The Question of God’s Absence in Our Need

I got a great question last night in a comment on the beliefs page here at Messianic Jewish Musings. Darvari asks:

If you don’t mind me asking, I’d like to get an idea of how do Jews today deal with the fact that for at least 2600 years, God did not intervene definitively against the oppressors (through his Messiah or not), and has allowed Jews to undergo tremendous persecution, pogroms, holocausts. The Jewish Scriptures have instances where God has intervened at a national scale and saved the nation, but why hasn’t he done so for 2600 years?

There are a few corrections or qualifications to be made to the question, but is a very real issue and should be addressed.

First, this is not just an issue for the Jewish people (and Darvari did not claim it was). The absence of divine deliverance is something I am sure many peoples in history would ask about. I might mention the Armenians, who experienced a million-strong genocidal slaughter even though they are a Christian people. Other examples leap from the pages of history.

Second, the absent deliverance of God is not just in the last 2,600 years. It was also in the Biblical period. Sometimes, because there were prophets in those days, we know the reasons. The Israelites were routed at Ai in the book of Joshua. Raids and pillaging were severe at times in the book of Judges. In 2 Kings, and during the time of the miracle-working prophet Elisha, the famine was so severe, mothers fought over the right to eat the corpses of their children (2 Kings 6:24-32). And the Assyrian destruction of the northern tribes, obliterating Israel as a nation, as well as the Babylonian siege and taking of Judah into exile was all done in the days of prophets.

I cannot emphasize enough that the seeming absence of God’s saving hand is not strictly a post-Biblical matter.

But the question is a real one nonetheless and a real problem for those of us who love and believe in God, his goodness, and the coming of his kingdom.

Darvari’s question is what have Jewish writers and thinkers had to say about the matter. I think of Elie Wiesel, but cannot find in time for this post a story or saying by him that best fits. I think of stories I have heard, of survivors of the Holocaust who came to synagogue at Yom Kippur not to be forgiven by God, but to offer God forgiveness. I think of many who lost their faith in the camps and never sought God again.

Some say it is impossible to believe in God after Dachau.

I don’t doubt that claim.

Who knows if I would have faith if I had been there?

But I do see the other side. Dachau and Auschwitz confirm some of the dark sides of our faith. They confirm that evil is real. They confirm that there is goodness and its converse, pointless and irrational evil seeking only to destroy and finding its only reward in the pain of others.

Evil is not merely a biological or evolutionary impulse to self-advancement. It is cold, incalculably unreasonable, baselessly cruel. It smiles at torture and gains strength from the suffering of its victims.

To know evil is to understand despair. Most of us are not subjected to more than we can bear, but some are. The ones who know about death and lack and needless hunger understand something of life the rest of us can only theorize about.

Wiesel did say, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”

Recently a rabbi friend considered something I had written about Messiah’s coming to rescue his people, the Jewish people, in a coming time of desperate need. He said, “How will people react to your words when they consider that Messiah did not come during the Shoah?”

The absence of divine deliverance is disturbing. Is it enough to negate faith in the coming some day of God’s peaceful rule and healing touch?

If I were a doubter about God’s power, promise, and kindness, I would reflect on the reality of evil. I have not lived one day under the chilling and Satanic evil of an event like the Holocaust, but I reflect on the story and I believe.

It persuades me all the more that there is a good not only equally incomprehensible, but even more so. It persuades me that humanity is not explained by natural forces and merely material origins. Good and evil have little to do with matter and energy and everything to do with spirit. The reality of evil convinces me that materialism, naturalism, atheism are slapstick comedy, the laughable insights of those deaf to the universe.

Wiesel also says, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other.”

The absence of divine deliverance is disturbing. Yet it could be that a greater deliverance will come as a result of its absence now. It could be that once humanity set out on a certain path, God set out to bring the best possible world from it. It could be the cure is painful.

But evil, far from canceling good, makes it all the more apparent. And I choose to hope.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Faith, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Question of God’s Absence in Our Need

  1. Darvari says:

    Derek,
    thank you for your long response.

