Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Wrath of God (Nahum 1-3)

“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God,” begins the prophet Nahum in his oracle against Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. This short book is a treatise against the city which calls down utter destruction on its walls. The prophet does not urge the city to repentance. He only informs them that they will shortly meet their maker and that there will be Hell to pay.

The judgment of God. The ancient Jews longed for it, because they suffered under the weight of powerful empires. The medieval Christians dreaded it, because they feared condemnation for the evil of their own hearts. We are mostly confused and even embarrassed by it, because we are not generally oppressed and think ourselves to be fairly good people. And yet the moment a calamity comes to shake us out of our complacency, we begin suddenly to sound like the ancients towards God. Why isn’t he doing something? Why doesn’t he come and judge the Earth?

Well, in Nineveh’s case, it is time for this long anticipated judgment. News of their crimes has reached to high Heaven:
Woe to the bloody city,
all full of lies and plunder—
no end to the prey!
The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies!
And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute,
graceful and of deadly charms,
who betrays nations with her whorings,
and peoples with her charms.
They are a ruthless people who crush other nations without giving it a second thought. Like hungry lions they rip the flesh off kingdoms and drink the blood of their slain armies. But their time has come:
There is no easing your hurt;
your wound is grievous.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your unceasing evil?
When disaster comes, few indeed will pity them. It’s good riddance. The people of the world will cheer and jeer as the hated city is pounded into dust.

So much for Nineveh. But what can be said for the judgment of God? I’m reminded of a major theme from the book on evil I just finished: The Doors of the Sea by David Hart. Rather than affirming all things as somehow fitting into God’s perfect plan, Hart reminds us that some things truly are meaningless:
Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history's many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.
Though it may sound strange to us, the fiery judgment of God is one of the most hopeful and freeing truths in all of scripture. If God himself, the all-powerful and infinitely wise creator, finds much of our world’s present state worthy of damnation, then it frees us from having to reconcile ourselves to “the way things are.”

This is the vision that will sustain Israel through the exile. If the people of God were mere pragmatists finding a niche for themselves in the world, then this would be the end of the story. But instead they can hope in a wrathful God who will soon storm down from his Heaven and shatter the kingdoms of the world. The nations may rage, but the kingdom of God is at hand.

Interesting that the prophet does not urge the city to repentance. Jonah didn't either. Somehow in the case of Jonah, the same city heard a call to repentance in the harsh message of destruction.

The first time, after decades of atheism, that I wanted to believe in God, was when I wanted vengeance. Then I wanted a wrathful God who would strike down the particular evil-doer I had in mind, leaving him cringing and in misery. I was too proud to pray for my daughter's life, I was too proud to repent of my own sin, but I did want to pray for a terrible judgment for the man who had destroyed my daughter. Instead the Holy Spirit held up a mirror for me and I saw the enemy in myself; I bewailed my own mistakes and the harm I had done and I spent 2 years wrestling with God over forgiveness.

So I see in scripture a metaphor for my own spiritual journey, from being initially attracted to a wrathful God, to lamentation for my exile from my "happy" secular life and anger with God for "punishing" me, to remorse for my own deeds and eventually forgiveness for myself and my enemy and a longing for a different sort of justice - once based on mercy and following God's path, rather than one based on an "eye for an eye".

When I read these OT stories, especially the violent ones, what I come away with often is the futility of violence, vengeance and retribution. It seems that we call on God to destroy our enemies - but then we become the enemy. We never seem to learn. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen's song Anthem:

"The wars, they will be fought again
The dove she will be caught again
And bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free"

So I wonder if God's wrath and the violence, destruction and vengeance associated with it, is just God letting us get our fill until we are sick and tired of it and long for a different sort of "justice". We will want to finally free the dove. Jesus brought us that message, but we still don't seem to be listening.

Hi Mariam,

As is becoming par for the course for your comments for me, I'm a little torn. On the one hand, the revelation of the mercy of God (who forgives even those who would nail him to the cross) is certainly at the core of the scriptures, and your story continues to be an amazing testimony to it. On the other hand, I can't dismiss wrath and judgment as something we need to get out of our system. Of course that is often the case, but I do think there is some evil that we can and should hate with a perfect hatred, and long for its damnation, even if we long for the salvation of the perpetrators themselves.

I guess the sticking point for me, which really is put forth strongly in David Hart's book, is that evil is not simply "good in disguise". The Lord will not show us in the end how all the world's evil was necessary to fulfill his good purposes, but will condemn it. We ache for justice, for God to set things right, and thus can rightly say that things are not as they ought to be.

