Dodgy theology (5): the sin of Sodom

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The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

Genesis 19 has a well-known story about the destruction of two Canaanite cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. The story goes that Lot, a nephew of Abraham who was living in Sodom, was visited by two angels who came to warn him about the impending disasters and to encourage him to leave. Soon after their arrival …

the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly”.

It is apparent from Lot’s reaction – “do not act so wickedly” – that their intentions were less than friendly. It is argued that the phrase “that we may know them” uses a well-known biblical euphemism meaning “that we can have sex with them” as in one of the first uses of the verb “to know” in the Bible: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen.  4:17). The story in Judges 19 is similar in some ways. That story is about a Levite who was on a journey with his wife/concubine from Bethlehem to his home in Ephraim and made a decision to spend a night in the town of Gibeah. They were taken in for the night by an old man who was also from Ephraim but living in Gibeah.

While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may know him.” (Judges 19:22).

The NRSV translates the phrase here rendered “that we may know him” as “that we may have intercourse with him” although it is identical in Hebrew to the phrase in Genesis 19 which they translate differently. The translators have understood it as a euphemism for having sex and removed any doubt with this translation. They are almost certainly right that this was the intention, although in rendering it this way the translation becomes less literal. The story continues using almost identical language to the story about Sodom:

And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.

It is often claimed that these two stories demonstrate that the biblical writers regarded homosexuality as perverse, wicked and vile. In fact, neither account says any such thing. In both stories the men of Sodom and Gibeah are condemned for their attempted rape of strangers. In the Gibeah story the host offered his daughter and his guest’s wife to the men pounding on the door. This is similar to the story about Sodom where Lot offered his daughters. In both stories the offer was initially rejected, but in the Gibeah story the traveller “seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go” (v. 25). The story has a horrific ending.

The Gibeah story makes it clear that the motivation in calling for the stranger to be sent out to them was not one of homosexual desire, but rather an intention to rape him. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the difference. The fact that these men had their way with the traveller’s concubine for the whole night demonstrates that the story ultimately condemns them for heterosexual rape. The issue is rape, not sexuality. In fact, the rape of men by men is most often committed by heterosexual men and is a violent, terrorising and abusive exertion of power by one person over another. It has nothing to do with desire or sexual attraction.

The predominant common element in both stories is that there was an attempt to exert power over strangers, or foreigners. The stranger was hated, perhaps feared, by a group within the community who asserted their ‘superiority’ over the unwelcome foreigner(s) by attempting to abuse him/them in an horrific way. Their motivation was hatred, or fear, not lust.

Significantly, when Ezekiel later referred to the “sin of Sodom” he said nothing about their sexual behaviour. He recognised that the real problem was their disregard for the poor and needy: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me” (16:49). It was this “haughty” attitude and their lack of concern for the needy which turned into violence against strangers.

“The sin of Sodom” was not homosexuality, it was a lack of concern for those in need. One scholar (Michael Carden) put it well in his conclusion to an article titled Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah, where he argued that “Sodom represents … cruelty and meanness. Therefore xenophobia, racism, disregard for/exploitation of the poor and grasping miserliness should be considered forms of sodomy.” Rape and sexual violence – against both men and women –  should come within the definition of sodomy and Carden rightly notes that “rapists should be regarded as sodomites, as should misogynists”. He further argues that homophobia and its violent expression should also be seen as forms of sodomy. Including homophobia as sodomy, Carden says, “might be surprising, however, for those of us from Christian traditions where homosexuality and Sodom and Gomorrah are so deliberately confused.” [1] Several scholars are in agreement with Carden’s conclusions about the sins of Sodom and Gibeah and have demonstrated that the ultimate evil of these cities, the evil which led to their divine destruction, had nothing to do with anal sex or homosexuality. It did, however, have everything to do with how one treats the poor and needy, and the stranger.

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[1] Michael Carden, “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah”Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999) 83-96.

Dodgy theology (4): “It is an abomination”

This short series will be longer than initially planned as I’ve been asked to comment on several specific biblical texts, including the two instances in the Hebrew Bible of what appears to be homosexual rape (Genesis 19 and Judges 19), the New Testament texts which, in some translations, use the word “homosexuals” and the description of some sins in the Hebrew Bible as “abominations” (including, it is claimed, homosexual acts). These texts weren’t specifically quoted (as far as I’m aware) by Israel Folau in his social media comments about those people who he thinks will go to hell, but I will cover them here in this series to keep my discussion of the relevant texts together.

