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Archive for the 'Theodicy' Category

Yahweh’s (Inexplicable?) Response to Job

3rd March 2011

One of the most marvelous passages of Scripture in the Tanak is found at the end of the book of Job where Yahweh (surprisingly) responds to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1-42:6).  I’ve tended to understand Yahweh’s reply to Job as a series of unanswerable questions that put Job and his so-called friends in their place, so to speak. If Job doesn’t understand the workings of the world in which he finds himself, then how does he expect to understand the workings of God’s moral universe?  The questions are to humble Job and underscore human finititude. The questions should elicit epistemic humility in Job (and the reader). In my mind, they highlight that the theme of the book of Job is less about “suffering” or “theodicy” than it is about “Who is truly wise?”  That is, who understands the question of suffering?

The other day my theology colleague brought to my attention a short section on “Job and Inexplicability” in an essay by philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The essay is from the recently published volume edited by John Milbank, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos, 2010; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). In this section, Žižek understands God’s response to Job also highlights that God doesn’t even understand his own creation. He notes:

The rationalist points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. But this is the point that God’s reply explicitly opposes — if I may put it so — to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as people are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything.

….

Again, to startle humans, God becomes, for an instant, a blasphemer. One might almost say that God becomes, for an instant, an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things… The Maker of all things is astonished at the things he has himself made. Again, here the point is not that God knows the deeper meaning, but it is as if God himself is overwhelmed at the excess of his creation (pp. 177-78).

While Žižek’s notion is provocative, I’m not sure that it is borne out by the text itself.  I agree with the first paragraph above;  the world we find ourselves in is ultimately inexplicable from our vantage point. I am not so sure I agree with the second paragraph, that God himself also doesn’t “know the deeper meaning.” The force of the rhetorical questions is that while Job (and all humans) may not know, Yahweh does. While I believe this is implied throughout the entire passage, it is explicit in a number of places:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding” (Job 38:4)

“Have you penetrated the vaults of snow, Seen the vaults of hail, Which I have put aside for a time of adversity, For a day of war and battle?” (Job 38:22-23)

“Who sets the wild ass free? Who loosens the bonds of the onager, Whose home I have made the wilderness, The salt land his dwelling-place? He scoffs at the tumult of the city, Does not hear the shouts of the driver. He roams the hills for his pasture; He searches for any green thing” (Job 39:5-8).

That God knows and understands is even more clear in his second response to Job, IMHO. So while Žižek’s comments are intriguing, they are only partially correct. What do you think?


Posted in Job, Old Testament, The Book of Job, Theodicy, Theology | 8 Comments »

Yahweh – a Moral Monster?

26th February 2011

[One day I will like to explore this issue more. Last year I taught a course on the Bible and violence and I know I raised more questions for the students than provided solutions! Originally posted 07/2008]

One of the biggest moral and theological challenges modern readers face when reading the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is the brutal violence found within its pages. And if the graphic descriptions of violence perpetrated by humans upon other humans was not enough (see Judges 19-21 for one startling example), you have the thornier issue of violence attributed  to and commanded by God. Perhaps the biggest and most troublesome example in this regard is the Canaanite genocide – Yahweh commanding Israel to “utterly destroy” all of the inhabitants – men, women, and children – of the promised land.

Prior to the conquest, Yahweh set out his expectations to Moses and the children of Israel as follows:

In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess (Num 33:50-53).

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you — the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you — and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy (Deut 7:1-2).

But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God (Deut 20:16-18).

Then, when the Israelites encountered the Canaanite king of Arad on the way to the promised land, they prayed to Yahweh and he “listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah” (Num 21:1-3). The Israelites later killed off a few other towns on their journey, Moses later reporting, “we utterly destroyed them… in each city utterly destroying men, women, and children (Deut 3:6).

Perhaps the most (in)famous example is the destruction of Jericho, where

they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys (Josh 6:21).

How do we respond to such texts?

