Biblical Theodicy & Why God Made Israel Wander in the Wilderness
The great theological challenge of the problem of suffering in ethical monotheism has been described as a “trilemma,” namely reconciling the reality of human suffering with the beliefs that,
- God is all-Good (omnibenevolent).
- God is all-Powerful (omnipotent).
- God is all-Knowing (omniscient).
The term “Theodicy” (from Greek theos, God, and dike, Justice) was coined to describe the philosophical enterprise of justifying or defending God and, more broadly, for attempts to grapple with the theological and existential problem of human suffering. The Bible contains many texts that grapple directly or indirectly with theodicy.
The second word of Parashat Ekev, after which it is named, denotes “consequence.” The parashah opens with a strong claim for “retributive justice,” the idea that God rewards good behavior and punishes wrong-doing. Indeed, this conception underpins the structure of the parashah as a whole.
ז:יב וְהָיָ֣ה׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ:
7:12 And as a consequence (עקב) of your obeying these rules and observing them carefully, Yhwh your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers…
ח:יט וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁכֹ֤חַ תִּשְׁכַּח֙ אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֗ אַחֲרֵי֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַעֲבַדְתָּ֖ם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִ֣יתָ לָהֶ֑ם הַעִדֹ֤תִי בָכֶם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם כִּ֥י אָבֹ֖ד תֹּאבֵדֽוּן: ח:כ כַּגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יְ-הֹוָה֙ מַאֲבִ֣יד מִפְּנֵיכֶ֔ם כֵּ֖ן תֹּאבֵד֑וּן עֵ֚קֶב לֹ֣א תִשְׁמְע֔וּן בְּק֖וֹל יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
8:19 If you do forget Yhwh your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish; 8:20 like the nations that Yhwh will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish—as a consequence (עקב) of your not heeding Yhwh your God. (NJPS with adjustments)
The retributive theory of theodicy is also the basic explanation offered both in the book of Deuteronomy and the book of Leviticus for Israel’s eventual exile from the land (Deut 28-29, 32; Lev 26). Thus, one of the Hebrew Bible’s main approaches to theodicy presumes some sort of consequential system of divine justice.
This approach is applicable for both individuals (especially in the Psalms and Wisdom Literature), and nations. It is fundamental to the covenantal framework of the Exodus and Wilderness narratives in Torah and the historical narratives of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Similarly, the primary message of the prophets is that Israel’s well-being as a nation is dependent upon its conduct.
Examination Theodicy: Divine Testing (נסה)
Elsewhere, the Bible follows a belief that may be characterized as examination theodicy, the idea that God wishes to see what the sufferer will do in order to reward the sufferer if he/she/they “pass” the test. The most famous examples of examination theodicy are in the stories of the binding of Isaac and the book of Job.
Binding of Isaac
The beginning and end of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 use “testing” language:
כב:א וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם…
22:1 Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.
כב:יב וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה כִּ֣י עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי…כב:יז כִּֽי בָרֵ֣ךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ֗ וְהַרְבָּ֨ה אַרְבֶּ֤ה אֶֽת זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּכוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְכַח֕וֹל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיָּ֑ם וְיִרַ֣שׁ זַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר אֹיְבָֽיו: כב:יח וְהִתְבָּרֲכ֣וּ בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁמַ֖עְתָּ בְּקֹלִֽי:
22:12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”… 22:17 I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 22:18 All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a consequence (עקב) of your having obeyed My command.”
Here the relationship between the language of consequence and the suffering is inverted. Because Abraham submitted to suffering, he will be rewarded as a consequence. This is the only explicit case of Abraham undergoing a trial in the Torah, but it serves as the basis for the well-known tradition about the ten trials of Abraham, found already in the Second Temple book of Jubilees (17:15-18; 19:8).
A similar understanding is implied in the narrative framework of the book of Job. Although the term נסה itself is not used in Job chs. 1-2 and 42, the cause of Job´s tragic suffering is ascribed to instigation by “the satan”, who hoped to demonstrate that Job would fail to maintain righteousness in the face of trying circumstances. God appears to allow thesatan to inflict terrible suffering on Job to “prove” to the satanthat Job would not sin even under these harrowing circumstances. In the end, God rewards Job for his fidelity and grants him wealth, more children, and long life.
