Be VERY Careful Before You Ask God To Be Fair

The first reading for today’s (Feb 3) Mass describes how David decided to conduct a Census (likely in order to draft men for the army). The text speaks of this as a sin and though David regrets what he has done yet still God exacts a punishment. But the punishment afflicts not David per se but over 70,000 who died from pestilence at the hand of God. It is another of those difficult texts in the scripture where we struggle to understand how God is not acting “unjustly.” Why would God punish people who had not committed the actual sin in question? So let’s roll up our sleeves  and wrestle with this text. It is similar to what we discussed when we considered the “ban” (Did God Command Genocide?) . As with many things Biblical there are often many different theories and explanations. We only have time to explore a few.

First the Story:

King David said to Joab and the leaders of the army who were with him, “Tour all the tribes in Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba and register the people, that I may know their number.” Joab then reported to the king the number of people registered: in Israel, eight hundred thousand men fit for military service; in Judah, five hundred thousand. Afterward, however, David regretted having numbered the people, and said to the LORD: “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. But now, LORD, forgive the guilt of your servant, for I have been very foolish.”…Gad [the Prophet] then went to David to inform him  [of the Lord’s punishment]. He asked:  “Do you want a three years’ famine to come upon your land, or to flee from your enemy three months while he pursues you, or to have a three days’ pestilence in your land? … David answered Gad: “I am in very serious difficulty. Let us fall by the hand of God, for he is most merciful; but let me not fall by the hand of man.” Thus David chose the pestilence….and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba died. But when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD regretted the calamity and said to the angel causing the destruction among the people, Enough now! …[And David} said to the LORD: “It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred.” (2 Sam 24:2-17)

And now some of the concerns, questions and some possible answers.

What was wrong with conducting a census? There are three possible answers to this question.

  1. David sinned by pride in numbering the men in his kingdom. The purpose for this was to raise an army. But God had given David no order to or reason to go to battle. It is rather David’s pride and ambition that he musters for battle.
  2. David violates the Deuteronomistic Code which forbade Kings to build military power for its own sake. The code referred to this as “multiplying horses” which is a euphemism for building a large army. Here is the pertinent passage from Deuteronomy: The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut 17:16-17). Hence the powers of a king must be limited but David has transgressed this planning to draft a large army without battle imminent. In so doing he abuses his power but taking large numbers of men from their families and from their farms and occupations.
  3. David sins by not trusting God. The need for a large army is rooted in a lack of trust that God can help him win either with a smaller army or can help him muster troops when the need arises. David’s planning for the future amounts to a failure to have faith in God.

Why did God punish the people who did no wrong? It hardly seems fair that 70,000 people should die for the sin of David alone. David has repented of what he did. It is true sometimes even after repentance we sometimes need to experience punishment, but is the punishment so severe and why is it directed at the people? And here is our central question: Is God being unfair? There are at least two explanations or answers.

  1. The People were not innocent. At the time of Samuel the people clamored for a king. Samuel told them that this was a sinful desire on their part for God was their King. Still they persisted in their demands and here is where we pick up the story:  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD.  And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”  Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots… He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. (1 Sam 8:6-19). Hence the people are not innocent in this. They had been warned. Among the warnings was a very specific warning that the King would abuse his power to raise an army. Now David had planned exactly this. It is right that they should share in the punishment for they had forsaken God as their ruler and now they would have to suffer under the bad decisions of the earthly ruler they preferred.
  2. This is a moral tale that the innocent frequently suffer as a consequence of our sins – One thing that cannot be avoided is that the innocent frequently suffer from the decisions that others have made. For example, parents may squander their money, or drink too much, or behave badly. The children suffer though they did not do it. A bad pastor can bring down a whole parish, A bad general can get troops killed. Unfortunately our lives are interconnected and we cannot escape the fact that others often suffer for our bad choices. This is a sobering fact that should help us amend our ways. But, sadly, we are often insensitive to how our sins hurt others. David’s sin has hurt others and this is an important moral tale for us to heed for we too hurt others by our sins.

But # 2 still leaves unaddressed the fact that what is depicted in this story that God carries out  is not merely the natural consequence of the bad choice of a leader. Rather it is God himself who personallycarries this out through his angels. What this likely reflects is a biblical focus on primary causality. God is the first cause of everything that happens. In modern times we tend to focus more on secondary causality. If I take a walk tonight the primary cause of the walk is not me, it is God. I am the secondary cause of my walk for I who move must first be moved by God. The biblical world was accustomed to see things in terms of primary causality. There is an old saying, “What God permits, he commits.” We are unaccustomed to see things this way and focus on ourselves and what we do as somewhat independent of God. It is a symptom of our anthropocentric age. We like to say when we observe bad things, “God did not do that, Hitler (or some other bad person) did that.” But honestly, everything that happens God “does” for he sustains all things and is the first mover of everything that moves. This sovereigntyof God interacts mysteriously with our freedom. Clearly the notion of primary causality (God) and how it interacts with secondary causality (Us) requires some sophistication (which we often lack today). God is sovereign and the cause of all but we are free and responsible. Hence God is the primary cause of this plague but David is repsonsible. And WE are responsible for what we do. And we must sober up to the fact that our bone-headed decisions can lead to great pain for others.

A Call to humility – In the end humility is called for when texts like these arise. From our perspective the cry too easily goes up: “That’s not fair!” But be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair we’d all be in Hell right now. As it is, God is merciful and none of us have ever gotten the punishment  we deserved. God punishes David and his people. Perhaps they deserved it, perhaps it is just a consequence of bad choice of a leader. But in the end God summons his mercy and ends the pestilence. In the end it is only his grace and mercy that will ever see us through. We ought to have enough humility to banish notions of fairness in our relations with God. Mercy is the only way we stand a chance. Kyrie Eleison!

This song says, “Lord I’ve sinned but You’re still calling my name.”

