The Tsunami: Thoughts from Job and Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

When the tragic tsunami took the lives of over 200,000 people in Indonesia and other countries back in 2004, many were horrified by the suffering of so many people, and struggled with hard questions for God. Others discussed why it happened at that place and time, and wondered if it was an act of judgment from God. What would Jesus have said? Or Job? Let’s look at how these two key figures who were so acquainted with suffering would have seen the tragedies of today.

Wisdom from the Story of Job

It is interesting how the discussion around the tsunami resembled the debate between Job and his friends, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar. Job, of course, was a pious man who suffered for no reason he could find. His friends, however, asserted that God is all powerful, perfectly just, and knows every person’s sins, so therefore Job somehow had to have deserved his trials. Their logic seems flawless. Nonetheless, Job maintained his innocence and had very angry words for God about his lack of justice as he saw it. He bluntly said:

[God] stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases… Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? Men move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. They drive away the orphan’s donkey and take the widow’s ox in pledge. The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing. (Job 23:13; 24:1-3, 9, 12)

In the light of this harsh accusation, Job’s friends defended God, and said to Job:

“Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays a man for what he has done; he brings upon him what his conduct deserves. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice…Will you condemn the just and mighty One?” (Job 34:10-14, 17)

Truthfully, we must admit that Job’s friends have a very good point, and are trying to honor God. They echo many proverbs that say God rewards the actions of the righteous and punishes the wicked. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, we may even take their side.

God’s Surprising Response

It is fascinating to read God’s concluding words of the debate, because after all Job’s criticism, and the men’s strong defense of God’s honor, God was furious with Job’s friends! God said to Eliphaz,

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)

It seems that God considered Job’s words that were spoken in anger at him to be truthful, while the other men’s theories defending his ways as untruthful. How could that be? We know that neither Job nor his friends knew God’s real reasons for allowing Job’s trials.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t know about Satan’s challenge, but that as finite humans, God’s eternal plan was utterly beyond them. God didn’t answer Job’s questions about evil because no human can grasp his unfathomable purposes. In spite of their ignorance, Job’s friends had the gall to presume to understand and speak for God, and accuse Job of sin. It should humble us when we want to put words in God’s mouth: how can we know for sure what he would say?

It is also interesting that God says that Job “has spoken what is right,” after Job’s accusations about God’s injustice toward the poor. When Job protested against their suffering, he actually was expressing the same compassion for the needy that God himself has. In contrast, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar’s theology had little concept of God’s love, so it was a misrepresentation of God’s heart.

While neither Job or his friends knew God’s future plans for redemption, Job at least understood God’s care for the suffering. Perhaps God would rather hear us ask angry questions that show concern for other’s pain, than for us to look for correct answers but not have love.

Our Christian culture tends to focus on theology concerning such things as the trinity, atonement, or free will vs. predestination, etc. Jewish culture over the millennia has tended to avoid this type of discussion because of the danger of the sin Job’s friends: claiming to have more knowledge of an infinite, mysterious God than we can possibly have. Since we are small and finite, we give God more honor by trying to love as he loves than to try to know all that he knows.

The Same Difficult Question in Jesus’ Age

The question of suffering came up often in Jesus’ time too, because he lived at a unique point in Jewish history. The people were greatly oppressed under Roman and Herodian rule, with extreme taxation and barbaric cruelty. Along with Jesus, thousands of other Jews were crucified by the Romans. Even before the Romans took power, the Greek Seleucids persecuted and executed any Jew who studied the Scriptures or circumcised their sons. Indeed, the suffering of the Jews before and during Jesus’ time was unmatched in their history until the Holocaust.1

This gave rise to an enormous theological problem that was reminiscent of Job’s situation: in the Old Testament, it was understood that when Israel suffered, it was because of its sins against God. The covenant at Sinai had been sealed with promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Lev. 23, Deut. 28-29).