God’s Lack of Omniscience
Implicit in the stories of Job and the binding of Isaac is the belief that God is not omniscient, and does not know the outcome of the test in advance. Jacob Licht has argued the case that these episodes should be taken at face value—they presume that divine knowledge is less than complete, and that God must engage in experimentation to acquire further data about human beings’ character and behavior. The responses of human beings to divinely inflicted trials and ordeals provide God with such evidence, and God can then punish or reward them based on their behavior.
Which Theodicy Best Explains the Wilderness Wandering?
These two theories of theodicy are not mutually exclusive. (God can both punish sinners and test believers.) But how might these abstract theories be used to help explain Israel’s history as recorded in the biblical text? The punishment of the generation of the wilderness provides an excellent test case.
Retributive Theodicy (Numbers)
Numbers offers the retributive theodicy as the explanation for the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness:
יד:לג וּ֠בְנֵיכֶם יִהְי֨וּ רֹעִ֤ים בַּמִּדְבָּר֙ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְנָשְׂא֣וּ אֶת זְנוּתֵיכֶ֑ם עַד תֹּ֥ם פִּגְרֵיכֶ֖ם בַּמִּדְבָּֽר:יד:לד בְּמִסְפַּ֨ר הַיָּמִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתֶּ֣ם אֶת הָאָרֶץ֘ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים יוֹם֒ י֣וֹם לַשָּׁנָ֞ה י֣וֹם לַשָּׁנָ֗ה תִּשְׂאוּ֙ אֶת עֲוֹנֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם אַרְבָּעִ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת תְּנוּאָתִֽי:
14:33 Your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness.14:34 You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days — forty days — that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me.
In this model, the wandering is a direct punishment for the sin of the scouts, and the Israelites’ complicity in that sin by refusing to go up the land.
Examination Theodicy (Parashat Ekev)
Alternatively, Parashat Ekev seems to offer an examination theodicy explanation for the wilderness wandering:
ח:ב וְזָכַרְתָּ֣ אֶת כָּל הַדֶּ֗רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹלִֽיכֲךָ֜ יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ זֶ֛ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ לָדַ֜עַת אֶת אֲשֶׁ֧ר בִּֽלְבָבְךָ֛ הֲתִשְׁמֹ֥ר מצותו מִצְוֹתָ֖יו אִם לֹֽא:
8:2 Remember the long way that Yhwh your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.
ח:יד וְרָ֖ם לְבָבֶ֑ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֙ אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים:ח:טו הַמּוֹלִ֨יכֲךָ֜ בַּמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַגָּדֹ֣ל וְהַנּוֹרָ֗א נָחָ֤שׁ׀ שָׂרָף֙ וְעַקְרָ֔ב וְצִמָּא֖וֹן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵֽין מָ֑יִם הַמּוֹצִ֤יא לְךָ֙ מַ֔יִם מִצּ֖וּר הַֽחַלָּמִֽישׁ: ח:טזהַמַּֽאֲכִ֨לְךָ֥ מָן֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא יָדְע֖וּן אֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֣עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֗ וּלְמַ֙עַן֙ נַסֹּתֶ֔ךָ לְהֵיטִֽבְךָ֖ בְּאַחֲרִיתֶֽךָ:
8:14 Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Yhwh your God— who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; 8:15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; 8:16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end.
Educative Theodicy: Testing as Purification
But is that what Deuteronomy really means? This understanding of theodicy as divine testing (examination) works well with Deut 8:2, which ends with “whether you would keep His commandments or not.” Whereas Deut 8:16, which concludes with “to benefit you in the end,” suggests that the wilderness wandering and afflication had a purpose beyond just to test the people’s loyalty.