    Just to clarify, I certainly agree this is not just an issue for the Jewish people. Many other nations have suffered catastrophes at a national level. But Israel is probably the most ancient nation that hoped in God’s deliverance, in a final and ultimate intervention from God that will obliterate all enemies and elevate this nation above all others. It’s probably the only nation whose religion has remained almost unchanged – same God, same holy book, same religious practices where possible.

    I can’t say the same about the Armenians. Other ancient religious systems had/have a different perspective on the existence of evil. They probably don’t wait for God to provide national deliverance. Many Christians think they go to heaven after death, this being the way God delivers and compensates them.

    Let me explain why I mentioned a period of 2600 years during which God did not provide national salvation.

    Ehrman was saying in one of his books how he thinks Jewish thought over this matter has evolved over the centuries; painted in a few broad strokes, the picture looks like this:

    First, they thought they are punished by foreign nations because of the sins they committed against God. This is after God liberated them from Egypt.

    But when they returned from the Babylonian Exile (~2600 years since then), they continued to be persecuted, and was clear that even the good and faithful people in the nation were suffering at the hands of the foreign enemies.

    So apocalyptic views started to appear, basically saying that God would soon put an end to their suffering by destroying their enemies and restore Israel forever.

    When that didn’t happen soon enough (the romans eventually destroyed the temple, deported them, etc), Jewish gnosticism began to flourish – the world is inherently bad, the creator is an evil inferior demiurg, etc, returning to the spiritual world is what matters, etc.

    Of course I’m not saying we can neatly fit all religious opinions of those times in these categories, but these were nevertheless tendencies that left their mark. Since these were all attempts to deal with the absence of God’s salvific intervention, I was curious about how 21st century Jews are dealing with this issue today.

  2. judahgabriel says:

    Great post as usual, Derek.

    My thoughts are a bit different; I’m sure others have brought this up before:

    I would suggest that God has, and even continues, to intervene. Just not always in the “bare right arm of the Lord coming down from heaven” kind of evidence we would want.

    Despite pogroms and 2 millenia of dispersion, the Jewish people exist. Isn’t that a miracle? Despite countless foreign powers trying to erase Israel and the Scriptures and the God of Israel through conquest, assimilation, conversion — Judaism exists. Wasn’t God involved in that?

    The Holocaust was horrific beyond measure – but what makes you think God didn’t intervene? How much worse would the Holocaust have been had Nazi Germany won the war? Would any of us be here talking about Jews and Judaism? Would there even be any Jews left?

    And just 3 years after Nazi Germany was defeated, Israel was reborn as a nation, some argue as a product of the same persecution, which some blame God for not intervening in. Ironic.

    It’s not fire from heaven, granted. But it is God at work.

  3. Darvari says:

    judahgabriel, you can certainly see God’s intervention if you want. I think it’s a matter of will. But natural explanations do exist.

    Why despite pogroms and 2 millenia of dispersion do the Jewish people exist? Maybe it has to do exactly with the fact that they were dispersed. If all nations/kingdoms/countries would have decided together to organize pogroms and kill every Jew, I don’t see how they’d have survived. The “bare right arm of the Lord” would have been needed to “come down from heaven”. But this collusion of all nations/kingdoms/countries against the Jews never existed and never will.

    Why did they retain their Jewishness despite being dispersed all over the place? Because nevertheless they lived in close-knit communities, and were determined to keep their traditions. Does that come from God? Or from men?

    You also said “How much worse would the Holocaust have been had Nazi Germany won the war?” It would have been so much worse of course. But hasn’t it been already very bad? Why didn’t God intervene on behalf of the innocent six million Jews that were murdered only during WW2? And on behalf of all nation in the 1st century, against the romans? Weren’t these big enough tragedies?

    It’s easy to see God’s intervening hand all over the place when events where humans have done the actual work turn out positive. The Nazis being defeated, Israel returned home. But when it comes to unimaginable tragedies, that happened at a national scale and weren’t prevented? Why weren’t they?

    • judahgabriel says:

      There may be natural explanations behind the events you mention, but that doesn’t mean God was absent. Some rabbis of Judaism go as far as to explain Biblical supernatural events — Isaac’s birth, Noah’s flood, the dividing of the Red Sea, and numerous others — as having natural explanations. (I don’t necessarily subscribe to this, but it’s worth noting.) What it means is, God intervening can be done through natural means.

