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Evil and the Justice of God
a series of lectures for 2003 by the Canon Theologian, Dr N. T. Wright

Lecture 2: What Can God Do About Evil?
Unjust World, Just God?

February 17 2003 (commemoration of Janani Luwum, 1977)


In the first lecture I offered a large-scale overview of the problem of evil and suggested some markers that need to be put down as we try to think soberly and Christianly about it. Evil, I argued, isnít just a philosophical problem, but a practical one; by trying to ignore or belittle it, the Enlightenment tradition stands convicted of culpable arrogance, while the critique of the Enlightenment offered in postmodernity, important though it is, canít offer any fresh solutions. I concluded by suggesting that western democracy itself isnít to be thought of as an automatic solution to the problem of global evil, and that we need to take seriously both the suprahuman powers of evil and the fact that the line between good and evil runs not between Ďusí and Ďthemí but through every individual and every society.

I deliberately didnít get into any biblical exposition last time, principally because I wanted, as it were, to take an initial walk around the problem as it presents itself in todayís world, before asking what resources there are within the Jewish and Christian traditions for approaching it. But tonight and next month I shall make up for this by diving straight into the biblical material and seeing what it has to offer. I am assuming that you either know the material or can look it up later without difficulty; I am assuming, too, that you will realise that one cannot say everything, or even do more than scratch the surface, in a single lecture on the Old Testament and a single one on the New.

The title of the present lecture reflects my perception of one highly important feature of the Old Testament. What our western philosophical tradition inclines us to expect, and indeed to ask for, is an answer to the question, what can God say about evil? We want an explanation. We want to know what evil really is, why itís there in the first place (or at least the second), why itís been allowed to continue, and how long this will go on for. Well, these questions are there in the Bible, but frustratingly they donít receive very full answers, and certainly not the sort of answers that later philosophical traditions would consider adequate. Taking the questions in reverse order: the Psalms regularly ask how long this wretched state of affairs will go on for (13.1; 79.5, etc.); there are dark hints about wickedness being allowed to go on for a while so that when God judges that judgment will be seen to be just (e.g. Gen. 15.16; Daniel 8.23); there are fleeting glimpses in Genesis 3 and 6 of the place of evil as an intruder into Godís good creation, though never satisfactorily set out; and the Old Testament oscillates to and fro between evil as idolatry and consequent dehumanisation, evil as what wicked people do, not least what they do to the righteous, and evil as the work of the satan. None of these are exactly explanations. The Bible simply doesnít appear to want to say what God can say about evil. That provides a powerful extra argument for the point I made last time, that one Christian tradition has warned against our trying to explain it at all.

What the Old Testament does is to talk quite a lot, not about what God says about evil, but about what God can do, is doing, and will do, about it. It may be possible that we can work back from there to some account of what the Bible thinks evil is, and why itís there, but thatís seldom if ever the primary focus. Insofar as the Old Testament offers a theodicy, it isnít couched in the terms of later philosophy, but in the narrative of God and the world and particularly God and Israel.

In fact - and this is crucial, I think, for understanding the Old Testament as a whole - what the Bible gives us is both much less and much more than a set of dogmas and ethics, much less and much more than a Ďprogressive revelationí, as used to be said. The Old Testament isnít written in order simply to Ďtell us about Godí in the abstract. Itís written - and this is true of most of the individual books as well as the canonically shaped OT as we have it, both in the Hebrew order of books and in the English one - itís written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil. This happens at several different levels, and we shall explore them presently; but we must grasp right from the outset that the underlying narrative logic of the whole Old Testament works on the assumption that this is what itís about.

Let me just map the three levels for you so you can see where we shall be going. First, the entire OT as we have it hangs like an enormous door on a small hinge, the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, designed to address the problem evident in Genesis 3 (the explusion from the garden), Genesis 6 and 7 (the flood) and Genesis 11 (the tower of Babel). Then, within that, we discover a second-order problem: Israel, the children of Abraham, may be the carriers of the promise, but they turn out to be part of the problem themselves. This unwinds through a massively long epic narrative which ends with them going into exile. Then, within that again, we discover a third level of the problem: not only as a nation, but also as individuals, human beings in general and Israelites included within that find themselves to be sinful, idolatrous, hard-hearted. Thus, though Ďthe problem of evilí often appears in the Old Testament in the familiar form of wicked pagan nations oppressing Godís poor and defenceless people, again and again the prophetic books (both the ones we think of as Ďhistoricalí and the ones we normally call Ďthe prophetsí) remind Israel that the problem goes deeper than Ďusí and Ďthemí. The problem of the individual, which in much western thought has been made central, is presented in the Bible as a subset of the larger problem of Israel, of humankind and of creation itself. If we learn to read the Old Testament in this way, which I fear we often donít when we work through it in our lectionaries and private readings, we shall begin, I think, to glimpse the whole forest as well as the particular, and sometimes puzzling, trees.