69 Replies to “Be VERY Careful Before You Ask God To Be Fair”

  1. Question (or two or three) —

    The New Testament was written as part of the New Covenant, AFTER the Holy Spirit had descended on the people as prophesied in the OT and as promised by Jesus. Among the graces of that same Holy Spirit were the gifts of knowledge and understanding — things that the Apostles had previously forgotten or misunderstood were, after they were filled with the Holy Spirit, remembered in great detail and understood clearly.

    Can the same thing be said of the Old Testament and it’s human authors?

    The OT was written PRIOR to the descent of the Holy Spirit. Thus, while we profess as a matter of faith that it too is true (for the purposes intended by the author), can we say that the human writers had the same degree of understanding as the NT writers? Certainly they did not have the same degree of understanding in things like the Trinity, which although shrouded from the perspective of before Christ is descernable to a certain extent in the OT with the benefit of hindsight. So, can we say that OT descriptions of God and His actions are as precise as those in the NT? Can we properly read the OT in the same manner that we might read the NT, or would that be misleading?

    The people of the OT, including presumably the writers thereof, even though inspired to write it, not knowing Christ, clearly could not have written from the perspective of Christ or, probably, from the NT understanding of God. Rather, might we say that they wrote from the perspective, so to speak, of little children trying to understand a parent and, because they are little children, mistakenly thinking that they are always being yelled at or “punished”? However, when you look at that same interaction from the parent’s perspective, they are gently showing love?

    Is the OT written from God’s perspective? Or is it written from the perspective of fallible human beings?

    We see this divergence in perspective, for example, in the idea of hell. One perspective is that, in punishment of our sins, God sends us to hell, that He picks up and, in anger, tosses us into the fiery pit. And certainly some of the language of the OT would support that understanding (as well as the Koran). But the better NT understanding is that God does not send us to hell, rather, we send ourselves. It is not God who punishes us for our sins so much as we punish ourselves, that such “punishment” is merely the natural consequence of that sin (although He might chastise us to nudge us in the right direction). If we touch a hot stove after being told not to, the burn we get is not a punishment from God, it is the natural consequence of doing what we should not have done — touch a hot stove. And yet, some of OT scripture describes such bad things happening to people as “God’s punishment.”

    Thus, could we say that OT descriptions of God, coming from such a childlike perspective by a primitive people, rather than from the Spirit-filled perspective of the NT, has the same degree of understanding of who and what God really is? And if there is a lesser-degree of understanding by those ancient authors, even though inerrent for its ultimate purpose (which I suppose would be Salvation History), can we simply take the text at face value? And can we especially take the descriptions of God at face value 3000 years after they have been written? Can we give an A.D. 21st century reading to something written by 10th century B.C. people for 10th century B.C. people, or do we mislead ourselves by reading the text as if it had been written last week?

    I suppose this gets back to the discussion about the Amalekite wars and the ban/herem and whether God really said, as a historical factual matter, what it says He said, or if He meant what it says He said, or whether something was lost in translation (certainly the accounts are factually incomplete — we don’t know the whole story, only a portion), or if God inspired the author to put a theological/allegorical spin on top of historical events or if we should read it in the same manner as we read the story of Jonah or Job?

    For the NT, written after the coming of the Holy Spirit, I should think that we should expect a high degree of precision and clear understanding from those authors. But can we same the same of the OT authors, who, although inspired by God, wrote their texts prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit? Can we say that especially in those areas where the OT God very definitely appears to be inconsistent with the NT God (given that there is only One God)?

    1. A lot here Bender! I suppose some distinctions and reaffirmations are in order first. CCC # 123 says that Christians vnerate the Old Testament as the true Word of God. Surely too we rejected Marcionism which held the the NT rendered the OT void. CCC #s 105-107 affirm and insist the inspiration of all the books. I am sure you know this but I think its important to state it clearly from the onset. So I am not sure we can say that the H.S. hyperinspired the NT and only to a lesser degree the OT. I am unaware of any gradation in the application of inspiration.

      THat said, your notion that God led us through in stages is not without merit. The OT is clearly seen in the light of the NT (ccc129). Certain OT practices are abrogated by the NT (e.g. Kosher), others are fulfilled (eg passover to Mass). It seems that some sophistication is required in managing all this. For example it would seem that the NT had ought to very explicitly abrogate before we assume it to be so. SOme people use vague notions like “God’s love”to insist that OT norms against homosexual activity are now apporved. Sorry, the NT nowhere explicitly abrogates HS activity as sinful and in fact reiterates it’s sinfulness.

      But it does seem clear that God has led us in stages. SOme of those stages are evident even in the OT. For example polygamy faded away as a practice, the Ban was spiritualized, punishments were less severe. Concepts of social justice were refined by the prophets. And then the NT moves this along further not only via development but also by grace. Now we can love our enemy, forgiveness is more to be expected, God is experienced as Abba, and we are slowly transformed. Concepts of heaven and the afterlife are extended, broadened and refined.

      Hence we do not look back in a mechanistic way on the texts of the OT but in the over all light of where God has led us. CCC 130 speaks of a dynamic movement toward fulfillment of God’s plan evident in scripture and this is how I see your remarks. While I would affirm a quantum leap in the NT it remains true that the dynamic movement spoken of also takes place in the pages of the OT. All the dynamic movement of course under the Holy SPirit.

      Any way thats a first attempt at reflecting on your comment. It’s late and perhaps we can exchange more tomorrow

  2. A lot here Bender!

    I suppose I could have limited myself to a simple question — should we read the OT in the same manner as the NT or should we read the OT more flexibly (even more so than necessary in order to read it in light of the NT)? — but I was really just kind of thinking out loud.

    1. I think I would personally say that the most important thing when reading the Old Testament is to read it in light of the New. So much stuff makes so much more sense through the person of Jesus Christ. Many curious dealings God has with His people in the Old Testament come into focus when we look back at them through the events of the New Testament, which was, after all, what God had been doing the whole time – preparing them for the Messiah.