      You mention that if all nations organized a single massive pogrom, they may succeed in exterminating Jews. Maybe that is God intervening right there, no such ultimate pogrom ever occurred, even under the scale and power of Nazi Europe. Whatever the case, God has preserved his people to this day, and we’re evidence of it.

      Why were 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, you ask? Why was evil allowed to prosper to a point? That is a question for the ages. Divine punishment? Divine abandonment? Divine ambivalence?

      Likewise I could ask, why are evil people allowed to prosper at all? Why does the sun rise and the rain fall on both the righteous and unrighteous alike?

      Maybe God allows the universe to function as-is, intervening in the long-term scale — shaping the outcome of events over centuries — while often letting nature just be itself, even evil human nature. Or maybe nature just unfolds exactly as laid out, and it was laid out to bring God’s plans to fruition.

      Richard Dawkins wrote in God Delusion that nature by itself is neither cruel nor sympathetic. It’s just heartless, with neither an inclination nor sympathy in either direction. But humans — humans are perhaps unique in this, humans can be cruel. They can choose to be cruel. It’s free will. Maybe that’s part of God’s plan, too, that humanity’s free will can be cruel.

      I suggest that God doesn’t meddle in every little human affair, but does shape the grand scheme, while always preserving a remnant of his people. He has never allowed the dual blessing and curse of human free will to wipe out his people. But the fact that we are still here, after thousands of years of dispersion, multiple attempts by powerful kingdoms to wipe us out and erase us — the fact we still have our language, our Scriptures, and our God, and now our land — this makes me think it was divinely shaped, even with all the evil that Jews have had to endure.

      • Darvari says:

        Don’t really want to engage in philosophical debates, but here’s my opinion: if somethings happens naturally, it’s not an intervention from God. God is supernatural, and his interventions are therefore by definition supernatural. The creation of the universe was supernatural. The creation of green grass was also. But grass will naturally grow tomorrow somewhere, and it’s not an intervention from God. It grows naturally. If Isaac’s birth was a natural event, it has no more significance than the grass growing from earth in my backyard.

        About all nations not having organized a single massive pogrom, maybe because God intervened. Why would all nations do such a thing? That was my entire point. Thankfully, they never did and never will, and that’s the reason Jews were not wiped out off the face of this earth. If, let’s assume ad absurdum, such a plan would be put together, why would I think God would intervene, when he didn’t in WW2? He did not intervene for the equivalent of today’s population of Jews in Israel; today’s Israel, wiped out. All of them. Have you though of that?

        You mention you could ask, why are evil people allowed to prosper at all? I actually am asking that. Why?

        You also say “maybe nature just unfolds exactly as laid out, and it was laid out to bring God’s plans to fruition” and “maybe that’s part of God’s plan, too, that humanity’s free will can be cruel”. I somehow doubt that it was in God’s plan, unfolding exactly as laid out, for 6 million of innocents to die horribly. I somehow doubt one could entertain such ideas if one was a concentration camp survivor, whose family left the camps through the chimneys.

        You add that “I suggest that God doesn’t meddle in every little human affair”. Would you call genocide a “little human affair”? The question is rhetorical.

        And since you mention that despite all evil Jews had to endure, they still exist as a people, retained their language and scriptures, got their land back. If one would have to choose the salvation of those 6 million lives at the expense of losing Jewishness all together, what would one choose? Is Jewishness worth more than 6 million innocent lives? Because that’s what I think I read through the lines. God did not consider the salvation of 6 million innocent important enough to intervene, but he considered Jewishness important enough to intervene?

      • judahgabriel says:

        You’re asking why evil exists at all. This is an ancient question, and people much smarter than myself have given more eloquent answers than I can. I would recommend reading some of Dennis Prager’s books and articles on the matter. Look him up.

        Here’s my answer:

        It’s part of human nature. Humans with free will have the ability to be cruel and evil, unlike other creatures in nature.

        God generally doesn’t interfere in human free will.

        God uses events, even horrific tragedies, for a reason. As terrible as the Holocaust was, it created fertile conditions for the rebirth of Israel just 3 years after the tragedy, thus shielding Jews from future persecutions and pogroms. And because of the Holocaust, virtually the entire world now recognizes how evil anti-Semitism can be. Physical persecution of Jews is now outlawed throughout Europe and the western world. I think this is an historical first.