1. To Renew the Blessing

So, to begin at the beginning: in the first main section of this lecture I shall expound the way in which Genesis 12, and the narrative which flows from it, addresses the triple question of evil as it is presented in Genesis 1-11. Then, in the second section, I shall engage with the multiple problems that arise within this larger narrative when the family of Abraham is itself discovered to be riddled with evil. The third section will draw the focus more tightly into the period of the exile, and look at three biblical passages, including the book of Job, which wrestle with the question more deeply and poignantly than anywhere else. This will lead to some conclusions about the way in which the Old Testament leaves us facing the problem of evil, with powerful themes expounded but not concluded.

We start with Godís decision to call Abraham (or Abram as he still was, but for ease I shall use the longer form throughout) and to promise that through him and his family all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12.1-3). This promise is repeated over and over, in various forms, both to Abraham and then to Isaac and Jacob. It isnít said specifically how God will bless the other families of the earth through Abraham and his family, only that this is what God intends to do. Like many of the smaller OT narratives, the entire story has to be understood with this as its heading, so that even where we go for many chapters, and indeed whole books, without any sense of a blessing coming upon the world through Israel, we should still understand that this is at least in the back of the mind, though perhaps in the front of Godís mind.

Genesis 12 thus sends us back to Genesis 1-11 to ask: if this is the solution, whatís the problem? As I indicated, Genesis 3-11 offers a triple problem to which Godís call to Abraham seems to be offered as the answer. Working back from chapter 12, the first one we meet is the story of the tower of Babel. Human arrogance reaches a height, quite literally, with the building of a tower to make a name and create security. God comes down to look at the puny little tower (the passage is full of ironic humour), and confuses human languages so that the human race wonít be able to carry out its arrogant ambitions. What is God doing about evil? On the one hand he is confronting it, judging it, and doing something to stop it having the effect it wanted. On the other hand he is doing something new, beginning a new project through which the underlying problem, of the curse and the disunity of the human family, will be replaced by blessing. How Abrahamís family will reverse the curse of Babel is not clear; and, some would say looking at the Middle East today, it still isnít clear, as Abrahamís family is now so firmly divided into two, a division which goes back to Genesis 16 and 21 with the birth first of Ishmael and then of Isaac, leading all the way to where we are today, with one branch of the family looking to Jerusalem and the other, at least in some modes, to Baghdad, i.e. ancient Babylon. When the promise of Genesis 12 comes through into the New Testament we discover its effect, of course, not least on the day of Pentecost; though, again, how that is then to be applied to the problem posed in Genesis 11 is still a matter of urgent debate.

We notice two features in particular. First, there is a link between the humans and the land. The arrogant people of Babel build a city and a tower; God calls Abraham to be a nomad - no fixed abode for a while yet - but promises him, eventually, a homeland. Second, we note that the Ďsolutioní, or the answer, offered in Genesis 12 is strictly eschatological, that is, it points forward, with the ongoing story continuing to hold together deep ambiguities. To put it bluntly, Abrahamís family will have its own local version of Babel. And of course, ultimately, Abrahamís family will go into exile, and the place of their exile is Babylon. The people of the solution will have to return to experience the problem.

Working back, we come to the story of the Flood, which framed the first lecture last month. This contains one of the saddest lines in the whole of the Bible, when God declares that the wickedness of the human race has grieved him to his heart, so much so that he is sorry he ever made the world in the first place (Genesis 6.6). The flood offers once more the same pattern of Godís reaction to evil. On the one hand, a literally torrential judgment, blotting out both land and animals. On the other hand, an act of grace to rescue one family from the debacle, indicating both that Godís purpose for creation will continue and that God is now committed to working out that purpose with sorrow and grief in his heart. Nothing in the story indicates that God imagines that rescuing Noah and his family will somehow make them different, in their imagination and intentions, from the people of whom Genesis 6.5 declares that their wickedness was great, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. Noahís family of course then include the people who build the tower of Babel, as well as the family into which Abraham is born. The flood stands as a reminder that God hates evil and what it does to his creation; that he can and sometimes will take steps to stop it in its tracks; but that, precisely because he is the sovereign creator, he will find a way of working through and out the other side to fulfil the purpose which he still intends for creation. As with Babel, there is of course a close link between humans and the earth: the earth itself is flooded as part of Godís judgment on the human race, and then the sign of human rescue is the green olive shoot that comes up from the newly irrigated ground, brought to Noah, significantly, by part of the non-human animal creation. The story ends in a vineyard, with the deeply mixed message both that a new fruitfulness has awoken and that new possibilities for evil will stalk the earth.