Now, I recognize there are significant historical issues with these texts. Most (many?) critical scholars maintain that there was not really much of a conquest of Canaan, if at all. John Van Seters, for example, comments “the invasion of the land of Canaan by Israel under Joshua was an invention of [the Deuteronomistic Historian]. The conquest narrative is a good example of ancient historiography but it cannot pass for historical by any modern criteria of historical evaluation.” Even the biblical text, when read carefully, admits that the conquest was not quite as successful as the early chapters of Joshua suggest (see Josh 13:1‑7; 18:3; cf. Exod 23:29-30; Judg 1). That being said, even if there is little histiorical value in these texts (note I am not necessarily saying this), the biblical text still presents Yahweh as commanding the Canaanite genocide, and this picture fits into the larger ideological portrayal of Yahweh as warrior found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

So the question remains, How do we respond to such texts? How do we respond to such texts in a post-holocaust world? How do we respond in a world where terms such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are heard all too often in the news?

The so-called “new atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, among others) have responded to these and other biblical texts by rejecting Yahweh as a petty, jealous, violent deity.  Dawkins comments:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 51; thanks to Randal Rauser for this citation).

He further contends:

What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh-and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us (The God Delusion, 248; cited in Copan).

While rejecting Yahweh may be a solution for some, I would argue that it really isn’t an option for Christians who want to adhere to the biblical canon. But what do we do with these texts? Paul Copan, professor of theology and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has recently published an article in Philosophia Christi that addresses this thorny problem. In his article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), Copan attempts to counter the claims of the new atheists, among others. Copan rehearses most of the typical responses Christians have given in the past, though I am not sure how satisfied I am by his answers.

Time permitting, I am planning on following up this post with at least one more where I will engage Copan’s article and provide some ways to understand this portrayal of Yahweh. That being said, I can’t say I am fully satisfied with my own answers (perhaps this is one of those issues where we should never be satisfied with any answers!).

What are your thoughts?


Posted in Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Old Testament, Theodicy, Theology, Yahweh War | 14 Comments »

Disturbing Divine Behaviour

6th November 2009

As a follow up to my last post, I wanted to put a plug in for a recently published book that also explores the difficult issue of the violent portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament — a book which I am using as one of the texts for one of the courses I am teaching next semester:

Disturbing_Divine_BehaviorDisturbing Divine Behavior:
Troubling Old Testament Images of God

by Eric A. Seibert
Fortress Press, 2009
Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com

In this work Seibert examines the disturbing narrative portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible and explores some ways in which we may (as Christians) read these narratives in a responsible and faithful manner today. I am not necessarily convinced by Seibert’s solution to the problem, but he does a great job focusing the issue and helping us understand the function of biblical narrative and its relation to history. I only wish that he would have expanded his coverage to at least include the negative images of God found in the prophetic literature. Moreover, I really wish he expanded his work to cover the entire Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments), so the issue isn’t even framed as an “Angry God of the Old Testament versus the Loving God of the New Testament” debate.

Another book that deals with the same problem by focusing on the book of Joshua and the conquest/Canaanite genocide is Walter Brueggemann‘s recently published, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua (Cascade, 2009; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Joshua, Old Testament, Theodicy | 7 Comments »

My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Violent Portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible

6th November 2009

There was a fascinating conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion at the beginning of September. The title of the conference was, “My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible.”

The conference examined the troubling portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible — something which I am very interested in since that will be the focus of one of my courses I am teaching next semester. Here is the write up for the conference:

Adherents of the Abrahamic religious traditions contend that human beings are made in the image of God and that modeling the character of God in one’s life represents the pinnacle of human flourishing and moral perfection. Defenders of this tradition commonly point to passages in the canonical texts of the Jewish and Christian faiths that portray God as loving, merciful, patient, etc. in support of such a position. Since the seventeenth century, however, numerous critics of these Abrahamic traditions have argued that God, especially in the Hebrew Bible, is often portrayed as anything but a moral role model. On the one hand, historical narratives in these texts describe God apparently committing, ordering, or commending genocide, slavery, and rape among other moral atrocities. On the other hand, a number of commands purportedly issued by God seem to commend bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia. In recent days, similar criticisms of the Abrahamic traditions have been raised by philosophers (Daniel Dennett), scientists (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris), social commentators (Christopher Hitchens), and others.

