Theodicy in Tanakh – A Practical Lesson in Knowledge of God

BY: Daniela Aaron.

Courses on Jewish philosophy tend to focus on studying theology through the lens of medieval treatises rather than through the lens of Tanakh. What knowledge we have about how God works is not culled from the narratives in the Torah or prophetic literature, but from such works as Rambam’s Introduction to Perek Helek or the Kuzari. The reason for this is quite obvious: little about how God works is readily clear from the Tanakh. This is not for lack of illustrations or statements about His actions, but because these illustrations and statements are often inconsistent with one another, and therefore do not form a coherent theology, a fact which can become uncomfortable for those who view Torah as the source of their belief. This phenomenon is by no means limited to the discussion of torat ha-gemul (how God metes out reward and punishment), but as it is a particularly complex and intriguing concept within Tanakh, I would like to use it to explore how a believer can comfortably read Tanakh and find meaning in its discrepancies. Such a method highlights the importance of not approaching texts with preconceived notions, but instead discovering the truth that actually emerges from them.

The difficulty of the issue of theodicy and God’s providence is most pronounced when studying the books of Tanakh focused on galut and ge’ullah (exile and redemption). A stark contrast is set up within these works between two models of God’s justice. In the first model, vicarious and collective punishments are acceptable; in the second model, God only punishes based on personal sin.

The first model is founded upon the Torah’s statement that God “is a jealous God, visiting the sins of fathers upon sons until the third and fourth generations, to those who hate [Him].”[i] While many commentators try to mitigate the force of this statement,[ii] the plain meaning is that if someone sets himself against God, he may expect punishment, even through the suffering of his children who may not have sinned against God themselves. It is unnerving to think that the Tanakh espouses what we may deem such a harsh view, but this is the sentiment expressed by the authors of Melakhim and Eikhah as well.

Melakhim is not merely a chronicle of the kings of the Israelite nation; it is also a work of profound religious and theological importance.[iii] Set during the period before the destruction of the First Temple, Melakhim attempts to explain to a confounded people how they could have fallen so far from God, and, in doing so, sets up an almost fatalist view of the events leading to the exile. The reader may get the impression that the book is a long list of our ancestors’ failings; however, it is much more than that, for there are several kings who are described not only as good, but as exceptional, even ideal. Yet, the impression of failure lasts because despite the attempts of kings (often supported by their subjects) to forestall destruction through good deeds, destruction does indeed come, and the text explicitly links the destruction of the Judeans at the hands of the Babylonians with the sins of their ancestors who ruled generations earlier.[iv]

The book of Melakhim fosters a sense that, to a certain extent, destruction comes upon children because of their fathers’ sins. This theme is expressed most eloquently, and quite explicitly, by the author of Megillat Eikhah, who states, “Our fathers erred but are no longer here, and we have suffered for their sins.”[v] Eikhah is a book that goes out of its way to detail the breadth of the destruction of Jerusalem. Each chapter magnifies a different aspect of the tragedy,[vi] culminating with the sense that God’s punishment was drastically disproportionate to the Jews’ actions.

The second model of theodicy assumes that God is just and acts in a way deemed just by humans. This is a sort of Abrahamic ideal in which God’s demands on us to mete out justice are matched by His own attribute of justice. This is a far more comfortable mode of thought for many of us since in this view God’s modus operandi does not conflict with our own views of what is just, i.e. that we are only punished for our own sins. It is also a far more optimistic view of the world: each person makes his own destiny, and both good and bad choices are punished or rewarded without repercussions on the undeserving.[vii] This sentiment is promoted by works such as Divrei ha-Yamim and Yehezkel.

Like Melakhim, Divrei ha-Yamim is not merely a historical chronicle. However, by and large, that is where the similarities between the aims of the two books end. In its account of the deeds of the kings of Yehudah, Divrei ha-Yamim includes a considerable amount of information not found in Melakhim. While in Melakhim kings are good or evil, in Divrei ha-Yamim everyone is a little of both. Whereas Melakhim gives the impression that kings and their people may suffer undeservedly, Divrei ha-Yamim maintains that each king is met with the end he deserves.[viii] In this vein, the resolution of the book does not focus on the near century of exile after the destruction of the First Temple, but on Cyrus’ proclamation sanctioning the rebuilding of the Temple, thereby giving the reader the sense that the Jews are being given a chance to rebuild something wonderful, rather than inviting the reader to dwell on past mistakes. The book draws the reader toward a view of divine justice that is fairer to humans, one that offers each person the possibility to improve his or her situation in life.