Working back again, we come of course to the story of the humans, the snake and the forbidden fruit. A great deal has been written on this, of course, and I have no major new insights to offer into what is by any account one of the most profound, but also puzzling, stories in all literature. We all want to know what the story refuses to tell us, why there was a snake in Godís beautiful creation in the first place, and why it wanted to use its cunning in that way. Instead of giving us an explanation for evil, the story gives us a brief analysis of it - not least the way in which deception, of oneself and of others, plays a strong role, and the way in which excuses come easily to the heart and tongue but canít put off the question of responsibility - and then tells us, once more, what God does about it. God judges the evil, with his judgment taking the form of expulsion from the garden and the imposition of a multiple curse. Humans must not be allowed to take from the Tree of Life while they are in their rebellious condition; the ground itself is cursed, and will bear thorns and thistles. Godís project for creation must now proceed by a long and tortuous route, through thorns and thistles and dust and death. But even in exile there are signs of blessing, though now not unmixed with almost equal signs of the curse. The original command, that the humans should be fruitful and multiply, was not rescinded, even though it now carries a horrible ambiguity. Eve conceives a man with the help of the Lord, but he turns out to be a murderer. The sign of God-given life carries within it the now equally God-given curse of death: the refrain through Genesis 5, Ďand he died . . . and he diedí remind us over and over of what has happened in Genesis 3, even as new life in each generation brings new hope until finally we reach Abraham and the fresh promise both of blessing and of the land.

The great story which frames the Old Testament, then, begins with this triple statement of the problem and the single statement of Godís answer. Evil must be judged, and judged severely. God has made a beautiful world; evil, insofar as we can define it at this stage, is a defacing of that world, a way of getting the world upside down and inside out. Humans, instead of worshipping God, the source of their life, give allegiance to the non-human creation. The earth, instead of being ruled wisely by God-fearing, image-bearing stewards, shares the curse for the sake of idolatrous humankind. Death, which we may be right to see as a natural and harmless feature of the original landscape, now assumes the unwelcome guise of the executioner, coming grimly to prevent the poison spreading too far. ĎLest they put forth their hands, and take of the Tree of Life . . .í leads to ĎLest they understand one anotherís speech, and nothing will be impossible to them.í Judgment in the present time is a matter of stopping evil in its tracks before it gets too far. Death takes various forms: exile for Adam and Eve, the flood for Noahís generation, confusion and dispersal for Babel. But then, in Abraham, God declares, as an act of sovereign grace following the word and act of judgment, that a new way has opened up, a way by which the original purpose, of blessing for humankind and creation, can be taken forward. From within the story we already know that this is going to be enormously costly for God himself. The loneliness of God looking for his partners, Adam and Eve, in the garden; the grief of God before the flood; the head-shaking exasperation of God at Babel - all these, God knows, God will have to continue to put up with. There will be numerous further acts of judgment as well as mercy as the story unfolds. But unfold it will. The overarching picture is of the sovereign creator God who will continue to work within his world until blessing replaces curse, homecoming replaces exile, olive branches appear after the flood, and a new family is created in which the scattered languages can be reunited. That is the narrative which forms the outer frame for the canonical Old Testament.

2. People of the Solution, People of the Problem

The body of the Old Testament, from this point onwards, carries - and the writers know it carries - the deeply ambiguous story of how Abrahamís family, the people through whom Godís solution was being taken forwards, was composed of people who were themselves part of the problem.
The narrator of Genesis leaves us in no doubt that Abraham himself was far from being a plaster-cast saint. Twice he nearly throws the promises away by placing Sarah in jeopardy with a white, but dangerous, lie about her being his sister. He and Sarah try to do things their own way rather than Godís way, and the result is the tragedy of Ishmael, which leads directly to the nightmarish story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Deeply complex though this story is, I am convinced that it is closely related to what Abraham and Sarah had done to Hagar and Ishmael. The promises will continue forwards, but the promise-bearing people, from Abraham onwards, will know that it does so at a huge cost.

The story from Abraham to the exile and beyond continues this theme, replete with its multiple ambiguities. Jacob cheats and lies his way into inheriting from Isaac and then is himself cheated top to bottom by his father-in-law Laban. He returns to the promised land limping after his struggle with God, the God who will keep his promises but who will remind his people of their own unworthiness, and of the surprising nature of grace. Josephís brothers sell him into slavery where he learns, it seems, not only the humility he had lacked before but also a strong sense of Godís strange providence, the providence which is one of the Bibleís central answers to Ďwhat does God do about evil?í. When his brothers come to see him in fear and trembling after Jacobís death, Joseph declares that ĎYou meant evil against me, but God meant it for goodí (Genesis 50.20). Somehow, strangely, and to us sometimes even annoyingly, the creator God will not simply abolish evil from his world. That, of course, is the question that swirls around these discussions: why not? We are not given an answer. We are, instead, informed in no uncertain terms that God will contain evil, that he will restrain it, that he will prevent it from doing its worst, and will even, on occasion - though we are not yet told that this is a regular practice on Godís part - use the malice of human beings as a way of furthering his own strange purposes.

