Justice and Mercy

Parsha Bo drash by Stan Satz

Parasha Bo (Chapter 10 through the 16th verse of Chapter 13)

I was in graduate school at Kent State University in the iconoclastic early 1970’s. At that time, one of my non-Jewish English graduate professors, while discussing Christian meditative poetry, authoritatively said that the Hebrew God is a belligerent, bloodthirsty, and barbaric tyrant who would ruthlessly persecute and massacre anyone who opposed him, pagan or Israelite. I was shell-shocked and outraged by such a gratuitous generalization at best and at worst a deeply ingrained anti-Semitism.

I, on the other hand, had always believed that the God of the Hebrew Bible was not a bully or a monster: his wrath was justified, and his justice was leavened with mercy. But I didn’t dare contradict my biased professor, fearing to antagonize him and thus jeopardize my grade.
What was the most heinous act that he cited as proof that our ancient God was a homicidal villain? The final plague in Parasha Bo: God’s annihilation of the first-born Egyptians, whether or not they were intimately involved in perpetuating the slavery of the Hebrews, whether they were royalty or rabble. How can anyone excuse such apocalyptic overkill? It is a crime against humanity personally and maliciously carried out by the malevolent God of the Old Testament.
At face value, my professor makes a strong case against a heartless, vengeful God. But if I had another chance to debate this controversial issue with him, this is how I would respond.

First of all, for countless generations, Pharaoh’s empire had depended economically on the slave labor of the Hebrew people. There is no way that he will free them, as his convoluted crafty bargaining and negotiations with Moses indicate. God doesn’t need to harden Pharaoh’s heart—it is already plagued by pride, calcified against meaningful compromise or retreat. Pharaoh will not give up his power at any cost—after all, he is a deity incarnate, invincible.
Moses realizes that Pharaoh will not relent even after the battery of afflictions that his kingdom has had to endure. No matter what horror God wreaks on Egypt, Moses knows that Pharaoh cannot be trusted to liberate God’s Chosen People.

Even the last plague, the slaughter of all first-born Egyptians, ultimately fails to convince Pharaoh that he must give in to Moses’ urgent demands. For Pharaoh, as we will see in the following parasha, reneges on his pledge to enable the Hebrews to journey to the Promised Land, culminating in the utter demise of his military forces in the turbulence of the Reed Sea.
While God’s destructive power prevails, Pharaoh, not God, is responsible for the collateral damage. In fact, according to Talmudic lore in a time-honored Midrash (Megilla 10), God doesn’t gloat over the deaths of the doomed Egyptians: he grieves for them; he laments their fate. When the angels begin to celebrate the decimation of the Egyptians forces, God immediately rebukes them for being so callous: ‘“How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying? Are these not my children also?” This regret is why during the Passover Seder we are required to spill drops of wine (representing tears) from our second cupful: to remind us that because others perished, our ancestral joy in miraculously escaping oppression should be tempered with loving-kindness for all humanity, with chesed.

To further rebut my professor, almighty God freely offers rehabilitation as well as retribution for evildoers. According to the Bo Haftorah reading from Jeremiah, the Babylonians are predicted to ravage Egypt and disperse its inhabitants throughout the Middle East. But eventually, the displaced Egyptians will return to their ancient homeland, just as the exiled Israelites will repopulate their beloved Promised Land. And according to Isaiah, after God will unleash his righteous wrath against the idolatrous Egyptians with an all-consuming famine resulting in a disastrous civil war, they will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them. In fact, “The Lord will bless them, saying, blessed be Egypt my people” (Isaiah 19:25).
Regardless of the catastrophes that may await the enemies of Israel or the stiff-necked, backsliding Israelites themselves, God takes no pleasure in meting out punishment: “As I live, says God, I do not wish for the death of the wicked, but for the wicked to repent of their way, so that they may live” (Ezekiel 33:11).

I have not had any recent revelations from God. However, a few years ago when I was picking up gobs of litter from the beach at my home in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, I, without any preamble, heard a booming voice quote the end of the 23rd Psalm, with justice replacing goodness: “Justice and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” What an epiphany! Whether this pronouncement was merely a neurological misfiring or a hotline from God, I immediately began sobbing with joy. Justice counterbalanced with mercy: a mantra for all seasons. That would be my response to anyone who sees only God’s intermittent cruelty, not his abiding compassion, his rachamim.
In retrospect, I wonder if my professor continued to adhere to his gross caricature of the God of the Torah. If he still maintained that distorted view, I have a belated admonition for him from Deuteronomy, Chapter 10, verse 16, a command often reiterated in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible.

“Circumcise…the foreskin of your heart.”


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