in understanding the message of Job is identifying the “source” of or “reason” for Job’s suffering. Does Job suffer because, as his friends reason, he has sinned? On the other hand, as the innocent Job claims, is G-d’s unwarranted punishment a violation of G-d’s own justice? On the other hand, can we know the reason for Job’s suffering, as many scholars suggest, as an infinite G-d is ultimately unknowable to a finite human? While this debate is vital to our understanding of Job, it is not the subject of this post (though we will take up the subject later). Let us turn our attention rather to the personality trait for which Job receives the most acclaim, his patience.
For millennia, prophets and scholars have extolled Job for his patience in dealing with both his suffering and his friends. In fact, Job is often referred to in commentary as “Job the Patient.” Job the Patient, however, can mean something other than “Job the patient, a person who has patience”: it can also be taken to mean, “Job the patient, a person requiring healing.” It is this Job the Patient I wish to examine because if we view Job as someone requiring healing, the book now becomes discussion of a way faith can inform our views of mental health and how we interact with members of our faith communities with mental health issues.
So, what does Job tell us about depression? If, for the sake of this post, we equate Job’s “affliction” with depression, we still must deal with “why” Job is depressed. Whether we view Job’s suffering as physical or as mental, the discussion is the same: is G-d the source of Job’s depression or is Job? Are we to believe that Job has depression because he has sinned or that his faith is weak? Job’s “friends” would seem to think so, but many scholars disagree. As mentioned above, the ways of an infinite G-d are unfathomable by finite beings such as human. This chasm of difference between us and G-d, according to Seltzer, means that “theodicy is not possible.”[i]
Matitiahu Tsevat goes even further. According to Tsevat, we cannot even begin to understand G-d because of our insistence on the principle of retribution as central to the operation of the world:
Man distorts his unsophisticated experience of reality, disregards facts, imagines figments, fashions ad hoc theories, and erects superstructures, all so as not to give up or substantially change the principle [of retribution]. . . . The fact [is] this principle of retribution is the touchstone of his [Job’s] life and conduct as a member of society. Whether in rearing children or the administration of justice, it is this principle which guides him. From it flow some of his noblest deeds. And so it is that G-d is conceived as guaranteeing it in the governance of the world.[ii]
Though they differ in their interpretation of his lot, Job’s and his friends’ arguments are all based on the principle of retribution, i.e. that his suffering is a direct result of some fault, sin, or lack of faith on the part of Job.
When he finally responds to Job, G-d challenges his (Job’s) assumption that the world does operate according to the principle of retribution. Throughout G-d’s response from the whirlwind, G-d questions Job’s ability to know G-d:
Who is this who gives dark counsel, with words, without knowledge? (38:2).
G-d then reminds Job the he was not present at the Creation and cannot know how the world works.
|Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell if you know understanding.|
|Who placed its measures if you know, or who extended a line over it? (38:4-5)|
In other words, there is a limit to our understanding of G-d; therefore, we cannot apply a “human” principle to G-d’s creation.
So, why does Job have depression? Job has depression because Job has depression. He does not have depression because his faith is weak. He does not have depression because he has sinned. He does not have depression because G-d is testing him. He has depression because he has depression.
Job also can inform our interactions with faith community members living with depression and other mental health issues. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zopha, come to “bemoan him and console him” (2:11), but come armed with only empty platitudes and accusations. Like Job, their world operated on the principle of retribution, and so in their view, Job’s suffering is a direct reflection of the quality of his spiritual life.
A lesson we can take from Job is that when you encounter a member of your faith community dealing with depression or any other mental health issue, do not be the Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zopha to their Job. Instead, be the David to their Saul.
[i] Seltzer, Robert. (n.d.). The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion: An ambiguous divine speech is the subject of great scholarly debate. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-job-a-whirlwind-of-confusion/#
[ii] Tsevat, Matitiahu, (1965). “The Meaning of the Book of Job.” The Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies, vol 1. Pp. 177-180