While Divrei ha-Yamim alters the message of Melakhim, the prophet Yehezkel makes his objections to Melakhim’s idea of divine providence the subject of a public debate. Yehezkel speaks to a somewhat reluctant audience of exiles who see their brethren still suffering in Jerusalem under siege and begin to speculate about God’s justice. God responds by instructing Yehezkel to take the people’s doubts head-on. In a meticulously reasoned passage, the prophet explicitly states that God punishes and rewards each person according to his personal sins or merits.[ix] Sons, he says, may only suffer for the sins of their fathers if they continue in their fathers’ evil ways.[x],[xi]

The clash between these two models is obvious enough. Yehezkel publicly denounces the catchphrase among the besieged Israelites that “our fathers ate sour grapes, but our teeth are set on edge,”[xii] while Melakhim and Eikhah quite readily express this view.[xiii] As readers of the Bible, we are caught in a disturbing dialectic out of which there is no easy escape. That said, it seems to me that patterns do emerge from the murkiness. The most apparent is that the works written about and for the Jews suffering through the destruction of Jerusalem, such as Melakhim and Eikhah, encourage the view that God punishes people for others’ sins, while the works written about and for the Jews who are trying to make a new life post-destruction, Divrei ha-Yamim and Yehezkel, emphasize God’s absolute justice concerning each individual.

What is the significance of this distinction with regard to answering the question of why Tanakh provides us with contradictory explanations of divine punishment? To draw out the meaning here, we must first consider the role of a book of Nakh. Whether part of Neviim (prophetic works) or Ketuvim (usually defined as works written with divine inspiration), a book of Nakh must have a message to express, some sort of divine imperative or calling – often, many such callings. The fact that these works were written or prophesied about a certain generation is significant to this message: each author’s work has a theme fitting the setting and situation of the Jews at that time.[xiv] Given that the two sets of books discussed above have very different settings and situations, we may surmise that their messages are bound to differ in their treatment of certain topics.  Thus, those living through the destruction of the Temple are given the prophet’s sympathies and are justified for asserting that they are not being punished fairly. Expression of this viewpoint is not denied or covered up, but rather substantiated. In contrast, those who are already in exile or who are embarking on a return to Israel to renew Jewish life there must be encouraged in their reestablishment of society. Yehezkel therefore tells them that they should not fear undue suffering. Similarly, the author[xv] of Divrei ha-Yamim stresses the importance of the actions of individuals and the possibilities for change that God affords us.

However, understanding that the contexts of books will affect their message is not quite enough to solve our problem. If we presume that part of the purpose of Tanakh is to impart religious truths, how can two works in the same canon relate such contradictory ideas? Based on this question, we may approach the text in one of two ways. The first approach attempts to resolve the contradictions between these books by integrating the texts. This kind of solution involves a deduction like this: God must authorize both messages, but since they contradict, one must be the true message while the other accomplishes another purpose. The difficulty with such an approach to the text, in this case, is that the reader must then decide which the “true” message is, and such an assessment will necessarily rely on his preconceived notions of providence rather than on the text alone. The reader may come to a unified theory of God’s justice but at the expense of dismissing half of the material at hand.[xvi]

Therefore, I would like to suggest a second way to resolve the contradictions. For this solution, the reader must assume that each of the opposing texts means exactly what it says and that what each says carries some inherent value. That is, it is not only a message for a certain context, nor do we judge its relevance based solely on our own conceptions of truth value. Rather, the texts together possess a larger message which is precisely sustained by the contradictions between them.

If both models of God’s providence are taken at face value, then it cannot be that God is trying to tell man through these accounts the ultimate truth of His providence, the mechanisms by which He administers justice in the world. If this were the ultimate truth, one would assume that the contradictions would not be present. Rather, these books discuss God’s providence in order to express the nation’s grievances and provide them with encouragement. To some measure, God, through the prophet-author, acknowledges the “unfair” aspects of His action in the world; He allows man a space to say that situations of terrible suffering are unwarranted, to wonder about the theological ramifications of affliction. However, God also wishes His people to move forward from such speculation and despair. Yirmeyahu told those who left in the first wave of exile that they must settle in galut and prosper there.[xvii] But in order to rebuild a life for themselves – and certainly for the returnees to Israel to recreate what they once had – the people cannot be full of doubt as to whether the endeavor of building a society based on God’s laws is desirable or even logical. (For how can one build a just society created by an unjust God?) These post-destruction works therefore bring something different to the reader: a focus on God’s attribute of absolute justice.