Are these apparent commendations and commands of the Hebrew Bible consistent with the claim that the Abrahamic God is perfectly good and loving? Those defending this tradition have two avenues of response open to them. The first response would be to argue that the aforementioned troubling narratives or commands should simply be rejected. Those taking this approach would have to explain how they think such passages could be rejected without placing in peril the Abrahamic religions, which have traditionally claimed that the Hebrew Bible is, represents, or contains the inspired word of God. The second response would offer explanations aiming to show that the apparently untoward consequences can be avoided without rejecting the narratives or commands. Those taking this approach must explain either why the untoward consequences do not follow, or why they are not, in the end untoward.

However, while defenders of this tradition have both routes available to them, few of these defenders seem to have taken the challenge to heart. Despite these recent, forthright criticisms, only a handful of theologians or philosophers in these traditions have sought to respond to the criticisms.

The present conference aims to remedy this deficiency, taking as its focus the charge that the Abrahamic tradition should be rejected because of its foundation in the Hebrew Bible, which portrays God as immoral and vicious. The presenters and commentators include philosophers—both theistic and nontheistic—as well as Biblical scholars.

The conference had an impressive list of speakers, including Christopher Seitz, Nicholas Wolterstorff, James L. Crenshaw, among others. And if you were not able to attend the conference (as I), we can still enjoy the papers and interaction via the web!

Here is the program with links to the videos:

Thursday, September 10, 2009:

Friday, September 11, 2009:

Saturday, September 12, 2009:

I encourage you to check out the papers!


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Conferences, Old Testament, Theodicy, Theology | 3 Comments »

Finding God in The Shack

13th March 2009

The ShackIf you haven’t heard of the popular novel The Shack (Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), then you must have been living in a cave for the last two years. William P. Young’s bestselling novel about a man’s encounter with the Triune God one weekend has touched the hearts and minds of millions of readers. It has also raised the ire of a few theologians and self-appointed guardians of the faith.

The Shack is by no means perfect. As a novel it has weak dialogue and doesn’t quite hang together as it should. As a novel that explores some important theological questions about God, the Trinity, and suffering, it also has some weaknesses. Despite its weaknesses, this unassuming novel has elicited more theological discussion and reflection than any recent academic work of theology. While this work has raised many questions it is a bit short on answers; or at least the answers it provides at times only scratch the surface of some complex theological topics. What would be helpful is a theological guide to The Shack.

finding_god_in_shackThis is exactly what my colleague and friend, Randal Rauser has written with his just published volume, Finding God in The Shack (Paternoster, 2009; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).  In seven short chapters, Rauser explores a number of the theological issues raised by The Shack, including the provocative portrayal of God the Father as an African-American woman and the Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman (Sarayu), the nature of the relationship between members of the Trinity (hierarchical or egalitarian?), and the problems raised by the existence of horrendous evil in the world. In each of these discussions Rauser begins with the novel and then explores the theological questions raised by the book in an engaging and accessible way. In addition, each chapter ends with questions for further reflection.

Eugene Peterson’s blurb on the back cover of Finding God in the Shack is as good as an endorsement you’ll find anywhere:

If you have ever had a conversation on The Shack, whether with an enthusiast or a critic, you will want to invite this skilled and accessible theologian into the conversation. Before you have read a dozen pages you will know why we need to keep company with theologians. They help us keep our conversation on God intelligent, informed, and irenic.

If you have read The Shack and want to explore some of the issues raised by the novel in more detail, I encourage you to pick up Rauser’s book. It will help you navigate through some of the deep theological waters raised by the novel.

Interestingly, Roger Olson has also just published a book with the same title from InterVarsity Press: Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption (2009; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).


Posted in Popular Culture, Suffering, Theodicy, Theology | 1 Comment »

Yahweh – A Moral Monster? Not According to Copan

21st July 2008

As I mentioned in my previous post, Yahweh – A Moral Monster?, I wanted to interact with Paul Copan’s article written in response to the views of the so-called “new atheists.” In this post I will review Copan’s article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), which rehearses many of the classic evangelical responses to the problem of the Canaanite genocide. While I will provide some of my own evaluation, I will leave the bulk of my own perspective for my next post.

I should note that Copan is concerned with responding to broader charges against the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible by the new atheists and aims to “discern the powerful moral vision of the OT” against their criticisms.  My interaction with Copan will restrict itself to those points that intersect with the genocide question.