  3. This post is a wonderful example of the episcopal duty of teaching and the necessity for it. Without the Bishops, we would be lost in understanding God’s Word.

  4. Some Old Testament text were basically explaining how God acted in time and plcae towrds the people he called to be his own. In this case, the story is mainly about David the chosen king and the people under his leadership, Israel. As we know now, the story is building up to explain the split od the nation. Terrible, tragic, really sad back then and still now -“Father that they may be one as you and I are one.” Is it God’s [unishment that we Christians are not one? Or is it still the people stgruggling to learn God’s will and overcome sin with grace? So we continually turn to the Old Testament in search of grace and understanding of God’s ways. In tis case, David, the favorite, good friend of God, reciepient of a covenant that promised the Messiah! still capable of big boo- boos. So I agree with Monsgnor that we all are in need of grace, and to continually invoke the practice of humility because there are consecuences to our actions. And Bender, I agree that it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the deepest understanding and acceptance of God’s will for us and for others.

    The trouble comes when we judge this punishment as unfair becasuse we still have human standards, even with the grace of God -human! God decides for his Son to be born of a Virgin, if He had told me I’d said something like “are you sure it is a good idea?” and of course now we know it was. So David asks for a census -looked like a good idea, but it isn’t because it goes contrary to god’s plan and by the way and here comes a spin, what if the pestilence was already in progress and the census work made it worse? Who can really tell? What was God calling David to do while he was distracted with a census?

    It is hard to answer the question “Why did God punish the people that did not wrong?” The punishment of death is still operant and is meant to turn our hearts towards God. The available blessing is that we can live our minutes and our seconds in the presence of God, with hope and joy, if we accept Jesus as our Saviour! Good News after all!

  5. Msgr. Pope: A fine post, especially as to point no. 2 (“the innocent frequently suffer as a consequence of our sins”). As a parent, I am too aware of this.

    Bender: Like Msgr., I agree in a general way that we are led in stages and that our comprehension of God is informed by the past two-thousand years of salvation history. I would hesitate to question the precision and/or understanding of the Old Testament writers. That attitude implies a certain “chronological snobbery” (à la C.S. Lewis) toward them I do not feel is justified.

    (As a historical footnote, I am reminded of the nineteenth century writers who thought they could improve on the Gospels themselves by virtue of their superior understanding of Truth or whatever. They seemed to have an evolutionary conception of revelation – their gospels would be an improvement on the New Testament writings as those writings were an improvement on the Hebrew Scritpures. “Vanity of vanities …)

  6. I meant to mention that what really caught my attention about the reading yesterday was that David was given a choice of penances. Why did the Church stop doing that? Might bring more folks back to confession… I’m just sayin’.

  7. I lean more towards “the people were not innocent”. In our own times, how often do we see leaders taking pride in being “the world’s only superpower” or in the obvious importance of America to the world economy without having that pride in worldly goods trickle down to the people (as indeed, this being a democracy, it trickles up)? So I suspect that David wasn’t the only one putting too much faith in “the chariots and horsemen of Israel”. This is something that happens in all times and places. Besides, the people often suffer for the sins of their leaders — and dismissing most of that suffering as “just nature taking its course” does little to remove the problem. Even in this case, many of the plague victims were no doubt small children.

    Would it make a difference to you if David had not seen the angel — surely most had not seen it? Or if the prophet had never explained the reason for the plague? Then the plague would seem to have been merely random, the way the earthquake in Haiti seems to have been merely random. In this case, we get a peek behind the scenes and see that, yes, sin has consequences, not just for us but for those we love; that it is better to trust in the mercy of God even in the face of suffering; that sacrifice should come at a cost; and that God is indeed in control. This passage is also tied up intimately with the sacrifice of Isaac, the building of the Temple, and the crucifixion of Christ.

    Some commentaries I’ve read think that the book of Job might be the oldest book in the Bible, even older than the books of Moses. That certainly seems fitting, because the problem of evil is a real problem that we all confront. The solution of Job’s wife was curse God, and that was obviously wrong; his friends wanted to speculate about God, and that was worse than useless; Job wanted to speak WITH God, and although he was put in his place, he was justified in his desire. Job’s suffering was real; although he regained his health and wealth and had other sons and daughters, his earlier children were still dead. Job eventually accepted that he would not know the reason for everything God does, even for those things most directly affecting him personally. Most of us find it hard to have so much faith.

  8. I think I would personally say that the most important thing when reading the Old Testament is to read it in light of the New.

    That much is a given.

    But reading the OT in light of the NT, the most reasonable interpretation of passages such as this is that, being a God of Love and Truth, God did not say what the OT text says He said and did not do what the OT text says He did. Hence the dilemma.

    We read the NT rather straightforward, especially the Gospels. Jesus did and said exactly what the text says He did and said. But is the OT meant to be read with the same level of straightforwardness, God said what He meant and meant what He said — are we to read it as Protestant Fundamentalists would — or is there a higher degree of allegory and metaphor that we must read into these problematic OT passages than what we would read into the NT?

    Rather than try to fit a round-peg OT God into a square NT hole, are we simply reading the OT text mistakenly?

    And in so doing, by focusing so much on the minutiae, are we missing the bigger picture? Is the real lesson here, is the real purpose for its inclusion in scripture to teach us that individual sins have social consequences? That sin does not only harm us, it harms everyone in its effects?

    I gotta tell you, I am having a difficult time squaring the NT God of Love and Truth with the OT God of Vengence and Retaliation and Arbitrary Command. The latter is what a straightforward reading of the OT suggests (hence it is such a valuable arrow in the quiver of enemy atheists). That being so, since the problem isn’t with God, perhaps the problem is with a straightforward reading of the OT.

    1. By the way, it is difficult to make a hard distinction between the OT = God of vengeance and anger and the NT God=Love and truth. There are many tender passages in the OT and some very frightening passes in the NT. It is not easy to distinguish OT and NT along these lines in an air-tight sort of way. I think I am going to resurrect an article I wrote on the “wrath of God” sometime back and rework it for our purposes here.

