In M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, Cleveland Heap wonders why this dog-like creature called a “scrunt” is getting away with murder. The scrunt is trying to prevent the sea-nymph Story from returning to her own world. He’s a renegade scrunt because he is not legally allowed to do so, and, ordinarily, these three bloodthirsty monkeys called the “Tartutic” maintain justice through sheer intimidation. Unfortunately, they are not enforcing the law at that time. So Cleveland Heap, the protagonist of the story, asks in a dramatic yet humble manner, “Where is the justice?”
Many people ask this about far worse situations (not that renegade scrunts aren’t a problem, at least in the movie). And it is obviously an ancient question, for it appears throughout the Bible. Biblical authors and characters often wonder why God does not punish evildoers but allows them to continue their destructive activity. The Psalmist tends to respond, “Just be patient. God will punish them soon.” The Book of Job appears to leave the question totally unanswered, as God elaborately tells Job about his human limitations. And the prophets project justice onto an eschatological event, in which God will dramatically intervene in history, restore Israel as a nation, destroy her enemies, and set up a new kingdom of righteousness, peace, and prosperity.
Joel 3 opts for the last approach: it projects justice onto an eschatological event. According to the chapter, after God restores Israel, he will judge Tyre and Zidon for selling Israelites into slavery, an act that removed them (the Israelites) quite a distance from their homes. God will punish Tyre and Zidon by turning them over to the Judeans, who in turn will sell them to the Sabeans, a far off people. God then goads Israel’s enemies into a battle, presumably so he can destroy them. “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears,” God proclaims to the Gentiles. In the end, God destroys Israel’s notorious nemeses, Egypt and Edom.
Why do I fail to completely identify with this chapter, or a lot of the Bible, for that matter? I think the reason is that I have no enemies who are deliberately out to destroy me. “Well, wait till you’ve lived long enough,” I can hear people telling me. Fair enough. But, up to this point in my life, I can’t think of anyone who has actually tried to ruin my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I have been hurt in the past. But, most of the time, my hurts are a result of my frustration at not being socially accepted. Indeed, there are many times when I say to God, “Look, I try my best to be nice, and these jerks do not accept me.” And maybe there is a part of me that wants God to punish them. But, in the end, I do not wish that they were dead. I just wish that they accepted me. And, while I may be angry at them, I do not put them in the same category as a rich noble who’s seeking to exploit society’s most vulnerable (the type of person the Bible condemns). My “enemies” can’t help whom they like or dislike, anymore than I can. So a part of me would like for them to be hurt, and a part of me would not.
But there are many people in the world who desperately thirst for justice, who seek some indication that an authority cares enough about their pain to punish the people who caused it. And that is the feeling that Joel 3 addresses. “Those foreigners sold us into slavery!” I can picture the Israelites saying. “Does anyone care? I want them to feel just as bad as I did when I was taken from my home.”
Most of the Bible has this “What goes around comes around” sort of theme, but one of the prophets adds mercy into the equation. First Isaiah discusses God’s wrath against the nations, but it also contains a beautiful passage, Isaiah 19:22-25:
“The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them. On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage'” (NRSV).
Imagine that! There is Egypt, the nation that placed Israel into captivity and ditched her when she needed military assistance. There is Assyria, the notoriously bloodthirsty power that defeated Northern Israel and decimated much of Judah. Joel presents the destruction of Egypt and other enemies to Israel, but Isaiah offers a different picture. For Isaiah, Egypt and Assyria get their punishment, sure, but then they come together with Israel to worship the true God. And God essentially says, “Welcome home,” even as he affirms their value in his sight.
Isaiah must have had a lot of strength to write this vision. Jonah certainly couldn’t stomach the possibility that God might have mercy on the savage Assyrians, so he fled from his mission. “The world would be better off without them!” he probably thought. But Isaiah dared to value Israel’s enemies as people, even though he too saw the pain that they had inflicted.
I saw a good episode of Touched by an Angel recently. For a second, I thought I was watching a Dallas/Knots Landing reunion, since it had Joan Van Ark and the lady who played Rebecca Wentworth, the mom of Pam Ewing and Cliff Barnes. But, anyway, there was a scene in which a son was talking to his dying father. The father had continually stuck with his wife despite her bossiness and infidelity, and he chose to love her and the daughter she had through an affair. The son told his dad that he always saw this as a sign of weakness. And that attitude was playing itself out in the son’s own life, for he was about to leave his spouse. Then, the son realized (at the coaxing of Andrew, the angel of death) that his father was actually the strong one, since he chose to love in spite of his hurt.
On a certain level, I can sympathize with both voices of the biblical tradition: justice and mercy. And I say this with the disclaimer that I’ve never experienced the level of pain that Israel endured at the hands of her oppressors. People who are wronged want some acknowledgment of their pain, and they don’t want the victimizer to get off scott free. And Isaiah recognized the value of justice, since he could be as graphic about God’s wrath as the rest of the prophets. But Isaiah also dared to ask, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends?” That’s like what I was saying above about my own attitude: I don’t necessarily want my enemies to suffer. I just wish that they accepted and respected me.
But things don’t always work that way in the real world. In the same way that the prophets project justice onto an eschatological era, Isaiah projects reconciliation. But, hopefully, Isaiah’s vision can inspire us to value people the way that God does, even as Joel reminds us of the importance of justice.