ANE Cultural Context
Copan’s first point is that “We must allow the OT ethical discussion to begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.” This is certainly correct. Our world is not the world of the Bible. The ANE was a harsh world and the OT reflects this. He further argues that while the OT world is harsh and different than our world, you also find that “God is incrementally ‘humanizing’ ANE structures within Israel to diminish cruelty and elevate the status of, say, slaves and women-even if such customs are not fully eliminated.” While I would agree to a certain extent (for instance, there are a number of studies that compare the Deuteronomic Code [DC] with other biblical and ANE law codes and finds that the DC is more “enlightened” – for lack of a better term), I would also be wary of trying to paint the ANE worse so that the Hebrew Bible looks far better in comparison. That being said, understanding the harsh world of the ANE will at least help us understand the biblical portrayal of Yahweh more sympathetically perhaps. In my mind, it is also useful to recognize that ancient Israel would naturally embed their view of God in their cultural context (uh, how could they not?), and this image of God would naturally not fit our modern sensibilities (of course, this raises the question of revelation, though you could just flip the point and say that God revealed godself in ways that would be understandable to ancient Israelites).

Development & Diversity in the OT/HB
Second, Copan maintains that there are “differing ethical demands for differing historical contexts in OT Israel’s history.” Thus, even within the OT/HB there is development. The divine command to wipe out the people in the land (Canaanites et al) was a one time command at a very specific period of Israel’s history (although herem warfare did crop up again with the Amalekites and King Saul, although this was related to the conquest of Canaan; see 1Sam 15). “Genocide” was not Israel’s modus operandi. The Deuteronomic laws themselves make a distinction between “holy war” in general and war against the lands “God is giving them as an inheritance” in particular (compare Deut 20:10-15 and vv. 16-20).

Formulaic and Stylized Nature of the Biblical Witness
A third major argument Copan raises concerns the nature of the biblical witness. Let me quote him in full:

Let me add a few more thoughts about warfare here. First, Israel would not have been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh’s explicit command. Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh’s command to bring punishment to the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves. Third, the “obliteration language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE’s literary conventions of warfare.

Copan highlights a number of points here. First, he notes that, biblically speaking, the Canaanites “had it coming” due to  “the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture.” While this reflects a biblical perspective (see especially Deuteronomy 9-10 where it says, among other things, “It is not because of your [Israel’s] righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations Yahweh your God is dispossessing them before you” [Deut 9:5]), it makes me a bit uncomfortable since history has made it clear that it is easy for one group to demonize another.

Second, Copan notes that the language of herem is formulaic and naturally filled with hyperbole, and the biblical text also seems to imply in a number of places the failure of the Canaanite operation. Of course, as I already mentioned, that Israel failed historically in their ethnic cleansing (or even if it is propagandistic fiction), doesn’t change the fact that the Bible portrays Yahweh commanding it.  While I concur with Copan that the texts employ certain formulaic language in regards to Yahweh war, the narrative examples provided in the biblical text (e.g., Jericho in Judges 6, Saul and the Amalekites in 1Sam 15), suggest that when the biblical text talks about killing all “men, women, and children” it is not an exaggeration.

God’s Prerogative
Copan then makes what he considers is the crux of his argument concerning the Canaanite genocide. Again, I quote in full:

if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to give us seventy or eight years of life.
….
That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through Israel’s armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons. Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the women were far from innocent.

In connection with the killing of children and babies, Copan argues that “death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture.”  This argumentation makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, least of which it  presupposes a NT understanding of the afterlife (the OT is not clear what happens after death). That being said,  I am not sure how we can get around the notion of Yahweh’s/God’s rightful prerogative over human life. If Yahweh is God — if God is God — then does not he have the perrogative to judge his creation? This point by Copan brings the discussion out of the OT/HB and into the Christian Bible as a whole, since the NT also portrays God as the ultimate judge over his creation.

This, then, is Copan’s response. In my next post I will provide some of my own thoughts on the subject.


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Theodicy, Yahweh War | 7 Comments »

Providence, Luck, and God’s Sovereignty (or lack thereof)

11th May 2007

I commend to my readers Chris Heard’s thoughful post, “As luck would have it, God was with us.”