In Jesus’ time, for the first time in their history, they were being persecuted for their loyalty to God, and the most faithful people suffered most. Jesus responded at one point to this when he said:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man… But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep… (Luke 6:20-26)

When we first read Jesus’ words, they seem too harsh. Why would Jesus proclaim that anyone who has enough to eat will go hungry? Or why would he want those who are happy to weep instead? Jesus was repeating many of the blessings and woes of Deut. 28, but instead of describing this life, he was saying that God’s reward will come later to many who did not feel his blessing here.

Indeed, those who were most faithful in trials will be rewarded most greatly. We cannot look at a persons’ earthly blessings and say that we know how much God approves of our lives. To the contrary, those of us who are comfortable should examine ourselves to see if we the ones who Jesus is speaking against.

Were The Galileans Worse Sinners?

A discussion very close to that about whether the tsunami was God’s judgment came up in Jesus’ life, when some Jews were murdered by Pilate:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Once again, people were asking Jesus whether misfortune showed that God was punishing sin, and Jesus said this was not true. Instead, he reminded them that true judgment will come some day, but this age is a time of grace, when God is seeking out sinners and calling them to repent. Rather than feeling secure if we are prospering because we think we have God’s approval, Jesus says that we should examine ourselves, because soon it will be too late.

Looking at the Tsunami

As we study these examples from Job and from Jesus’ own words, we can see that questions like, “Why did God send a tsunami?” aren’t ones that God will answer to our satisfaction. God showed Job that the answers were utterly beyond him by challenging him to be a god himself — no human could hope to understand God’s ways.

When Jesus was here, he reminded us that misfortune here is not God’s judgment because in this life we are under his mercy. We should therefore examine ourselves now and come to him for forgiveness, because judgment will come in the end.

