This week’s Torah portion is Bemidbar, the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. But I am still pondering God’s promises of reward and punishment in the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This post will consider Psalm 73, a different take on divine recompense and retribution.
Next week I will write about the first two Torah portions in the book of Numbers, and catch up with the Jewish cycle of Torah readings!
Last week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, quotes God as promising rewards to those who obey God’s rules and punishments to those who disobey them—with physical consequences here and now: food or starvation, health or sickness, peace or war, etc. (See my post Bechukotai & Jeremiah: Real Carrots and Sticks.) Yet often the good suffer and the wicked prosper, as Psalm 73 and the book of Job point out.
If God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and just, then why do so many good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to the good? Theologians have struggled with “the problem of evil” for millennia. Their solutions include:
Best of All Possible Worlds and Free Will: This imperfect world that God created is the best of all possible worlds; God could not improve it in one way without making it worse in another way. Furthermore, the best possible world is one in which human beings freely choose what is good. God created a world containing evil as well as good so that humans could understand the difference, and choose to increase the goodness in the world.1
(This answer means that if God modified any natural disasters, there would be some unimaginable dire effect. So we should not blame God for all the natural disasters that happened before man-made global warming took effect.
(It also means that if God tweaked human psychology to make our thinking less short-sighted and compartmentalized, so we made fewer inadvertent poor moral decisions, it would turn us into monsters in some other way.
(And it means that if God eliminated sociopaths from our species it would create some disaster. All of this strains belief.)
- The Reward Is in Heaven: God rewards every good person and punishes every bad person—not in this world, but in an afterlife.2
(This answer requires belief in one or two mysterious other worlds that “exist” outside space and time. It also requires belief in a soul that can magically retain the identity of an individual person after death without any physical correlates.)
- The Long Run: God is unconcerned about individuals, but has a master plan in which all humans will be good and this earth will be a paradise—in the long, long run, after many millennia. Too bad so many good people have to suffer along the way.3
(This answer posits a God unlike the one in the bible, who shows personal concern for at least some individuals and groups, and commands human judges to be fair to individuals.)
- “I do not understand wonders too difficult for me.” (Job 42:3): Humans are incapable of understanding divine justice, which is radically different from human justice.4
(This answer is self-defeating. If we are incapable of understanding what God considers “good”, God’s injunctions in the bible do not mean what we think they do. Then how can we judge what God wants in new situations? And should we do what we know is right, or what we are guessing God wants?)
Is the problem of evil insoluble, then? Or does God reward the good and punish the bad in some other way?
Psalm 73 opens:
Surely God is good to Israel
—to those who purify their hearts.5
As for me, my feet had almost turned aside;
My steps had nearly slipped,
Because I envied the revelers;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:1-3)
The psalmist goes on to describe how fat and healthy the wicked are, despite the fact that they oppress people and speak with malice. They seem to be getting away with a selfish and cruel way of life.
They avoid the toil of other men,
And lo yenuga-u with [the rest of] humankind. …
Hey! These are the wicked, yet they are always complacent.
They pile up wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart morally pure
And washed my palms with innocence!
For I was nagua every day,
And I was chastised every morning. (Psalm 73:5, 12-14)
lo yenuga-u (לֺא יְנֻגָּעוּ) = they are not afflicted, hurt. (lo = not + a form of the verb naga, נָגַע = touch, afflict, hurt, strike.)
nagua (נָגוּעַ) = touched, afflicted, hurt. (Another form of the verb naga.)
We do not learn what the speaker’s affliction was, but elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible the “touch” of God often causes a disease or plague.6
While Job is sitting on the ash-heap scratching his putrid sores he says:
“Be kind! Be kind! You are my friends!
For the hand of God nagah me.” (Job 19:21)
nagah (נָגְעָה) = touched, afflicted. (Another form of the verb naga.)