The key to understanding verse 16 may be found in the ambiguity of the word נ-ס-ה, which does not only mean “to test.” Like its synonymous biblical Hebrew root ב-ח-נ, it also originated as a term denoting the refining of metals. For example, both roots appear as a parallel to the root צ-ר-פ (smelting) in Psalms (26:2), another word for smelting:
בְּחָנֵ֣נִי יְהוָ֣ה וְנַסֵּ֑נִי
(צרופה) [צָרְפָ֖ה] כִלְיוֹתַ֣י וְלִבִּֽי׃
Probe me, Yhwh, and try me,
test my heart and min
Similar semantic overlap between purification and examining underlies the English “test,” derived from the Latin “testum,” an earthern vessel used in metallurgical processes. An extension of the metaphor supposes that “ordeals” can be edifying, and “trials and tribulations” (the latter word comes from the Latin for “pressure”) can contribute to growth.
Thus, in Deut 8:16, the statement about God afflicting and “נ-ס-ה-ing” of Israel for the nation’s benefit may indicate a process of improvement through overcoming difficult experiences. The pairing with “affliction” in לְמַ֣עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֗ וּלְמַ֙עַן֙ נַסֹּתֶ֔ךָ points to a sense of, “no pain, no gain.” This verse indicates that the purpose of the wilderness wanderings was to strengthen the nation and prepare the children of Israel for settlement in the Promised Land. It may thus be unconnected to the issue of divine omniscience.
Vicarious Educative Theodicy
Educative theodicy is sometimes extended pedagogically. If sufferers are toughened by their difficult experiences, others can learn similar lessons vicariously through narratives about the suffering, and about retributive justice. The wilderness wandering functions this way, as a paradigm for later instances of Israelite sin and punishment, and a cautionary tale. So, for example in Psalm 95 (8-10):
אַל תַּקְשׁ֣וּ לְ֭בַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָ֑ה כְּי֥וֹם מַ֝סָּ֗ה בַּמִּדְבָּֽר: אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִ֭סּוּנִי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּ֝חָנ֗וּנִי גַּם רָא֥וּ פָעֳלִֽי: אַרְבָּ֮עִ֤ים שָׁנָ֨ה אָ֮ק֤וּט בְּד֗וֹר…
Do not be stubborn as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah, in the wilderness, when your fathers put Me to the test, tried Me, though they had seen My deeds. Forty years I was provoked by that generation (Ps 95: 8-10).
Thus, even if the wandering is understood as retributive justice, it also functions as a kind of education for the future.
נסה as Retribution, Examination, and Education
Jacob Licht, in Testing in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Post-Biblical Judaism, suggested that biblical texts sometimes invoke the idea of divine testing as a sort of last resort to resolve greater theological difficulties. He shows that the book of Judges offers multiple explanations for why God left nations in the Land, requiring the Israelites to engage in conquest warfare:
Judges 2 (Retributive plus Examination)
ב:כ וַיִּֽחַר אַ֥ף יְ-הֹוָ֖ה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר יַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבְר֜וּ הַגּ֣וֹי הַזֶּ֗ה אֶת בְּרִיתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּ֣יתִי אֶת אֲבוֹתָ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמְע֖וּ לְקוֹלִֽי: ב:כא גַּם אֲנִי֙ לֹ֣א אוֹסִ֔יף לְהוֹרִ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם מִן הַגּוֹיִ֛ם אֲשֶׁר עָזַ֥ב יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ וַיָּמֹֽת:
2:20 Then Yhwh became incensed against Israel, and He said, “Since that nation has transgressed the covenant that I enjoined upon their fathers and has not obeyed Me, 2:21 I for My part will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.”
ב:כב לְמַ֛עַן נַסּ֥וֹת בָּ֖ם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל הֲשֹׁמְרִ֣ים הֵם֩ אֶת דֶּ֨רֶךְ יְקֹוָ֜ק לָלֶ֣כֶת בָּ֗ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר שָׁמְר֥וּ אֲבוֹתָ֖ם אִם לֹֽא: ב:כג וַיַּנַּ֤ח יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֔לֶּה לְבִלְתִּ֥י הוֹרִישָׁ֖ם מַהֵ֑ר וְלֹ֥א נְתָנָ֖ם בְּיַד יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ:
2:22 For it was in order to test Israel by them — [to see] whether or not they would faithfully walk in the ways of Yhwh, as their fathers had done — 2:23 that Yhwh had left those nations, instead of driving them out at once, and had not delivered them into the hands of Joshua.
