One major strand of the Hebrew Bible talks about evil and suffering in disquieting terms: as things perhaps willed directly by God, in God’s mysterious governance of human life. The prophets in the Bible raise questions about the nature of God’s governance of human life, and about the mystery of God’s dispensing of both good and evil to humanity.
The Influence of Job and Abraham
The question of God’s role in human happiness and misery raises the question of humanity’s proper response to a God who acts in such mysterious ways. And it raises the question of how that response shapes human beings in their overall life. The stories of Abraham and Job serve as puzzles and goads for the rest of the tradition in two distinct ways.
First of all, they disturb the faithful’s confidence that God’s plans for humanity are wholly intelligible and entirely in agreement with our own wishes and aims. They insist that believers recognize a terrible mysteriousness in God’s providential governance of the world. Second, they put to us the question of how such a recognition might be achieved by us short of the trials of Abraham or the terrible sufferings of Job. Is there a way to gain the wisdom of faith, to feel the fear of the Lord that these texts insist is the beginning of wisdom, without suffering the actual pain that these figures encounter?
Learn more about the fall of Adam and Eve.
The Prophetic Tradition
These are the questions that the prophets of Ancient Israel struggled with. Even though the prophets are compiled in the scriptures and thus seem to be on the same plane with Abraham and Job, in a certain way they are Ancient Israel’s philosophers; they are the ones who offer a second order reflection on their faith.
They are the first theologians to take the deposit of faith and try to figure out with that deposit: What is God doing now? The basic question they asked, again and again, is: Why do bad things happen to the good people of Israel?
Amos and Jeremiah
Well, they say, these people are not so good, for starters; they’ve abandoned the covenant. They’ve also ultimately violated God’s law in many ways. Prophets like Amos will say this; Amos, of course, is famous for preaching repentance and demanding that justice roll down in a mighty stream.
Amos thought, quite clearly, that, in fact, the problem that the people of Israel were facing was not due to some fundamental mysteriousness in God’s providence; the rules were very clear, and they were simply not following the rules.
By the time of the prophet Jeremiah, things had gotten more complicated. There was clearly a way in which history was being seen now as what is called “theophanic”; that is, “revealing of God’s will.” History is a medium whereby just as we can in the scriptures, Jeremiah seems to be saying, we can read about what God is doing and interpret those events to show us how God stands vis-a-vis us right now. And unless we do better, Jeremiah says to the people of Israel, we will continue to be punished by God.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Profounder Wisdom
Irrespective of whether or not the people of Israel did any better, sufferings continued to come their way. By what we call Second Isaiah—by the second prophet in the Book of Isaiah—a new and perhaps profounder kind of wisdom is being preached by the prophets.
It deepens Jeremiah’s interpretation in seeing history itself as theologically rich, but now it sees history in a kind of eschatological and messianic way. To talk about history as eschatological means to read history from a coming end of history.
Second Isaiah is famous for prophesying deliverance for the people of Israel as a light unto the nation, revealing through the salvation of Israel that all of the world will be redeemed. Second Isaiah has a profoundly optimistic picture of Israel, but it is also profoundly somber about what happens in the meantime.
There’s a kind of sovereignty to God that puts God in a way beyond good and evil here. As Second Isaiah says, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create war, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
Learn more about wisdom and the fear of God.
Fearful Reverence Before God
This sets up the question of how to be present in the world before God, even though you don’t know how God will act toward you. As with Abraham, and Job, Isaiah says we can have no clear and certain knowledge; we can only know that the obedience called for before the apotheosis of the people of Israel, before its revelation and sanctification of all the nations, the obedience called for will not necessarily be easy but that keeping faith is close to the center of who we are in our very identity.
The prophets then end with a terrible and awe-filled humanity; that is who we should be, and that is why the fear of the Lord, the prophets affirm, is indeed the beginning of wisdom. Following the example of Abraham, inspired by the story of Job, a fearful reverence before this God is probably the wisest course to take, but also only a course taken by the wise. The prophets, thus, are really not so much predictors of the future as reflectors on the past; historians who tell their people where they have come from in order better to see where they are going.
Their basic question is not what will happen as much as: what is God doing now?
Common Questions about the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible
The basic question that the prophets of Israel asked, was: Why do bad things happen to the good people of Israel?
The prophet Amos is famous for preaching repentance and demanding that justice roll down in a mighty stream.
Second Isaiah is famous for prophesying deliverance for the people of Israel as a light unto the nation, revealing through the salvation of Israel that all of the world will be redeemed.