The most deeply formative narrative in all Judaism, of course, is the story of the Exodus, and this is pre-eminently one of the Biblical answers to the question of what God does with evil. Israel is in slavery in Egypt. The Egyptians are harsh and bullying taskmasters. God hears the cry of his people, and comes to deliver them - not at once, and not by a single flash of lightning, but, in what by now ought to be emerging as a characteristic pattern, through the call of an individual, and then another individual to work alongside the first - individiuals who are themselves, as the story highlights, flawed and sometimes muddled human beings, themselves needing to be rebuked and even punished, but bearing Godís promise and his fresh, saving word of freedom. The main judgment, though, falls on Egypt, in the form of the plagues, resulting in Pharaohís final dismissal of Israel, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the time in the wilderness. For ever afterwards, to this day, one of the primary Jewish answers to the question, What does God do with evil, is: God judges the wicked pagans who are oppressing Israel, and he rescues his people from their grasp. That answer resonates through the whole Old Testament, not least in several of the Psalms, where the righteous sufferer pleads with God to defend his cause, his person, his life against the wicked, the oppressor, the ungodly. It comes through into the New Testament period in Jewish writings such as the Wisdom of Solomon.

And of course the Old Testament itself makes it clear that this is only one side of the story, though it is the more encouraging one (unless you happen to be Pharaoh). The other side is that the Israel who is rescued is still a grumbling, rebellious, malcontent people. Instead of being grateful, obedient and trusting, as a naive reading of the Exodus story might have led us to imagine, Israel spends forty years in the wilderness wanting to go back to Egypt, fearful of entering the promised land because there are giants there, and generally displaying all the signs of the fallen humanity to whose plight they were supposed to be the answer. The call to them on Sinai spoke of them being Godís royal priesthood, Godís holy nation, his special people, a treasured possession out of all peoples (Exodus 19.5-6). Anything less like that it would be hard to imagine. The worst of it comes when, after the long description of the tabernacle which is to be built for Godís worship, and of how Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated as priests to serve in it, we come down the mountain again and there is Aaron leading the people in worshipping the golden calf. Two thousand years later the rabbis would look back in sorrow and speak of that moment as the equivalent, in the story of Israel, of what Adam and Eve did in the garden. Israel was called to be Godís promise-bearing people, the light to the nations, but Israel showed every sign of being itself in darkness. What God did with evil then was of course, once more, to judge, to judge so severely that it looked as if he would have to start again from scratch with Moses, as he had done with Noah. But God had made promises to Abraham, and as God was faithful to his purposes for the whole creation, so he remained faithful to the promises to Abrahamís family even when they were faithless to him.

Perhaps nowhere is the ambiguity of that position more poignant - with resonances that continue to this day - than in the conquest of Canaan. The story is told, like the Abraham stories are told, without any attempt to whitewash the failure and folly of Israel, even as they succeed in conquering most of the land. We have been prepared by the writer of Genesis for this moment, and for part at least of the moral problem it poses, as far back as Genesis 15, when God tells Abraham that his descendents will come back to the promised land in the fourth generation, Ďbecause,í he says, Ďthe iniquity of the Amorite is not yet fullí (15.16). The implication is that, running alongside or underneath the larger story of how Abrahamís family is Godís means of dealing with evil in the world, there are sub-plots in which God is keeping an eye on the various nations of the world, not in order to punish them immediately if they are going to the bad, but in order to prevent them going beyond a certain limit. In Abrahamís day, God knows that the Amorites are wicked but not that wicked; but itís clear they are going to become more so. Sooner or later, at the appointed time, the non-Jewish peoples who occupy the land will be ripe for judgment, and then God will use his people, and their entry to the land, as the means of that judgment. This corresponds to the remarkable picture of Godís moral providence we find in Isaiah 10, when God first uses the pagan arrogance of Assyria as a way of punishing rebellious Israel and then, when this work is complete, punishes Assyria in turn precisely for its pagan arrogance. This is presumably what the Psalmist means by God turning human wrath to his praise.