In the texts referred to in an earlier post about the probition against a man “lying with a man as with a woman” Leviticus adds that “it is an abomination.”  Some translations have gone beyond the meaning of the Hebrew word and instead have “it is disgusting” (CEV), “loathsome” (JM),  “detestable” (NWT) or “I hate that” (NLB). But this is not what the word means. The Hebrew word תּוֹעֵבָה toʿevah is used in the Bible sometimes used to describe the customs of other ethnic groups. For example, “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:22). Similarly, according to Genesis, “all shepherds are abhorrent [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (46:34). Moses also said to Pharaoh that “the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Exodus 8:26). The use of the word תּוֹעֵבָה in these contexts demonstrates that there is no intrinsic  implication of sexual perversity. Within Leviticus several things are regarded as תּוֹעֵבָה an abomination to God because they were associated with the customs of the Canaanite tribes with whom they shared the land, or surrounding nations. The emphasis in the Levitical laws was that something was abhorent, not because it was necessarily intrinsically such, but rather because it was associated with Canaanite practices: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations … (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled)” (Lev. 18:26). The association with idolatry and worship of other gods is even more evident in the way the word is used in Deuteronomy: “The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God.  Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction” (7:25-26). In Deuteronomy “the abhorrent practices of those nations” included sorcery, casting spells, and consulting the spirits of the dead (18:9-14). The prohibition against these things was because “you must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God” (v.13) and the implication is that all these practices were somehow related to the worship of other gods. For the same reason, making an idol was also abhorent (Deut. 27:15). Ezekiel refers to “your abominable idols” (16:36), confirming further that this word is more often associated with worship of other gods than with sexual behaviour.

In Deuteronomy eating  certain animals was also regarded as an abomination, including camels, hares, badgers and pigs (14:3-8). It is sometimes argued that these dietary laws had some health benefits, or they were intended to protect the Israelites from contracting diseases from animals which were more likely to be hosts to parasites. Yet there is no evidence that avoiding camels or hares had any health benefits, or that they were more prone to carry diseases. The reasons for these dietary prohibitions remains a mystery.

Offering an animal that had any kind of physical defect as a sacrifice to God was also “abhorent” (Deut. 17:1). Isaiah 1:13 says “incense is an abomination to me” and because incense was used in the tabernacle and Temple as part of the worship of the God of Israel this verse is best understood as a condemnation of the lack of sincerity on the part of those who offered it. These two texts suggested that faulty worship of the God of Israel was as much an abomination as the worship of foreign gods, or eating the meat of certain animals. There is nothing in these texts that even hints that these practices were “disgusting” in any moral sense. Those translations which use such terms in the translation of the same Hebrew word in Leviticus, in the context of “men lying with men”, are clearly prejudiced by a bias against the acceptance of homosexuality.

In one of the few places where “abomination” is connected with sexual practices, 1 Kings 14:24 reports that “there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” The phrase “male temple prostitutes” is a translation of a single word in Hebrew (קָדֵשׁ). It seems clear enough from the context that the problem was not men having sex with men, but rather the “abomination” was that prostitution (of any kind) formed part of the worship of foreign gods.

We can conclude from the frequent usage of this word throughout the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs more than 100 times, that “abomination” can refer to practices such as eating with people from a different group (such as Egyptians refusing to eat with Hebrews), or disliking the religious observances of other groups (such as the Egyptians finding Hebrew forms of worship “abominable”). It can refer to almost any form of worship of other gods which was foreign to Israelites. Eating certain animals was also an “abomination”, for no clear reason. The behaviour regarded as abominable is often not specified, and the term is sometimes used in parallel with “evil” or similar terms (although in some biblical texts worshipping idols is regarded as the greatest evil). The word rarely refers to sexual behaviour. When it does, such as in Ezekiel 22:11, it refers to adulterous or incestuous heterosexual behaviour: “One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter.” There are only two texts out of more than 100 where the word apparently refers to sex between men: once with reference to male temple prostitutes (and even there it may refer to prostitution in general), and the other in the verse in Leviticus we have been discussing. There is nothing, anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, to suggest that homosexuality or homosexual activity per se was considered to be morally perverse.

