Taking a break from the series on Postmodernism (the whole class got an extension on the book report, so I’ll come back to it later, heh) something came up in class today that made me ponder justice and the question of good and evil.
My last Hermeneutics paper was on the use of the word “judgment” in the Bible, particularly OT. Most of its uses are in the Prophets, used of God toward Israel/Judah, and in the sense of his doling out “justice” – i.e. vengeance – for their misdeeds in the form of foreign invasion and death. This has always struck me as being backwards; revenge, in my opinion, is inherently evil. Justice, in my opinion, is restorative and reconciliatory, but when God restores justice he does so with the sword. Not that the use of the sword is never reconciliatory, even; the real problem is the description of it with terms like “punishment” and “vengeance”. Justice, in my mind, involves discipline (punishment with the purpose of restoration): punishment itself is no different than revenge, hurting someone else because they’ve hurt you (or a third party).
The flipside of it is that the oracles of judgment in the prophets are always followed by oracles of restoration and reconciliation. So even though God “punishes” Israel/Judah, and the word “punish” lacks the connotation of restoration or discipline (even in Hebrew), God does it with that aim in mind; he both punishes and disciplines, with both of these falling under the term of his “judgment” – and “judgment” (sapat for the Hebrew scholars) is concerned with upholding or restoring justice in the community.Today in class we were examining Jonah (for a different reason) and something that kept coming up was that justice held different meanings for God and Jonah, depending on what they saw as evil (ra’ah). God is slow to anger and will have mercy on whom he has mercy (Jonah himself notes this, quoting Exodus), and because of Nineveh’s repentance he turns back from the evil (ra’ah , but NIV translates as “disaster”) that he was going to do to the Ninevites. Yes, God is capable of doing evil – and in Jonah’s opinion, that would have been just. But God prefers to show mercy, seeing his own punishment of Nineveh as evil. To Jonah, God’s show of mercy is “evil, a great evil!” (again ra’ah, but NIV just says he was greatly displeased). Assyrians were the enemy of his people, and were known for their brutality and…being evil, basically, so to him the only just thing to do would be to return evil for evil. In the end, of course, we see that it is God’s notion of justice and evil that is important, and I for one am very thankful that it includes mercy.
But how can justice include mercy? As we tend to see it, justice and mercy are polar opposites: not carrying out justice (in the form of punishment) is the very definition of mercy, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. If we see justice in terms of establishing and upholding order and fairness in the community, and bringing restoration and reconciliation, then God’s mercy is inherently just, because it carries with it the notion (or requirement) of repentance. But if we see justice (as our “justice system” does) as punishing someone for doing wrong, then justice and mercy are mutually exclusive.
Now, since I believe that God is both merciful and just, it would seem that my definition of justice should be one that reflects the restoration and reconciliation model – the one that describes discipline as opposed to punishment. Unfortunately, I still have to reckon for the fact that God punishes and takes vengeance, even if he ultimately restores his people. So, either there’s a problem with our understanding for the Hebrew words we translate as “punish” and “vengeance”, and in fact they mean “discipline” and are restorative in nature, or else our notion of justice and mercy is more complex than I can fathom. My only attempt at reconciling it is to think that the use of the much harsher terms in the prophets must be some type of hyperbole (as hyperbole, or exaggeration for effect, is very very common in those writings): that is, that God says “punish” when he means “discipline”, and says “vengeance” when he means “very harsh instruction”.
But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
(Sorry for the italics – I hit the button by accident, and it won’t turn off!)