Judges 3 (Educative plus Examination)
ג:א וְאֵ֤לֶּה הַגּוֹיִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הִנִּ֣יחַ יְקֹוָ֔ק לְנַסּ֥וֹת בָּ֖ם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא יָדְע֔וּ אֵ֖ת כָּל מִלְחֲמ֥וֹת כְּנָֽעַן: ג:ב רַ֗ק לְמַ֙עַן֙ דַּ֚עַת דֹּר֣וֹת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְלַמְּדָ֖ם מִלְחָמָ֑ה…
3:1 These are the nations that Yhwh left so that He might test by them all the Israelites who had not known any of the wars of Canaan, 3:2 so that succeeding generations of Israelites might be made to experience war…
ג:ד וַֽיִּהְי֕וּ לְנַסּ֥וֹת בָּ֖ם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָדַ֗עַת הֲיִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶת מִצְוֹ֣ת יְ-הֹוָ֔האֲשֶׁר צִוָּ֥ה אֶת אֲבוֹתָ֖ם בְּיַד מֹשֶֽׁה:
3:4 These served as a means of testing Israel, to learn whether they would obey the commandments which Yhwh had enjoined upon their fathers through Moses.
The two passages in Judges each initially explain the nations that remained as a form of retribution or education, but supplement this explanation with a second, namely, examination (testing) theodicy. Licht suggests that the multiplicity of explanations hints at their inadequacy. Moreover, he argues, the “testing” motif is introduced, even though it is theologically unsatisfying, because it is a way of deflecting the greater theological question of why God subjected Israel to the hardship of the conquest.
A Place for Mercy in Theodicy
In the continuation of the passage in Judges 3, we learn that the nation actually fails the test and receives punishment (retributive theodicy), but the story doesn’t end there:
ג:ז וַיַּעֲשׂ֨וּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל אֶת הָרַע֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וַֽיִּשְׁכְּח֖וּ אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֑ם וַיַּעַבְד֥וּ אֶת־הַבְּעָלִ֖ים וְאֶת־ הָאֲשֵׁרֽוֹת:
3:7 The Israelites did what was offensive to Yhwh; they ignored Yhwh their God and worshiped the Baalim and the Asheroth.
ג:ח וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֤ף יְ-הֹוָה֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַֽיִּמְכְּרֵ֗ם בְּיַד֙ כּוּשַׁ֣ן רִשְׁעָתַ֔יִם מֶ֖לֶךְ אֲרַ֣ם נַהֲרָ֑יִם וַיַּעַבְד֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־כּוּשַׁ֥ן רִשְׁעָתַ֖יִם שְׁמֹנֶ֥ה שָׁנִֽים:
3:8 Yhwh became incensed at Israel and surrendered them to King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim; and the Israelites were subject to Cushan-rishathaim for eight years.
ג:ט וַיִּזְעֲק֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וַיָּ֨קֶם יְ-הֹוָ֥ה מוֹשִׁ֛יעַ לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיּֽוֹשִׁיעֵ֑ם…
3:9 The Israelites cried out to Yhwh, and Yhwh raised a champion for the Israelites to deliver them…
Here we see a hint of an additional feature of biblical theodicy, in which divine justice is complemented by mercy.
The strong voice of retributive theodicy in this parashah is consistent with the great rebuke in Deut 28, though that latter chapter concentrates on punishments, while ours concentrates on rewards. But the carrot of Deuteronomy 7-8 and the stick of Deuteronomy 28 complement each other. Significantly, they both emphasize that the land is not a permanent gift, but, as noted in the first gloss of Rashi to the Torah, is given at God’s pleasure, and residing in the land is a privilege, not an absolute right. Dwelling securely in the land is a privilege that Moses exhorts the people to earn, and that can be regained even after stumbling.
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August 4, 2015
November 25, 2022
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Dr. Shani Tzoref is currently a Visiting Professor at the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg. Her previous positions include Chair of Hebrew Bible and Exegesis at the University of Potsdam and coordinator of the Biblical Studies program at the University of Sydney. Tzoref holds an M.A. in Jewish History from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. in Ancient Jewish Literature from New York University, and is pursuing an additional M.A. in Digital Humanities from the CUNY Graduate center. She is the author of The Pesher Nahum Scroll from Qumran: An Exegetical Study of 4Q169.
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