Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Old Testament and the Problem of Divine Sovereignty/Human Freedom

Craig Blomberg’s recent reflection “Why I Am a Calminian” provides a helpful reminder of the very real tension in the Scriptures between divine sovereignty and human freedom:

There are countless passages throughout Scripture that, seemingly paradoxically, affirm at one and the same time God’s sovereignty and human freedom (with accountability). Philippians 2:12-13 commands us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, but only because God is the one at work in us to do his good pleasure. Isaiah 10:5-13 finds God using Assyria as an instrument to punishment faithless Israel but then promising to turn around and punish Assyria because of her evil motives in conquering God’s people.

But perhaps the text that says it best of all is the first one in the canonical sequence, Genesis 50:20. Joseph has been reunited with his brothers, but now that their father is dead they fear that Joseph may at last exact vengeance on them. Joseph allays their fears by explaining that he understands that God had different, good purposes in mind with their action of selling him into slavery in Egypt, even though their purposes were evil. Two separate agents, two separate wills, at cross purposes with each other, neither described as logically or chronologically prior to the other. Neither is said to cause the other; they occur simultaneously.

This tension is at work throughout the Old Testament. In line with Reformation theology, the Old Testament affirms divine sovereignty and grace as the basis of God’s election. The recurring motif of God choosing the younger over the elder in the book of Genesis reflects that God’s selection of individuals stands apart from human measurements of value and worth. Noah is righteous because he finds favor in the eyes of the Lord and not vice-versa (Gen 6:8-9). God chose Abraham despite the fact that the patriarch came from a long line of idol worshippers (Josh 24:3). Paul explains that behavior did not factor into God’s election of Jacob over Esau for inclusion in the line of blessing (Rom 9:11-12). He does not tell us, “God made his choice because Jacob the deceiver was at least better than Esau the reprobate.” Divine grace and love is also the only explanation for the election of Israel as God’s “holy nation” and “treasured possession” (Deut 4:37; 7:7-8; 9:4-5).

We also learn from the Old Testament prophets of God’s sovereign work in salvation. The Lord promises through Isaiah that “a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression” (Isa 59:20). The reality, though, is that such a turning will only occur when the Lord overrides the human disposition to sin and unilaterally writes his law on the heart of his people through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Isa 32:15; 59:21; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:24-27). Then, and only then, will Israel’s cyclical history of disobedience come to an end. God’s sovereign work will guarantee Israel’s perpetual obedience so that there will never again be the need for more punishment or another exile (cf. Isa 33:20-24; 60:18-21; Jer 32:38-41; Ezek 36:28-30).

The other side, however, is that the Reformed view of divine sovereignty and its all-determining God does not appear to satisfactorily explain the interaction between God and man in space and time and how God’s choices are contingent upon human actions. The theological principle of God’s willingness to alter his intentions based on human response is summarized in Jeremiah 18:7-10:

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.

As Longman explains, the point here is, “If those announced for judgment repent or those who are established sin, then all bets are off.” One of God’s intrinsic qualities is his willingness to change his mind or to alter his intended actions (Deut 9:13-14; Ps 106:23; Joel 2:13-14; Jon 4:2). Of course, there are instances where God has decreed and refuses to deter from his intended plan (cf. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4; Jer 4:28), but such occasions occur far less often in the OT than those where God is willing to change. The intercession of Moses (Exod 32:14) convinces the Lord not to carry out his intended destruction of the rebellious Israelites. Peter Enns writes, “It certainly seems that Moses, through argument and pleading, has been able to get God to alter his plans. To put it in plain English, Moses gets God to change his mind. There is really no other way to read this, and we should not try to avoid it.” The prayers of Amos in response to two separate visions portraying God’s imminent destruction of his people are similarly effective (Amos 7:1-6). Abraham negotiates more favorable terms for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:22-33), and Hezekiah successfully petitions for a 15-year extension to his life after the Lord has announced that he is about to die (2 Kgs 20:1-10; Isa 38:1-8). The repentance of Hezekiah and Judah postpones Micah’s announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem (Jer 26:17-19; cf. Mic 3:12), and the repentance of the citizens of Nineveh similarly reverses Jonah’s announcement of the impending destruction of that city (Jon 3:1, 10).