All this, however, is a terrible responsibility for Israel, and Israel will not live up to it. Hence the tragi-comic sequence of stories in the book of Judges, when, after the conquest under Joshua, Israel get it wrong over and over again and God has to rescue them from scrape after scrape. The rescuers themselves, characteristically, are hardly pillars of virtue; think of the flawed hero Samson. We look back from our historical vantage point, and post-Enlightenment thought has looked back from its supposed position of moral superiority, and we shake our heads over the whole sorry business of conquest and settlement. Ethnic cleansing, we call it, and however much the Israelites had suffered in Egypt we find it hard to believe that they were justified in doing what they did to the Canaanites, or that the God who was involved in this operation was the same God we know in Jesus Christ. And yet. Ever since the garden, ever since Godís grief over Noah, ever since Babel and Abraham, the story has been about the messy way in which God had to work to bring the world out of the mess. Somehow, in a way we find positively offensive, God has to get his boots muddy, and, it seems, get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights. If we declare, as many have done, that we would rather it were not so, we face the counter-question as to which bit of dry, clean ground we are standing on that we should look down from that height and pronounce on the matter with such certainty. Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that the primal sin of humanity consisted in putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. That is one of the further dark mysteries of Genesis 3 - there must be some substantial continuity between what we mean by good and evil and what God means, otherwise we are in moral darkness indeed - but it serves as a warning not to pontificate too securely about what God should and shouldnít have done. The stories of conquest conclude with Israel, the people of promise, finally in the land, embattled and rebellious but installed, a broken signpost still shakily pointing forwards to the creatorís purpose to rescue his human creatures and complete the work of creation.

The period of the Judges gives way, with a sigh of relief on the part of the book of that name, to the period of the monarchy. But right from the start - I hope you are beginning to sense how this pattern works throughout the Old Testament - the institution of the monarchy was itself flawed. Samuel knew the people asked for a king for the wrong reasons, and the first one he gave them went to the bad. David, the man after Godís own heart, was too interested by half in other peopleís wives, and his own consequent experience of humiliating exile, and almost equally humbling and costly restoration, form an advance pattern for the experience of the whole people five hundred years later. There is no question, particularly in the Psalms, that David and his dynasty are to be seen as Godís answer to the problem of evil. They will bring judgment and justice to the world. Their dominion will be from one sea to the other, from the River to the ends of the earth. And yet. The greatest royal psalm, Psalm 89, which I still hope to hear sung in full by our choir one evensong before I leave this blessed spot, juxtaposes 37 verses of celebration of the wonderful things God will do through the Davidic king with fourteen verses asking plaintively why itís all gone wrong. The Psalm then ends with a single verse blessing YHWH for ever; and thatís the classic Old Testament picture. Split the Psalm up, either way, and you fail to catch the flavour of the entire corpus of biblical writing. Godís solution to the problem of evil, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy through which Israel will at last be the light to the nations, the bringer of justice to the world, comes already complete with a sense of puzzlement and failure, a sense that the plan isnít working in the way it should, that the only thing to do is to hold the spectacular promises in one hand and the messy reality in the other and praise YHWH anyway.
The Psalms, indeed, are a rich treasurehouse of reflection on evil and what God does with it, as indeed of so much else. The Psalter opens with a classic statement of one part of Jewish belief: people who walk in the way of YHWH are blessed, while the wicked will be like the chaff which the wind blows away. This conventional wisdom is repeated frequently in other Psalms, and of course in Proverbs too. One Psalm even chances its arm and declares (37.25) that, though the writer has been young and now is old, he has never seen the righteous forsaken, or their seed begging for bread. We donít need to look at the book of Job to find out that things arenít always that straightforward: several other Psalms come quickly, almost angrily, to point out that the righteous suffer injustice and God doesnít seem to do anything about it. Psalm 73 forms one of the towering statements of this, wrestling with the problem and pointing at last towards a long-term solution: God will act in the end, perhaps beyond death itself, to judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. Psalm 94 goes in a similar direction: the present sufferings of the righteous are to be seen as divine chastisement, leading to eventual rescue and salvation, while the wicked will reserve their sufferings for later, for ultimate punishment. Several Psalms ask ĎHow long, O Lord?í, and by no means receive an unambiguous answer. And, sandwiched between the lovely little poem we know as ĎGlorious things of thee are spokení and the great royal psalm I spoke of a moment ago, we have Psalm 88, the darkest and most hopeless of any prayer in scripture:

Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
and darkness is my only companion.

The only note of hope here, if indeed it is that, is the second person singular. The Psalmist will not suggest that what is happening to him is other than the strange and terrifying work of YHWH himself. He canít understand it; he knows it isnít what ought to be happening; but he holds on, almost one might think to the point of blasphemy, to the belief that YHWH remains sovereign.

This, of course, is what happens with the prophets of the exile, and indeed Psalm 88 might be read as a corporate statement corresponding to Jeremiahís Lamentations. Though the pagan nations might celebrate their triumph not only over Israel but over Israelís God, the prophets of the time insist that it was YHWH himself who had done to Israel what he had done to Adam and Eve so long before, expelling them from the land, the promised garden, because of their rebellion. The story of exile and restoration, so central to the Bible, becomes the great and mysterious answer to the question, what does YHWH do about evil. The question of Godís justice, raised implicitly all over the Bible, is here faced head on. This is where, in our third and last main section, we come to the three books which invite us to come higher up the mountain, even if it means going into the mist, and to listen for fresh words of wisdom on our topic.

