Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Q4H: Was the Holocaust a punishment from God?

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.


  1. I wish I could say I thought this line of inquiry could be useful, or even meaningful... But I think if you're a human trying to understand a conception of justice that you define as being beyond human, there's nowhere to go.

    Only things humans can understand are useable by human philosophizing. If God is going to be considered so beyond our power to understand that even the most arbitrary-seeming events (say, the Holocaust) would still fit into his version of "justice" -- even as we openly admit its incomprehensibility to us -- then you're not talking about God anymore. You're talking about the Universe, and questions of justice or intentionality don't even enter into it.

    I'm all for having a sense of mystery about the Universe, of course. But using a shorter, three-letter word for it doesn't change the working concept. Another way to put it is: if we can't understand God, then why worship him?

  2. Karl, I appreciate the comments, but they seem to make an unnecessary logic leap. To conclude that some — or even most — aspects of the nature of God are such that we can't comprehend them does not put us squarely in the territory of not knowing anything about Him, and does not dump us back into that wide open space you're calling the Universe.

    Revelation is fundamental to the stories of many founders of religious faiths, especially in the Abrahamic religions. The tales of Abraham, Jacob, Moses and others found in the Old Testament are full of personal encounters not with the Universe, not with the results of their idle philosophizing about gaps in their knowledge (such as what this blog mostly represents for me), but with a being they consistently refer to as "God".

    So what worshippers of God claim to know about His nature is based on what we believe He has revealed to Man — in terms Man can understand — about that nature in the ordered design of our Universe, via revelation to the Hebrew patriarchs, in the person of Jesus Christ, etc., handed down through generations orally or in written forms such as the documents that comprise the Bible.

    Of course, you are free to doubt completely the revelations themselves, or the integrity of the stories of those encounters propagated through history. Those doubts may always linger (I fear, for myself even) where personal revelation has not occurred, and probably for some folks even when it has.

  3. I get a little frustrated when anyone says things like the Holocaust are a form of punishment inflicted on a certain group of people. The implication is that divine intervention extends even into the realm of what human's consider evil -- or more to the point, divine intervention ignores the context of human life completely and applies it's wrath where ever it sees fit.

    If God really intended to punish Jewish people, would he really convey this punishment through the ignorant, if not completely evil, intentions of a madman's agenda? Wouldn't he select a more suitable, obvious, and fitting punishment? As with most children, punishment lacks effect when applied without context.

    Don't get me wrong, I certainly think that God has His ways and we're pretty stupid to think we can understand them. But, I don't think we can apply God's will to historical context when we see fit or, worse yet, when we don't see reason at all.

    Just my two cents. =D

  4. sinical: Thanks for reading! I hope I didn't give the impression of asserting that the Holocaust was a punishment. It was just a question that came to mind while studying this section of the Bible. (And I certainly don't mean to suggest that history's Bad Guys were necessarily agents of God.)

    sinical> If God really intended to punish Jewish people, would he really convey this punishment through the ignorant, if not completely evil, intentions of a madman's agenda? Wouldn't he select a more suitable, obvious, and fitting punishment?

    The human in me says, "Well, I certainly would have." But I asked the question because of what I was reading. The Hebrew nation was repeatedly carried off into captivity, scattered across what was then believed to be the whole world, and so on. Why? Apparently, because of disobedience to God. Did those punishments fit the crimes?

    sinical> As with most children, punishment lacks effect when applied without context.

    Splitting hairs a bit here — I should have used the term "discipline" instead of "punishment" in my post. But to address your comment, I must ask a question in response: "Was there, in fact, a lack of context?"

    If a prophet told your nation that the consequences of some future season of unfaithfulness to God (should that season ever come) would be that your nation would be brought to the point of ruin by foreign oppressors, and then at some time in the future your nation was brought to the point of ruin by foreign oppressors, what would you do?

    While seeking out God's purpose for this oppression, you hopefully would stumble across this old prophecy and — noticing that your current state of existence matched the condition promised if your nation lost its way spiritually — you'd naturally begin evaluating the spiritual consciousness of your peoples. Thus the lesson is taught not from careful and complex constructions of punishments befitting crimes, but from much simpler ideas mapping a cause to its foretold effect. Even children — even animals — can understand that.