But, with that said, I think you are right on the money as to the trajectory of the story. In our prayers for judgment upon evil, God reveals to us the evil of our own hearts. He then shows us mercy, and gives us the grace to show mercy upon those who wrong us - to their salvation. What I hesitate with is to say that the initial revelation was somehow wrong.

Anyway, I'm going to do Jonah next - it's a great counterpoint to Nahum, and very much speaks to what we are talking about. Indeed, I'm grateful for the comment, as I can see several things in that story already that I might have missed otherwise (Do you do well to be angry?).

I see what you mean. I don't think I would go so far as to say that evil is "good in disguise". One thing that attracts me to Christianity rather than eastern religions is the sense of justice, of righting wrongs. I don't really see darkness as being just part of the light. I can only take the whole yin/yang thing so far.
However I can't help but think that violence begets violence, that a violent or wrathful response to violence is an endless loop that we will never get out of unless we radically step outside the loop, as Jesus commanded and "turn the other cheek". Perhaps this is also why God says that vengeance is his - so that we do not respond in violence. It is not as if He wants to be angry and punishing but it is the only way justice can be achieved without us exchanging endless tit for tat - that is until we all learn to live as God wills. This is why I have trouble with some of these OT texts where the Israelites are slaughtering their enemies at God's command, including "innocents". I have a hard time reconciling that God to my own notion of God as good, loving and just without doing a lot of mental calisthenics.

This is why I have trouble with some of these OT texts where the Israelites are slaughtering their enemies at God's command, including "innocents". I have a hard time reconciling that God to my own notion of God as good, loving and just without doing a lot of mental calisthenics.

If you don't have trouble with those texts, you haven't really read them.

On violence - well, I don't know if I have a firm response to that. It's more my standard see-something-good-in-both-sides approach. There is something about those brave men storming the beaches of Normandy to liberate occupied France and put an end to the horror of the Nazis that moves my soul, and pacifism seems so paltry by comparison. Yet the witness of the Amish forgiveness toward the murderer of their schoolchildren is surely no less courageous. But then I know that the Amish witness is only possible because they have a place protected by laws enforced by the sword.

I guess it's sort of like saying that you want to live a life that does not depend on the death of another. But then, life as we know it is inextricably bound up with death, and our food requires the sacrifice of plants and animals - to die that we might live. And the constant struggle of creation in feeding off of the life of itself in a thousand deaths a second we recognize to be in bondage to decay, but here we are. Even our glimpses of God's glory in and through it all are seen through this veil of death.

So what can I do but eat? What can the Christian policeman do, but shoot the gunman in the head, while praying that God might have mercy on his soul? What must the nations of the world do, but resolutely go to war to save the people of France (or Darfur?), in service to an imperfect but necessary justice?

I'm no pacifist, if only because pacifism has too much realized eschatology - that we can't escape the need to fight for justice with the imperfect tools we have any more then we can stop eating. And yet somehow Christ gives us his flesh to eat and teaches us to love our enemies in the midst of all this.

Agreed. I am mostly with you on this. It is so hard though to separate nobility from selfishness, each side in a war thinks they have justice on their side. My father served in the Second World War but he lived but he was friends and neighbours with German immigrants who hoped that Germany would be victorious and even stockpiled weapons waiting for the time that the war would move to Canada. After the war, that small northern frontier village had to reconcile all that and forget, if not forgive.

You are right that we can scarcly move without doing harm. Is harm the same as sin? Can it be sin if we cannot help it. Sin is then certainly part of our nature - if it is just our "selfish genes" fighting for survival, but it is not a part of our nature we can just discard, even with faith in God. By this definition, even Jesus sinned. This is why I have a hard time, also, with the notion that we are utterly depraved and it is for this reason we deserve God's eternal punishment. We are harming each other all the time - but it is the nature of life and death in this mortal world. Even a monk causes harm by his inaction in the face of suffering. Perhaps the best we can do is ask the forgiveness of the starving in Bangladesh while we sip our lattes and drive our SUV's. Perhaps the best we can do is bless our enemy and commend him to God before we blow him up, but I really hope there's something better than that that we can achieve this side of the Apocalypse. Or perhaps the best we can do is to be like the Buddha, mindful of our actions and choose the path of least harm. I'm not arguing with you. You express yourself beautifully and I agree with what you say although I wasn't sure what this meant: "pacifism has too much realized eschatology".

I look forward to your posts on Jonah.

Or perhaps the best we can do is to be like the Buddha, mindful of our actions and choose the path of least harm.

Here, at least, I must be uncompromisingly Christian: give me the "greater good" over the "least harmful" any day of the week!


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