  9. And, like I said in the prior discussion, I am not so ready to retreat into the “God is a mystery” avoidance of the issue. Nor am I prepared to accept the “don’t apply human reason to God” argument. Reason is reason. Truth is truth. Reason and truth are not relative, there is only one. And being made in the image of the Logos, we are necessarily invited to share in that reason, to seek understanding so as to be able to, among other things, reconcile these inconsistent views of God.

    God is NOT a God of Vengence and Retaliation and Arbitrary Command, notwithstanding OT passages that can be read that way. He is a God of Love and Truth.

    God gave us Revelation precisely so that we could better know who and what He is, not to leave us scratching our heads and simply accept Him blindly and arbitrarily without understanding. To not seek understanding, to simply throw up our hands and blindly accept a vision of God that is contrary to Love and Truth, is contrary to the purpose of revelation and contrary to God making us creatures in search of reason and understanding. To try to say that vengence and retaliation are part of Love and Truth, or to say that killing is part of life, is contrary to Reason. There is only One God, there is only One Truth regarding that One God. He cannot be both Love and Not-Love.

    1. I think you are right Bender in your basic assertions. Pope Benedict made the same basic point at Regensburg. God is ove and truth to be sure. I think though that the questions remain as to how to define things like vengeance and retaliation. If I uproot hedges to plant roses am I angry, vengeful, arbitrary? The hedges may think so. But I am serene, careful and thoughtful in what I do. If my cat needs to be punished as negative reinforcement, am I angry (maybe), is my anger unrighteous? I am arbitrary and vengeful? Maybe my Cat thinks so but I am not this. So, it is true that reason and truth are operative in God but our capacity to grasp the full dimension of God’s motives and reasons is limited at best. Hence, I thnk we can say that God is not unreasonable but his actions sometimes test the limits of our reason. For my primary witness to this is the three-oneness of God. How God is one and God is three tests the limits of our reason and our mind.

  10. Bender – don’t make the mistake Adam and Eve made, that is, trying to ‘will’ your way into knowledge that maybe you are not ready to have. Grasping at the apple instead of waiting for God to offer it to you. We will have understanding when God wants us to, and not a minute before. Until then, all some of us can do is retreat into the “God is mystery” mode.

    And you really can’t say that God is not a God of vengeance and retaliation and arbitrary command – when it’s pretty clear that He is. Look at it this way – maybe He’s just practicing ‘tough love.’ What He did in OT times was done for love of mankind, not revenge.

    Go ahead – have at it.

  11. Not only does the question of defining vengeance and retaliation remain, but so does the question of defining love and Truth. Bender, you seem to have a strong a priori notion of what love and Truth are and when God, as revealed in Scripture, does not conform to that notion then we must seek to explain the discprepancy through reason. That is true to an extent, but only a limited extent. Our reason is fallible. As Msgr. notes, not all discrepancies are really so. And given a choice of understanding or mercy, reason counsels me to choose mercy. Understanding will not save my soul.

    Moreover, I bear in mind that neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers appeared to have a problem with God as depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Consider Romans 9: “‘I loved Jacob but hated Esau.’ What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not! For he says to Moses: ‘I will show mercy to whom I will, I will take pity on whom I will.’ *** But who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God?”

  12. If I uproot hedges to plant roses am I angry, vengeful, arbitrary? The hedges may think so. But I am serene, careful and thoughtful in what I do.

    That’s my point. Are we reading these passages from the perspective of the hedges? I think so.

  13. The title of this post reminds me of one of my mother’s favorite jokes. I’m probably wicked for posting it, but here goes:

    A man with one normal hand and one malformed hand was frustrated with his disability. One day he went to church and fervently prayed “Lord, please make my hand like the other one.”

    The man left church with TWO malformed hands.

    One should take care not only for what one asks, but HOW one asks…

  14. Please allow me to get 2 cents in. I promise not to go for the dollar. I am just concerned about making the aesthetic, that is metaphor and figurative thought, the basis for interpretation of the bible; both old and new testament. The danger is ‘excessive’ reliance on imaginative thought, over direct understanding, either of our own motivations as well as thought of others, let alone an understanding of the fact that God does indeed ‘move in mysterious ways’. 50 cents worth here. Also, thanks Msgr. Pope for pointing out the history, which does indeed implicate the motivations of the people, as well as David. I too had trouble with this text. (Also with Jepthath, (sorry don’t know spelling) having to sacrifice his daughter who met him with tambourine on his return from winning the war. (Judges?) Ah! to even be able to fathom the interior motivation of ourselves, let alone others, and God. (Without recourse to imaginative speculation!). Think I’ve done my $l.00!!!

    1. I should have added faith. Fides et ratio! Is that right? For that which is ‘beyond understanding’. About your superb text Msgr. Pope, perhaps the Truth would encompass all of these reasons, (justifications), and more. Love to you all. It is a big help to me to be able to sign into this Blog and read what you all have to say.

  15. I was moved to tears by this article so eloquently written, thank you for such inspiring and sound doctrine. You help to increase my Love for Jesus each day. I feel blessed to know you through your blog. I live in London in UK and we could do with you here. Do you have the gift of bilocation by any chance?!
    I value and am grateful to the Good Lord for your worldwide ministry.

  16. Who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God?

    I’m not talking back to God. I’m talking back to those human beings who would assert notions of God that are OBJECTIVELY contrary to reason, and who would argue that, in doing so, I am promoting purely subjective notions of reason.

    Are these the responses that one would offer to a non-believer? Peter instructed us to be prepared to give a reason for our hope in the Lord. The implied assertion by some that we should simply take a “because God said so, that’s why” attitude hardly accomplishes that.

    As for my supposed subjective reasoning, I submit that the problem is the subjective reading of scripture by some that is the problem. I am not imposing human concepts of reason on God, others are imposing faulty human concepts on their reading of what God is actually trying to reveal to us.