Posted in Providence, Suffering, Theodicy, Theology | Comments Off

The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church

15th October 2006

I have been working on this post for a week. Actually, I haven’t really been working on it for a week; this post has been sitting as a draft in WordPress as I have been avoiding it in light of the tragic events in my friend’s life. On the one hand, talking about lament is appropriate is view of such a horrific tragedy. On the other hand, more than anything else, I don’t want to sound trite. Job’s (so-called) friends did fine as long as they kept their mouths shut — it’s once they opened them that things went sideways! In my mind, this recent tragedy underscores the need for the church to embrace lament fully as ancient Israel did.

I have been discussing lament psalms in my psalms course over the last few classes and was struck once again of the importance of lament for the life of faith. Of all the different types of psalms in the Psalter, laments occur most frequently. While some of the details of their form and setting in life are elusive (at least to scholars), it is pretty easy to identify lament psalms by their tone, which is one of sorrow, complaint, disorientation, and suffering. Take the following examples:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long? (Ps 6:2-3)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads (Ps 22:1, 6-7).

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me,
that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more (Ps 39:11-12).

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Ps 69:1-3).

You [i.e., Yahweh] have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend (Ps 88:6-10, 16-18).

Complaining in Faith to God

Many Christians don’t know how to handle tragedy. Consequently, they don’t know what to do with the lament psalms in the Bible. They think that “complaining in faith” to God is a contradiction. “Christians aren’t supposed to complain!” “We are to ‘rejoice always’ aren’t we?” But when we come to the book of Psalms we find it filled with complaints — and not just complaints about the psalmist’s circumstances, but also complaints directed towards God, challenging God’s perceived inaction (“How long, O Lord?”) and sometimes challenging God himself (“You have caused…”; see Ps 44:9; 60:3; 90:15). Roland Murphy has asked whether “we have lost the art of complaining in faith to God in favor of a stoic concept of what obedience or resignation to the divine will really means” (“The Faith of the Psalmist,” Interpretation 34 [1980], 236).

Rather than understanding complaint and lament psalms as expressions of doubt or unbelief, it is more appropriate to see them as manifestations of a deep faith. No matter how virulent the psalmist gets — at least the psalmist knew where to direct his complaints! He or she had the inward conviction that God was there. There was no question in the psalmist’s mind that God is there and that he will listen to the prayer and perhaps change his or her circumstances for the better. Lament psalms are not resigned lamentation; they do more than just whine about current hardships. They are fundamentally appeals or petitions to God to do something. What characterizes these psalms with few exceptions is the confidence that the situation can be changed if the LORD wills to intervene.

The Costly Loss of Lament

Walter Brueggemann broached this very subject (and I stole part of the title of his essay for this post!). In his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (JSOT 36 [1986] 57-71), he explores the theological significance of lament psalms. In particular, he explores the question of “what happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage?” (p. 59) His answer to his question is twofold. First, when lament is lost, there is also a loss of genuine covenant interaction. Brueggemann argues that when the second party to the covenant (i.e., the psalmist/petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is only permitted to praise, then there is no real covenant relationship. God does not want only “yes men and women.” He wants people who are honest and real in their relationship with him. “Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control” (p. 60). I might add that such a situation only serves to reinforce the status quo and legitimates a view of God that doesn’t square with the God of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

A second loss caused by the loss of lament, according to Brueggemann, is “the stifling of the question of theodicy” (p. 61). What he means by this is not theoretical questions of God and evil, but the capacity to raise legitimate questions of justice with God. I think here of Psalm 89 where in the first half of the psalm the psalmist rehearses and celebrates God’s promises to David (vv. 1-37), only to throw God’s promises in his face in the second half (vv. 38-51):

But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust (Ps 89:38-39).

The psalmist is raising a justice question related to God’s character. If he promised that, then why is this happening? In this sense lament articulates a formal complaint against God (see the book of Job as an extended lawsuit against God). Such articulation ensures that such questions of justice are not swept under the carpet. Like Ecclesiastes, laments recognize that the world is not as it should be — it is hebel – it is not right.