Some people might refer to the “sin of Sodom” in Genesis 19, and a somewhat similar story in Judges 19 as examples of a biblical condemnation of homosexuality. I will discuss these texts in my next post.

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)

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Israel Folau portrait session at Sydney Olympic Park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Steve Christo)

Israel Folau is not alone in thinking that the Bible prohibits homosexuality. What he is probably not aware of is that the argument for this rests on some very dodgy translations of a tiny handful of texts in the Bible. I’ve seen comments on social media that, after all, Folau was only quoting the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. What many people don’t realise is that the KJV never uses the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” In fact, the word is a relatively modern invention and didn’t appear in any Bible translation before the mid-twentieth century.

What he also may not realise is that the ‘original’ Hebrew and Greek texts of the verses in the Bible which have been translated to condemn homosexuality are incredibly difficult to translate. One reason for this, in the case of the Hebrew (‘Old Testament’) texts, is that the sentence construction is so awkward we cannot be certain what the writer was actually saying, and at best scholars are guessing at what was intended. In the case of the Greek (‘New Testament’) texts an added difficulty is that the writer uses a word which occurs no where else in the Bible, or in any ancient Greek literature, so we really have no idea what it means. Again, scholars have to guess. There is considerable disagreement amongst scholars what these texts mean and how they should be translated. If a prohibition against homosexuality was so important to the writers of the Bible they could easily have made it clearer!

Let’s take a look at the main texts concerned. I’m a Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (OT) scholar, so my expertise is not with the Greek New Testament. I’ll focus on the OT texts. There are two verses in the book of Leviticus (18:22; 20:13), a legal text, which use a phrase translated as  “a man lying with a male as with a woman” or words to that effect, in the context of listing prohibited sexual relationships. The phrase contains an expression which is difficult to translate: מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה miškĕbê ʾiššâ. It literally means “the beds (masculine plural) of a woman” or “the beds of a wife” (“wife” and “woman” are the same word in Hebrew) so that the whole phrase would read something like “a man lying with a man on the beds of a woman/wife commits an abomination”. Scholars agree that this is an awkward way to say “a man must not have sex with a man” and there would be much simpler ways of saying it, if that was what the writer intended. The context in both verses is about individuals who are be considered  to be “off-limits” sexually due to their relationship with another individual. Grammatically, there are a lot of difficulties with the phrase, but without becoming too technical the best scholarly explanation I have read which makes sense of it in its context is that it probably has to do with ‘ownership’ and monogamous marriage. It is about family stability and prohibits a man from going to bed with a man who ‘belongs’ to a wife. In other words, a man can sleep with another man, provided they are both ‘single.’ But even if this explanation is wrong, to make any definite claim about such a gramatically difficult phrase is decidedly dodgy. Folau is on shaky ground.

Then there is the issue of the meaning of “abomination”. Eating shellfish, or wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fibre (Leviticus 19:19) are also “abominations”. I wonder, does Folau post on social media that people eating lobster, or wearing cotton-polyester shirts are also going to hell? I don’t think one gets to pick and choose with these laws: either you accept them all as binding, or reject them all.

A claim made by some of Folau’s opponents is that he is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and the Bible allegedly prohibits tattoos. The sole verse quoted in the case against tattoos is Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” Interestingly, it is the same biblical book (Leviticus) which is quoted to prohibit homosexuality, so the argument goes that if one quotes Leviticus to condemn homosexuality one has to keep all the laws in that legal code, including the one about tattoos. In the interests of full disclosure I probably should confess that I have a couple of tattoos, although none as awesome as Folau’s! He also has a better canvas to work with!

The key words in this text are “for the dead.” Whatever it means, it probably refers to some ancient practice of cutting oneself as part of a mourning ritual. It almost certainly doesn’t refer to decorative “body art.” It’s in the context of some random laws, many of which relate to the customs of surrounding idol-worshippers. The verse immediately before it says “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” It’s difficult to determine what was behind this prohibition, but it probably had something to do with a ‘pagan’ practice that was associated with the worship of another god. While Orthodox Jews have a particular way of interpreting and practising that law, mainstream Christians such as Folau wouldn’t see it as obligatory for Christians. The prohibition against cutting/marking the flesh for the dead, falls into the same category. Again, we can’t pick and choose. Either all the laws are binding, or none of them. I think Folau’s tattoos are awesome, and I’m happy with my own. I’m also ok with wearing cotton-polyester, and ordering a short-back-and-sides at the barbers. I’m not an Orthodox Jew and the laws don’t apply to me. So I’m not going to single out any that I like and impose them on anybody else. I’m not going to come after lobster-eaters and post on social media that you’re going to hell. I wish Folau would do the same.

