Today's Bible reading covered Deuteronomy 28-30. It was a hard read, both in terms of the subject matter and the somewhat dry and repetitive writing style. It basically boils down to about 100 verses of God telling the nation of Israel through His servant, Moses, that if they are obedient, things will go well for them; if they aren't, life will be hell. The imagery is so intense, the warning from God so strong, and the foretold methods of discipline so harsh, that I found myself thinking about the Holocaust. Was the Holocaust -- in which millions and millions of Jews were tortured and killed -- a judgment from God of the sort that is foretold in these verses?
Israel's history is filled with repeated cycles of, as my pastor recently put it, "sin, suffering, supplication, and salvation." In and out of slavery, conquered by one nation after the other, the history of the Old Testament tells the tale of a nation that can't keep its eyes on its God, and an extremely jealous God who acts harshly against His chosen people not to "pay them back", but to "bring them back" to Him. But is the Holocaust too harsh even for God?
I Googled around a bit trying to find out what others thought about this question. One of the top hits was an article that claims if this was punishment, it's an unjust one that doesn't fit the crime (or perhaps any crime imaginable). It also points to things like the original Egyptian enslavement which doesn't appear to be a punishment for any particular thing, either. Sometimes, God just does what God does because He's God, and we can't possibly understand His purposes. The article wraps up with:
In our individual lives and in our view of history, we have a choice concerning how we wish to relate to G‑d. We can see Him as that Big Meany in the Sky and interpret accordingly. Or we can see a deep relationship happening between Man and G‑d — something we cannot always fathom, but believe in with unalterable faith. Torah gives you that freedom. In which world do you want to live?
My good friend Karl let me borrow a book some time ago entitled Who Wrote the Bible?, which (like many such scholarly books) points to multiple authors of the Pentateuch whose writings were later woven together and attributed to Moses. One of the most memorable things the author notes, though, is that if you separate the various contributing texts from one another, and read them individually, you no longer see this dichotomy in God's nature of being both compassionate and judgmental. One text will consistently describe the compassionate Abba Father God; another takes the "Big Meany in the Sky" approach. But clearly they all are talking about the very same God.
So I wonder, too, how much of what we attribute to God's nature comes exactly from what we want Him to be? How many Christians desperately need to believe in a loving God that won't zap them with lightning when they fail, thereby relaxing the standards they feel compelled to live up to? How many atheists desperately need to believe that the God of the Jews is cruel and unjust and therefore can't reasonably be God at all, thereby saving themselves the trouble of living up to His standards at all? Isn't the whole problem with our understanding of — and relationship with — God the fact that those things naturally have to occur on our terms and with our language, the weaker of the two communication protocols?
Ruling out the idea that the Holocaust was punishment because it was too extreme might work well for those who forget that God isn't required to adhere to our ideas of justice because He defines true justice. Insisting that all bad things happen as punishment for some shortcoming or sin works fantastically for those forget that God isn't required to adhere to our ideas of love because He is love. In the end, it seems we're all still left guessing, and trusting that the models of justice and love we have were given us because they reflect — as best as humanly possible — those facets of Almighty God.
The passage in Deuteronomy today leaves for me no doubt that these two vectors of God's nature should not be superficially limited by what fallen Man has to say about justice and love. To extents entirely unnatural, God fiercely judges:
You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. … There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, "If only it were evening!" and in the evening, "If only it were morning!" — because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.
...and God forgivingly loves:
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.