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It's Not God's Fault

For those who felt they were left hanging by last week's question, here's my answer:

In much of the Hebrew Bible, God seems to be actively in control, dealing out punishment for sin and blessings for righteousness, thereby creating a works-based concept of justice. Most calamities are justified with the argument that sinful people deserved it (the hardened heart of Pharaoh), and privilege is reasoned as reward for proper obedience. If God allots punishment to those who eat forbidden fruit [Genesis 3:22-23] or to a king who has an affair [2 Samuel 12:11], what happens to this concept of justice when bad things happen to seemingly innocent people? Is God being unfair, unjust or immoral by actively causing or passively allowing disaster to those who appear to deserve it the least? In looking at the examples of Job, Cain, and the genocide of the Canaanites, such atrocities are not deemed by the writers as unjust or as coming from an unfair God because the end always justified the means. In these examples, God's justice remained the end, and the means were explained away as the work of sinful humans or Satan. Because of this, suffering, favoritism and genocide – acts that are gross and violent in the minds of modern readers – are used to convince readers as to the supremeness of God, even if it means ignoring some of the worst moments of humanity. When things don’t go according to the "sin=punishment, obedience=blessing" framework, the blame is shifted, relieving God of the moral culpability of random evil. Catastrophes then become mere vehicles by which the community could arrive at an appreciation and worship of the God of justice. The physical and emotional suffering of a righteous man, the rejection of what appeared to be a perfectly good offering, and the destruction of a people group are not seen as unfair. Because of these acts – or despite them – God remains holy and just.

Job was deemed a righteous man [Job 1:1], and therefore undeserving of undue affliction. Yet, God permitted Job to be tempted in a great cosmic wager with Satan [Job 1:12]. After losing family and property, Job was persuaded by friends and his wife to curse God and die [Job 2:9]. But, Job remained faithful and was rewarded in the end [Job 42:10]. In this story, Satan is the acting agent and the bringer of harm [Job 2:7]. Job correctly understands this and "did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing." [Job 1:22] The lesson of the story is that sometimes in life, unmerited and terrible suffering occurs, perhaps even at the direct permission of God, but not always at the hand of God But, if the victim remains faithful and does not turn away, then God will rightly bless the sufferer.

Cain and Abel both presented sacrifice offerings to God [Genesis 4:3-4]. For no apparent reason, God looks more favorably upon Abel’s. God acts arbitrarily, but not unfairly, because God must keep order and accept the best sacrifice at all times, and it is reasoned that Cain's offering was less worthy than Abel’s. Therefore, blame shifts to Cain as the one who brought a second-rate sacrifice to God. Cain is understandably upset and kills his brother for revenge [Genesis 4:5-8]. Now that Cain has more clearly offended God by committing murder [Genesis 4:10], mercy is shown in that Cain is not killed for his sin [Genesis 4:15], but still must be "a fugitive and wanderer on the earth." [Genesis 4:12] Cain failed his test by 1) not remaining faithful despite God’s arbitrary approval of Abel’s sacrifice, and 2) by not mastering sin [Genesis 4:7]. Even in rejection, a human is to obey God. But even when humans fail and act out of anger, God can bestow mercy and justice simultaneously.

As the Israelites take the Promised Land in conquest, leveling cities and killing innocent civilians [Joshua 6:21], the notion of such genocidal acts being sanctioned by God [Joshua 10:19] seem contrary to the love and mercy and justice of God. However, because God is faithful and promised deliverance and inheritance [Exodus 32:13] to the children and grandchildren of slaves, nothing would stand in the way of the completion of such a promise. By way of slaughter of the Canaanites, God delivered God's faithful people, rewarding them for their long trek through the wilderness. For the Deuteronomist, fulfillment of an age-old promise takes priority over the horrors of ethnic cleansing. Upon recounting this tale, Israelites would not think of the bodies that were strewn in the streets; instead, their focus was on remaining faithful to the God who delivers. In looking back through history from their privileged perch as 'chosen people,' the destruction of a group of people is a mere speed bump on the road towards inheritance. If one is wealthy, in power and safe, then one can naturally assume that such a social framework is the result of divine handiwork, even if the events that led to such a framework included genocide. It is not God's fault, then, if people were killed. The victims were the ones who stood in the way of God's promises to Israel.

Acquitting God of the responsibility of these horrible events by justifying their occurrence with the hope of a future blessing trivializes these human experiences. Such emotions and situations are nearly universal around the world (both then and now). Simply dismissing them as 'not that big of a deal' when compared to the awesome majesty of YHWH, means that God, in fact, is present as a sort of neutral referee, observing only that everything go according to plan. Events and prejudices can therefore be justified and the name of God used as a proverbial trump card in any situation.

Thus, there is no justice IN Job's suffering; there is only justice AFTER the suffering, when Job recoups his losses. Likewise, there is no justice IN God's selecting Abel’s offering over Cain's; there is only justice AFTER Cain commits murder and God exiles him for it. And, there is no justice IN the slaughter of innocent Canaanites; there is only justice AFTER the Israelites receive the land promised to them when their ancestors left their bondage in Egypt.
By focusing, then, on product over process and on ends over means, the Hebrew Bible has very little to offer in terms of comfort to modern readers. A healthy understanding of justice would suggest that terrible suffering for no particular reason is awful to watch, much less undergo. Likewise, the feeling of rejection is something that has touched everyone, and its sting is no more palatable by dreams of overcoming. And, the deliberate killing of a people group must be considered wrong for any reason.

Thus, telling people to wait, or that God is hatching a master plan of long-term justice, is a cry that could understandably fall on deaf ears. By not offering hope in the midst of injustice, one’s theodicy is impotent to lessen the impact of injustice. Because immoral acts and victimization are events that occur in real time, there is a need for theologians to offer hope, and not just explanation. The Deuteronomist and priestly and wisdom writers sought to explain why things happened. Today's need is to explain how to deal with what is happening as it is occurring.

Suffering, in all its forms, is a very process-laden event. Because the Bible was written as history recorded and not as current events reported, ends always justified means, and the need to maintain a certain view of God (as the epitome of holiness and perfection) will lead one to rationalize means as a simple path to a more complex end. Today, an ends-based theodicy that appeals to an elusive and non-guaranteed silver lining misses the human condition entirely. Parallels exist between the text of yesterday and the atrocities of today: genocide (the last plague before the exodus), the rejection of one’s efforts (Cain's offering), the death of a friend (Jonathan and David), suffering with a physical disease (Job), sexual abuse (Abraham and Hagar), slavery (the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt), forced dislocation from home (Babylonian exile). But, these issues cannot easily be explained away with the notions that everything will work out in the end simply because that is what happened in the Hebrew Bible. It is in the opinion of this writer that the Hebrew Bible cannot offer any sort of hope to modern victims of unexplained evil. It is unreasonable to rationalize that the current means of suffering can be justified by an end when there is no end in sight. These writers had an end in sight and filled their narrative accordingly. Modern sufferers do not have that luxury.

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