Monday, May 17, 2010

The 10th Plague and the Problem of Evil

Tim, in his podcast on the passover, finds God's cold blooded killing of all the firstborn in Egypt (Ex11:4-8, 12:29-32) too much to stomach and too hard to believe.  As a compassionate human being, I find myself agreeing with Tim.  I said as much to the group that I am going through the E-100 readings with and got pretty short shrift from them.
image from here
One friend, who had his back broken in a car accident while working as a missionary in Egypt pointed out that this was God's judgment upon the Egyptians for their mistreatement of the Israelites (Ex 1).  That is a fair point, if indeed we do believe in justice, in the punishment fitting the crime.  The Egyptians had tried to kill every son of the Israelites, and were presumably only keeping the girls alive in order to take advantage of them, so this punishment seems proportionate, even a little lenient.

But I wonder if this kind of casuistry is a little beside the point. Part of the punishment was for the firstborn of all the animals to die, the first born of all the animals that had already been killed in the 5th plague (Ex 9:1-7).  Which suggests in at least one account, if not both, a little exageration is taking place.  This is not deception, because it is there in the text, as plain as the nose on your face.  If you read it you will see it, and its author/s must have seen it too.  My friend's second point, having lived in the Middle East, was that he could testify that that culture contains a lot more ambiguity than our modernist Western one.  So the rather absolute language of Ex11:4-8 and 12:29-32 could legitimately be taken with a grain of salt.

But I'm not sure how much that helps me either.  The real question is not, how can I get this text to fit in with what I think is acceptable or not for God to do?  The real question, or at least what I think they try and teach us at Bible college, is to ask what is this text trying to say to us?  It blatantly does not give a tinkers fart as to whether or not we think God's actions are proportionate or even historical.  The story's concern is with God's distinction between the oppressed (in this instance Israel) and the oppressors (in this instance Egypt) (Ex 11:7).  The story's concern is to show how God is keeping his promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), i.e. the survival of the people of Israel, ultimately how God is going to redeem all creation.  The story's concern is to tell us about . . . God.

This was my friend's most helpful insight today: A year ago, after his back had been broken, he had been praying and hoping for healing.  And yet in the last year, from being wheelchair bound and suffering in a number of other respects, he can see all the things he has learnt about God through his infirmity.  Now he isn't really that interested in praying for healing. 

Such an idea is disgusting.  How can he possibly justify God for his crippled state when he should be enjoying health and wealth and prosperity like any deserving child of the western world.  How can he possibly understand his suffering as something positive?  Is knowing God really better than walking and using a toilet?  Is it really worth the death of all those Egyptian first born humans and animals for God to accomplish his promise to Abraham?

Well I don't know the answer to that question, I've never lost my legs or a child, I hope I never do.  But I do wonder if maybe I have the problem of evil all wrong, maybe evil looks so bad to me because I think the point of it all is for me to have a nice life.  What if the point of it all is to know God?  A god who prefers the poor and oppressed, a god who is redeeming creation, a god who doesn't appreciate my need for no one to get hurt, or at least for me not to get hurt, but is willing to hurt anyone and everyone if that is what it takes?  I don't know if that is a god I can believe in, I don't know if I have the guts for that, but I think that might be the sort of god that the Bible believes in. . . 

Let me know what you think,

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