    1. I suppose it is possible for us to talk back to God but I’d like to think what we are doing is asking real, not rhetorical questions here. Real questions are those that humbly seek an answer. Rhetorical questions brashly contain the answer. I’ like to think that we are all humble seekers here.

  17. We will have understanding when God wants us to, and not a minute before.

    And if God means for us to seek for it now? We can’t know when He wants us to have such understanding unless we at least make the attempt to understand.

    knowledge that maybe you are not ready to have

    When Mary asked “how can this be?” The angel did not respond with “mind your own business.” Rather, he explained it to Mary.

    In asking, Mary was not being arrogant and proud, like Adam and Eve, trying to will her way into knowledge. Neither was she being like Zechariah, asking in doubt of it being possible. Rather, she was engaged in faith seeking understanding. It is right and proper that we should be like our Blessed Mother in this regard.

    Not ready to have this knowledge? Then why did God inspire the human author to include this episode in the scriptures? Obviously He wanted to reveal something to us, He wanted us to obtain some knowledge from it. And even if it weren’t the case when it was written, it has been over 3000 years since then (more or less).

    To take a “we can’t understand” approach, or to take a Fundamentalist approach to scripture, is to invite folks like Pat Robertson to conclude that the Haitian earthquake was purposely and directly caused by God (rather than allowed to happen) — after all, such a conclusion is consistent with such an interpretation of the OT.

    1. Yes, I too am a seeker and think that God expects us to wrestle with these sorts of things. It may be HIS will that we live the question for a while but I think he also intends that we seek and answer and wrestle.

    2. Obviously, Bender, if God wants you to have knowledge now, He’ll give it to you. But if He doesn’t, then you’ll just have to wait, like the rest of us. Just because you seek, just because you ask, doesn’t mean you’ll have your way.

      Your Marian/Angel argument is irrelevant and you know it, unless you want to compare apples and oranges. Having an Angel explain something – especially when the outcome was to be determined by Mary herself using her free will to assent – and demanding that God give you answers just because you ask are two different things.

      Your argument regarding why God inspired the human author to include that episode is also flawed – just because the scriptures have been written and read doesn’t mean we have perfect understanding of them.

      1. demanding that God give you answers

        Again, I’m not demanding that God give me answers. I’m saying that the answers posited by some folks is unsatisfactory and wholly unconvincing.

  18. A question in my mind is, what would have happened had David not counted the people. Any thoughts on that?

  19. What an incredible post and set of responses. Clearly, God remains at work in His Body, the Church. To the extent we can so employ that image with which he gifted us, do it with the persistent goal of pursuit of Him who pursued us first, and do so with humility, then I remain optimistic that we will continue to grow in human virtues as we pursue that which IS God… charity, and the pursuit of the complete restoration of our likeness lost in that Garden so long ago…

    Thank you all for your contributions. May there be many more such great discussions.

  20. Couldn’t this be an instance where the natural consequences of actions in a fallen world are being confused with supernatural intervention by God?

    In the ancient, medieval, and even well into the modern era, large concentrations of troops often led to outbreaks of disease. The passage here is not clear on exactly how the census was conducted, but if large groups were brought together for it, the outbreak of some type of pestilence would have been very likely.

    Under those circumstances, the warning against creating a large gathering of troops when they are not needed goes beyond cautioning the King against overweening pride — it is a pratical admonition meant to prevent the unnecessary loss of a large number of his troops. The actual divine intervention here may have been the sudden disappearance of the plague, not its initial appearance.

    The writers of the Old Testament wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but they still wrote as people of their time. They did not understand how disease spread, so when they did something God warned them about, and disaster struck, they would ascribe it to God’s punishment, instead of the natural consequences in a fallen world of disregarding God’s warning.

    I wonder if the Old Testament writers sometimes interpreted what they saw as God saying, “Don’t do this because I will become angry, and I will make terrible things happen to you,” when God was actually saying “Don’t do this because I love you, and I do not want to see bad things happen to you.”

    1. There is much to recommend your theory but I must say it also reflect our times where we seem so unwilling to even conisder that God would sternly punish. This is one of the issues of our time that influence our thinking much as you assert the same of the ancient world. You are not necessarily incorrect but I think we ought to check our own presuppositions too.

      1. I think I question the need for God initiated punishment for sin (in this world) that goes beyond the natural consequences of our sins.

        Through Scripture and the Church, God has instructed us that we should do certain things, and should not do other things. I do not think those instructions were given to us so that God would have an efficient method for determining when we should be punished.

        I think He gave us those instructions so that we would lead good lives in this world and earn immortal life in the next. Individuals who ignore those instructions cause suffering for themselves and those around them. If enough people in a society ignore those instructions, the entire society suffers. The suffering that is caused is a natural consequence of our actions in a fallen world. God doesn’t need to add to the suffering he warned us would occur.

        Now if we are talking about passive punishment — the withholding of protection, wisdom, etc. — I can certainly understand that. If we reject God’s instructions then there is no reason for Him to assist us while we continue to refuse to listen to Him.

        1. Well I wonder. Consider a parent for a moment. Would a parent not punish but just let the child find out the hard way through consequences that something is wrong. It seems to me that the purpose of punishment is to help the punishee expereince in a samll and more controlled way the wrongness of something lest they experience in a far more dramatic way the wrongness of something. Fro example, a child is warned not to cross the street without adult supervision. They violate this and cross on their own. The parent discovers this and put the child in “time out” for two hours. Which is worse…the time out or getting hit by a car. I think God is this way. He does punish us for the purpose of saving us from worse evils. Is this not what Heb 12 says?

          1. How do we factor the concept of Free Will into this? God tells us what we should do, or should not do, but does not force us to follow his commands. He does not grab us as we go to cross the street and put us in time out for a couple of hours (think how many sins could have been avoided if people were forced to sit down and think for a few hours about what they were about to do).

