Why is God punishing us like this?

Educational plagues.

Kevin Drum asks the question à propos of a particularly idiotic stunt by the Romney campaign, with four more months to go before the election.

A clue in these two maps.

A recent NOAA map of the current MidWest drought (h/t Climate Progress):

An NYT map of the voting shifts in the 2008 presidential election – pink means the shift was to McCain:
The correlation is no doubt spurious, and McCain wasn’t even a climate change denier like Romney and the current GOP. [Update: and see (h/t commenter koreyel below) these maps of obesity and car commuting.] Still, I think Exodus gets our underlying predicament right. Denial of livesaving truths has consequences.
Yahweh to Moses, according to Exodus 7: 2-4 (NIV) – my italics of course:

You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you

The following account of the plagues is a horrific tragedy, as they escalate from dramatic but essentially symbolic nuisances to the genocidal cull of the first born. Pharaoh’s response to each plague is initially denial, then a panicky cave-in to Moses’ demand, followed by a quick reversal and return to Business as Usual. So it goes all the way to disaster. Exodus 29:29-32 :

At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.  Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD as you have requested.Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.

It takes the massacre for Pharaoh really to let the Israelites go.

This pattern has been replicated in the 20 years since the first Rio environmental summit. George Monbiot (writing before the conference closed) has it right on the latest Rio gabfest. The final text even has weaker language than the 1992 declaration, and still – after 20 years of similar meetings – no action plan to get us to a sustainable world:

The draft and probably final declaration is 283 paragraphs of fluff. It suggests that the 190 governments due to approve it have, in effect, given up on multilateralism, given up on the world and given up on us.

This is why I do not share Matthew Kahn’s optimism on adaptation to climate change. Adaptation is the enemy of mitigation, that is of real change. What we need is for adaptation to fail locally and regionally so that eventually the princes of this world, the presidents, bankers, billionaires and their flattering courtiers in government, the media and academe will come under overwhelming popular pressure to

let my people go.

So I for one am forced to welcome the droughts in Appalachia as a little educational plague, say a rain of frogs. It will take a lot more than that; I suspect hundreds of thousands of deaths. Though I fear it will go all the way: in which case the one-quarter or so death rate of the Mosaic plague on the firstborn will seem light punishment.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

31 thoughts on “Why is God punishing us like this?”

  1. The part I have never understood is where God says “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you…” WTF? Why on earth (or in heaven) would God go out of his way to “harden Pharaoh’s heart.” What conceivable motive could he have for that, unless he was just itching to unleash a horrible succession of plagues. This is not the only passage in the older portions of the Torah where God seems to be s spiteful sociopath.

    1. Paul,
      This is a key problem of Jewish theodicy. I know that there is an accepted (range of) answer(s) to this, but I am not a good enough Jew to know what it is/they are.

      1. It’s a stumbling block to Christians, too, EB. I’ve heard the answers from both the Talmudic and Evangelical perspectives and I don’t recall being especially impressed by either sets of special pleadings.

    2. This puzzles me as well. Indeed the entire process of liberation is unnecessarily bloody.

      Why not simply put all the Egyptians in a month-long coma, let the Israelites pack their stuff, bake their bread, and be long gone by the time the Egyptians wake up, healthy.

      And what about drowning the army in the Red Sea? Why not send down a cloud to obscure their vision, have them turn the wrong way or something?

      There is an unconvincing passage in the Hagadah where it is explained that it was necessary to punish innocents – even animals – to show everybody who was Boss.

      The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach about a moral lesson here is that the Egyptians were punished, en masse, for tolerating the treatment of the Israelites, even if they were noot participants, as most would not have been. Doesn’t really work, though. Were they supposed to impeach Pharaoh and throw him out?

      1. There’s also a passage in the Hagadah where God rebukes the angels that celebrate the destruction wreaked upon the Egyptian forces at the crossing of the Red Sea, for were the oppressors God destroyed not also the work of God’s hands? One could imagine that God caused the Egyptians to be unreasonable and to become especially culpable because without those developments it would be harder for God to justify the horrors God inflicted on the Egyptians. It’s a divine equivalent of George W’s lying about WMDs and about Hans Blix and his inspectors, heightening the tension and raising the stakes in order to justify the actions God wished to undertake. Heck, I’d not be shocked to hear that Dubya had his actions defended to him in just such a manner.

    3. I pass on the Jewish (or Christian for that matter) theodicy. But if you simply posit as the Tanakh does that the Hebrews have (a not necessarily nice) God on their side, it becomes a human story about how the Egyptians first deny and then accept the inevitable. That story, it seems to me, is basically true to life.

      1. The question is, what is it that people will accept as “inevitable?” Perhaps they will accept a further increase in economic inequality, followed by a 90% die off, since after all, any other outcome would be Commie and an abomination unto the Lord, depending where you sit. Perhaps the Egyptians might have just tried a massacre, instead of accepting that the Israelites really had a direct line to God. There are a number of bad things that can become inevitable.

        Of course, I hope you’re right!

