Theodicy and literature of catastrophe (2)

Francesco_Conti_-_Death_of_King_Josiah

The Death of King Josiah by Francesco Conti

Theodicy deals with whether, or how, one can defend or justify God in allowing his people to suffer overwhelming catastrophe. For example, one could argue that all suffering is the consequence of sin, and God is therefore “justified” in allowing people who sin to suffer. The suffering may be the direct consequence of a person’s sinful behaviour – a criminal being sentenced to prison for example – or it could be the cumulative effect of society’s actions – such as the whole community bearing the burden of wasteful, polluting or unethical behaviour. Often these consequences can be directly attributed to the individual or community’s actions, but in the case of natural disasters (which used to be called “acts of God”) the calamity may be attributed to God’s punishment. The problem with attributing natural disasters to God is that the innocent suffer alongside the guilty and it is more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship; so one could ask whose sin caused this disaster, or why did the innocent have to suffer for the sins of the guilty?

There is good evidence that these questions were being asked, and discussed, in the biblical literature. In the Gospels, for example, there is a story of a man who was blind from birth and, based on the notion that all suffering is the consequence of sin, Jesus’ disciples him “who sinned? This man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). In another incident, Jesus referred the death of some people when a building collapsed and raised the question of whether they were more or less guilty than anyone else in the city: “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4). These are questions of theodicy: where is the justice in the suffering of apparently innocent people?

Arguably, the whole of the Bible deals with the issue of theodicy. Some books, however, tackle it as their main concern. Job is generally regarded as a theodicy. Job is an innocent man who suffers tremendous loss in the deaths of his children and the loss of his livelihood, and then being afflicted with a terrible disease. Throughout the whole book Job protests that he is innocent and does not deserve such torment. God too agrees that Job is innocent, and the book takes the form of a “debate” about justice and suffering. Ironically, the reader knows from the beginning that the only reason Job is suffering is because of a wager between God and Satan about whether Job will lose his faith in the face of calamity. His suffering is undeniably unfair, and the question is not resolved in the book. Consequently, some have described it as “antitheodicy” – that is to say, it deals with the issues of theodicy but is unable or unwilling to defend any role of God in human suffering. In my PhD thesis I argued that the book of Jonah falls into a similar category, but that’s another story.

So, back to the book of Kings. It seems pretty clear that at least one of the contributors to the book thought that the suffering of Israel and Judah was the result of the sins of their kings, with the exile of Judah being directly blamed on one king in particular: Manasseh. However, from Ezekiel and Jeremiah we learn that there was a discussion at the time about the justice or injustice in punishing the people for the sins of an earlier generation, and this also seems to be reflected in some of the later prophetic writings. A major problem with the theodicy in Kings that argued that the exiles could be blamed on certain kings, was that there were also some very good kings, as well as some which were evidently bad. For example, Hezekiah and Josiah stand out as particularly good kings of Judah. In fact, they are the only kings of Judah who are commended as meeting the benchmark set by David: Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:1). The Chronicler also says Hezekiah “did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Of Josiah it was also said “He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2). Between these two kings came Manasseh. Surely these two good kings would outweigh the evil of one. In fact, the book of Kings appears to be careful in detailing how Josiah undid all the sins of his father Manasseh and brought about religious reforms in Judah (2 Kings 23:1-27). The record goes so far as to say “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). If Judah was to be punished for Manasseh’s sins, surely they would be forgiven because of Josiah’s undoing of them. The sin-retribution theodicy consequently failed because it was unable to satisfactorily explain how Judah, under Josiah, could repent of the sins of Manasseh yet still be destroyed. If the exile was a punishment for Manasseh’s sins, the subsequent reformation and then the death of Josiah and the Babylonian exile posed significant problems of theodicy for the exilic and post-exilic generations. As one scholar put it, the death of Josiah in a battle with Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt was “an occurrence completely at variance with the principle followed elsewhere in the book of Kings that those who did what was good in the sight of God were appropriately rewarded.” He regards Josiah’s death as “not only unjust but was a personal and national tragedy that hastened the demise of the kingdom of Judah.” [1]

The death of the righteous king Josiah was experienced as a national trauma in Judah (Jeremiah 22:10-12) and mourning songs were still being sung for him in the time of the Chronicler in the Persian period (2 Chronicles 35:24-25). His death would have presented considerable theological difficulties for the proponents of the retributive view that suffering is always the consequence of sin, as Josiah was credited with being a hero of religious reformation. This paradox of the retributive theodicy – a righteous king suffering a catastrophic death – was somewhat resolved by the Deuteronomistic Jeremiah who claimed that in spite of the fact that Josiah was a righteous king the people did not turn to God wholeheartedly (Jeremiah 25:3; 36:2-3) and that it was their sins that brought about the catastrophe of the exile. A difficulty with this theodicy is that Josiah and Judah were punished because of the sins of Manasseh (or Josiah was punished for the sins of Judah) yet the notion that one person can be punished for the sins of another presents difficulties for any reasonable concept of justice.

To be continued …

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[1] R.N. Whybray, “Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Just?,” in Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Right? Studies on the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw (eds. David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt; Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 12.

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