Today’s Chocolate: Theo 70% Dark Chocolate
Today’s Passage: Joel 3
Joel may not spell out Israel’s sins as explicitly as Hosea does, but he certainly spells out the sins of the foreign nations.
In addressing Israel’s situation, Joel has devoted more air time to the punishment rather than the crime. But as he shifts his attention to Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia, he also starts enumerating the sins of the goyim, and the first charge he hits them with made me stop in my tracks. Speaking once again in God’s voice, he tells us:
…[T]hey have scattered [Israel] among the nations;
And they have divided up My land.
They have also cast lots for My people,
Traded a boy for a harlot
And sold a girl for wine that they may drink. (2-3)
I had to pause and reread those lines just to make sure I understood them, and what the foreign nations are doing here is all kinds of wrong. They’re 1) selling 2) children into slavery in order to 3) hire prostitutes and 4) afford alcohol. The sins keep compounding. And what do you think happens to those kids in slavery? I can think of several possibilities, and none of them are good.
God is understandably mad. He promises to rescue his people and reverse their fortunes: “Behold, I am going to arouse them from the place where you have sold them and return your recompense on your head” (7). And he goes on: “Also I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the sons of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a distant nation” (8). The foreign nations will get back what they gave. Human beings cannot gain from another’s suffering without expecting to suffer in return: justice’s first law of Equivalent Exchange.
Or so one might think. In the ancient world, it was a common enough belief that justice consisted in rendering to each man his due: good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies. There’s something intuitively appealing about the notion of reciprocity, both on the intellectual level of achieving “fairness” and the visceral level of seeing one’s enemies suffer. But isn’t the desire for retribution a primitive ethic, overturned by the teaching of Jesus Christ, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)? It’s all well and good for God to liberate his people and rescue them from their captors. But if God then sells Israel’s enslavers into slavery, what does that accomplish?
I can think of a few responses. First, it acts as a deterrent to other nations who would raise a hand against Israel: if injustice has consequences, others will think twice before indulging in it. Moreover, it’s nothing trivial for a human being to take justice into his own hands. “Leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19), Paul instructs, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35. Only the judge is qualified to pass the sentence, and only the proper authorities are justified in executing it.
God gives people a chance to repent. That’s his prerogative. And if they don’t, he has every right to level his judgment on them: day of the Lord, son.
Yet I’m left with questions. And I risk painting over complex issues with a very broad brush here, but I have to articulate these thoughts. God is omniscient and omnipotent; he created the universe in which foreign nations sold Israelite children into slavery, and he saw it coming. Does he like being mad? Does he enjoy having injustice in his world to get mad at? Is he mad in the British sense as well? Sometimes his actions seem crazy, and following a recent conversation with a friend, at times I’ve wondered: do we have a moral obligation to hold God accountable for permitting evil in the world? Would you exonerate a dad for letting his children get sold into slavery–or consider him justified in selling his children’s captors into slavery after he gets his children back, particularly when he also created the captors?
But here’s where I’m at. Given what I know of the universe, I cannot conceive of it having no beginning, and that beginning must have had a cause; thus, I’m certain there is a God. And if the universe has any legitimate moral dimension to it, it’s because God made it a moral universe. Moral law needs legitimate grounding, and I have yet to see any possibly valid source other than the character of the God who created everything. Any other grounding strikes me as subjective and lacking authority. So if I’m going to criticize God for allowing evil, on what grounds would I do so? I pull the rug out from under myself.
And I don’t want to address these issues. I want to talk about the last half of the third and final chapter of Joel, which we haven’t even directly looked at. But when the text brings up these matters, I feel obligated to address them. We more or less keep the can of worms known as theodicy permanently open around here, even in the posts where we purport to resolve it. Welcome to Chocolate Book, fam.