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 1)

INSTAGRAM-GETTY-israel-folau-homophobic-1120The ongoing clash between Rugby player Israel Folau and Rugby Australia over a post by Folau on social media which said liars, atheists, adulterers, homosexuals and others would go to hell has triggered a fair amount of debate in the community. The main issues seem to be Folau’s rights to freedom of speech and to practice his religion, against whether a prominent public figure should keep his religious views to himself, especially if it is seen to target a group within the community (in this case the LGBTIQ community) which has already suffered enough. NRL player Ian Roberts has condemned homophobia in sport and pointed to the high rate of suicide amongst gay youth saying Folau’s comments could have an adverse impact on the “[gay] kids in the suburbs killing themselves.”

In this post I’m not going to weigh-in on the issues of freedom of speech or whether Folau’s comments have anything to do with freedom of religion. As a biblical scholar I want to look at his claim that the people on his list are going to hell. There are two issues here: (a) does the Bible say that liars, adulterers, drunks, etc, will go to hell? and (b) does the Bible condemn homosexuality?  In a subsequent post I will look at the claim by some people that Folau is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and I’ll examine the verse they cite to say that tattoos are prohibited by the Bible.

First, who is going to hell? A lot of people are surprised when they learn that, according to the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) everyone goes to the same place at death! The Hebrew word is sheol and everyone – good and bad – goes there at death. Sheol is often translated as “hell” in English Bibles (such as the King James Version), but it’s not the kind of fiery place of judgment that we find in much later Christian writings. We don’t get any kind of description of sheol in the Bible. Some of the latter parts of the Hebrew Bible to be written speak of the dead being resurrected at some future time, and thereafter face a “judgment” to determine their final reward or punishment. This idea of resurrection is more prominent in the New Testament, but it has its origins in a small handful of places in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s pretty clear that to the writers of the Hebrew Bible sheol/”hell” was a kind of waiting room until the resurrection at the end of the world as we know it. (I’ve written more about sheol and the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible here.)

In the oldest translation of the Hebrew Bible that we know of, the translation into Greek known as the Septuagint (probably translated between 300-200 BCE), sheol is translated into Greek as hades. This is one of the words often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. Hades probably had a similar meaning for the earliest Christians as the Hebrew word sheol and didn’t have any connotations of fire or burning. The word that is associated with fire in the New Testament is Gehenna and is the word generally used by Jesus, also translated as “hell”. Gehenna is derived from a Hebrew phrase and refers to a valley to the south of the city of Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burned. The dead bodies of executed criminals were also burned there, and Jesus himself would have been burned in Gehenna if a rich politician hadn’t intervened and paid for his burial instead. But it wasn’t a place of torment as the people who were burned there were already dead. In fact, the New Testament does say (Acts 2:27-31) that Jesus went to hell! This is in a text quoting the Hebrew Bible and using the word sheol. The writer was almost certainly thinking that Jesus was in the place of the dead, waiting resurrection. The only place in the New Testament that associates hell with fire and brimstone is a text in the highly symbolic and enigmatic book of Revelation, where the devil, “death” and hades/”hell” are all cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-15). This text is at odds with the later Christian idea that the devil rules in hell, because here he is destroyed in the lake of fire, together with hell! How could “hell” be a lake of fire if hell itself is destroyed in a lake of fire? I said this is highly symbolic and enigmatic!

The idea that hell is a place of torment for the wicked dead is foreign to the Bible. According to both Old and New Testaments everyone goes to the same place after death. Israel Folau should get used to the fact that, according to the Bible, he is going to spend some time in sheol/hades/hell with everyone, good and bad.

In my next post I will look at what the Bible has to say (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality.

 

Theodicy and literature of catastrophe (2)

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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.