This should not be confused with saying that the prophets are utilitarian when it comes to theology. They are not saying something untrue about God for their own purposes. Rather, they are saying that knowledge of God is something far more practical than being able to account for whether God keeps exact weights and measures on the scale of our deeds, or whether He is vengeful and punishes innocents. These works are not necessarily trying to give us an absolute image of how God works. They instead provide us with visions of how to deal with the situations we find ourselves in, and how to move on from them. Knowledge of God gleaned from the prophets is something entirely different from knowing exactly whether or how God tracks our actions. For the prophets, “knowledge of God” is equated with something seemingly far more mundane, as Yirmeyahu says about King Yoshiyyahu, “Didn’t your father […] do justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedakah)? […] Then it was good for him. He judged the cause of the poor and the destitute, then it was good. Is this not to know Me?”[xviii] Here, Yirmeyahu draws a parallel between acting justly and knowing God. Similarly, Hoshea associates “knowledge of God” with “truth and mercy” as the key elements missing from society in Northern Israel.[xix] Justice, kindness and honesty, the prophets say, are the makings of da’at E-lohim (knowledge of God). God asks us to forgo the pursuit of intellectually understanding His nature and delving to the center of His mystery and to instead pursue what He would rather term “knowledge of God” – the creation of a just society that fosters kindness and truth.

The works addressing a nation attempting to build such a society emphasize God’s justice because creation of a truly just society must be founded on a belief that God is truly just – or, rather, that justice is attainable. Perhaps as a result of our creating a culture which embodies two of the deepest values of Judaism, tsedakah and mishpat, God will in fact show us His justice and reward us accordingly. At the same time, we must not forget that God’s ways are in fact more complicated than this – we must not stray too far from the text and simplify our understanding of God – for when we do, and the focus turns to presumption of understanding the intricacies of God’s ways rather than becoming exemplars of His ways, we arrogantly forget what God desires from us: to “do justice and love kindness, and walk humbly” with Him.[xx]

Daniela Aaron is a senior at SCW majoring in English Literature and Judaic Studies and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Shemot 20:4.

[ii] Targum Onkelos, Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra to Shemot 20:4 (and many more). One may ask – and would be justified in doing so – why I do not accept such an explanation that mitigates the force of this statement. The answer is that for the purposes of this article, I am relying on an understanding of the peshat (plain meaning) of the text, by which I refer to the meaning of the words within their textual contexts. There is room to interpret this verse as Onkelos and the rest do, but these commentators are in fact not reading it literally.

[iii] I would like to acknowledge and thank Professor Smadar Rosensweig for her class on Melakhim and Divrei ha-Yamim, which provided the impetus for much of the work I did here regarding the two models of providence.

[iv] Towards the end of Melakhim, King Yoshiyyahu led a teshuvah movement of previously unparalleled scale, but, despite his efforts, was told that the nation would still be punished for his ancestors’ sins (II Melakhim 23:26): “But God did not return from his great anger against Judah for all the incitements with which Menasheh incited him.” This is more specifically referring to his grandfather, Menasheh, whose degenerate rule nearly a century earlier is described in II Melakhim 21:10-12 as the leading cause of the destruction of the Judean kingdom. Menasheh’s father, Hizkiyyahu, also made key misjudgments which slated the kingdom for destruction; see ibid. 20:12-19. All told, the general impression is one of collective punishment; though clearly the nation sinned, its later repentance was no match for the residual evil of Menasheh’s reign.

I do not mention here the kingdom of Northern Israel, which was led by evil and unrepentant kings. Seforno, in his commentary to Shemot 20:4, actually describes the treatment of Northern Israel as a case of children who are punished for their fathers’ sins because they continued the sins of their fathers. That is to say, they sinned on their own instead of breaking away from the idolatrous behavior of their forebears and thus were presumably punished for their own actions as well. (Note that Seforno does not provide a similar explanation for the punishment which befell the kings of Yehudah.)

[v] Eikhah 5:7. Though the poet does add that the people going to exile have also sinned in 5:16, the earlier complaint expresses a view that, to my eyes, colors much of the text. I would read this also in light of chapter 3, where the narrator begins by describing his situation in terms of his being unfairly and deliberately sought after by God. (His language does not go as far as Iyyov’s, but the similarities abound.) There, too, he recoils afterwards from his irreverence and describes God’s mercy, insisting in 3:40 that the proper response is to search one’s ways: “We will search our ways and examine [them], and we will return to God.” The fact that they must search in order to account for the situation suggests that their sins are not apparent, and, therefore, that actions of others might have also been taken into consideration in their punishment.

[vi] For a good treatment of this subject, see Gavriel H. Cohn, Iyyunim be-Hamesh ha-Megillot, (Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency for Israel – Eliner Library, 2006).

[vii] The clear detriment to this view is the reality that the good suffer and the evil prosper. But the believer may understand that God has His ways in governing this world. Alternatively, one can always hope for justice in the afterlife.

