Religion / Divine Justice And Human Knowledge In Ancient Israel And Mesopotamia.

Divine Justice And Human Knowledge In Ancient Israel And Mesopotamia.

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Autor:  anton  04 November 2010
Tags:  Divine,  Justice,  Knowledge,  Ancient,  Israel
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One of the biggest aspects of any religion is to explain the problem of evil that exists in our world. From the earliest mythos to modern day thinking, religious groups have tried to tackle the problem. When looking at some of the texts from the Ancient Near East and the relationships between the god(s) and man, one can begin to discern some conclusions about where these people stood on the subject. It seems that a running theme throughout many of the texts is the notion that a human, with all of its limited knowledge, has the ability to reason, bargain, and/or debate with the deity’s plans and actions within the world. Despite the fact that these humans have only an inadequate view of any “heavenly” plan, they still believe they know best. The authors of these ancient texts of Israel and Mesopotamia use the inability of their characters (humans, in general, as well) to accept their lot in life, portraying the idea that divine decisions and actions cannot be questioned or challenged by mankind.

A common motif in text of the Israelites and Mesopotamians is the man stricken with afflictions of his physical, emotional, a monetary being. We get accounts of these characters, who have a hard time with why their lives are not as well as they would like, from several ancient Mesopotamian sources. These texts begin with a man down on his luck, suffering from all kinds of afflictions, trying to rationalize what has caused his dreadful fate. The Dialogue Between a Man and his God portrays a perfect example of this; “My Lord, I have debated with myself, and in my feelings […] of heart: the wrong I did I do not know!” The suffering man (known as the young man in the story) cries out in his prayers that he is innocent as best he can tell, and if there is some unknown sin to him, he hasn’t a clue to what it is. The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer begins with the same idea that the character had done everything he was supposed to do in order to please the gods, yet had received no blessings. K. Van Der Toorn writes on this ignorance of sin, “Mostly it serves as a kind of apology, by which the suppliant intends to make his gods understand his difficulties.” But it also shows a questioning of the deity’s work. Since the human can find no fault in his life, it has to be unjust for the deity to deal him such bad cards in life.

In these Mesopotamian tales the sufferer goes from at first being confused as to why he is in anguish, to lavishing the gods in praise. This can be perceived

as a superficial repentance; a form of, as we know it, “Sucking up”. In A Sufferer’s Salvation the narrator states, “I praise, I praise, what the Lord Marduk has done I praise! [I praise, I praise], what the angry (personal) god [has done], I praise!” It seems that these characters are unwilling to admit or accept the fact that their suffering could be part of god’s plan, the notion that they are suffering unjustly is implied throughout the text, yet they do not want to be seen as outright blasphemers of what their deities have done. Simply, they are saying: “I don’t like what you have done, it is unfair to me, but you are still the greatest and most just, which means you should correct my situation.” These sufferers are treading upon a fine line between being devout and being irreverent, and their praise is their tool to staying as faithful as possible.

Ancient Israel also deals with the same topic in some of its writings. A prime example of this claimed innocence is seen in the book of Job. Much like its Mesopotamian counterparts this work features a man, by the name of Job, who losses all that is dear to him in life. Job tries his hardest to find a fault in his life, which could have caused all the suffering, but has a hard time seeing one. Job’s friends who try to council him (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu) tell Job that he must have strayed from the path of righteousness. Job refuses to acknowledge this and goes on to say, “If only I knew where to find him; If only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments,” (New International Version, Job 23.3-4). Job is so upset by his fate that he is willing to debate God over the subject. Here, in the text, a legal metaphor can be drawn, with Job, being the plaintiff, wanting to make appeals for his situation and God having to defend his justice. Despite his friends suggesting that God would not bother with such a small thing as Job or that his attempts would be futile, Job maintains that he deserves some justice. Interestingly, though, Job never rebukes God throughout his ordeal; he tries to stay as righteous as possible. It seems he tries to balance his challenges to authority with the idea of “falling from grace”. He wants his own personal control and justice but doesn’t want to lose God’s blessing.