3. My Servant Israel, My Servant Job

ĎHave you considered,í asks God to Satan, ĎHave you considered my servant Job?í Well, Satan had and he hadnít, and part of the puzzle of Job is why God put the question like that to Satan in the first place. But before we consider Job for ourselves I want to look at the other great Servant of YHWH in the Old Testament, if indeed he is that different from Job, and then at another book in which a similar pattern is worked out. The book of the Old Testament which, on its surface, has most to do with the justice or righteousness of God is the book sometimes called Second Isaiah, that is, chapters 40-55, or perhaps 40-66, of the larger book we call Isaiah.

Isaiah 40-55, commonly supposed to date from the time of the exile (though nothing for my purpose hinges on this), wrestles with the question of how YHWH can be righteous, granted that Israel is condemned to exile. This, it quickly emerges, is the focal point, at the smaller, close-up, level, of the problem of Godís moral governance of the world as a whole. Israel in exile, as I said a moment ago, is like Adam and Eve expelled from the garden. But God had created the human race as his image-bearing stewards, to rule wisely on his behalf over creation; and that covenant is not forgotten. That is the biblical shape of the problem of evil: that the long memory of the human task, under God, is currently in tension with the fact that humans have rebelled and the ground bears thorns and thistles.

Similarly, Israel has been exiled for gross misconduct - idolatry, immorality, persistent refusal to hear YHWH calling her back to obedience. But God has called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world, humanity, creation itself, and that covenant is not forgotten. The larger biblical shape of the problem of evil is reflected in the more sharply focused shape of the problem of Israel in exile; and Isaiah 40-55 proclaims that YHWH is still the sovereign creator, that he is still in covenant with Israel, that he is, above all, righteous, tzaddik, and that because of this righteousness, this faithfulness both to covenant and to creation, Israel will be rescued and creation itself will be restored. Isaiah 55, the magnificent climax of the whole section, glories in the fact that the thorn will be replaced by the cypress, and the brier with the myrtle. The curse of Genesis 3 itself will be undone when Israel is redeemed and the covenant re-established. If you want to understand Godís justice in an unjust world, says Isaiah, this is where you must look. Godís justice is not simply a blind disposing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way. Godís justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation, and whose justice is not simply designed to restore a balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place. And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures, and, more specifically, through the family of Abraham.

But how? Woven closely into the fabric of Isaiah 40-55 stands the figure of the Servant: YHWHís Servant, the one through whom YHWHís purpose of justice and salvation will be carried out. The Servant comes before us in chapter 42 as a royal figure, clearly linked to the royal figure in chapters 9 and 11, and the similar one in chapter 61; and yet he is in many ways very unlike a king. He is clearly Israel, or perhaps we should say Israel-in-person, sharing the vocation of Israel and now sharing the fate of Israel, exiled, crushed, and killed; and yet he also stands over against Israel, so that Israel itself looks on in horror at his fate, and even the remnant within Israel is described as Ďthose who hear the Servantís voiceí. Somehow Isaiah has so redefined the broader problem of evil, of the injustice of the world and the justice of the one creator God, that we now see it, not as a philosopherís puzzle requiring explanation, but as the tragedy of all creation requiring a fresh act from the sovereign creator God, focussed on the tragedy of Israel requiring a fresh act from the sovereign covenant God. And, to our amazement and (if we know what we are about) horror, we discover that this fresh act comes into sharp focus in the suffering and death of the Servant. Sharing the fate of Israel in exile, the exile which we know from Genesis 3 onwards is closely aligned with death itself, he bears the sin of the many. He embodies the covenant faithfulness, the restorative justice, of the sovereign God, and with his stripes Ďweí - presumably, the Ďweí of the remnant, looking on in wonder and fear - Ďweí are healed.

Central to the Old Testament picture of Godís justice in an unjust world, then, is the picture of Godís faithfulness to unfaithful Israel; and central to that picture is the picture of YHWHís servant, an individual who stands over against Israel, and takes Israelís fate upon himself so that Israel may be rescued from exile and the human race proceed at last towards the new creation in which thorns and thistles will be replaced by cypress and myrtle, dust and death by new life. The greatest prophet of the Old Testament points forwards, without further explanation, to a fresh act of the one true God in which this will be accomplished. The Servant is both Israel and Godís fresh emissary to Israel; he is both the king and the one who does what no king could ever do. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, it remains a puzzle, the positive side of the puzzle of evil itself.

