Natural disasters: the Hebrew bible and today

Natural disasters in the Hebrew bible must be understood within the context of creation. On one reading, creation is a ‘precarious order’, which exists because God holds back the forces of chaos. In Genesis and the Minor Prophets, disasters are caused by human sin, which cuts at the creation covenant and causes God to let chaos loose. Yet this understanding of suffering and natural disasters is turned on its head in the Book of Job, which describes the good creation as intrinsically chaotic, and suffering as unrelated to human sin or righteousness. The essay concludes with the suggestion that the depiction of disasters as expressed in the Hebrew bible is not unlike the disasters we witness today, which are dually comprised of both human sin and randomness.

The ‘precarious order’ of creation

The story of creation is one of ‘precarious order’. Let us begin with the latter half: the ordered aspect.

The point of creation is not that God made something out of nothing: rather, God made order out of chaos.[1] We sense this vividly from the very beginning of the first creation story, at Gen 1.1-3. Speiser’s translation renders it thus:

When God set about to create heaven and earth – the world being a formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the water – God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.[2]

God’s first creative act, on this translation, is not to create the earth out of thin air.[3] The earth is pre-existing, primordial – as old, perhaps, as God. Yet there is no order: it is a formless wasteland governed only by darkness and a fierce wind.  The creativeness of God is to make light, separating it out from the chaotic and primordial darkness. From here, God separates the water above from the water below, with a firmament placed between (1.6-8), and then separates again the water below, so that land may be kept separate from sea (1.9-10). With all of this ‘separation’, we sense that this a God of order – a God who is at once an author and librarian, making sure that everything is in its right place.

The God of creative order is found again in Proverbs 8, which describes the ancient existence of wisdom:

… I was there when he set the heavens in place,

 when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above

and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

when he gave the sea its boundary

so the waters would not overstep his command,

and when he marked out the foundations of the earth …. (vv 27-29)

This is an ordered earth, by an ordered God. We imagine a fastidious architect, sketching out the lines that will be horizons, shores and foundations, or a builder positioning heavens and securing oceans. God is carefully crafting the earth, so that the powers of chaos stay in their place.

In other texts, God is portrayed less as an architect or builder, and more as a divine combatant. In Psalm 74, God is literally smashing the powers of chaos:

…God is my King from long ago;

he brings salvation on the earth.

It was you who split open the sea by your power;

you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

And gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. … (vv 12-14)

Such passages draw on other ancient near eastern creation myths, which portray creation as a dramatic, chaotic event where the stronger deity conquers the weaker deities.[4] It becomes part of a creation myth with the section immediately proceeding, which describes God opening up springs, establishing sun and moon, and setting the boundaries of the earth (vv 15-17).

The point here is that in the Hebrew bible God did not create everything out of nothing, including the monsters he battled. Rather, the story of creation is one of ordering pre-existing chaos: both through separating-out using the divine word, and by conquering using the divine fist. This distinction will be vital for our understanding of natural disasters in the context of the Hebrew bible.

Creation is also intrinsically precarious; chaos is perpetually perched in the wings. Psalm 104.6-9 speaks of waters that flee at the rebuke of God, remaining with the “boundary” set by God. Yet as far as the chaotic waters run away, they are still in existence. Unlike Psalm 74, above, “[t]he Sea is not always described as destroyed, hacked to pieces, never to rise again. On the contrary, often the waters of chaos are presented as surviving, only within the bounds that define creation”.[5] “Never again will they cover the earth,” says the Psalmist at 104.9b, yet this is exactly what happened in the story of the Flood in Genesis 6.

Indeed, many passages recall the creation myths of the Hebrew God because of the perceived onslaught of chaos and passivity of God. For example, Isaiah 51:

The Lord will surely comfort Zion

And will look with compassion on all her ruins;

He will make her deserts like Eden,

Her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. (v 3)

Awake, awake, arm of the Lord,

Clothe yourself with strength!

Awake, as in days gone by,

As in generations of old.

