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.
Tissot’s 1896 depiction of the Babylonian Exile, “Flight of the Prisoners”
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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