If we lose the ability or the right to lament, to complain to God, then we lose a vital component of our relationship with God. And when it comes right down to it, God knows our hearts, so why not be honest with God at all times? We should feel free to speak freely to God when we are walking through the darkest valley and when we feel like we could praise him forever.

Lament as One Stage in a Journey

Finally, while a few lament psalms end on a note of utter despair (see Pss 38; 39; 89; 143; and in particular Ps 88), most give way to hope. The distress the psalmist is experiencing is very real, but it is not final in the psalmist’s eyes. Parallel to the structure of the Psalter with its move from lament to praise, lament should be seen as only one part of the journey. Praise is the ultimate goal. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). That being said, we must embrace the night. We must embrace lament — and we must allow others who are walking through the darkest valley to embrace lament as well. Let us not be like Job’s friends and quote platitudes and Bible verses when we should be remaining silent and walking along beside our friend in silent prayer.


Posted in Form criticism, Psalms, Suffering, Theodicy | 4 Comments »

Go Up Baldy: The Curse of Baldness

9th June 2006

Claude Mariottini, in a post on the “Old Testament and Baldness” linked to an article from the Mail & Guardian by Nicholas Lezard on The Horror of Going Bald. As one who at forty years still has a thick, lush, head of hair, such articles don’t concern me. The article did make reference, however, to one of my favourite(?) disturbing(!) Bible stories: the story in 2Kings 2:23-25 where Elisha calls a curse down on some children who are taunting his baldness. Here is the quote from the news article:

Baldness is a curse that demands all the fortitude at one’s disposal. It is a curse not only because it looks as though something biblical has happened to your head — it is also the way it is seen as comical, both as a fact, and as an occasion for comical reaction. The Moabites, reckless high-livers who made too many incursions into Israeli territory in the Old Testament, were afflicted, according to Jeremiah, by baldness. At one point Elisha is mocked by children (“There came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald headâ€?). Later God sends a couple of she-bears from the woods and they tear 42 of the Moabites to pieces.

What I thought was odd, was the reference to the mauled children as “Moabites.” Now, perhaps I am wrong, but the context is pretty clear that the children were from Bethel, an Israelite town. While Bethel may have shifted in political ownership between the tribe of Benjamin and Ephraim, it was never Moabite. Here is the biblical passage in question:



23 He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!� 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (NRSV)

So the 42 “small boys” mauled by the bears were fellow Israelites. The biggest question surrounding this passage is “what do we make of it?” There are a number of disturbing passages in the Hebrew Bible. Many of them are horrifying illustrations of human depravity (e.g., Judges 19), which don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the deity of the Bible. But in this passage, it is God who is the implied agent behind the bears’ actions. Elisha curses the young boys “in the name of Yahweh” and then the bears go about their business.

The problematic nature of this passage has led to much exegetical gymnastics by commentators trying to make this passage less morally offensive. Many suppose the boys taunted Elisha at the instigation of their parents and that the who event was to be a prophetic warning to the inhabitants of Bethel. Others suggest the “young boys” were teenage ruffians, though the Hebrew makes this unlikely (while נער “lad” “boy” by itself may suggest adolecents, it is qualified by קטן “small,” which suggest they were on the younger end of things). Still others suggest that by taunting him to lit. “go up” they are wishing for his death (or at least his departure from this earth, perhaps similar to Elijah’s). Most of the explanations focus on the idea that when the boys taunted the prophet of Yahweh, it was tantamount to taunting God himself, and that their mauling is somehow justified. Obviously the adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” doesn’t apply to prophets! (This to me is the real problem with this passage, no matter how bad these boys were, their judgement sure seems to me to be out of proportion).

Any moral justification aside, God using animals to bring about his judgement is found elsewhere in Kings (1 Kgs 13:20–24 and 20:35–36). This is also akin to other extreme judgements in connection with the violation of the sacred (e.g., the touching of the Ark of the Covenant in 2Sam 6). Perhaps there is something in the many explanations offered about this passage. While this may be the case, I tend to think this is just one of those passages that reveal the dark side of the God of the Bible and it is better to let stand, rather than offer poor explanations to make it more morally palatable.

What do you think?

P.S. The South-Park-esque comic about this passage I mentioned in a previous post may be found here (be warned; the comic is twisted).


Posted in 2Kings, Theodicy | 12 Comments »