            I think Heb 12 might be talking about the type of “passive punishment” I referred to in my earlier post. When we fail to follow Him, God allows us to fall, to undergo trials, to see the wisdom of his commands, so that we can grow stronger and return to the right path.

            I suppose that even sometimes when we do follow Him, God still allows us to undergo trials so that we can grow stronger in faith.

          2. I thought I was posting my 8:02 p.m. comment here, after Brian’s 6:04 comment, but apparently it ended up further up.

          3. I am not sure why the comments sometimes post out of sequence!

            This Internet thing has a mind of it’s own! If we’re not careful, the next thing is, having attained self-awareness, it will lead machines to rebel against mankind.

            Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! It did it again!! I’m telling you — it’s toying with us. (now let’s see where this ends up posting)

  21. The authors of many of the books of the OT have an anthropomorphic conception of God. They attribute human attitudes, character traits and actions to him: God gets angry, God regrets having done something, and so on. But God does not have such human features: God is always the same, his mood doesn’t change, he does not change his mind, and so on. These are primitive, childish ways of seeing God. The Jewish people at this stage of their theological development could not understand God otherwise than as a great king who punishes people when he is angry (just like a human king does). But we know, from the fulness of revelation in Jesus, that this is a primitive, anthropomorphic view of God.

    If we leave behind this anthropomorphic conception, we will understand that God does not, ever, punish people in this life for their sins. Pestilence, the Haitian earthquake, 9/11, being born blind, a collapsing tower: none of these are God’s punishment for sin. None. Ever. Consequently, it is a waste of time trying to figure out exactly what was the sin for which David was punished, or how the punishment came about, or how the punishment could be fair given that it struck down innocent children. It’s a waste of time because the pestilence was not a punishment. The OT author thought it was, but the fulness of revelation tells us it wasn’t.

    Msgr Pope’s “excuse” for the OT author doesn’t work, i.e. that he was thinking only in terms of “primary causes”. We speak of primary causes when a human being (the secondary cause) does something and we want to point out that God (the primary cause) is acting at the same time. But in the case of the pestilence, it is caused directly by God without any human action, and so the distinction between primary and secondary cause does not apply.

    1. I think I ought to accept your correction about the primary/secondary causation in reference to pestilence. I am however less prone to agree with you on the matter of Authors of the OT being primitive and childish. We ought to be careful in exuding a kind of superiority here. At times I am afraid we have allowed the Greek Categories to trump the biblical data. The Greek categories speak of God as an unmoved mover, as without passions etc. ut the Biblical data speaks of God as being passionate. He may not be passionate the way we are passionate but he is surely portrayed as such. Simply calling this primitive and childish does nto respect the fact that God chose to reveal himself to these ancient people and chose that their words about him should be inspired, canonical and normative. The same cannot be said for the Greeks and Greek thought or even philosophy in general. Further, to say that God “never” punishes us in this world is baseless. It is clear from both the Old and New Testaments that God does punish us (eg heb 12). So, I think you go too far in your asseritions. The New Testament can clarify things for us but it does not wholly cancel the Old Testament witness.

      1. “These are primitive, childish ways of seeing God. The Jewish people at this stage of their theological development could not understand God otherwise than as a great king who punishes people when he is angry (just like a human king does). But we know, from the fulness of revelation in Jesus, that this is a primitive, anthropomorphic view of God.”

        I think this is far too harsh an assessment. The Jewish people were the first to establish a relationship with the One True God. You can see over the course of the OT that they are seeking to understand this God and how He acts in the world.

        Beyond the issue of punishment for sin, you can see a gradual development in the OT of an understanding of issues like the extent of God’s power, life after death, and the relationship (or lack thereof) between virtue and material wealth. Criticizing the authors of the OT because they do not think like us, who have had the benefit of the NT and 2,000 years of teaching by the Church, is unfair.

        1. I agree Brian. It is true that our understanding of GOd has benefitted from thousands of years of expereince but to call the ancient insights primitive and especially “childish” is unfair.

  22. What an incredible post and set of responses. Clearly, God remains at work in His Body, the Church.

    I agree Bob. We might not hit 100 like last time, but with all the back and forth, we’re getting a good long look at things from every angle.

  23. I don’t deserve eternity in hell. Most people don’t. A just God would (and therefore God, the Good One) will punish in proportion to the crime, as Paul says “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” (2 Cor 5:10) This speaks of proportional punishment, not massive tyrannical overkill.

    Further, its funny how people reject Marcion out of hand because the Roman Catholic Church back in the 2nd century decided they should. Are we really still in shackles to Rome 400 years after the reformation?

    The Catholic writers say Marcion appeared 100 years after Christ and cut stuff out of Paul’s epistles. But the Marcionites themselves said Marcion was Paul and that the Catholics changed his name from Marcion to Paul (as concerns his letters) and then split him out as a second person Marcion and pushed him forward 100 years in time. Clement of Alexandria even knows of a non-Catholic tradition (see Miscellanies 7.17) that Marcion began preaching before Simon Magus heard Peter preach. You’ve been sold a bill of good, oh ye rejectors of Marcion.

    1. Rey, I am not sure that it is a good idea to declare what you deserve or don’t deserve. There is an old Latin saying that translated says, Nobody is a judge in his own case.” If you’re going to err better to err on the side of needing a LOT of mercy. Every sin we commit is a great affront to God, an infinite offense for we dismiss the clear mandate of the God who is infinitely holy, wise, loving and deserving of our obedience. That is why we can only declare that God is rich in mercy and have deep gratitude for his patience toward our bone-headedness. Further, I would not agree with you that Hell is massive tyranical overkill. I have commented more on that here:

      As for your Defense of Marcionism it seems rather exotic and really a matter that was settled an awfully long time ago. Orthodoxy is a defined thing although many in our culture hate this fact. But the Church has a right and obligation to to define her beliefs. You are surely free to found your own Church I would just rather belong to the one Jesus founded.

