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Theodicy in the Hebrew Bible

Theodicy is the attempt to understand why a good and all-powerful God allows evil to exist in the world.

William Blake
William Blake

God is all-good. God is all-powerful. Terrible things happen. Trying to reconcile these three things is what we call theodicy—an attempt to understand why God allows evil to exist in the world. To quote Abraham: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25).

As old as recorded history, theodicy gave rise to literary classics both in the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere. The best-known biblical theodicy is the book of Job. In it, a truly good man’s world is turned upside down by God and his agent because of a wager. The earlier, nonbiblical poem known as the Babylonian Theodicy, which is a dialogue between a sufferer and his friend, likewise raises doubts about the human ability to know what the gods approve.

How could anyone know that? Only by self-disclosure on the part of the deity or by analogy from human experience. And the latter requires God to be similar to mortals, embodying the noblest of human virtues. Herein lies a problem. What is believed to be noble changes over time. Attributes once deemed worthy of God become questionable.

Belief in only one God makes Judaism and Christianity particularly vulnerable to the problem of theodicy, for there is no one else to blame for evil. “The devil made me do it” won’t do, for an all-powerful God could easily negate the devil’s work.

In a world created by a good God, where does evil originate?

Evil manifests itself in nature (in tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, cancer cells) and in human behavior (offenses against one another and against God). Together, natural and moral evil test the human spirit and cause unbearable suffering. There is simply no explanation for the suffering of children, but people nevertheless seek answers.

Questions of theodicy abound in the Hebrew Bible, and the answers vary. From jurisprudence and warfare, for example, comes the retributive view that suffering is punishment for sin, whether unintentional or intentional. This idea pervades the historical and prophetic books as well as Psalms, Proverbs, and Job.

Parental discipline provides an alternative explanation for suffering. A loving parent punishes an errant child. The goal of correction is educative, a kind of soul building. By analogy, God is said to discipline favored ones (Prov 3:11-12). 

Testing supplies a third response to the existence evil. Lacking full knowledge, due to human free will, God needs to know whether an individual’s devotion is genuine. That search underlies the harrowing tests of Abraham, whom God commands to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22), and of Job.

Other explanations for evil’s presence also appear in the Bible and related literature: punishment or reward are deferred until a later time, either the remote future or after death (Job 19:26, Dan 12:2, and Isa 45:15); suffering draws one closer to God, who shares the pain, as in Ps 73; always a mystery, God is hidden or in exile because of the affront of sin; people are victims in a deterministic universe, as in Ecclesiastes, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch; some individuals suffer to save others from an awful fate; and suffering is transgenerational, offspring paying for the sins of their parents (as in Exod 34:7).

In the end, theodicy fails to offer a convincing, rational explanation for evil. It does, however, remind God of the covenant with Israel; and it keeps theologians honest.

  • James Crenshaw

    James Crenshaw is the Robert L. Flowers Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Duke University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Old Testament Wisdom (Westminster John Knox 2010), Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press, 2005), Qoheleth (University of South Carolina Press, 2013), and Reading Job (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).