A digression: theodicy and the literature of catastrophe (1)

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James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners, 1896–1902

I digress (although only slightly) from writing about the book of Kings to explore the subject of theodicy and the literature of catastrophe. It will become evident shortly why this is only a slight digression. Literature of catastrophe refers to texts written soon after a calamity of some kind. In terms of biblical literature, the greatest catastrophes of the time were the destruction and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BCE) and the destruction and exile of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians (597 BCE). There is a fair degree of scholarly consensus that much of the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) was written either in exile in Babylon or soon after when the captives began returning to Judah (which by then was known as the Persian province of Yehud). Some texts are easy to date to this period because they refer specifically to the exile or the return. Others are less easy to date, but they may include exilic themes or language which lead scholars to speculate that they were probably written against a background of exile.

A recurring theme in literature written after a catastrophe is to question why the calamity happened, was there something someone did which triggered it, can anything be learned from it to avoid a future repetition? Related questions include, where was God during this disaster, and why did he allow it to happen? We can see signs of this questioning in the biblical literature, and in other texts written around the same time. These non-biblical  texts are generally categorised as “apocrypha” (although the apocrypha is included as canonical in the bibles of most Christian denominations) or pseudepigrapha. I will refer specifically to two of these texts shortly: 4 Ezra (apocryphal) and 2 Baruch (pseudepigraphal). Because these are Jewish texts which were written in the same period as biblical texts which are accepted as canonical, they can give us insights into the kinds of issues which were important at the time.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the exiles on the national psyche. According to one biblical scholar,  Daniel Smith-Christopher, the archaeological evidence of destruction together with population estimates draws “a picture of horrific events that not surprisingly becomes permanently etched into the historical lore of the Hebrew Bible.”[1]  He argues that the impact of the Babylonian exile on both those who remained in the land as well as the exiles would have been traumatic and that this continued well into the Persian and Hellenistic eras and that any discussion of post-exilic theology “must first contend with the enormity of the physical, social and psychological trauma of this experience in the life of Ancient Israel, and only then proceed to an assessment of theological themes that are part of the recovery process of a frankly heroic survival of domination in the ancient Near East.” [2] In fact, after every major catastrophe in Jewish history we find philosophers, theologians, scholars and writers exploring the kinds of questions I mentioned above. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE was thought by some at the time to be so strikingly similar to the Babylonian captivity that subsequent texts such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch used the events of 587 BCE as the setting for narratives to frame apocalypses dealing with the events of 70 CE. The commemoration in Jewish tradition of Tisha B’Av – the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples, the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, and the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, and other events – almost certainly reflects the view that these calamities share more in common than a date.  Jewish literature written after the Holocaust, or the Shoah, also reflects similar concerns and I’ll refer later to works such as “The trial of God” and “God at Auschwitz”.

There is evidence of discussion in the affected communities regarding the questions of theodicy and divine justice in allowing these calamities to happen. The Babylonian exile and its aftermath produced a considerable body of biblical literature which addressed these issues in various ways. Job is regarded by some scholars as post-exilic theodicy (I will discuss this further in a later post). Similarly, theodicy is a major theme in Jewish texts after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. It could also be argued that the expulsions from Spain and Portugal gave birth to movements in Judaism such as Lurianic Kabbalah as a means of interpreting and overcoming the disaster.

But first, let me explain what I mean by theodicy.  The term “theodicy” literally means “justifying God” and derives from the Greek words Θεός and δίκη and was coined by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 [3].  In a nutshell, it deals with whether, or how, one can defend or justify God in allowing his people to suffer overwhelming catastrophe. The same questions were undoubtedly raised after each catastrophe – including the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the European pogroms and expulsions, and the Nazi mass murders – and similar discussions must have taken place each time as the survivors and succeeding generations endeavoured to come to terms with their anguish and the theological implications of theodicies which offered little comfort. Each of these crises had their own unique circumstances, and the theological responses therefore varied. It can be inferred on the one hand from the Hebrew Bible that some people were satisfied with the explanation of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles as due to sins such as idolatry. On the other hand, the problem in 4 Ezra was that the Jewish people before the Roman destruction of 70 CE did not easily fit the model of idolatrous Israel. The solution proposed by 4 Ezra combined a radical view of the near impossibility of keeping the Law and an “eschatological theodicy” which deferred justice to an afterlife or ‘the age to come’. However, between the retributive view that suffering is the consequence of sin, and the eschatological theodicies of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch where justice is deferred and meted out in the future, I argue that some biblical texts represent a stage or stages in the dialogue where there was dissatisfaction with the retributive view but before ideas of resurrection and future rewards were fully developed.

