Love and Destruction
Years ago, my son came home from college for a visit, and to strike a blow in a Christian home for atheism—or at any rate, for anti-authoritarianism—, he proclaimed, as one of his teachers had done, that the Jewish people, although their scriptures are full of expressions of confidence in God’s power to bring the Jews back victorious from battle and to preserve their independence as a theocracy, had in fact lived for their history as a vassal state, almost always oppressed, enslaved, exiled, held in bondage, or occupied by armies, until Jerusalem was reduced to rubble by the Romans in 73 A.D. and the Jewish nation was annihilated sixty years later.
Read as historical documents, the Jewish Scriptures certainly lend themselves to this interpretation. As for success and victory over armies, the 2000 year alliance between God and the nation of Israel did not free the Jews from very much misery and distress, except for temporary successes like the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus) and the successful reoccupation of Canaan (Joshua.)
For my part, on hearing my son’s attack, as a “defender of the faith” against the arrogant clamor of this Goliath of secularism, I retreated into symbolic interpretations. For example, this: Read symbolically, the Jewish scriptures depict an on-going spiritual battle between—not so much “good” and “evil”—but closer to home, between self-reliance and surrender to the will of Divinity. Seen thus, the battle was often lost—bloodily—because the people refused to surrender their certainty that they knew what they were doing and would be successful at it. The history of Jewish defeat is the spiritual history of a people’s stubbornness. The Jewish scriptures themselves occasionally recognize this truth, as in Psalm 91:12-17 and Psalm 95:8-11.
This is one side of the coin of the relationship between the love of God and his apparent willingness to destroy those he loves. Here’s the other side of the coin.
I have tried long and often to understand what the scripture writers are saying about the justice of the God of Israel. The boulder I can’t push up the mountain is this: If God loves everything he creates, how can he “utterly destroy the wicked”—that is, his enemies and Israel’s? Surely, the love of God extends to every creature he makes—to those who love him and to those who hate him, to the good and the wicked, to the trusting and to the self-reliant, to Michael the Archangel and equally to Satan the Prince of Lies. The love of God, then, must surely temper the retributive justice said to be a hallmark of the reign of God. And yet, the scripture writers see no contradiction in praising the God of Love and in the same passage in praising God, the Destroyer of the Wicked.
Consider Psalm 145. The general theme of the poem is the praise of God for his great power and his care for his creatures. The first 6 verses, introductory in nature, extol God for his “greatness” and his “mighty works.” Then in verse 7, speaking of all the generations, the poem proclaims,
They publish the renown of your abounding goodness
and joyfully sing of your justice. (The NAB version is used here throughout.)
Here “goodness” clearly means God’s general attitude toward his creation, and “justice” is that service to all creatures by which God (and, the Law of Moses expects, all human beings) render to all people the respect they deserve because of their dignity as creatures of God. It is this respectful justice, and the mercy and patience it engenders in God, that the scriptures exalt.
In verses 8-9, the poem proclaims, thematically,
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in love.
The LORD is good to all,
compassionate to every creature.
Here the love of God is proclaimed to extend to his every creature. God is good and compassionate to all he creates. And the poem continues in this vein, praising God’s love for every creature, especially the weak and needy.
In verses 15 and 16, the poem declares truly,
The eyes of all look hopefully to you;
you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
But two verses later, the focus changes—smoothly but unexpectedly in this poem about God’s general love for his creatures. In verses 18-20, unexpected distinctions are drawn between the good and the wicked and between how God treats the one group and the other:
You, LORD, are near to all who call upon you,
to all who call upon you in truth.
You satisfy the desire of those who fear you;
you hear their cry and save them.
You, LORD, watch over all who love you,
but all the wicked you destroy.
Quite unexpectedly, we’re in a “chosen people” environment in which God behaves differently toward the good and the wicked, toward those who love God and those who don’t. And the difference in God’s behavior is not trivial. Those whom God favors—those who are good and who love God—God is said to bless with his presence and with salvation, presumably from the enemies of his people. However, toward the population of the wicked, God exerts his retributive justice and destroys them—an action quite remarkable for the God who loves every creature he creates, including then the people whom he is destroying.
In a final irony, verse 21 states that “all flesh will bless your holy name forever.” One may interpret this line in two separate but equally ironic ways. First, the line may be saying that after the wicked have been wiped out, all the remaining people—who at that point number only those who honor God and are favored by God—will praise God’s name. Or alternatively, the writer may be engaging again in the disjunction of holding that God loves all creatures, so that they all—even God’s enemies—will praise his name, and at the same time holding in the previous line (!) that God will wipe out those who act wickedly.
The main point here is that the writer of this psalm, like many of the scripture writers, sees no dissonance between proclaiming God’s love for every creature, which expresses itself in care and provision for them, and asserting that God will destroy those of his beloved creatures who behave wickedly.
Can it be that this is truly the way God is? Can it be that the God who is the master of all creation finds it necessary to wipe out those creatures whom he loves but who behave badly? I cannot grasp the justice of God when it is depicted in this way.
My primary problem is that in fact, God has no enemies. God is the supreme power of creation. All that exists exists in his loving will. Nothing exists outside of his purview and his desire. So by whom could God be offended enough that God would call that creature his enemy? He certainly has the power to withdraw from existence any or all of his creatures. But why would he do that, since he loves all he creates? By whom would he feel so threatened?