    Could it be that sometimes the promised punishment intentionally does not fit the crime so that the we more readily recognize it as being from God versus "just the way the cookie crumbles" (natural consequences)?

  5. One of the important things to remember is that the Holocaust was perpetrated by people. Bad Things done with the hands of men are done by beings who possess Free Will. If we do not have free will, then the Covenant is meaningless (see the Misneh Torah for a lot more of this).

    So, if people have free will then you cannot equate their actions with the actions of G-d. Divine punishment is never meted out via proxy. Although some terrible events have befallen the Jews because they didn't listen to G-d -- ie the destruction of the temple -- those things are not punishment from G-d but rather they are the dangers of straying from the Torah.

    I would also point out that one of the central tenets of Jewish monotheism is that God does not act like a petulant child. We have a set of rules (the Torah) that if we follow then G-d will hold up his end of the bargain. G-d is not a random actor the way that other "gods" are. This is important because the Shoa was the murder of 6 million Jews but the Holocaust was the murder of 12 million innocents. Those other 6 million were not Jews and it can be problematic to attribute the deaths of that 2nd 6 million to the iniquity of the first. Have you asked Moses?

  6. jbs: Thanks for your comments. No, I was unaware of "". (Fascinating -- I can't wait to read more of it!)

    The statement of yours that "Divine punishment is never meted out via proxy" is intriguing. At this very moment, I can quickly recall punishment in the forms of sulfurous precipitation, floods, big fish, boils, insanity, and so on. But yeah, I'm struggling to think of a good example of a punishment which came via human proxy.

    If I understand you correctly, then, Moses was not in this passage of Deuteronomy prophesying some direct punishment enacted by God on the Hebrew nation via the proxies of neighboring tribes. He was instead revealing what we might call "natural consequences" of straying from the Torah.

    (Thinking aloud here...) Straying from Torah causes God to remove His protective hand ... which is normally in place to thwart the effects of natural consequences ... and in this case, it would be only natural for Israel to get scared and scattered by neighboring tribes because the tribes back then were all sorta territorial and war-mongering types anyway ... so straying from Torah gets you oppressed by neighbors not because God made them do it, but because He allowed them to do it ...

    Am I understanding your point, jbs, or did I miss it entirely?

  7. First, when I said 'by proxy' I mean that the punishment is inflicted by the hand of G-d. The 10 plagues is a good example. The frogs were not the proxy of the divine. They were the punishment, sent by the divine. The same as the darkness and the river of blood. We know that this is true because later, in the desert, when Moses strikes the rock and declares to have brought water he is punished (
    because it is not the staff nor the hand of man that caused this to be but the Action of the divine.

    You're close to my point. Let me try to be clearer (I tell ya,this little comment box does not help my writing, you'd think google could at least put Emacs in here) It is not simply that G-d removes a protective hand. Here is an example. You ride a motorcycle. I see you and I tell you that you should wear a helmet. You decide not to wear a helmet, wreck, and are killed. I didn't cause you to wreck, and I didn't kill you. But, if you had listened, you might not have been killed.

    The point that I'm trying to make is that G-d didn't allow (in an active sense) the Jewish people to get into the situations they got in, we did it ourselves (knowingly or unknowingly) by disregarding the Torah (this includes the Oral law, too). A good example of this is that the root cause of the destruction of the 2nd temple is often cited to be the fact that the Jews of the day 'hated' one another. This caused the cracks in society that eventually led to Romans rampage after the failed Bar Kobar revolt. This does not mean that Centurians who did the killing are not guilty of murder, nor does it mean that it was justified. Itt also doesn't mean that G-d destroyed the Temple. This destruction can be thought of as a 'side effect' of sin. G-d punishes sin and transgressions against G-d. how ever, these transgressions have effects wider than just their impact to your relationship with G-d.

    The last point I'll make is that Jewish prophecy is not the same as christian prophecy. Moses was describing a possible future (of the actual people he was talking to) that had been conveyed to him by G-d. He was telling the people to wear a helmet. Jewish prophets tell the people of what might be, not what will be. This is an issue of free will. Moses was telling people that if they stray for the Torah, if they behave badly, they will likely be destroyed by powerful (and violent) tribes already in the land of Canaan. You can compare Moses' warning with the story of Jonah.

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