To be continued …

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[1]Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, “Reassessing the Historical and Sociological Impact of the Babylonian Exile,” in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions(ed. James M. Scott; JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 17-18.

[2] Smith-Christopher, “Historical and Sociological Impact of the Babylonian Exile,” 36.

[3] In French: Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal. English translation: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (trans. E.M. Huggard: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).

Biblical kings (6): the problem of transgenerational punishment

Prophets-smallerIn my previous post I mentioned the possibility that someone in the Babylonian exile may have made a connection between their predicament and the attributes of God in Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 – especially the one that he “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In this post I’d like to explore some evidence that the notion of transgenerational punishment was also discussed by other biblical writers at the time.

From our modern perspective it may seem unfair or unjust for one generation to suffer punishment for the sins of a previous generation. There is good evidence that some of the biblical writers had similar issues with the apparent injustice of transgenerational punishment. For example, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah refer to a proverb which said “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the childrens’ teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2; Jeremiah 31:29). Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah are set in the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. The fact that they both discuss this proverb suggests  that it was probably an issue that was being discussed at the time, perhaps by the populace in general. Ezekiel argues against the idea that an individual or generation can be justly punished for the sins of another: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel … it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:3-4). He emphasises that the people who went into exile were being punished for their own sins. Yet the problem remains that the book of Kings, and indeed Jeremiah, also claim that to a large extent the nation was being punished for the sins of Manasseh, four generations earlier. When Jeremiah refers to this proverb he makes the important distinction that “the days are surely coming” when “they shall no longer” say this proverb (31:27, 29). In other words, according to Ezekiel, the proverb remained true for his own time, but at some point in the future it will no longer be the case that one generation suffers for the sins of another. It seems that Ezekiel and Jeremiah had different ideas about the justice, or injustice, of transgenerational punishment, with Jeremiah being in agreement with the book of Kings (or, alternately, Kings being in agreement with Jeremiah) and Ezekiel (and Chronicles, which was written, or completed, after the return from exile [1]) taking a different position.

For some people the idea that one part of the Bible is in conflict with another presents a problem. Many readers of the Bible expect to see a consistent message which they understand to be a revelation of the divine purpose. This is really a theological issue and, in my view, is the result of approaching the Bible with a predetermined expectation that all parts of it will be in agreement with every other part. However, it seems to me that the Bible is better understood as an ongoing conversation. The writers come from different perspectives as they tackle complex issues and sometimes arrive at different conclusions. There is evidence of revision and editing as later writers or editors refined the texts to reflect new perspectives, perhaps in the light of new circumstances and experiences. Sometimes older writings were reinterpreted and applied in new ways to new situations. In this way, we can read the Bible as a dynamic collection of writings which preserves the development of ideas about issues such as divine justice.

Returning to the book of Kings, I can understand how those in exile who interpreted Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 to mean that their defeat during the reign of Jehoiachin was the consequence of sins committed four generations earlier, might revise and edit the record of the kings to reflect this new understanding. We don’t know whether these records existed solely in the form of the Annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah, or whether these Annals had already been used as sources for an early edition of the book of Kings. Either way, the book of Kings may have been written in the exile, or edited to include additional material which highlighted the sins of Manasseh in particular and of the kings in general. This would explain the repetitive use of the phrase “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin” which is used almost like a rubber stamp added to the end of each king’s reign. It also explains why this formulaic conclusion is often at odds with the positive material which preceded it.

Over time, this notion may have been debated and challenged, and by the time the book of Chronicles was written after the return from the exile it needed to be modified. This is reflected in the different emphasis of the Chronicler. Other exilic or post-exilic books appear to deal with the same concerns about divine justice. Although it is difficult to date biblical texts a good case can be made for also dating Job to the time of the exile or later. A major concern of Job is why good people suffer for no apparent reason and may have been prompted by a discussion about why innocent people in Israel and Judah went into captivity. Job certainly contains some of the language of exile. If Job was indeed responding to issues arising from the exile, it demonstrates how other biblical writers were also wrestling with the questions of  divine justice in the suffering of the covenant people. It also demonstrates how the Bible preserves more than one point of view in the conversation.

To be continued …

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[1] Chronicles ends with the decree of the Persian king Cyrus allowing the captives to return to their homeland, which dates the book to that time or soon after (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).