Certainly there are people—and angels too, according to the scripture—who style themselves enemies of God. But all these enemies of God are still his creatures, whom he looks upon with love. To him, surely they are less like enemies and more like rebellious teenagers—not worthy of death or destruction, but of patience and mercy (salted with truthfulness and discipline) as they find their way toward goodness. To him, surely they are like the Prodigal Son for whose return the loving Father patiently waits.
Another problem is with retribution itself. Retribution is just, I suppose, in an eye-for-an-eye way. But what does it accomplish for God? Human retributive justice, that is, punishment for offenses against the community, has as its primary purpose to keep the villains from further harming the members of the community, and secondarily, to deter the villains from misconduct in the first place. (And the third, no doubt, is to satisfy the desire of some in the community for vengeance—that the perpetrator of suffering should himself suffer to an extent equal to the suffering he caused.)
But God cannot be endangered by any creatures, nor can any villain ever destroy the community of justice and peace which God established and maintains. And so, the villains who are also God’s creatures, those who cause war and bigotry and crime and hatred to thrive, must be tolerated until God satisfies “the desire of every living thing”—including the villains’—by achieving and sustaining a universal community of respectful justice and harmonious peace. For this community, every one of his creatures yearns. That is, they yearn for life in the embrace of God. God’s merciful way of dealing with the wicked, then, is to wait for all creatures, even for the most villainous of creatures—the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Pol Pots, the Satans— to come back into the embrace of the loving God.
That is the way of the loving God. That is the way that Jesus taught—to pay the price of waiting and of forgiveness, to turn the other cheek. The way of God is to offer respectful justice to those who will accept the dignity of justice—to those who are open to God’s healing love; and to those who will not accept justice, to offer forgiveness, to open the heart to reconciliation with those who are closed to the mercy of God—to wait for them finally to yield their stubbornness and to return to God’s embrace.
Unconsciously, perhaps, and unfortunately, the writer of Psalm 145, verse 20 has turned his attention away from the nature of God and has slipped into expressing the Jewish national hope that God will conquer for the nation of Israel those enemies of the nation which the Jews cannot overcome themselves.
A profoundly more beautiful insight into the nature of the power and justice and love of the God who creates the universe is to be found in the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom, written in the century before Jesus’ birth, specifically in the passage, Chs. 11:22 – 12:22. Depicted here is a God whose power is infinite and whose merciful love is equally infinite, who punishes rebellion and hatred of him not with destruction but with disciplinary suffering as he awaits the shattering of the villains’ hard-heartedness and their return to his loving embrace.
Here is the passage (NAB version; emphasis added):
from The Book of Wisdom, CHAPTER 11
22 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
23 But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.
24 For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
25 And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
26 But you spare all things, because they are yours, O LORD and lover of souls,
1 for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
2 Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!
3 For, truly, the ancient inhabitants of your holy land,
4 whom you hated for deeds most odious---
Works of witchcraft and impious sacrifices;
5 a cannibal feast of human flesh and of blood, from the midst of . . . [hiatus]
These merciless murderers of children,
6 and parents who took with their own hands defenseless lives,
You willed to destroy by the hands of our fathers,
7 that the land that is dearest of all to you
might receive a worthy colony of God's children.
8 But even these, as they were men, you spared,
and sent wasps as forerunners of your army
that they might exterminate them by degrees.
9 Not that you were without power to have the wicked vanquished in battle by the just,
or wiped out at once by terrible beasts or by one decisive word;
10 But condemning them bit by bit, you gave them space for repentance.
You were not unaware that their race was wicked and their malice ingrained,
And that their dispositions would never change;
11 for they were a race accursed from the beginning.
Neither out of fear for anyone did you grant amnesty for their sins.
12 For who can say to you, "What have you done?"
or who can oppose your decree?
Or when peoples perish, who can challenge you, their maker;
or who can come into your presence as vindicator of unjust men?
13 For neither is there any god besides you who have the care of all,
that you need show you have not unjustly condemned;
14 Nor can any king or prince confront you on behalf of those you have punished.
15 But as you are just, you govern all things justly;
you regard it as unworthy of your power
to punish one who has incurred no blame.
16 For your might is the source of justice;
your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.
17 For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;
and in those who know you, you rebuke temerity.
18 But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,
and with much lenience you govern us;
for power, whenever you will, attends you,
19 And you taught your people, by these 'deeds,
that those who are just must be kind;
And you gave your sons good ground for hope
that you would permit repentance for their sins.
20 For these were enemies of your servants, doomed to death;
yet, while you punished them with such solicitude and pleading,
granting time and opportunity to abandon wickedness,
21 With what exactitude you judged your sons,
to whose fathers you gave the sworn covenants of goodly promises!
22 Us, therefore, you chastise, and our enemies with a thousand blows you punish,
that we may think earnestly of your goodness when we judge,
and, when being judged, may look for mercy.
Here indeed we find depicted a God of loving mercy and patient forgiveness, who punishes the wrongdoing of those who have turned from him, but not for retribution or from anger, but as discipline, to encourage the wayward to return to him, the only restful haven of their hearts. Here is the true God, the God of love whom Jesus offers to us.
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