      1. Every sin is an infinite offence? Must be a weak god to be infinitely offended by everything. Get real man. You believe the doctrines of stupid men not of God. Jesus does say after all that God will destroy both body and soul in hell. How is that eternal torment exactly? Grow up and quit trying to be a two-bit philosopher. You just sound stupid.

        “As for your Defense of Marcionism it seems rather exotic and really a matter that was settled an awfully long time ago.” Yes, your kind killed them. I’m aware what those who are totally illogical do to people with any brains whatsoever.

        1. Well it’s pretty clear Rey that you and I will agree on very little. Sorry you have to stoop to name calling etc. As for me I am happy to be a fool for Chirst. Or as you say a “two-bit philosopher…..believer in the stupid doctrines of men….who just sounds stupid and is illogical.” Why do intelligent people like you even waste you time with me?

  24. I don’t deserve eternity in hell. Most people don’t.

    What do you conceive “hell” to be rey?

    Scripture often portrays what the effects of being in hell are like — everlasting torment, etc., but is that hell in and of itself?

    “Hell,” properly understood, as stated in the Catechism and elsewhere is, in its fundamental aspect, a separation from God (to the extent that one can be separated from He Who Is and still exist). God does not cause this separation, God does not throw the sinner into the pit. The individual sinner causes that separation, the individual sinner necessarily chooses hell, chooses to not spend eternity with God, by choosing to not be joined to Him in this life, i.e. by engaging in conduct and beliefs that are contrary to being one with the Love and Truth who is God, i.e. by sinning.

    God, being Love, does not force Himself upon anyone. He does not and will not force anyone to spend eternity with Him if they do not want to. That would not be love, that would be an act of violence.

    “A just God would (and therefore God, the Good One) will punish in proportion to the crime.” Well, He did. It’s called the Cross. He took that justice, which we rightly deserved, and took it upon Himself in proportion to the sins of the world (and even the sins of a single person). He did not simply ignore that sin as if it does not exist, He did not simply pretend like particular sins did not happen — that would be a lie, that would be contrary to truth. Rather, consistent with truth, but imbued with mercy, He takes that justice upon Himself — He pays the bill that we owe.

    And, again, we have a choice. In addition to choosing to accept or reject that Love that He offers but will not force upon us, we have a choice to accept God’s plan of justice — we can accept His payment of our bill or not. If we don’t accept it, if we reject His taking justice upon Himself on the Cross, that concept of justice still remains, it still must be satisfied. The truth of the reality of sin still remains. Even if forgiven, the window is still broken and somebody needs to pay for it to be fixed. If you don’t accept Jesus’ payment of that debt, then, in all justice, you are going to have to pay it yourself.

    The truth is — you have it backwards. We all “deserve” hell. We deserve it because we all too frequently indicate to God that we want nothing to do with Him. And in so indicating, we are necessarily choosing to be apart from Him, we are necessarily choosing hell. He has offered us a way of avoiding what we deserve for our infidelity, He has offered a way back home — we need only ask for it, we need only change our minds, reverse our course, apologize to God and tell Him that we want to be with Him after all (typically done in Confession), we need only do these tiny little things, but we must do it before it is too late.

    God isn’t going to stand around forever waiting for us to choose. There is a deadline — literally. The line for one’s definitive choice is death. You better choose before then. If you don’t choose God by then, yes, you will “deserve” hell because that is what you have chosen.

  25. I do not think those instructions were given to us so that God would have an efficient method for determining when we should be punished. I think He gave us those instructions so that we would lead good lives in this world and earn immortal life in the next. Individuals who ignore those instructions cause suffering for themselves and those around them.

    I think that there is merit in the concept that God did not give us the Commandments, etc. because He wanted to be the boss of us. Rather, the “Commandments” are warnings because He didn’t want us to get hurt.

    For example, mom and dad tell their child not to play in the street. They do so not because they want to control their child. They do so because they do not want him to be run over. If the child ignores them and goes ahead and plays in the street, when he does get hit by a car, it is not mom and dad retaliating against him for disobeying, it is the natural consequence of playing in the street. And mom and dad will ask him, “now do you see why we told you not to play in the street?”

    Now, there are times when mom and dad will put the kid in “time out,” or will (in days gone by) give him a smack upside the head to knock some sense in him, but often times the consequences of foolish behavior is it’s own punishment.

    The mere violation of the First Commandment, for example, hurts us a whole lot more than it “hurts” God. The “punishment” is part and parcel of the violation, of setting yourself over and against God.

    God says, “don’t have other gods beside me,” not because He is egotistical and can’t stand the competition. It is because if we foolishly follow other (false) gods, or try to make ourselves gods, we are only hurting ourselves and, because He loves us, He does not want to see us get hurt.

  26. Msgr Pope: you fasten on my use of the word “childish” to describe the conception of God in the historical books of the OT, but you say nothing of my use of “anthropomorphic”. And you claim that we’ve made too much out of the Greek notion of the unmoved mover, but what exactly is wrong about it? When the OT says that God becomes angry or regrets having done something, this implies that God changes and that there is a before and an after in God. But it’s pretty solidly established doctrine that God does not change and that there is no before and after in him. I assume you’re not denying that God does not change.

    The OT authors definitely do think God changes. They project onto God human traits that do not belong to him. And when they do so, they exhibit an immature, “childish”, view of God. He is seen like an irritable super-Daddy in the sky who whacks us when he is annoyed by what we do. (Not at all unlike the gods of Greek and Roman mythology who have well-known human traits; in fact Yahweh seems a lot like a Jewish Jupiter or Zeus.) We should not be wishy-washy about dismissing this conception of God, and calling it what it is. Thinkers such as Marx and Freud have ridiculed God as being merely a childish projection into the sky of a human father figure. And writers such as Dawkins claim the OT God is scandalously immoral when he condones wholesale slaughter or says he is a jealous God who visits the punishment for transgression unto the third and fourth generation. When later in the Bible the prophet Ezechiel teaches that God does not punish the sons for the sins of the fathers, he is thereby dismissing as wrong the view of God in the earlier parts of the OT.

