God seems to grow more merciful over the course of the Bible. Or maybe the human understanding of God matures. The God of the Exodus is violently punitive. In the Book of Jonah, a later biblical work, God argues with a hard-hearted prophet who begrudges divine mercy for an evil kingdom that repents. The story ends with God’s question to Jonah: “And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left [i.e., children], and many beasts as well” (Jonah 4:11). If God “becomes” more compassionate, maybe we should too.
On this issue, Christians might draw wisdom from Martin Buber. In commenting on the notion of “holy war” in ancient Israel in the context of 1 Samuel 15:3, where the prophet Samuel demands that Saul kill all the Amalekites, including women and children, Buber asserts: “Samuel has misunderstood God.” He continues: “An observant Jew of this nature, when he has to choose between God and the Bible, chooses God…. In the work of the throats and pens out of which the text of the Old Testament has arisen, misunderstanding has again and again attached itself to understanding…. Nothing can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he has not murdered his enemy.”*
In Islam God has 99 attributes. God is Loving (Al Wadud), the Merciful (Al Rahman), the Forgiving (Al Ghafur), the Peaceful ( Al Salaam), but God is Dominant and Subduing (Al Qahhar) too. The Qur’an reiterates that God’s love and mercy extend over everything and He is the most forgiving (6:12, 6:54). However, in this life as well as in the hereafter, God punishes those who spread evil on earth. The story of Pharaoh in the Qur’an is a perfect example. God would not destroy a community for its wrongdoing if its people were unaware of right and wrong (6:131). Nor would God destroy a community merely because of its disbelief as long as its people behave justly and righteously towards one another (11:117). In other words, God may punish, but people bring misfortune upon themselves because of their deeds and behavior (16:33). I do not see any contradiction in God’s being loving and punishing because both come about in response to one’s moral deeds.
The story of the Exodus recounts God’s victory over Pharaoh and the destruction of Egypt. Jews savor the fruits of this victory, our liberation from slavery, but we’ve also had “issues” with the means by which God freed us. Although the sources we will survey are more than a thousand years old, many have circulated widely in printed commentaries on the Haggadah from the early 16th century to this day. One common justification for the slaying of the first-born holds that it and all the other plagues were cases of measure-for-measure punishment. Pharaoh wants to destroy the Israelites, God’s “first-born” — and his minions willingly agree — so God kills the Egyptian first-born.* Another widespread midrashic tradition exploits a scriptural ambiguity in a verse from Psalms (which appears in the complete traditional Haggadah, but not in our text) that praises God, “Who struck Egypt through their first born” (Psalm 136:10). This tradition actually asserts that it wasn’t the first-bornwho were killed, but who did the killing — of their fathers who supported Pharaoh’s decision not to let the Israelites go.* This story completely exonerates God. One of the most moving attempts to wrestle with the last plague depicts the Israelites’ giving asylum to Egyptian first-born — implicitly an attempt to thwart God’s violence.* Here the Israelites take the moral high ground though they fail to foil God’s plan.
A related issue involves the disturbing fact that during the last plagues, God explicitly hardens Pharaoh’s heart, depriving him of free will, but continuing to punish him nonetheless. Suffice it to say, commentators have labored overtime to prove that initially Pharaoh hardened his own heart and that God’s participation only reinforced the king’s inherent stubbornness. The Haggadah’s discomfort with this element of the Exodus is underscored by the fact that it tells the story with nary a reference to this troubling motif, one that recurs 20 times in the biblical narrative. Finally, a ninth century midrash addresses another chilling element of the story — God’s drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea after having once again hardened the King’s heart. It reports that with his dying words Pharaoh repented, that God resurrected him from the dead and installed him as King of Nineveh, the very paragon of repentance in the story of Jonah.*
As readers in a globalized world, we have a responsibility not to perpetuate the linkage of religion and violence. Whenever a text appears to give divine sanction to violence, we must interpret it in light of the tradition’s fuller understanding of God. Interpretation is key.
