NOTES on Deuteronomic Theology of History: Suffering Viewed as Merited Punishment

God and the Bible

The Bible is a collection of more than 60 literary works; many authors wrote it over a period of more than 10 centuries. Despite this, there is a unifying theme to the Bible:

A personal God exists. This God has a purpose. This God acts to accomplish that purpose. This God wants human beings to unite with Him to accomplish that purpose.

The purpose of this God of divine action seems to be the creation of a “people of God.” This involves the establishment of a human community that is holy, just, and righteous, a community that eventually would bring spiritual enlightenment to Humankind.

A Little History

Abraham first settled in Canaan, the land of milk and honey. However, many years later, a famine forced the Israelites to go to Egypt, where they were enslaved. The great Jewish leader Moses masterminded the Israelites’ Exodus out of Egypt. Joshua was the leader who finished the Exodus.


Faithfulness and loyalty to God and His purposes lead to peace and prosperity, while rejection of God and His plans leads to strife and adversity. This is the Deuteronomic Theology of History.

Apparently, the author(s) of Deuteronomy believed that a people who worshipped the one true God would prosper, while a people who didn’t would not prosper.

We can ask: Should the righteous be happy and the unrighteous be miserable? Accordingly, adversity and suffering in the life of a nation or individual would be interpreted as evidence that the will of God was being violated.

The Deuteronomic Moral Law of Cause and Effect is “As you sow, so shall you reap.” For a long time, this moral law seemed to explain quite well the adversities that befell people and offered the Israelites a cosmic story whose power to interpret events endured for centuries.

More History

However, after being enslaved in Egypt, when the Israelites were back in Canaan, the Israelites — in times of prosperity — worshipped Baal, the god of the Canaanites. Still, during hard times, they returned to the worship of the one true God.

Because the Israelites were worshipping Baal after returning from Egypt, the prophets warned of a coming doom because of the Israelites’ neglect of righteousness and disregard for social justice. Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem. The leading Israelites were carried off into exile in Babylon.

Fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Israelites to return to Palestine to rebuild their nation. To many of the exiles, the Deuteronomic Moral Law was being vindicated:

Israel had paid for her sins, but her renewed commitment to God was now being rewarded.

Therefore, the re-patriots attempted to establish a holy community in Palestine that would remain faithful to God. According to Deuteronomic theory, this building of a holy community should have produced peace and prosperity, but it did not. Strife and adversity plagued the Israelites in their rebuilding. Because of this, the Deuteronomic cosmic story was seriously challenged.

And so we — and the ancient Israelites — can ask this question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

The Book of Job: A Case Against Deuteronomy


Job was an upright, honest, and moral man from East Palestine. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, etc. Every so often, Job sent for his sons and daughters in order to offer a Holocaust (sacrifice to God). Job was a decent God-fearing man who loved his children and took care of all who needed it.

According to the Deuteronomic Moral Law, Job should have had a good life because good things would happen to good people.

Job’s Case Against the Deuteronomic Moral Law

Bad things happened to Job:

  1. Raiders took all of Job’s flocks.
  2. During a feast, a strong wind blew down the house of Job’s eldest son and killed all of his children.
  3. A disease struck Job and covered him with boils from head to toe.

Job’s three friends insist that the Deuteronomic Moral Law holds strong and that Job should repent his sins. Job replies that God “destroys blameless and wicked alike.” Job refuses to repent because he has done nothing wrong and wants to challenge God personally.

In the ancient biblical system of law, “if a man is accused of wrongdoing without proof, he may take an oath, swearing to his innocence. At that point, the accuser must either come up with evidence against him or drop the charges” (Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People). Job swears that he is innocent, and God appears to Job and answers him out of a whirlwind, saying:

Where were you when I planned the earth?

Tell me, if you are wise.

Do you know who took its dimensions,

Measuring its length with a cord? …

Were you there when I stopped the sea …

And set its boundaries, saying, “Here you may come,

But no further”?