    Though I disagree with some of what you say, ee should be grateful to you for raising these issues that the daily reading of the OT challenges us with. We gain from these discussions.

    1. Well you definitely aren’t wishy washy. ut I don’t think I am being so either. 🙂 What I object to in your view is the word childish that you continue to use. It is true that we all anthropomorphize God to some extent. This is not just a tendency of the ancient world. Today many people simply project thir own tendency to eschew punishment etc on to God and say he couldn’t possibly do soemthing like that etc. But in the scriptures it is God who speaks. We cannot simply ascribe human foibles to the text. There may be qualities of the age that are refelcted or qualities of the human author but its message is true. Things like punishment, wrath etc are reiterated by the New Testament. As for the Greek categories I do not say they are wrong but I do say that I think we have allowed them to trump scripture too often. Rather than subjecting the scriptures to Greek categories (which are uninspired per se) we ought to accept the fact that they are not absolute and that there is more to the picture than some unmoved mover whom we call God.

      That atheists in the past or the present consider our view of God untenable does not cause me to want to start casting overboard scripture etc. Should Dawkins change his views because I think his claim that all this order in creation happened by blind chance and without an intelligence to guide it? That is absurd to me. Should he thus change his POV? I’m sure he wouldn’t budge an inch for my objections. I don’t think naysayers should be a cause for us to overthrow centuries of tradition.

      That Ezekiel can utter a new policy on behalf of God does not mean the old policy wasn’t God. God can choose to deal with different generations differently.

      Mind you, I am not saying our understanding of God has not budged one inch. It HAS clearly developed and God has revealed things to later generations that previous ones did not know. But I just will not go as far as you and say that large sections of the OT are simply wrong or childish or merely anthrpomorphisms etc.

  27. He does not grab us as we go to cross the street and put us in time out for a couple of hours

    Well, He did put the Israelites into time out for about 40 years in the desert.

    I agree that most times He simply allows us to suffer the consequences of our own wrongful conduct, which consequences many attribute to God actively punishing, but there are times when, in His Providence, He will chastise. We still retain the free will to keep doing what we wanted to do, but He can “send a message” when He wants to that maybe we ought to think again about our chosen path.

    1. Bender, I am not sure if you are quoting me since I said something similar. But, for the record I said God DOES put us in time out. I think you and I agree perfectly on this point. Punishment is an important aspect of God’s love according to Heb 12. It is also possible you are quoting another comment that has slipped my mind

  28. Bender – Monsignor has graciously pointed out to me some things I should have thought of before I made a hasty response to your comments. So, I’m sorry for snapping.

    I want to tell everyone here that you have been a great teacher for me and that I value everything you say, and that people need to pay attention to what you say because “you know your stuff.” (remember that?)

    Your Cheerleader

  29. I am not sure why the comments sometimes post out of sequence!

    This Internet thing has a mind of it’s own! If we’re not careful, the next thing is, having attained self-awareness, it will lead machines to rebel against mankind.

  30. End game note from a two-bit ‘philosopher’, and a female to boot. (Already had a $l.00’s worth!). Just a reminder that the title of this Blog challenges our belief if we think that things should be/are ‘fair’. I know from experience that we live in a world where the ‘good’ can suffer, and the ‘wealthy and not so good’ can prosper. But that may be my ‘anthropomorphic’ judgment. I believe that God can ‘test’ us, and that we can learn through our trials and sufferings. In fact, a suffering can in the end be a blessing, because it can often give one, (in retrospect) an understanding that otherwise would not be acquired. I don’t believe I’m being anthropomorphically dollar conscious here because I have a choice on whether or not to attribute these experiences to God, or just chalk them up, as Nietzsche does, to my own developing understanding of things. God, as the unmoved mover, Aristotle’s conception of a prime mover, is rather an abstract concept. As Msgr. Pope says, there is no ‘inspiration’ in it because of this. As a first, or prime cause, it seems to be in direct opposition to the other theories posted here that tend towards, alternatively, an anthropomorphic perspective. For my own part, I have found that if I take the pleasure in congratulating myself for ‘overcoming the obstacles given to me in life’, I have learned by experience that in that decision, I can very well be leaving myself open for another ‘down turn’. There can be a thin line between arrogance and humility. Belief in God, if nothing else, provides for me, (what an atheist cannot have) an ‘objective’ point of reference for myself in which I can attempt to ‘see myself’ in a wider context. That the ‘other’ is God, and not another person, or even my conscious self, limited in my understanding, makes that ‘self-objectivity’ about myself more of a ‘real’ possibility. I have to admit that I don’t have absolute knowledge and that my reason is limited. This comment goes with what I understand to be a simplified conception of ‘logos’ as an absolute identity with ‘human’ reason as we know it, (i.e.nous). (If my understanding is correct here). Human reason has demonstrated to itself in recent philosophy it’s own limitations, which resolves into the self-referential paradox, that basically states that human knowledge (and specifically mathematics) to be complete must contain contradiction. That is why, I believe Kierkegaard places his knight of faith, as (after the example of Abraham) having the ability to hold these paradoxes in balance and to proceed with caution, ie., in Faith. (Just the thinking of the two-bit, philosopher, who takes her dollar’s worth!). (grin grin, I don’t have the smile thing!).

  31. My posting too was completely out of my control. So I too am curious. I wonder where this one will end up! Oh the power!!!!!! Who/what shall I attribute it to? Well, here goes….. (grin grin).

  32. This has been a very useful discussion about a very difficult question:How can we understand such difficult questions about God’s intevention in human history ? But I think that we can get much help in our effort if we look how the Church Fathers and the Church saw the OT and explained such cases.

  33. Well written, but i don´t know how to integrate your articles in my rss reader. Can someone help?

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