Human response (the repentance of the king of Tyre?) is perhaps the reason why Ezekiel’s original prophecy of Nebuchadnezzar’s total destruction of Tyre (Ezek 26:1-14) is later altered by the divine promise that Nebuchadnezzar would be given Egypt instead as recompense for his 13 years of frustration in the incomplete conquest of Tyre (Ezek 29:17-20). Israel’s fearful response when the king of Moab sacrifices his son on the city walls appears to turn Elisha’s prophecy of total victory into a disappointing retreat (2 Kgs 3:19, 27-28).

Reformed theologians are certainly correct in calling attention to the narratival perspectives of the Old Testament and the use of accommodation and figurative language when the Bible speaks of God “changing his mind.” God changing his mind obviously does not mean the same as when contingencies force us to alter our plans on how we will spend the afternoon. Open Theism has read too much into this language in its denial of God’s omniscient foreknowledge (cf. 1 Sam 23:6-12, where God not only knows the future, but the outcome of a hypothetical event involving free human choices), but there is the equal danger of reading too little into this imagery as well. More than simply the language of appearance, the idea of God “relenting” expresses the extent to which God has entered into real relationships with his creatures. We are forced to reckon with a God who is both inside and outside of time and with the reality that there are things that will or will not happen in our world based upon our choices and decisions. The sovereign God has allowed for there to be flexibility in his decrees.

We clearly see the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom in the story of the plagues and the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart in the book of Exodus. At first glance, we might feel sorry for the Pharaoh, as he unknowingly plays the role of marionette, compelled to bring about the destruction of his own kingdom for the enhancement of Yahweh’s glory. And yet, in his response to Aaron’s rod becoming a snake and six of the first seven plagues, it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (cf. Exod 7:13, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34). The divine sentence of hardening only comes as the appropriate punishment for the Pharaoh’s willful unbelief in the final plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the sea (cf. Exod 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 17). The statements that Yahweh will harden the Pharaoh’s heart at the beginning of this process (cf. Exod 4:21; 7:3) are an expression that Yahweh’s purposes will ultimately prevail in this struggle but not that he dictates or determines the Pharaoh’s responses.

The idea of an all-determining God is especially problematic when considering the divine-human interplay as God uses the Assyrian and Babylonian armies as his instruments of judgment against Israel and Judah (Isa 10:5-6; Jer 21:3-7; 25:8-11; 27:6-7) but then punishes these nations for how they exceed his intentions (Isa 10:7-19; Jer 25:12-14; 50:29-32; 51:6-8). God will “hand over” Jerusalem to the Babylonians, but he appears to be hands-off in how the Babylonian army executes their siege and conquest. The Babylonians go beyond Yahweh’s explicit intentions, and Yahweh is “grieved” (nacham) over the disaster that befalls his people (Jer 42:10). This paradox is perplexing, and yet, as Mark Biddle has suggested, the prophets’ perspective on God’s involvement with these pagan armies provides a way forward in understanding and speaking of God’s continuing involvement in a sinful world. God was at work in the events of 9/11 and is at work in the Gaza Strip or on the streets of Baghdad despite the violent acts and injustices that he does not directly determine.

Biddle writes, “While God is perhaps the most powerful actor on the stage, the play is, to a degree, an improvisation. Whether by choice or necessity, God does not script every dialogue nor direct every gesture. Instead, God becomes involved in genuine relationships. The other actors are free to act as they will. . . . . God responds within the limitations established by the choices of God's partners.” God’s sovereignty is such that he controls all things without necessarily orchestrating every detail. His providence at times takes the form of the micromanaging the smallest details, like the trajectory of the enemy arrow that finds its way between the chinks of King Ahab’s armor in fulfillment of the prophetic word (1 Kgs 22:34). But, there are many other times when God’s providence takes the form of a more indirect or even laissez faire control. God allows the suffering of Job within prescribed boundaries, but it is the job of the Satan to determine the form and sequence of Job’s afflictions. Using the analogy of the Divine Chess Master, God controls the game not by directing every movement of the individual pieces but by controlling the outcome and winning the game no matter how the pieces might move. The ultimate triumph of God’s purposes without direct determination of every contingency only heightens the greatness of his wisdom and sovereignty.