        So while humans look at a single event and lament and moan how terrible that particular event was, and indeed it was, God sees things in the grand scheme, in the big picture. And ultimate good comes from it, even if we can’t see it.

        If God really exists, how utterly foolish and irreverent we would be to criticize his plans because of human suffering. He’s the one that sees past and future, the big picture. And we just bitch about human suffering in the here and now, and reason to ourselves that, because we suffer, God must not exist.

  4. judahgabriel says:

    (For a little lightheartedness…)

    Since the Lord has been absent in our time of need, maybe we should take him to task. :-)

  5. May I add a comment – this matter is quite simple, when looked at in terms of scritpure. The scritpure is clear regarding the judgement and the period of judgement that would take place after and as a result of Israel “as a nation” rejecting the messiah. Those who walked in terms of the new covenant in Jesus, were obviously not part of this.
    God is faithful to His word and brought about what He said He would relating to the rejection of the Messiah. The Lord is faithful to fulfil His word. God’s word must come to pass – if Israel as a nation turned to God with all their hearts – then they will again see the divine intervention of God. Divine intervention had to happen when Israel walks in obedience to God’s requirements – this was seen throughout the old testament, and is a promise of GOD, based on conditional requirements. When they walked in this (were obedient to the requirements) they walked in God’s deliverance, and were instrumental in bringing about God’s purposes here on earth. When they were disobedient, the covenant protection fell away and God brought judgement upon them.
    If Israel as a nation had to walk in obedience to God, we would again see the demonstrations of the Old Testament because God is faithful to His word and the everlasting covenants He made.
    In Ezekial 36, The word of God speaks about a the time that Israel is still under judgement, and even in their wickedness (the are not walking in what God requires), God would intervene, and bring about what He said in His word – we are now in the time, where God is bringing them into the new covenant, in Ez 36. The scripture says He would enter into a new covenant with them and give them a new heart, and put a new spirit in them – This is the new covenant under Jesus. As a nation they are not walking in obedience to God, and therefore they do not see the deliverance they saw in the old testament.
    But a time is coming when the scripture says they will start to come into obedience to God as a nation, and the world will then again see the intervention of GOD – and in the time of obedience, God will again bring judgement on the earth, because the time of the fulfilment and the inbringing of the Gentiles is coming to an end, and the time of the day of judgement is at hand. In that time, God will bring about judgement on the nations for disobedience according to His word.
    These matters are clear to see to those who walk in obedience – there is a divine hand of protection on God’s people – David saw this protection – He testified to it saying that even if a thousand fall at his right hand, he would not be harmed. We have that protection in Jesus, through obedience – but when we step out of it, we are subject to God’s chastisement.
    You see this supernatural protection in the new testament – as Jesus clearly said what He would allow each disciple to go through – nothing happened to them, withouth the Lords authority – the new testament shows this, although in it’s example, it is given to as through examples of obedience. The scritpure says that the Lord does not do anything unless he tells His servants the prophets – you see God clearly leading his people in the new testament in this way.

  6. jasenoosthuizen:

    There are a few problems with you simple equation.

    (1) Is Christendom faithful to God? If not, why are you only ready to say Jewish people are under judgment and to skip over the judgment Christendom equally deserves?

    (2) It will not work saying that the cause of all suffering is divine punishment. Think about it more deeply. Divine punishment is one of many causes of suffering. And in the end suffering and death is something God will eliminate. And if he based justice on merit, we’d all be in trouble.

    Derek Leman

  7. Darvari says:

    jasenoosthuizen, what you’re writing is just wishful thinking. “As a nation they are not walking in obedience to God, and therefore they do not see the deliverance they saw in the old testament”? Well, they *have been* obedient to this God after Babylon, even to the point of martyrdom (read Maccabees), and in vain. They were not rescued.