[viii] For example, II Divrei ha-Yamim 26 views Uziyyahu’s (Azaryah’s) theretofore unexplained leprosy as the result of an attempt to appropriate a part of the priestly service, while Menasheh’s lack of a punishment in his lifetime is explained by his eventual teshuvah (repentance); see ibid. 33.

It is commonly explained that the additions in Divrei ha-Yamim aim to glorify the Davidic dynasty, as they idolize David and Shelomoh. If seen in terms of being written for Jews rebuilding a society, it seems like this idealization is meant to provide the Jews with a model to strive for (as opposed to Melakhim which explains the mistakes as the cause of exile). Additionally, its negative treatment of Uziyyahu and other kings, as well as its descriptions of the various civil wars between the Jewish kingdoms, seem to point to a different or additional motive to the book than merely a glorification or legitimization of the kingdom.

[ix] Yehezkel 18.

[x] The question may be asked here, as well as above, why I do not see this as an explanation of Shemot 20:4. The answer is two-fold. First, it is a strange thing to say that the word of the prophet should subvert that of divine law by explaining it entirely outside of the peshat. In such a view, the prophetic account says, “Shemot had some of it right, but what it really meant was this other thing, which is essentially different.” It makes more sense to say that Yehezkel is fighting against a very strong view in his time – that God punishes vicariously – and espouses an entirely different viewpoint, which is that God punishes individuals for their own sins. Especially in 18:19, it seems as though Yehezkel is being met with opposition to this view: “You will say, ‘Why doesn’t that son carry his father’s sin?’ – but that son did tsedek and mishpat and kept all of My laws and did them: he shall live!” The prevalent logic is that sons are punished for their sinful fathers. As such, the people of Yehezkel’s time are not viewing his statements as explanations of their current beliefs, but as entirely new beliefs.

Second, there is cause to believe, given the information above, that there are also contradicting prophetic accounts on this matter, such as Melakhim, as explained above. There are two parallel streams of thought on this subject: one is much more clearly expounding on Shemot 20:4; the other seems to be a separate view, probably with a different source.

I think this agrees with the statement in Makkot 24a (see n. 13) which describes Yehezkel as “nullifying” Moshe’s decree. He is not explaining it but attempting to cancel its force.

[xi] Many connect this statement with Devarim 24:16: “Fathers will not be put to death for their sons, and sons will not be put to death for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his [own] sin.” They contend that this Torah statement reveals the idea that God only punishes people for their individual sins. However, this verse is interpreted differently in Melakhim by King Amatsyah. In II Melakhim 14:6, Amatsyah does not kill the sons of his father’s assassins because of the Torah’s statement in Devarim 24:16. This implies that the accepted interpretation of this pasuk is not that it describes an aspect of God’s punishment but is rather a directive to the Israelites to not punish vicariously in their own courts.

[xii] Ibid. 18:2.

[xiii] As mentioned earlier, this tension is noted in Makkot 24a, where R. Yosei ben Hanina interprets Yehezkel as “nullifying” the decree of Moshe (i.e., Shemot 20:4).

This is a more radical understanding of Yehezkel’s prophecy: rather than saying it contradicts the Torah or Melakhim, implying that there may be room for two opposing views on this subject, the impression is that Yehezkel is attempting to overturn a divine declaration by introducing an entirely new concept in its stead – the prophet (and God speaking to him) has found the old model wanting and is replacing it.

[xiv] Bava Batra 15a names the authors of the books of Tanakh. Yirmeyahu – a tortured figure himself in the throes of exile – is listed as the author of both Melakhim and Kinot (Eikhah), while Ezra and his assembly are listed as the authors of Divrei ha-Yamim. Ezra himself was fulfilling the vision of the prophecies of returning to Israel. The Talmud here points us to the fact that understanding the historical/cultural context of the writing has significance; that is, the reader should understand something about the author and thereby the context of the sefer.

[xv] Multiple authors, according to Hazal; see Bava Batra 15a.

[xvi] I have found this to generally be the case. For example, with regard to providence, most people will choose Yehezkel’s message over Yirmeyahu’s when explaining theodicy, despite both accounts being on equal grounds in terms of divine origins. In terms of peshat in the Torah, people will emphasize the narrative of Avraham arguing with God against collective punishment over the legal exposition of God declaring His vengeance on sons for their fathers’ sins. This suggests to me a skewed way of approaching a text, particularly one which the reader believes to be divine in origin.

[xvii] Yirmeyahu 29:4-7. The prophet instructs the people to build a society in the exile.

[xviii] Ibid. 22:15-16.

[xix] Hoshea 4:1.

[xx] Mikhah 6:8.