How the Bible Portrays an Image of God that is not All-Good.
By Sahar Segal
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). That God is one is unequivocal. That he is omnipotent, that he operates by a moral code that human beings recognize, and that he is beneficent, is not as evident from this verse. This is, though, the most widely accepted view of the monotheistic god: he is one, he is omnipotent, and is good (moral, beneficent, merciful). Synagogues resound every Yom Kippur with the words: “El rahum vehanun, erech apayim verav chesed” (“God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness” (Exodus 34:6)) – proof positive that such is God.
At some point, most people become acquinted with the problem of theodicy: If there is one god and he is both omnipotent and moral, why do the innocent suffer? How can a beneficent god create and cause suffering and evil? There are two components to theodicy. The first is how a good god could create the existence of evil, and the second is how he could carry out evil deeds. In this article, only the second concerns me. When people do evil, one can say that allowing free will is a greater good than creating a perfectly good world. But natural disasters have no such explanation. If God is all-powerful and and good, earthquakes of magnitude nine should not happen. A singular, omnipotent, and moral god is irreconcilable with this, so either God’s attributes or our conception of evil must be rethought. Monotheistic religions have a (perhaps not very surprising) tendency to take God’s singularity and omnipotence as given. But God’s perfect morality and our conception of evil are not, and have never been, too sacrosanct to be discussed.
It is, naturally, safest to leave God alone and reexamine the human conception of evil. The Sages were faced with different groups – both Jewish and non-Jewish – that professed a dualist belief in two gods, one good and one evil. This is, of course, one answer to theodicy. The Sages, in response, gave an alternative answer that retained the view of God as singular, omnipotent, and moral. They repeatedly say in sources like the Mekhilta that “chavivim yisurim” – “beloved is suffering.” Some sages suggest that suffering is beloved because it is a necessary condition for receiving the Torah; some suggest it is so because God only punishes those he loves, and that suffering is a sign of caring and kindness. Regardless of the reason, the Sages emphasize that suffering is never unwarranted or undeserved. There is always a reason for it, even if humans do not know what it is.
To say that what we see as evil is not truly so is to say that our moral judgments about suffering and evil are incorrect. That is, there is a divine morality in which suffering is good, and this is the morality God adheres to. It is morally permissible for God to cause suffering, but immoral for humans to do so. God is simply above human morality because he abides by a higher, divine moral standard.
It is difficult for many to accept the view that what appears as evil is not truly evil as answer to theodicy. One must be a very firm believer in this view to say that AIDS and the recent tsunami in Japan are truly signs of beneficence. We have more than just an instinctive emotional denial of this view; we also believe in the validity of our moral judgments, and we judge suffering to be grievous and bad.
God may be above human morality for another reason, as the book of Job suggests. The book of Job presents a righteous man “who was whole-hearted and upright, and one that feared God, and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). God proceeds to test Job by taking everything he values and loves away from him – his children, his riches, his house, and his health. Several characters attempt to vindicate God’s actions by suggesting, for example, that Job did something for which he deserves to suffer. They attempt to justify the situation by fitting it into their moral framework. Job rejects these answers, as does God.
After these characters leave the stage, Job and God discuss the matter. At the end of the conversation, Job concludes: “Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:4). That is, mere mortals cannot understand the workings of the Lord, and should not question them. “Wilt thou condemn me?” (Job 40:8), God asks Job. Of course Job will not, for “He is king over all the proud beasts” (Job 41:26), and for that, he deserves our worship.
One of the ramifications of this view is that divinity is superior to morality. Human morality says that causing Job’s plight, or the Black Plague, is immoral. But in Job’s view, God is not bound by human morality. God’s answer to Job’s ethical challenge is: “Hast thou an arm like God? Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?” (Job 40:9-25). He does not attempt to align himself with the categories of human morality and claim that he is righteous by their standards. Instead, he claims he is above them by virtue of his power and originality: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). Human terms cannot encompass God, and therefore cannot challenge him.
Another way to look at this is that if God only causes the good in the world, there must be another being who causes evil. Isaiah comes out emphatically against this view: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord, that doeth all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). God is the only entity that creates good and evil. He does not create situations that merely appear evil to human eyes; he creates genuine evil.
Although the Sages generally abandoned this conception of God, they could not abandon this verse and others like it. In Talmudic times, this verse from Isaiah had already become part of the official prayer, and the Sages, in Berachot 11b, discuss its specific wording:
‘[Blessed art Thou] who formest light and createst darkness’. Let him say rather: ‘Who formest light and createst brightness’? — We keep the language of the Scripture. If that is so, [what of the next words in the text], ‘Who makest peace and createst evil’: do we repeat them as they are written? It is written ‘evil’ and we say ‘all things’ as a euphemism. (Soncino trans.)
Thus, an uncomfortable phrase has been smoothly glossed over. One who is not familiar with the Bible would not know that it is the source of this prayer, much less that it has been edited.
Other than providing an answer to theodicy, Job’s conception of God affects our practice and the way we address God. One area in which this does so is prayer. Suppose God is a perfectly moral being (whether his morality is human or divine is irrelevant). His actions, in that case, are not affected by the wishes and desires of human beings. We can pray for God to heal the sick three times a day, but the idea that God will change his actions or the course of nature in response to transient human desires is ludicrous. If God involves himself in world events, then what takes place fits the grand moral framework and will not be changed by human prayer. If God does not involve himself in human affairs, he will not become involved because a paltry human asked him to.
There are two basic kinds of prayer: praises and requests. If God is moral, requests are meaningless, meant only to comfort those who pray and give them the illusion that God will listen to their wishes. An all-encompassing God like Job’s can listen to and be affected by human beings. Abraham can convince God to save Sodom and Gomorrah if there are ten righteous people residing there, when he only intended to save the cities if there were fifty (Genesis 18). When God is not perfectly moral, human beings can be in dialogue with him and bring out different aspects of his being. Moses can draw out God’s merciful nature when he wants to destroy the people of Israel in the desert (Exodus 32). We, too, can do so; this is, after all, why we repeat “God, merciful and gracious” (“El rahum vehanun”) on Yom Kippur. When God is responsible for both good and evil, human beings can have a relationship with him.
I do not claim that the view of God as above morality because of his omnipotence and originality is a better answer to theodicy than the first two. I have only tried to take an answer that is too often rejected out of hand, without being given the slightest consideration, and make a case for it. It does not, I believe, damage our view of God as much as people fear it will; in fact, I believe it enriches it. It is easier for us, as humans, to pay obeisance to a perfectly moral and good being. It is easier for us to worship a god we fashion in our own image. But the god of the Bible is often all-encompassing, multifaceted and colorful. The god of the Bible does not hide from anything, and is not afraid of taking responsibility for everything, proudly declaring: “I am the Lord, and there is none else, beside Me there is no God… I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord, that doeth all these things” (Isaiah 45:5-7).
 All translations JPS