    Likewise, supernatural protection for Christians? You must be living in an alternate universe. Countless pious and faithful Christians murdered (or killed by nature) for almost 2000 years now. Where’s the supernatural protection? There’s no such thing. These excuses with the free will are just excuses. We rescue our children from death if we can, and they have free will. I guess we should just leave them to die? I for example am the kind of person that will pick up snails that will otherwise be crushed to death by cars in parking lots, and move them to safety nearby, whenever I can. I wish this God would do the same with people, have the same empathy and compassion as I do even towards almost insignificant creatures. But nothing like that happens. It’s time to face reality: there is no God, there are only endless pious rationalizations concocted to maintain mental comfort in the face of the godless reality.

  8. Darvari:

    I’m sad that the issue of God’s absence has brought you to the point of not believing. I’m glad, of course, that you answered jasenoosthuizen so eloquently.

    If God does not exist then your idea that snails should have life is nothing but a “pious” hope in a random universe. That sense of a better world, that desire for life and goodness you sense, is one of God’s footprints in the universe.

    Derek

  9. Dina Truman says:

    Well here it is a year later so I don’t know if the original posters will read this. Darvari, I have wondered about the same issues as you. As a younger person than I am today, I came to the same conclusion, that Gd just did not exist. I changed my mind over the years for reasons that aren’t relevant to the topic right now.
    I still don’t have an answer. And an answer like Jasenoosthuisen came up with is the primary reason I usually avoid having discussions with Christians. (This is the only messianic site I have returned to more than once, and will probably continue to read.)
    There are few things I think about that help me live with my lack of comprehension and answers, I don’t know if the will help anyone else, but I thought I would mention them. They are in no order of importance..just random.
    I too am a person that will save even snails and bees and worms that work their way up on the sidewalk and get stuck after the rain. I personally believe I have this tendency because Gd said he created us in His image….so I’m sure he has compassion on us and those snails. So why does he let them get killed?? I really have no clue.
    I don’t understand why Gd designed the universe the way He did so that there are casualties. We need the rain but worms die. Snow melts and gives us water but can also freeze an animal to death that may get caught in a blizzard. The sun helps plants grow and can keep us warm, but in the right conditions it can cause fire. Forest fires can kill life, but there are also pine cones that will only release their seeds if they burn. It doesn’t seem perfect from our point of view. That isn’t satisfying for me, I want it to be perfect and I want to understand it, I can live with this dissatisfaction though because of the following:
    I am a pet “owner”…I love all my animals dearly, they are family and I would probably die for them. But I think about Gd and humans when I take care of my animals. My cat doesn’t understand why she cannot go outside whenever she wants…she is nocturnal. But I understand there are coyotes out there. Can I explain that to her? I wish I could. My dog wants to run and play in the streets but doesn’t realize there is a cop around the corner that will cite me for not being up to date on her rabies shots (I don’t do vaccines for dog-health reasons) —Then, f I get a ticket for the dog being off leash… the dog will have to be quarantined in the pound for 10 days. My dog doesn’t understand this…she thinks it’s only right that she plays the way her nature created her to be….

    So I find this may be analogous to Gd running the universe. There is probably some parts of the answer that would make sense if we could grasp them…but Gd cant even explain it to us b/c our comprehension is so vastly below his (like I can’t explain about the coyotes to my cat. I could let her discover it…but then you see the problem with that :-)

    Another thing that doesn’t exactly “help” me, but it’s something I think about. I used to study with an ultra Charedi, ultra orthodox rabbi. So once we came across the verse in Yeshayahu/Isaiah where Gd says he creates both shalom and ra. The rabbi stated something like, “Hashem is always good. But sometimes it is revealed good, and sometimes it is concealed concealed good.” That stuck with me. It borders on an overused cliche that I despise, “everything happens for a reason.” I don’t know if it does or not, only Gd knows that, and we certainly can’t say what the reasons are. But when I think that perhaps there are explanations that are just too vast for me to understand, it helps me live with the questions a little bit easier.
    Dina

  10. Here is an related/unrelated question. I have done a brief study on the daughters of Zelophehad.and the significance of the inheritance as related to the blood line of Yeshua.
    It seems virtually impossible for the nation of Israel to be wiped out. Correct me if I am wrong but is not a male considered a full blooded Jew if his mother is Jewish even if the father is not? If so how many males are out there that are not recognized as “Jewish” but come from the bloodline of Abraham?

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