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,

Who pieced that monster through?

Was it not you who dried up the sea,

The waters of the great deep,

Who made a road in the depths of the sea

So that the redeemed might cross over? (vv 9-10)

It is as though the great YHWH who smashed apart mythic monsters has now fallen asleep, and needs to be called upon to destroy the chaotic forces that are menacing Judah. The battle is not done and dusted; the lines need to be continually retouched. Amid powerful foes, the creative ordering of God is constantly required.

Fretheim contends that the best sense for the verb “subdue” in Genesis 1.28 is “to bring order out of continuing disorder”.[6] The command to humans to “subdue” the earth is thus a call to continue the creative process by ‘subduing’ chaos. “In other terms,” says Fretheim, “Genesis does not present the creation as a finished product, wrapped up with a big red bow and handed over to the creatures to keep it exactly as originally created. It is not a onetime production.”[7] The waters will continue to rise up and the wild creatures will continue to threaten. The creation stories of the Hebrew bible tell us that the earth is under continual threat of chaos, and in continual need of creative order, by God and by us.

Human evilness, covenant and the ‘unwinding’ of creation

“God saw all that he had made and, behold, it was really good,” says our narrator in Gen 1.31. Just a few chapters later, God looked at the earth again, “and behold, it was corrupt” (6.12).[8] Humans had become wicked: “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (6.5). The earth was filled with violence (6.13). Thus God puts an end to the world God created – using a natural disaster.

What we see in the Flood narrative is an effective ‘reversing’ of creation, “caus[ing] the world to revert to the primordial aquatic state from which it had emerged.”[9] The waters from above, which had been held back by the firmament, rushed down, and the waters from below came up to meet them. God’s orderly ‘separating’ was thus undone, due to the evilness of humankind. This was our first sign that the creative order was rather precarious.

The message is this: that God’s ordered creation, with God’s boundaries placed on oceans and the sea monsters kept in check, is conditional. God will keep back the forces of chaos only if humans behave in a certain way. The total depravity of the pre-Deluge world is enough to undo the restraints of chaos and destroy most of the heavens and the earth. It is as though there is an unwritten contract, or covenant, and that humanity has breached its terms. God is thus entitled not to uphold God’s end of the covenant, and so lets chaos loose on creation.

A vestige of creation – righteous and blameless Noah and family plus animals – is protected from the ensuing destruction, sealed off from the primordial waters in God’s protective bubble of an ark. Noah has kept the terms of the unwritten contract. After creation is restored, God puts the contract in writing, covenanting with all of creation never again to completely destroy it by flood (Gen 9.9-11). Is there an element of conditionality in this everlasting covenant (berit olam)? Perhaps so: it is preceded by a demand from God that each animal and person account for their violence (Gen 9.5-6), which seems to be a recognition of the violence that caused the Flood in the first place (Gen 6.11). Yet despite the violence that we have witnessed throughout history, God has honoured his berit olam and not let chaos loose on all of creation.

Throughout the Prophets, however, we can witness parts of the creation covenant caving in, as a result of human violence, evil or disobedience. Jeremiah 4 depicts an effective ‘undoing’ of creation (see particularly vv 23-28), brought on by the people’s unfaithfulness. In keeping with Noah’s covenant “the whole land will be ruined” – “though I will not destroy it completely” (v 27). Yet in Isaiah 24 Noah’s berit olam appears breakable:

The earth dries up and withers,

the world languishes and withers,

the exalted of the earth languish.

The earth is defiled by its people;

they have disobeyed the laws,

violated the statutes

and broken the berit olam.

Therefore a curse consumes the earth;

Its people must bear their guilt.

Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up,

And very few are left. (vv 4-6)

The great Flood is alluded to in v 18b: “The floodgates of the heavens are open” (cf Gen 7.11b). It seems that this covenant can be undone, when the laws and statutes that underwrite it are broken.[10] Law, creation and disaster are intimately connected – law is “built into [the world’s] creational structures”[11]. When broken, chaos ensues, often in the form of natural disaster. Such outcomes are the effect of human sin, as opposed to a penalty or punishment meted out from God.[12] Indeed, the word commonly translated as “punish” (paqad) is more commonly a Hebrew word meaning “to visit” e.g. Jer 21.14: “I will visit upon you the fruit of your doings”.[13] Disaster, in the Hebrew bible, is a function of a working moral order, rather than punishment from God.

The clear links between Genesis and the prophets are understandable “because the history of early humanity is homologous with that of Israel”.[14] The people of Israel saw disaster ultimately in terms of the laws of creation, so it is little wonder that this thread is found throughout the Hebrew prophets.

Destructive elements inherent in a good creation

If disasters are caused by human evilness, this is only half of the story. For then comes along Job – who is struck by windstorm, lightning, fire and disease “for no reason” (Job 2.3). Job is not sinful, but “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (1.1). If there is any ‘reason’ for Job’s downfall, it is this: so that God can settle a bet with the satan, a lower divine being. The situation is preposterous, and cannot be prepared for by anything we know of God and covenant, which up until Job had been marked by steadfast love in the face of unfaithfulness, weakness and backsliding.[15] What we find in Job is the reserve: how can Job maintain his faithfulness to God in the face of God’s caprice and utter injustice?[16] Unlike all that we have discussed in the previous section, “[t]he Book of Job proclaims from the beginning that there is no correlation between sin and suffering, between virtue and reward.”[17]

The person Job is critical of this situation. Job berates God for his disorderly, poorly designed creation,[18] where the innocent are judged without a hearing (9.15-16) and God “destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (9.22). Job’s friends, on the other hand, maintain a worldview of a fastidiously organised creation, where God “establishes order in the heights of heaven” (25.2), injustice “shuts its mouth” (5.16) and the plans of the crafty are thwarted (5.12). The rebuke of Job’s friends read like the conventional piety contained in the Book of Proverbs, which claim the causal links between evil and demise, goodness and blessing. The friends “are proper, believing religious people. And they offer all the typical solutions”[19] – the ones that are all too easy to glean from the Prophets and the Proverbs. By the end of the book, it is these simplistic solutions that are dismissed by God.

God presents a world that is both ordered and disorderly – intrinsically precarious, if you like. All of it is good. In God’s first utterances, God challenges Job in the ‘orderly’ language of Psalm 8:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it? (vv 4-5)

 

God then introduces the legal language of creation law, which elsewhere underwrites covenant:

Who shut up the sea behind doors

when it burst forth from the womb…

when I fixed laws for it

and set its doors and bars in place,

when I said, “This far you may come and no farther;

here is where your proud waves halt”?

Have you ever given orders to the morning,

or shown the dawn its place… (vv 8-12)

Do you know the laws of the heavens? (v 33)

 Yet the ‘disorderly’ is overwhelmingly present in God’s speeches. God responds in a windstorm, as if to emphasise the disorderly nature of creation of which Job has been so critical. God uses images of wildness and strangeness, as well as wild weather – rain, hail, ice, snow, lightning and fire. In doing so, God is showing the goodness of the created world – orderly and disorderly alike. It is as if to say that God cannot control all chaos; that some of it is part and parcel with the good created ‘order’: “Creation is God’s response to a hunger for life”.[20] God has created a creative place, whose wild dimensions are intrinsic to life. Water, gravity, fire, wild – “[w]ithout such potentially dangerous dimensions of the natural order, there would be no human life.”[21] Though God provides order, God also provides the freedom for creation to be:

God’s will was that the elements of the Earth’s crust should behave in accordance with their nature. In other words, they are allowed to be in their own way, just as we are allowed to be in ours.[22]

Thus, in the Book of Job, we find conventional wisdom turned on its head. Disasters do not befall just the sinful; they strike the righteous as well (and because they are righteous, at that!). It is possible that the capriciousness of God is a literary device designed to turn on its head, once and for all, the idea that destruction always follows corruption. While the corruption/destruction motif is rooted in creation, we find Job’s suffering there as well – he is simply in the way of a good creative world with disorderly elements.