Whenever we see innocent people suffering, we can at least remind ourselves that while they would not have chosen their fate, God willingly came in the person of Christ to suffer as an innocent person out of his desire to forgive his people’s sins. That should always remind us of his empathy for suffering and his goodness, in which we can always put our trust, even if we don’t know all of his thoughts.

~~~~

Photos: Ilya Repin [Public domain], Brooklyn Museum [Public domain], 

God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Many of us have seen the movie Narnia or read the classic book, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This classic tale contains obvious parallels to the story of Christ. At the climax, the White Witch demands the life of the boy Edmund because he is a traitor to his family. She says that the “deep magic” allows her to kill every traitor — his life is forfeit for his sin.

Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, gives his life in the boy’s place but later rises from the dead. When asked why, he said, “…there is a magic deeper still which [the White Witch] did not know … that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [of judgment] would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”1

This “deeper magic” of Narnia — the idea that the sins of one person can be forgiven because of another person’s sacrifice — is a fundamental part of the Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement. We take it for granted that mercy is shown to the guilty for the sake of an innocent person.

If you think about it, this is quite illogical. In our own relationships we generally don’t transfer our feelings from one person to another. We don’t say “thank you” to one person because someone else did us a favor. Somehow, however, we have gotten used to the idea that God will forgive many sinners because of the righteousness of just one person.

Does the idea of granting mercy for the sake of another have precedent in the Hebrew scriptures? One might think it was invented in the New Testament. But interestingly, according to Jewish scholars, the answer is yes. Many have found this merciful “divine illogic” throughout the Old Testament and consider it an important principle of Judaism!

Jewish scholars explore the most minute details of the Torah and Hebrew scriptures, often picking up subtle themes that Christians might miss. So it is fascinating to see all the motifs that they find even though they may not be looking for Jesus.

Mercy for the Sake of Another

The Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna sees this pattern as early as Genesis 19, when Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom. Lot had chosen to move to Sodom knowing that it was sinful. He became active in city leadership and even allowed his daughters to intermarry with the population.

Even though Lot wasn’t as corrupt as the Sodomites, God did not save him because of his own righteousness. Rather, the Bible says that “God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen 19:29). God delivered Lot from the catastrophe for the sake of Abraham — as a response to Abraham’s faithfulness, not Lot’s.

According to Sarna, “This ‘doctrine of merit’ is a not an infrequent theme in the Bible and constitutes many such incidents in which the righteousness of chosen individuals may sustain other individuals or even an entire group through its protective power.”2

This is the first of many times when God pardons one for the sake of another. For some strange reason, God often made his forgiveness contingent on an intercessor’s prayer. For instance, when King Abimelech took Abraham’s wife Sarah captive, God told him that he was under judgment, but if Abraham prayed for him, he would live (Gen. 20:7). At one point, God even lamented that no one can be found to “stand in the gap” for his people, as if he will not act without an intercessor (Ezekiel 22:30).3

Similarly, at the end of the story of Job, God was furious with Job’s counselors and said to them, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. … My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:7-8).

God’s forgiveness seems to await the request from Job, the innocent victim of their sin. Moreover, the fact that God calls him “my servant” is a compliment that was rarely used except for those whom God highly esteemed.4 Was God saying that in accepting his prayer, he will pardon them for Job’s sake, rather than their own?

The Merit of the Fathers

A related idea in Judaism is that God will show special mercy toward the people of Israel because of the merits of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.5 They see this as coming from God’s promises of blessing to the patriarchs, and because he told Moses that he would pardon to the thousandth generation those who love him (Ex. 34:6-7).

So when Moses appealed to God to forgive Israel in the wilderness, he reminded him of his promise to his ancestors (Ex. 32:13, Deut. 9:27). In Micah 7 and elsewhere, God’s mercy is linked to his pledge to the patriarchs:

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago. (Micah 7:18-20)

Even Paul alluded to this idea in Romans 11:28: “… but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” John the Baptist, however, told his audience to repent and to not assume that the merit of their ancestors would be sufficient to pay for their sin: “Do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matt 3:9).6

Because of this idea, when Jews pray for forgiveness for their sins on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they focus on reminding God of the faithfulness of their ancestors, focusing especially on the story of the “Akedah,” when Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s request.

It is ironic that they ask for forgiveness for the sake of Abraham, who was a father who had such great love for God that he was willing to sacrifice his own son. Even more ironic is the fact that they also ask for mercy for the sake of Isaac, who offered himself up as a willing sacrifice and was obedient to do his fathers will! (The rabbis noted that if Isaac was carrying enough wood to burn a sacrifice, he had to be a grown man and able to overpower his elderly father. They saw his willingness to be a sacrifice as the major point of the story.)

While these practices are not explicitly pointing toward Christ, they do show that the Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible supports the idea that a sinner can seek forgiveness from God because of the righteous merits of another person.

Atonement for Unintentional Murder

Another interesting place Jewish sources have found themes that Christians would see as pointing to Christ is in the regulations involving cities of refuge. Those cities were to be places where people guilty of accidental manslaughter could flee to escape revenge by the offended family (Numbers 35:9-15, 22-28).

Guilty individuals were required to live in the city until the death of the High Priest, at which time they were free to go home. The rabbis had a fascinating interpretation of the logic behind this:

The priests atone for unintentional sins through the offering of sacrifices, the high priest atones for even more, this being the reason for his functions on Yom Kippur, and the death of the high priest is the highest form of atonement which atones for unintentional manslaughter, the severest of unintentional sins. 7 (emphasis mine)

Remarkably, in the subtle logic of Torah regulations that Christians tend not to read, we see a picture of Christ as our great High Priest who obtained forgiveness for our sins through his own death.

Seeing the Merciful Illogic of Christ’s Atonement

Jesus’ first followers were well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretation. They certainly knew Isaiah 53, that spoke of one who would “bear the sin of many, and make intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). They did not invent the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice would atone for the sins of those who believed in him; rather, they could see that it was woven throughout their Scriptures from beginning to end.