Biblical texts and their interpreters bear the limitations and wounds of human finitude. Texts, therefore, must be read in a discerning manner. Too often in the churches the impression is unintentionally left that the Bible is something like a transcript of God’s voice emanating from the heavens. In contrast, it is important to recognize it as the “word of God expressed in human language.”* As Timothy Radcliffe says, the Word “does not come from outside but gestates within our human language. The Word of God does not come down from heaven like a celestial Esperanto.”* Texts need to be situated in their context as artifacts of human culture, lest we bypass the human reality in the search for spiritual meaning.
Anglican theologian Adrian Thatcher acknowledges that many biblical texts depict or seemingly authorize violence. Given the tumultuous historical contexts out of which the biblical texts developed, such violence is not surprising. The problem, Thatcher argues, is “what Christians have made of the Bible when they have used its pages to endorse cruelty, hatred, murder, oppression, and condemnation, often of other Christians.” By so using the Bible, they have allowed them to become “savage texts” that “make hatred holy” and “makes seekers after truth its jealous guardians.”*
In my own Roman Catholic tradition, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, an international group of about 20 biblical scholars, periodically publishes statements about interpretation of Scripture; these documents may also serve as a resource for Christians in other denominations. In particular, I recommend
The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), and The Jewish People and their Sacred Scripture in the Christian Bible (2001); both are available on numerous websites.
God in Islam is all-merciful and forgiving. It is not God but people who bring destruction upon themselves. When people are engaged in violent actions, oppression, injustice and criminal activities, they invite self-destruction. The Qur’an is al Furqan (a criterion to distinguish right from wrong) to let people know what is good and right for them and what would be wrong for them. The Qur’an asks people to use their brain, their wisdom, to ponder their actions and take full responsibility for them. Every human being is responsible for what he/she does. No one will carry the burden of another person (6:614).
The Qur’anic stories of the destruction of different communities refer to grave injustices in which those communities were violently involved. Pharaoh and his army’s destruction came out of their own violent action against the Israelites. Similarly God reminded the people of Thamud to remember when He made them successors to the `Aad people and gave them habitations in the land, they built for themselves palaces in the plains and carved out homes in the mountains. So they were to remember the graces that were bestowed upon them from Allah, and not go about making mischief on the earth. Unfortunately, the people of Thamud followed the path of injustice and oppression and invited their self-destruction (7:73-79).
The problem that we face behind many of these stories is that it is God who destroys the people. It is God who unleashed a violent tornado on the wicked people with showers of stone upon them. It is God who caused the earth to swallow the evil ones. But then the Qur’an would say that it was not God who wronged them but they wronged themselves (29:40).
There are two possible approaches to understanding this dichotomy. One, that the destruction stories in the Qur’an have limited application. The destruction came upon those communities in the presence of their prophets when they persecuted, denied and compelled their prophets to pray against them. Second, when Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his followers were persecuted, tortured and even driven out of their home, the angels of destruction came to him on several occasions to allow them to destroy the Meccans and the people of Ta’if, but Muhammad did not permit it. Rather he prayed for their safety and not destruction. It is said that he also prayed to God not to destroy communities in the future as happened to communities before Islam. It is also said that God accepted Muhammad’s prayers.
What about the today’s destruction, such as Sandy, Katrina, earthquakes and other types of calamities? Many Muslim scholars would say these are natural and environmental disasters. We are trustees of mother Earth and should take care of and protect it. However these natural calamities teach us to be humble before God and His creation, helping, cooperating, standing together with those who have suffered.
Most Muslims are straightforward in their belief about God. They believe that God can make things happen with just a simple command. Believers shall be thankful to God in all conditions, be they ones of happiness or suffering. The Muslim belief is that everything comes from God and there is Khair (blessing, goodness) in what happens in life. One shall say Al Hamdu Lillah (praise be to God) whether he/she hears a message of sorrow or happiness. Disasters and calamities teach Muslims how to be responsible, repenting, reaching out and working together to repair the wounds of humanity and return to God for His mercy.
I was taught in the same way that people are responsible for their actions. It is people’s actions that bring pleasure or calamity upon them. God knows about everything. Sometimes God may interfere, as He has power over everything, but mostly things happen in due course of time. One shall continue working hard, praying to God for His mercy and blessings, for release from all sorrows and sufferings in this life and hereafter. This gives me a lot of comfort. Even if I fail to get what I want in spite of my hard work, I do not despair but rather expect to receive a new gift from God.