Does God break God’s promises? Is God unfair?
I’m sure most believers will reflexively reply, “No.” I think it’s important to linger over the discomfort of this question, because it’s a central problem in the Bible. Theologians call the problem of struggling with God’s justice “theodicy.” Job is probably the most explicit in his struggle with the goodness and reliability of God, but plenty of other authors raise the question.
Before we get to today’s text (in Jeremiah), it’s important to get a little history: Israel and Judah were destroyed by invading armies (in 722 BCE and 587 BCE). Most of the prophets attributed their nations’ destruction and exile to the judgment of God. They said that the Israelites and Judeans had turned away from God to idols, or had failed to do justice to the poor. Invasion and exile was God’s punishment.
But what about all the people who hadn’t worshiped idols? What about the children who were collateral damage, who were “dashed against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9) by invaders? Biblical authors struggle with a God who would do such things. This is why Abraham chides God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). This is also why the same scene plays out with God and Jonah, but with roles reversed: now God reprimands Jonah: “…should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).
The standard history I was taught in Sunday school was this: Israel sinned and turned away from God, so God punished them with invasion and exile. This is a stunning attribution of violence to a God of love. But there are plenty of voices in the Bible who object to this version of history. One of my favorites is in Psalm 44.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
and have scattered us among the nations.
You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them…
All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant. [my emphasis]
Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,
yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God,
or spread out our hands to a strange god,
would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Because of you we are being killed all day long,
and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
“God, you are being unfair!” says the Psalmist, before concluding, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep!?” This is pretty gutsy stuff to say to God, reminiscent of Elijah taunting the priests of Ba’al: “perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).
It’s important to hear this background rather than the trite moralizing we’re often taught in church that trivializes oppression, the trauma of war, and human suffering. The question “does God break God’s promises” is a question about history. It is a gut-wrenching “why?” asked of the universe. It’s important to acknowledge this pain before hearing the lectionary text for this Sunday from Jeremiah:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:27-34).
Jeremiah, like other prophets, is struggling with the justice of God. While he accepts the standard interpretation of history, he says God is about to do a new thing, something which is both more just more profound. Rather than punishing children for the crimes of their parents, God will evaluate us on a case-by-case basis. Rather than punishing a nation for the sins of its leaders, God will have an intimate covenant with all people, “from the least to the greatest.”
I don’t think Jeremiah’s answer satisfies the problem of God’s justice, but he makes a major theological shift: God will forge a new, more humane, and more personal relationship with human beings. God is doing something new.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
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It sounds like God must have gotten into some of those creative parenting blogs and was trying out the individualized parenting approach with his defiant children. Do you ever wonder if he is going to look at us and decide that it’s not working out, and that he should go back to the Old Thing?
I have been enjoying your Lenten series and am grateful for the insights and perspectives you bring. Paul reminded the Galatians that they will reap what they sow. Jesus said as much in his parable of the Sower. God is just and of purer eyes than to behold evil. And His justice is that we who have turned away will reap what happens when we do so. It is not He that is punishing us, but we ourselves for having chosen to neglect the narrow gate, but to take the wide way which leads to destruction. Because it seems unfair, we, perhaps unwittingly, wish to blame God for it. But we have brought it upon ourselves. The wonderful thing is that we can turn again and be blessed, just as the Prodigal did.
While I appreciate that God is good and just, reiterating that God is just doesn’t answer the problem of theodicy. The question repeatedly lifted up by the biblical authors is, “If we are God’s chosen people, why do we keep getting our butts kicked?” Saying “we deserve it” is ultimately unsatisfactory. That’s the language of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar in the book of Job.
Job WAS innocent, and Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar wrongly suggested that God was punishing him for something he did. Elihu helped set the record straight. The Children of Israel, even though they were the chosen, were not innocent of wrong doing. They repeatedly turned away from God. That version of theodicy suggests that God knows good and evil and punishes. True theodicy states that God’s action is always right, therefore it is never evil, just as Jesus demonstrated. God is not the cause of the punishment the Children of Israiel received.
What percentage of people who were slaughtered in Samaria or Jerusalem, or who were carried away to exile, do you think, were idolaters? How many babies dashed against the rocks had defied the Most High? Do you think that the weapons of invading armies discriminated between the rich and poor, or the just and the unjust? When God sent famine and plague against Israel, who did it affect the worst: the rich and powerful or the poor, women, and children?
The voice of the authors of Job, Jonah, Psalm 44 are the minority report. They speak for all those who were “collateral damage” in invasion, rape, pillage, exile, and slavery. Christians who read of God “punishing” Israel or Canaan with slaughter and exile without cognitive dissonance have turned their God into a devil.
Christians who cannot sit with the discomfort of the question of God’s justice are being the voice of Eliphaz accusing Job: “You are doing away with the fear of God and hindering meditation before God” (15:4). Job, on the other hand, echoes the passage in Jeremiah: “You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’ Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it. Let their own eyes see their destruction, and let them drink the wrath of the almighty” (21:19-20). These authors assert that a God who punishes children for the sins of their parents is not actually being just. The people consistently lifted up as heroes are the ones like Abraham and Moses who challenged God to be as merciful and just as God said God is. “Shall not the judge of the earth do what is right?” Most Christians do not have the guts to say that kind of thing to God, but would instead say, “You’re the boss.”
There is not one right answer to the problem of theodicy, but I do believe God answers in the cross, in which God takes the injustice of the world upon God’s own self in the person of Jesus Christ. So the question of God’s justice is not explained, but it is answered.
Honestly, it frightens me how willing Christians are to accept the notion that God would use or endorse genocide.
I don’t believe that God either causes or condones all of the things you listed like genocide. I think man does though. The Apostle Paul talks about the carnal mind which is enmity to God. If enmity to God, then it is certainly enmity to man. The good that I would, I do not and the evil I would not, that I do, says Paul. God provides the means however, for preventing, assuaging, and healing all of those terrible things. The Sermon on the Mount for example, or the Ten Commandments. Each of us must put off that old man which hates his neighbor and justifies violence under any circumstance. God has made us able to do that. God has provided us an example in Christ Jesus of the validity of choosing to take up our cross instead of acting out our lowest passions. There is not just one way to look at this. The Bible offers a legitimate answer to your question, Is God Unfair? Why would He have sent His beloved son? It was to show us how fair He is and how our own ways of dealing with things through the carnal mind simply weren’t working. We must learn that lesson and change our ways.
While I agree that God is fair, I think it’s important to lift up these voices that get neglected: Job, Psalm 44, and even God’s voice in the book of Jonah. I agree that God answers in the cross, I just think there’s a difference between answering and explaining. Not all biblical authors find the explanation of God’s justice satisfying, so I think it’s okay if Christians don’t, either.
I also think there’s a critique of the theology of passages like Deuteronomy 28, where obedience = blessing and disobedience = curses. To return to my original point, Jeremiah flatly denies that God will punish children for the sins of their parents anymore. I think for modern readers, part of the question is: Do we think God ever endorsed or used genocide (like in Joshua)? Or was it just the way biblical authors interpreted their history at the time?
Thank you for your willingness to engage me in this conversation. We’re both praying for a hurting world, and whether we agree on doctrinal issues or not, we’re still on the same side: striving to bring healing through Christ. I have appreciated your book and am grateful for the stand you take.
I hear u….. Nice reply bro
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God does not have to explain Himself. He is above explanation, He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He loves us so much that He shows His will in the Bible and does what He said. Beyond that, our faith allows us to trust that He knows what we do not and what is best for all in eternity.
This also sounds like something Eliphaz in the book of Job would say.