~~~~

1 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis (New York, MacMillan, 1950)

2 See Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 150-151.

3 Ibid.

4 JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, by Nahum Sarna p. 187.

5 S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, pp. 170 – 198. Also, see “Virtue, Original,” by Joseph Jacobs

6 Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, by G.F. Moore, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. 535-545.

7 Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), as quoted (without a source) in “Parashat Matot-Masei” by Zvi Shimon, Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash 

Photos: Chris Bair on UnsplashBenjamin West [Public domain], the Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain]

Jesus’ Most Radical Teaching

by Lois Tverberg

When Christians begin to learn more about Jesus’ Jewishness, it comes as a surprise that many of his teachings have parallels in those of other rabbis of his time. For instance, his command to forgive others so that one’s sins will be forgiven (Mt 18:21-35) is found in earlier Jewish writings.1 Even when Jesus disagreed with others, he was not casting aside all of Judaism, but was usually affirming one rabbinic position over another in an area of debate. For example, when asked about divorce, he disagreed with the teachings Hillel, but agreed with those of Shammai.2 Rather than being entirely at odds with his countrymen, his ministry built on the teachings of his day and brought them to a new level.

Learning that Jesus was not the first person to teach some ideas seems to undermine his uniqueness. What about his teaching drew such enormous numbers of passionate followers? What about Jesus’ teachings was unique?

Jesus’ Radical Teaching

According to one scholar, there was one major theme of Jesus’ ministry that went beyond anything any other rabbi taught and was entirely unique to him.3 Not only was it radical, it also was central to his lifestyle, his teaching about the Kingdom of God, and his mission as the Messiah. It is the following:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:43-45)

This is probably the most difficult command Jesus ever gave, and even for us today it might seem impossible.4 But understanding them in their context is critical for grasping the implications of Jesus’ ministry and our calling as members of his Kingdom.

“Hate Your Enemy” in the First Century

Scholars used to wonder who Jesus was quoting as saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” It is not in the Scriptures, and the rabbis of Jesus’ time did not teach this. The Dead Sea Scrolls finally gave an answer by revealing that one group of Jesus’ contemporaries, the Essenes, took an oath twice each day to “to hate forever the unjust and to fight together with the just.” They referred to themselves as the “Sons of Light” who shared an “eternal but concealed hatred of the men of the Pit,” as they awaited the Day of Vengeance — the great war when they would destroy the “Sons of Darkness.”5

Like others of the time, their understanding from the Scriptures was that God would establish his Kingdom on earth by destroying his enemies. To them it was a good thing to hate their enemies, who were the enemies of God. God’s “enemies” were not just the national enemies of Israel, but all sinners. Many passages in the Old Testament equate sinfulness with being God’s enemies, like “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered.” Psa. 92:9. Obviously they felt that if they should hate God’s enemies, the sinners of the world, they were among the righteous themselves.

In contrast, among the rabbis there were some who, like Jesus, pointed out that God shows mercy toward sinners. It was said, “The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.6 Like Jesus, they pointed out that God cares for even those who hate him by providing for their needs. Someday judgment would come to everyone, but before then, God shows his kindness to everyone in the world. Jesus went beyond this, however, to challenge his listeners to share God’s unlimited love to even their worst enemies.

The Son of Man – Judge of God’s Enemies

Jesus pacifies two warriorsJesus’ understanding of God’s mercy toward his enemies was central to his teaching about the Kingdom, and part of his radical challenge to the common belief about the Messiah. Most believed that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would liberate God’s people from his enemies.7 In ancient times, kings acted as the supreme judge of their land, and the Messianic King would do so as well. He would be the judge that would bring the Kingdom of God to earth by destroying the evil of the world.

One of the titles of the Messiah that was most strongly linked to the role of judge was the “Son of Man,” because in Daniel 7, it speaks of the Messiah being led into the heavenly courtroom where the book of judgment was open, and being given authority by God to reign over and judge humanity:

The court was seated, and the books were opened…

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. (Dan 7:10, 13-14)

Several New Testament passages speak about the Son of Man as judge, including, “[God] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27), and Rev. 14:14, in which the Son of Man carries a sickle for the final harvest of judgment. Often Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man,” and he also used the term to speak about the coming judgment: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Mt 16:27). However, he consistently spoke of this as in the future, and stressed that now was the time of God’s mercy.