        But, on a closer note, I would argue that here in Cali, the red areas of the state have suffered much, much more greatly than the blue these last few years, and no one in power talks about it and no one does anything. Not the rich growers, of course, but the ordinary people there. The undocs, and the other people stuck out in the red areas for whatever reason. No one seems to do a thing, we don’t ever talk about it, and yet somehow, we expect them to have this great awakening when things get hotter. On empty stomachs. So, again, I hope you’re right.

        1. The rich growers of the Central Valley do of course talk about drought, as anyone who’s seen the signs along I-5 can attest. They blame Congress for limiting their ability to suck dry the water needed for other purposes and other states rather than blaming climate change or contemplating water-efficient agriculture, but they do talk about drought.

          1. That’s true. I was thinking more about all those hungry people who grow the bleeping food in the first place! Scary-high unemployment in our red counties, afaik. It is such a pickle because of course with Prop. 13 even if we want to, the rest of us can’t do much to help. Where, I would like to know, is the Cali billionaire, or heck even just a millionaire, with the cojones to go after Prop. 13 once and for all???

          2. Oh, and while I’m being tiresome, if I ever figure out who these Dems are who are supporting food stamp cuts, they will be on my S list for all of eternity (unless they repent ; >)

    4. If you stop thinking of God as benevolent, a concept that has little support in the Old Testament and little support in human experience, and start thinking of him as a sadistic asshole, it all makes sense.

  2. James,
    You’ve got to remember that Pharaoh didn’t relent until G-d smote Pharaoh’s own first born. I’m afraid that this will not happen with our plutocratic class–their kids will continue to get a lovely tan on the Greenland beachfront, or wherever it is they may go to. If Bangladesh slides into the sea (not an unlikely predicament), nothing will happen. It’s only 75 million non-plutocrats, after all.

  3. And even after that, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the Israelites with his army. YHWH must surely have had it in for him. Maybe he mixed fibers.

  4. James Wimberly: “This is why I do not share Matthew Kahn’s optimism on adaptation to climate change. ”

    A friend and I were casually discussing a scenario which had a full nuclear exchange in the 1980’s (most warheads being used, few dying in their tubes) combined with a full nuclear winter (-60 deg F temp drop in areas), leading to an Ice Age.
    The idea was what would sort of population would there be a few centuries down the road.

    That, by the Matthew Kahn method, shows that nuclear war was no problem, since humanity would ‘adapt’ (i.e., 90-odd percent die-off).

    Frankly, Kahn’s a BS artist, who does not belong on this blog.

    1. If you are going to be offensive to any of my fellow bloggers, at least do him of her the simple courtesy of doing it face to face on one of his or her posts. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about how adaptation is going to play out.

      1. James, I have said theses things face to face.

        And as I (and others) have pointed out,it’s not that Kahn thinks about it, but rather how awfully he ‘thinks’ about it.

        Please see the comments to his first posts here to see what I said (after the first few, I gave up on him).

    1. Why do you assume that his meanness is “needless”? Who are we to seek to understand the thinking of a Jewish tribal deity who underwent cultural fusion with a variety of Canaanite city gods, briefly had a wife named Asherah, picked up a strong dose of ill-digested Middle Platonism and now has an American passport and a white quarterbacking (well, sorta) son named Tim?

      I must confess to wondering just how the same god could apparently forbid bacon sandwiches during one phase of his human interfacing and yet cheerfully announce that bacon sandwiches were fine and dandy after handing over his son for expiatory crucifixion.

      Anyway, praise the Lord and pass the ketchup.

    2. I don’t know about MN or NM, but as for Baltimore, maybe it’s an effort to get you blogging again.

      1. And Byomtov picks up Hilzoy’s cunning topspin shot low off the ground and unleashes a massive crosscourt forehand drive landing inches within Hilzoy’s corner!

    3. hilzoy says:
      June 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm

      But why is God being needlessly mean to northern MN, central NM, and my own Baltimore???

      Minnesota is being punished for the Bachmannites.
      Baltimore is being punished for not traveling to DC and putting certain people to fire and the sword.

  5. I share Warren T.’s (apparent) skepticism about heightening the contradictions. In any event, the contradictions are going to be heightened by and by; the only question is whether, by then, a catastrophe will already be inevitable.

    1. There’s a (possibly fine) distinction between actively trying to make things worse to precipitate the crisis, and not putting one’s energies into things which will only delay it. In practice, I’ll donate to victims of Rio mudslides and so on. But here, in a policy forum, I will write for mitigation all the way.

    1. Thanks for these, I’ve added a link in the post. It’s all very odd. Does car commuting lead to listening to talk radio ( -> Republicanism) while eating junk food (-> obesity), a quadruple blasphemy (-> providential drought)?

      1. James Wimberley says:
        June 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm

        “Thanks for these, I’ve added a link in the post. It’s all very odd. Does car commuting lead to listening to talk radio ( -> Republicanism) while eating junk food (-> obesity), a quadruple blasphemy (-> providential drought)?”

        I hadn’t thought of the affects of Rush. And I’m reading this at dinner 🙁

    2. I wonder what else might correlate, like poverty. Poverty seems to correlate with pretty much all bad things. It’s too bad no one’s trying to fight it anymore.

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