Justice and Mercy, The Suffering Father

Stephen Fraade, “Sifre Deuteronomy (Ad Deut. 3:23): How Conscious the Composition?”, Hebrew Union College Annual 54 (1983) 245-302.

I’m not going to interact with specific passages here, but I’ll mention two points in this article that stood out to me. 

1.  Moses and David sinned, and their sins are recorded in Scripture.  According to Sifre Deuteronomy (first-fifth centuries C.E., maybe later), Moses wanted his sin to be recorded, whereas David initially did not but changed his mind. 

Moses desired that God record his sin in Scripture in order to uphold the authority of the Torah: against critics who’d say that Moses compiled the Torah out of impure motives, the presence of Moses’ sin in the book would demonstrate Moses’ honesty and accuracy in communicating God’s will.  Moses also wanted the sin to be recorded so people wouldn’t think that God excluded him from the Promised Land as punishment for a worse sin.  David had the same sort of motivation—he didn’t want people to think that God punished him for multiple sins.  Moreover, God sought to include David’s sin in Scripture to show that God fairly punishes sin, even when they’re committed by his favorites. 

Add to this Sifre Deuteronomy’s point that Moses and David approached God as beggars when they sought God’s forgiveness.

An issue that’s come to my mind through some Facebook interactions is that of fairness.  In a discussion about the death penalty, I said that I didn’t believe in frying all convicted murderers, for our criminal justice system should have justice mingled with mercy and compassion.  Yet, I was reluctant to take the death penalty completely off the table, since there are some deeds so outrageous that only the death penalty can pay for them.  I had in mind serial killers like Charles Manson. 

I was wondering as I brushed my teeth that night how biblical my position is.  The death penalty clearly exists in the Torah.  When the land is defiled by bloodshed, it can only be cleansed through the death of the murderer, as executed by the governing authorities (Numbers 35:33), no ifs, ands, or buts, no special treatment for some murderers and not for others.  After all, against my view that serial killers should get the death penalty but other killers should not, isn’t taking one life serious, as is taking many lives?

Yet, God did not put Cain to death (Genesis 4).  David had the authority to pardon a woman of Tekoah’s only son, who had killed his brother in a field (II Samuel 14).  God punished David for killing Uriah, but God did not put him to death (II Samuel 12).  Did God or the governing authority allow the land to remain stained with blood on some occasions?  Apparently so.  There’s such a thing as strict justice in the Bible, but there’s also a certain amount of mercy: lessening the penalty of those who show signs of genuine remorse, considering the criminal’s family, etc.

I’m reminded of something Michael Westmoreland-White wrote in his post, Why the Attacks on Empathy?:

When I was a teen, my Sunday School teacher was a crusty old man who happened to be judge in the Duval County Florida Circuit (i.e, felony) court.  He and I often disagreed since he was a Republican and I was, even then, a liberal Democrat in my sympathies.  He was known as a tough trial judge and I can attest to that since I later worked in his court as a bailiff while trying to discern whether my own path should be toward theology or law.  His reputation did NOT include showing much mercy or compassion from the bench, but this part of his reputation I would dispute. I saw this judge show compassion and mercy for all sides from the bench–while running a very strict courtroom.  While trying to discern my future path I asked him what quality a judge most needed. He didn’t hesitate:  “The same thing a minister most needs, Michael, empathy–a feel for the human condition both in the large picture and in individual cases.  The most brilliant legal mind without empathy would be a horror.”    

Somehow, both justice and mercy need to exist in our criminal justice system.  An absence of justice trivializes the hurt and the loss that the criminal causes, yet an absence of mercy seems inconsistent with the character of God, who (in the narrative of Scripture) values even the guilty and continually offers them a chance to repent, patiently enduring their possible recalcitrance. 

2.  Another point that stood out to me was the part of Sifre Deuteronomy in which God mourns Moses’ death.  That’s what I like about rabbinic literature: it has a God with emotions.  One rabbinic tradition states that God actually wrote the Book of Lamentations: that’s not Jeremiah mourning the fall of Jerusalem, according to this tradition, but rather a reflection of God’s broken emotional state over the suffering of his people.

On ex-fundamentalist Ken Pulliam’s blog, there is a post in which Ken shares an interaction he had with a young fundamentalist on penal substitution.  The young fundamentalist said that the Father suffered when Jesus was dying on the cross, and Ken replied, “if you say the Father suffered, how do you avoid the charge of Patripassianism?” (see My Answers to a Defender of PST). 

I’ve rarely interacted with this strand of the evangelical sub-culture, the type that’s afraid of falling into heresy.  “Oh please don’t call me a modalist, or a Pelagian, or a Patripassianist!” is the attitude of many in this group.  But I never realized that some believe it’s heresy to think that the Father can suffer.  I’ve been to conservative churches that say that the Father was actually in emotional pain when Jesus was on that cross.  But there may be elements of the evangelical sub-culture that have a different idea, maintaining that God is above all suffering.  In my opinion, such a notion does not reflect the Bible, but rather Greek philosophy.  The rabbis didn’t feel beholden to that, and, quite frankly, neither do I!  My God has a consistent character throughout the ages, but he also reacts to his creation and has emotion.  Why would anyone want God to be otherwise?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Justice and Mercy, The Suffering Father

  1. Pingback: Book Write-Up: The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann | James' Ramblings

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