A difference in the two forms of writing in the Mesopotamian and Israelite works comes in the god’s response. In the Dialogue Between a Man and his God the deity proclaims, “Were you not ordered to live, How could you have lasted the whole of this grievous illness?...You have borne this massive load to the end…You must never, till the end of time, forget (your) god.” With this statement and the other words of the god it gives a sense that what happened was all planned. The god tells the young man that his troubles are over and that he is favored by the gods now. The way all of this is said seems to imply that the suffering was a test and that since the young man gave up his claims that he was wrongly accused and resorted to naming his sins and repented the god restored his happiness. In A Sufferer’s Salvation the narrator comes to terms with his misfortune and praises Marduk because Marduk has given the narrator everything, good and bad, in his life.

God’s response to Job on the other hand is a bit less kind. God comes to Job as a whirlwind and questions Job on why he thinks he has the right to challenge God’s decisions. God puts Job in his place and refutes his idea that he is knowledgeable enough to bring claims against God. “Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” are just a few of the questions God attacks Job with (Job 38.4-5). At the end of his speech Job is appalled at his behavior and repents to God, saying “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted,” (Job 42.2). Job openly admits that he was wrong to challenge God and think that his human understanding of the situation was more suitable than the deity’s. Job gives up the belief that he could dispute the deity and accepts that God’s choice for his destiny could not be changed.

Though these texts point to the unchanging nature of the gods’ plans and the futility of a human to try and change them, other texts can be found that seem to show otherwise. In Genesis 18 and 19 Abraham, seemingly, bargains with God about sparing the lives of innocents inside Sodom and Gomorrah. One could almost say that the idea of making sacrifices to the gods shows that humans have sway over the divine beings. Without reverence and piety the gods would not bless people, but if someone carries out the appropriate acts of worship then the gods will bless, in a way granting his wishes. So it seems that the notion that deities can be influenced is present as well.

One belief contrary to the idea of human influence, especially in the case of Abraham in Genesis 18 and 19, is the suggestion that the god(s) have foresight of their actions. In the passage in Genesis, many read of Abraham “negotiating” with God, but this is not necessarily the case. The fact that God doesn’t even oppose Abraham’s requests and easily agrees to his terms implies that God knew what would happen all along and that there were not enough innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah to save the city. When looking at the practice of sacrifices, their implementation could be traced to the need for complacency among people. The feeling that one could put themselves in the favor of the god(s), whether they were really having an influence or not, is a good way to keep people devout. Instead of having to make the deity answer for many of the misfortunes of life it could be blamed upon an individual’s negligence in the rituals and practices, a likely attempt to prevent divine justice from being disputed.

Despite the arguments, many texts from both Mesopotamia and Israel point to the thought that whatever the gods decide and plan upon cannot be challenged or changed by humans. The intent of such writings is to install in humans those very ideas; one could say complacency and acceptance are the virtues here. The optimistic endings of these tales give readers hope that, with their acknowledgment that the deity’s justice is superior to theirs, they will be blessed at some point. The authors show that humans do not possess the knowledge that a deity does, and they do not have the ability to see how different events will play out during the course of time. These shortcomings, on the part of humans, leave them unfit to question a god, especially an omnipotent one.

Works Citied

Foster, Benjamin., ed. “Dialogue Between a Man and His God.” The Context of Scripture. Ed. William W. Halo. New York: Brill, 1997. 485.

Van der Toorn, Karel. Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia. The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, Assen/Maastricht. 1985

Foster, Benjamin., ed. “A Sufferer’s Salvation.” The Context of Scripture. Ed. William W. Halo. New York: Brill, 1997. 486.

The Holy Bible, The New International Version. International Bible Society, 1973, 1978, 1984.

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