Biddle again comments, “History is the dance between God and humanity—neither partner alone defines its movement. History is, therefore, often herky-jerky, complex, messy.” Only a truly sovereign and omniscient God could accomplish his purposes in such a world. The Bible is a messy book in its stubborn refusal to resolve the irreconcilable tensions between divine sovereignty and human freedom. Rather than forcing the Bible into our own ideological confines, we are better to live with the tensions and to allow the biblical text to speak for itself.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Violent God of the Old Testament

One of the ways that Christians today must “earnestly contend for the faith” is by defending the goodness and justice of the God of the Old Testament. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has described the God of the OT as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” The God of the OT commands the extermination of the Canaanites, puts Uzzah to death for touching the ark of the covenant, and responds to Elisha’s curse by having a bear maul 42 young boys who have dared to insult the follically-challenged prophet. Because of passages in the prophets where Yahweh punishes his unfaithful wife Israel with public exposure and degradation, feminist critics have depicted God as an abusive husband or a violent predator, the Divine Rapist.

Jeremiah 13:25-27: This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, declares the LORD, because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. 26 I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen. 27 I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighings, your lewd whorings, on the hills in the field. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be before you are made clean?"

Ezekiel 16:35-40: "Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the LORD: 36 Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. 38 And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. 39 And I will give you into their hands, and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber and break down your lofty places. They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords.

Hosea 2:10: Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.

The Lord threatens the same type of judgment for the Assyrian inhabitants of Nineveh:

Nahum 3:5-7: Behold, I am against you, declares the LORD of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at your nakedness and kingdoms at your shame. 6 I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. 7 And all who look at you will shrink from you and say, Wasted is Nineveh; who will grieve for her? Where shall I seek comforters for you?

Even taking Israel’s gross idolatry or Assyria’s violent brutality into consideration, the imagery in these passages is shocking and disturbing. How can we love and trust a God who inflicts this type of violence? Should we reject these passages as depicting a God inconsistent with the loving God of the New Testament?

As strange as it may sound, these violent images are an expression of divine mercy. The prophets generally announced to Israel and Judah what would happen if they did not change their ways. Unless God said otherwise, the die was not cast, and the fate of the people was not set in stone. The shocking imagery of the degraded woman was designed to motivate repentance so that the people might avoid the reality of what the metaphor depicted. If the people of Judah (especially the male leaders), in light of their understanding of these realities, can see themselves as the vulnerable woman about to suffer siege, rape, public exposure, and the loss of husband and children, then perhaps they will be motivated to change. While the prophet Nahum appears to speak of the unavoidable degradation of Daughter Nineveh, God had even sent the reluctant Jonah to warn the Assyrians that judgment was coming. The horrible destruction that befell Nineveh stands as a perpetual warning to all peoples who follow in her violent ways.

In her article, “Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns,” Robin Parry provides the helpful reminder that any biblical text only speaks authoritatively to the church when read in light of the larger canon of Scripture: “Classical Christian views of the Bible have seen divine authority mediated through the canon as a whole rather than its individual parts in isolation.” She adds that biblical texts “when incorporated within the canon, the way in which they are normative is modified by interactions with fellow texts. Thus any part of the Bible can only function normatively for the Church when seen within the context of the whole. Clearly, as the canon has grown and the plot line has moved on, the way in which different text function normatively changes.”

Canonical perspectives from both the OT and NT must inform a proper Christian reading of passages like Jeremiah 13:25-27. This terrible punishment is mandated by God, but executed by a foreign army (13:20-22). The prophets in general view Yahweh as the instigator and leader of the armies who attack Israel and Judah (cf. Isa 10:5-6; Jer 4:5-6; 21:3-7), but at the same time, hold these armies accountable for the manner in which they go beyond Yahweh’s intent to punish through their excessive violence and cruelty (Isa 10:7; Jer 50:11-13; Hab 2:15-17; Obad 15-16). The OT writers are generally not concerned to distinguish between God’s direct and indirect causation of events but are clear in affirming that Yahweh is not morally responsible or liable for the actions of sinful, wicked humans.

