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


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 …


[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).