Fascinatingly, Jesus uses the title, “Son of Man” to show his authority to forgive sins as well. When the paralyzed man was lowered into the room by his friends, Jesus said, “But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home” (Lk 5:24). Jesus is the Messianic Judge with the capacity to forgive or condemn, and he used his power to forgive.

Another powerful example is in the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who repented of his corruption. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors because they had “sold out” to their Roman oppressors and profited from their own people’s misery. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector who had become very rich at others’ expense, and certainly he was considered a great sinner and God’s “enemy.” But yet when he repented, Jesus used his authority as the Son of Man to proclaim salvation to him from his sins. Jesus, as the King and Judge, was expanding his Kingdom through mercy, as he forgave God’s enemies instead of condemning them.8

Expanding the Kingdom by Forgiving Enemies

The scandal of the Gospel was that everyone thought that the Messiah was going to establish God’s Kingdom by destroying God’s enemies, but Jesus was bringing God’s Kingdom by showing God’s love for his enemies instead. As their King, he personally would suffer for their sins and purchase their forgiveness. Paul says this very thing:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:8, 10)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col 1:21-22)

For many in the early Jewish church, the most shocking and scandalous application of this truth was that God’s love extended even to Gentiles. Many laws were in place to keep Jews from being defiled by contact with “Gentile sinners” (Gal 2:15), who as a group were thought to be characterized by the three most terrible crimes in Jewish law: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. With this dim view of the Gentiles as “enemies of God,” we can imagine the surprise when God poured out his Spirit on them! It took a special vision from God to convince Peter that he could even enter a Gentile home (Acts 10:28). Paul was a perfect apostle to them, as a former enemy to all God was doing through the early church. Such was God’s amazing love.

Being a Part of the Kingdom of Mercy

It is only when we see ourselves as God’s former enemies that we realize that our admittance into his Kingdom was because God’s love for his enemies extends even to us. Perhaps the reason that the Gospel was so difficult for many to accept was that Jesus’ listeners saw themselves as already “on God’s side,” as righteous victims of suffering at the hands of the Romans, and felt justified in wanting God to destroy them. They were happy to read about God’s coming judgment in the Scriptures. It was the prostitutes and tax collectors who could see themselves as “enemies” that wanted to take up this offer of forgiveness. Only when we see that we are saved by God’s amazing love do we realize our obligation to show the same kind of love to others as well.

~~~~~

1 Joshua Ben Sirach said in approximately 180 BC, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sirach 28:2-4) Jesus built on this teaching in a powerful way in the parable of the Good Samaritan — see the article, Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You.

2 See “‘And’ or ‘In Order to’ Remarry” by David Bivin, available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

3 From a lecture entitled, “Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus,” available as part of an audio seminar from En-Gedi called, “The Gospel of Jesus and John the Baptist,” by Dr. Steven Notley.

4 It sounds as if Jesus is advocating complete pacifism, which was most likely not true. See “Do Not Resist Evil: Jesus’ View of Pacifism” at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

5 See the Manual of Discipline 9.21–23 and The Jewish War 2:139, by Josephus. Quotes are from “Us and Them: Loving Both,” available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

6 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a

7 For more about the common misunderstanding of the Messiah and Jesus’ teachings to challenge it, see “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

8 See “Why Did Jesus call himself the ‘Son of Man’?” for a fascinating theory of why Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man” as both innocent victim and final judge.

* The three articles cited above by David Bivin are available in his book published by En-Gedi, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context.

Photos: Rufus Sarsaparilla, “Brindle Boxer and house cat.” “Jesus pacifies two warriors,” originally painted by Anton von Werner [Public domain].