A similar puzzle is found in the second of my three books, one of the first books to wrestle with Isaiah 40-55 and apply it to subsequent situations. The book of Daniel is all about the problem of evil: of how pagan empires do their worst, and the one true God acts in judgment upon them and in vindication of his true people. At various points in the book, but particularly in chapters 11 and 12, the servant-figure seems to be applied to the righteous within Israel, those who stay loyal to YHWH even in exile and suffer for it, those who are martyred at the hands of pagan empire, who are (in the bookís central image, which we glanced at last time) mauled by the monsters who come up from the sea. The kingdoms of the world rage against the kingdom of God; the problem of evil grows teeth and claws, comes out from the philosophersí debating chambers and on to the stage of the real world, turning gardens into deserts and human lives to dust and ashes. As I argued last time, one of the reasons our contemporary world hasnít been able to come to terms with the reality of evil, or when it does it does so in immature and inappropriate ways, is because it has thought of evil either as a philosopherís puzzle or as an old-fashioned problem which modernity has at last solved. Those who study Daniel on the one hand, and those who study the real world of 2003 on the other, ought to know better. Evil is alive and powerful, not least where mighty empires vaunt themselves and imagine they can do as they please, even if it means turning gardens into deserts and deserts into graveyards.

At the centre of the book of Daniel, corresponding in some ways to the figure of the Servant in Isaiah, and fulfilling a similar role in terms of both receiving and embodying the saving justice of God, is the figure of Ďone like a Son of Maní. The original meaning, and subsequent understandings, of this phrase, are of course hugely controversial, and I have written at some length about them elsewhere. But the drama of Daniel 7 is not to be collapsed into mere linguistic debates. The monsters that come up from the sea - remember the sea from last time - make war against the human figure; but God exalts the human one over the beasts, just like Adam in the garden being set in authority over the animals. Only this time, after the long history of evil, of creation out of joint, the animals are threatening, and the newly re-established human rule over them is one of punitive judgment. Daniel 7 is basically a lawcourt scene: God takes his seat, and judgment is given for the Human One against the beasts. This is what Godís justice over the unjust world will look like: Godís restoration of creation must take place by the forces of evil being rightly overthrown, and his faithful people vindicated. The question we are left with at the end of Daniel is: but who are Godís faithful people? And how will it all work out? WHo is this Son of Man?

The third and final book to be considered (far too briefly, inevitably) is of course the noble and deeply puzzling Book of Job. Out of the many things that could and probably should be said I choose the following six.

First, the pattern of the book of Job, like that of some of the Psalms, and of the exilic literature as a whole, is one of questioning the moral providence of God in the light of rampant evil - in this case, of course, evil directed against Job himself. The question of Godís justice is raised by the book of Job in a manner parallel to the way it is raised in the literature of the exile; and the answer, if it is an answer, consists of a fresh display of the power of God as creator, which is the theological basis also of the answers, if they are answers, offered by Isaiah and Daniel.

Second, however, the whole point of the book of Job is that, whereas Israel was emphatically guilty, and the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel insist loudly on this point, Job was of course innocent. The normal analysis of the exile was that Israel thoroughly deserved it; the whole point of Job is that Job didnít. His comforters, relying no doubt on a simplistic reading of Deuteronomy, Psalm 1, and so on, insist that good people have good things happen to them and bad people have bad things, therefore if you have bad things happen to you . . . etc. etc. The book of Job enters a massive protest against this as a blanket analysis of how things are in the present world, like Psalm 73 but with far more long drawn out stridency and without the same resolution.

Third, the book is of course framed by the opening two chapters in which we learn both that the satan is the source of Jobís problem and that God has given him permission - indeed, we might almost say, encouragement, to do what heís done. This is one of the rare occasions when the satan puts in an appearance in the Old Testament - the main other one being the Chroniclerís account of Davidís census - and itís quite clear that the word Ďsataní is a title, an office: he is the accuser, the director of public prosecutions. He doesnít exactly tempt Job to sin, though perhaps part of the point is that heís tempting him to curse God, and Job refuses. (He curses everything else, including the day he was born, but he simply complains to God and asks whatís happened to the celebrated, legendary, divine justice.) We are invited, in other words, to look in on Jobís torment and his questions with the privileged knowledge that this is not, in fact, a contest between Job and God, as Job thinks it is (which is why, knowing himself to be innocent, he thinks that God has made a terrible mistake) and as his would-be comforters also think it is (which is why, knowing cheerfully that God doesnít make mistakes, they assume that Job must in fact be guilty in some way). Nor is it, or not straightforwardly, a contest between God and Satan, as the dualist would imagine. It is a contest between Satan and Job: Satan trying to get Job in his power, Job insisting both that God ought to be just and that he himself is in the right.