The prophets employ the metaphor of the ravaged woman for rhetorical impact, not as a prescript for the treatment of women. The OT reveals Yahweh as a God who has a special concern for oppressed and needy women (cf. Gen 21:14-19; Deut 10:18; Ps 146:9). Deuteronomic law limited Israel in its normal practice of warfare from acts of violence against non-combatants (Deut 20:13-15). A captive woman taken in battle was to be treated with dignity (Deut 21:10-14). In his judgment oracles against the nations surrounding Israel, the prophet Amos condemns the nations for their atrocities against each other (not just Israel) in war, particularly their abuse of women (cf. Amos 1:3, 6, 9-10, 13; 2:1). Nations who practice brutality will receive just recompense for their actions, the message behind the portrayal of Nineveh as a ravaged woman in Nahum 3:5-7 (cf. Nah 2:7-13; Hab 2:6-20). The lament and protest language of the OT and Yahweh’s own grief over the destruction of His people are testimony to the injustices of warfare and reflect the fact that the brutality of warfare is evidence of a world broken by sin (cf. Pss 44; 83; Lam 2:1-22; Jer 8:5; 9:7). The OT anticipates the future day of eschatological salvation on this earth when warfare and brutality will no longer exist (cf. Isa 2:1-4).

The female imagery in the prophets is ultimately restorative and testimony to Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness. The God who punishes His wayward wife is also the God who will forgive and restore her (Isa 50:1; 54:1-8; Ezek 16:60-63; Hos 2:14-15). Yahweh loves Israel with an “everlasting love” (Jer 31:2) and cannot bear to give up his wife (Hos 11:8), even when subjecting her to the worst forms of judgment. Jeremiah’s opening messages of judgment condemn Judah as a prostitute able to give lessons to the worst of women (Jer 2:20, 27; 3:6-11), but his message of hope is that Yahweh will restore “virgin Israel” to a place of glory and honor (31:4). Jeremiah envisions the future restoration as a time when “a woman will surround a man” (Jer 31:22; the JPS translates: “a woman will court a man”). Leslie Allen understands this verse to mean that the woman Isarel “would be empowered to show initiative as covenant partner.” She will be able to freely love and embrace Yahweh her husband.

The NT revelation of the person of God provides further canonical perspective on these OT texts portraying divine violence against female victims. As the incarnate Son, Jesus demonstrates the fullness of the Father’s love and his intense desire “to seek and to save the lost.” The extension of grace and forgiveness toward sinful women in the ministry of Jesus (cf. Luke 7:37-50; John 4:7-30; 8:3-11) complements the OT picture of Yahweh’s restoration of Daughter Zion and trumps the metaphor of the woman ravaged by divine judgment. In the incarnation, Jesus assumes the role of Divine Warrior, but wages war against spiritual (Satanic) rather than human enemies and emerges victorious in this conflict through his own suffering and death (cf. Col 2:13-15). Rather than the guilty woman being exposed and pelted with filth, Jesus endures the violence, abuse, and shame of the cross as he suffers for sinners. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have inaugurated the new creation and transformed the gender relations reflected in the fallen order of ancient Israel’s patriarchy and androcentrism (Gal 3:28). The death of Jesus has propitiated divine wrath in a way (1 Jn 2:2) that has transformed God’s disposition toward humanity and delayed judgment so that sinners might repent and be spared from the final judgment.

Ultimately, the OT images of God’s judgment as the violent treatment of women are a reminder of the incarnational nature of Scripture. Incarnated in human form, God’s word did not fall out of the sky but met specific peoples and cultures where they lived. The portrayal of divine judgment as the corporal punishment of an adulterous wife or the violence inflicted upon women in war is a cultural and time-conditioned image, but yet even this fading image of the old order reflects the abiding truth of Yahweh’s righteous anger toward human sinfulness. The OT prophets remind us of the inconvenient truth that our God is a “consuming fire,” and we ignore this truth at our own peril.