Have you seen where the snow is stored,

Or visited the storehouse of the hail? …

Do you tell the antelope when to calve?

Do you give the horse his strength?

Do you show the hawk how to fly?

Have you an arm like God?

Can you thunder with a voice like His?

You tread down the wicked where they stand,

Bury them in the dust altogether …

Then will I acknowledge that your own right hand

Can give you victory.

God answers Job, not by justifying Himself in front of Humankind, but by referring to His own omniscience and omnipotence. Job recovers his faith in God even stronger than before because of this experience. However, the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” remains unanswered. Apparently, the Deuteronomic Moral Order has not been validated, so why do bad things happen to good people?

We have the Dilemma of Evil:

P1: There is evil in the world.

P2: Either God cannot or God will not abolish evil.

P3: If God cannot abolish evil, then God is not omnipotent.

P4: If God will not abolish evil, then God is not omnibenevolent.

C: Therefore, either God is not omnipotent or God is not omnibenevolent.

Some Attempts to Answer Job’s Question

1) There is no omnibenevolent God.

Perhaps God does not exist. Or perhaps God is evil.

2) Suffering is a Test by God.

This is what the Prologue and Epilogue of Job say. God is engaged in a battle with Satan, and God tests us to see if we are faithful to Him. However, should we accept this answer? Shouldn’t we humans have faith in those we love? If so, then shouldn’t God have faith in us?

3) A Finite God.

John Stuart Mill believed this. According to Mill,

1) Deity is a being of “great but limited power,”

2) Deity is of “great but perhaps unlimited knowledge,”

3) Benevolence but not justice is one of Deity’s attributes.

However, according to Mill, a theology centering in this conception has several things to recommend it over the more traditional view of God. For example, a finite God needs our help. There is a battle going on between good and evil, and to win, God needs us to be on His side.

Another person who believes in a finite God is Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. His son died very young of a disease that aged him prematurely. Kushner decided because of that experience that God wants to help, but cannot. Therefore, God is not all-powerful. Kushner interprets the Voice from the Whirlwind as saying, “You think it’s easy to be God? You try it! You try to ‘tread down the wicked where they stand,’ then come back to Me and complain!”

4) Response to John Stuart Mill

H. Bradley asks, Is a finite God beneficial to the believer? After all, if God is finite, then we may be following Him to an overwhelming defeat. Bradley also says that we ought not to expect ultimate theoretical consistency in religion; after all, religion consists of a relationship between two wills: the infinite will of God and the finite will of Humankind. Bradley also suggests that perhaps religion functions to enrich human life.

5) The Unknown Mystery

We can regard evil as a mystery that human beings are not able to explain. Perhaps we should expect mysteries in religion. Perhaps suffering transcends human intelligence. Also, if we are immortal, then it is possible that unmerited suffering would receive compensation in the next life. This is not satisfactory to me. Why shouldn’t we be able to explain evil? The Principle of Sufficient Reason says that there is an explanation or cause, known or unknown, for everything.

6) Other Theodicies

John Hick: We are in transition between bios(biological life) and zoe(eternal life). We are in a vale of soul-making to prepare ourselves to be citizens of Heaven; suffering is one way to prepare us for Heaven.

C. S. Lewis: God is omnipotent, but that does not mean that God can do anything — such as create a square circle. Lewis explains moral evil (evil that people do) by saying that it is intrinsically impossible to create a world in which human beings have free will and there is no evil. Lewis explains natural evil (evil caused by tornados, hurricanes, many birth defects) by saying that human beings must have stable environments in which to exist, and this means that physical, natural laws will exist that affect good and bad people equally.

Complete Disclosure: These notes, which were typed (and partly written) by David Bruce, are based on a handout received in the course “Stories and the Pursuit of Meaning,” taught at Ohio University by Philosophy professor Donald Borchert. Much of this essay follows the handout (and Borchert’s textbook, An Introduction to Modern Philosophy), very closely.


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