Fourth, the majestic display of creation which forms the denouement of the book both is and isnít an answer to the problem. Indeed, in one sense it restates it; if God really is the sovereign creator, ruling Behemoth and Leviathan and calling the north wind out of its shed, then he ought to make a better job of running the moral side of the cosmos. Nor is it simply a way of saying ĎIím God and Iím very powerful so you just shut up.í Nor do I think itís likely, despite a recent advocate of this position, that Behemoth and Leviathan are intended as evil creatures over whom God is displaying his sovereignty. But within the larger canonical context it ought to be clear that re-emphasizing the doctrine of creation is indeed the foundation of all biblical answers to questions about who God is and what heís doing. This is so, as weíve seen, both for Isaiah and for Daniel, and it remains so in the New Testament.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, the conclusion to the book, which many have felt to be quite a let-down almost to the point of bathos, is important for what it insists on. It might have been easy, if the author had been of a different theological position, for him to say that after Jobís death the angels carried him to a paradise where everything was so wonderful that he forgot the terrible time heíd had on earth. But that is emphatically not the point. The question is about Godís moral government of this world, not about the way in which we should leave this world behind and find consolation in a different one. That is the high road to Buddhism, not to biblical theology. We may find the last chapter of the book a bit trivial, and it does seem to leave the writer still open to Dostoevskyís question. But it insists that if God is the creator, and that after all is the premise of the whole book, then it matters that if things are to be put right they are put right within creation itself, not somewhere else.
Sixth, and pointing ahead to next time, the parallel between Job and YHWHís Servant in Isaiah remains striking. The Servant, after all, is innocent as Job is. He doesnít complain, as Job does; yet he, too, suffers indignity as well as pain and despair. Within, once more, the larger canonical context, there may be something to be said for seeing the entire book of Job as an anticipation of the harrowing scene in Gethsemane, where the comforters again fail and even creation goes dark as the monsters close in around the innocent figure asking what itís all about. But more of that anon. Job remains, in its own terms, as a monument not only to astonishing literary skill but to the theological pursuit of answers that refuse to be put off, the theological insistence that to solve the problem of evil is to belittle it, the theological celebration, in the teeth of the apparent evidence, of Israelís God as the creator and lord of the world.


There are literally dozens of things that could be said to conclude this whirlwind tour of the Old Testamentís way of coming at the problem of evil, but I confine myself to four, the last of which opens up just a little further.

First, the personified force of evil, the Satan, is important but not that important. The origin of evil itself remains a mystery; and the Satan, when he or it appears, is kept strictly within bounds. We are still some way from the dragon of Revelation, or even from the whisperer of the Mount of Temptation.

Second, human responsibility for evil is clear throughout. And, though no theory of this is offered, all humans appear to share in the problem - or virtually all; Ezekiel lists Noah, Daniel and Job as the three most righteous men who ever lived, and we remind ourselves of Noahís drunkenness, Danielís prayer of confession, and Jobís hand across his mouth with nothing more to say in his own defence. Abraham got it wrong; so did Moses, sometimes; David, a great saint, was also a great sinner; and so on. God chooses to bring the world back to rights through a family who are themselves composed of deeply flawed human beings, and who thereby generate second- and third-order problems of evil which in their turn have to be addressed and solved. Only the strange, silent figure of Isaiah 53 stands before us as one of whom it is said that he remains innocent and righteous.

Third, the evil that humans do is integrated with the enslavement of creation. This is seldom a matter of one-on-one cause and effect, but there is a nexus, a web of rippling events that spreads out from human rebellion against the creator to the out-of-jointness of creation itself. In the same way, when humans are put back to rights the world will be put back to rights. No theory is offered about earthquakes or other so-called Ďnatural disastersí, though no doubt the prophets would have been happy to identify them as divine warning signs.

Fourth, the Old Testament never tries to give us the sort of picture the philosophers want, of a static world order with everything explained tidily. Instead, we are given a narrative of Godís project of justice within a world of injustice. This project is a matter of setting the existing creation to rights rather than scrapping it and doing something else instead; and for that reason God decides to work through human beings, even though their hearts think only of evil; and through Israel, even though from Abraham onwards they make as many mistakes as they do acts of obedience. Both in the grand narrative itself, and in many smaller moments within it, we observe a pattern of divine action, to judge and punish evil and to set bounds to it, without destroying the responsibility and agency of human beings themselves; and, also, both to promise and to bring about new moments of grace, events which constitute new creation, however much they are themselves necessarily shot through with ambiguity. This is not, I think, exactly the same as the Ďfree will defenceí beloved of some theodicists; it is more a Ďcommitment to actioní on Godís part, to act within the world he has created, to affirm that world in its created otherness even as he is putting it to rights.

Within this fourth point, of course, we find, in pattern and outline at least, the signposts that will lead us, however obliquely and ambiguously, to that narrative which offers itself as the climax of the Old Testament. The moment when the sinfulness of humankind grieved God to his heart, the moment when the Servant was despised and rejected, the moment when Job asked God why it had to be that way, came together when the Son of Man knelt, lonely and afraid, before going to face the might of the beasts that had at last come up out of the sea. The story of Gethsemane and of the cross itself present themselves in the New Testament as the strange, dark conclusion to the story of what God does about evil, of what happens to Godís justice when it takes human flesh, when it gets its feet muddy in the garden and its hands bloody on the cross. The multiple ambiguities of Godís actions in the world come together in the story of Jesus, the story that will be the subject of the next lecture.