Like Job, the speaker in Psalm 73 is innocent of wrongdoing, but nevertheless afflicted. The speaker considers telling the world that the wicked are rewarded and the good are punished, but then realizes:
If I said: “I will recount [this] exactly”
Hey, I would be backstabbing your children’s generation!
And when I evaluated and understood this,
It was trouble in my sight. (Psalm 73:15-16)
Unlike the wicked, the speaker cares about the welfare of the next generation, and feels responsible for promoting good behavior so that people will not harm each other.
The speaker’s second insight is that although the wicked think their path is smooth, it is actually slippery, and sooner or later they will fall.
Surely you set them [the wicked] on slippery footing,
You cast them down into destruction.
How they become a horror in an instant!
They reach the limit, they come to an end in terror.
Like awakening from a dream, my Lord,
The city finds their shadow contemptible. (Psalm 73:18-20)
Suddenly their wickedness will be revealed to everyone, and people will turn against them. Then their complacency will change into terror.
The psalmist does not tell us the nature of their terror. Are the wicked afraid that now “the city” will be as cruel to them as they were to others? Or do they recognize their own guilt?
The third insight is that mental agitation and pangs of conscience come from God.
When my mind was agitated
and my conscience was stabbed,
Then I was a dolt and I did not know;
I was [like] the beasts with you.
Yet I was always with you;
You held fast to my right hand. (Psalm 73:20-23)
Since God is always available, the wicked have to deliberately turn away from God and ignore their consciences in order to continue doing bad deeds. But the speaker did not pull away. The speaker’s affliction, as a “touch” from God, might even have led him or her to reflect deeply enough to feel the stab of conscience.
Through your counsel you guided me
And in the end, you will take me in honor. (Psalm 73:24)
Martin Buber explained, “God counsels by making known that He is present”.7
Unlike the wicked, the psalmist says, someone who follows God’s counsel will be honored after death. But Psalm 73 focuses on life in this world. And in this world the wicked travel so far from God that eventually nobody listens to them anymore.
Because hey! Those far away from [God] go astray;
Everyone who is unfaithful to [God] is silenced.
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good.
I place my refuge in my lord God, and I recount all of your works. (Psalm 73:27-28)
Doing the right things leads to an inner satisfaction, the good experience of feeling the nearness of God. This inner reward is a refuge when outer circumstances are difficult.
“The nearness of God is my good” is the best answer I know to the problem of evil. But it is incomplete. A thoughtful adult might well conclude that virtue is its own reward, and physical suffering is unimportant compared to the reward of a contented conscience. But what about the millions of innocent children who have suffered, physically and psychologically, and then died without growing up?
Must we believe that this is nevertheless the best of all possible worlds? Or that children who have been tortured will get a good “life” in a non-physical afterlife? Or that all the children destroyed by the Holocaust are unimportant compared to some ideal distant future? Or that a superior, divine point of view considers our outrage and empathy for these children foolish?
Even though doing the right thing is intrinsically rewarding, it is only a partial solution to the problem of evil in a world created by a God who is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and just judge.
We might ask whether this notion of God is a naïve concept.
- Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz presented this argument in Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, 1710, and was satirized by Voltaire in Candide, 1759, in which Dr. Pangloss chirps that this is “the best of all possible worlds” at inopportune times.
- This is Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel’s answer to the problem of evil in his 15th-century commentary on Leviticus, as well as a common answer in Christian and Muslim traditions.
- Cf. Isaiah 46:10-13; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamozov.
- Cf. the book of Job.
- My translation is informed by 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch on the psalm’s use of the word bar (ּבַּר) instead of tahor (טָהוֹר) for “pure”. “A man may be לב טהוֹר by nature and disposition. However, the designation לב בר can be applied only to him whose purity of mind is a result of his own efforts at self-improvement.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 597)
- Eg. Genesis 12:17, 2 Kings 15:5, Isaiah 53:4, Job 2:5, 2 Chronicles 26:20.
- Martin Buber, Good and Evil, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1952, p. 43.