Disasters in the world outside of the Hebrew bible

Interestingly, the understanding of disasters in the Hebrew bible reflects quite well our modern understandings of disaster. Up until the mid-1980s, hazard analysts saw natural disasters as caused by extreme natural hazard, such as windstorms, earthquakes and floods.[23] We are now aware that disasters are not caused just by natural hazards, but that disasters are hazards combined with social, economic, political and environmental vulnerabilities.[24] In other words, disasters are not random events. Vulnerable people suffer most from natural hazards: for them, they often become disasters. Generally, it is the poor who feel the effects of natural hazards the most, as depicted in numbing clarity by Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, speaking of the 2001 earthquake:

The earthquake is not just a tragedy, it is an X-ray of the country. It is mostly the poor who get killed, the poor who are buried, the poor who have to run out with the four things they have left, the poor who sleep outdoors, the poor who live in anguish over the future, the poor who face enormous obstacles trying to rebuild their lives, the poor who cannot get financial credit.[25]

The earthquake is a catastrophe, but it is also a bearer of truth.[26]

As we also know, poverty is generally the result of injustice. Is there not then more than a nugget of profound insight in the idea that human sinfulness is at the heart of so-called ‘natural’ disasters?[27] In Amos God condemns Israel because,

They trample on the heads of the poor

as upon the dust of the ground

and deny justice to the oppressed. (2.7)

The result is famine, drought, disease, locusts and plagues. Likewise, such disasters are the results of greed, inequality and oppression in today’s world.

While Amos presents this cause-and-effect as just, in reality, there is generally nothing just about disasters. For it is not the rich oppressor who suffers, but the poor. Amid the cause-and-effect logic in Jeremiah, is this:

Why does the way of the wicked prosper?

Why do all the faithless live as ease? (12.1)

Such a statement could just as easily be taken from the Book of Job, who complains that the conventional wisdom of cause-and-effect does not always reflect reality.

The reality is that “this created moral order does not function in any mechanistic, precise, or inevitable way; it is not a tight causal weave”.[28] What we are left with are the effects of sin, which show up in the destroyed homes of the poor, and the power, goodness and injustice of the creative order, as expressed in the Book of Job.

Perhaps out greatest hope is to take seriously our call to ‘subdue’ the earth – not by mining minerals or destroying forests, but by taming the forces of chaos through our work against poverty, inequality and injustice.

Conclusion

It is not easy to find ultimate answers to disasters and suffering. Within the Hebrew bible, we find at least two approaches: (1) that disasters are the effective ‘unwinding’ of creation, caused by human sin; and (2) that disasters are the result of unruly elements inherent in the good creative order. There are profound insights in both of these understandings, and we must draw from both if we are to deeply understand natural disasters today. Disasters are often caused by the human sins of greed and inequality, yet their fallout is not spread justly. It is generally the poor and vulnerable that suffer most, leading one to question, as did Job, whether there is any justice in suffering. Natural disasters cannot be reduced to simplistic theodicy, but for an adequate faith-based understanding, require all the insights that the Hebrew bible have to offer.

 

 Bibliography

Are, Tom. 'Between text and sermon: Job 38:1-7'. Interpretation 53.3 (1999): 294-298.

Balentine, Samuel E. 'For no reason'. Interpretation 57.4 (2003): 349-369.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Creation, un-creation, re-creation. London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2011.

Chester, David K. 'Theology and disaster studies: The need for dialogue'. Journal of volcanology and geothermal research.146 (2005): 319-328.

Fretheim, Terence E. Creation untamed: the Bible, God, and natural disasters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.

Hewitt, K. 'The idea of calamity in a technological age.' In Interpretations of calamity, ed. K. Hewitt. London: Allen and Unwin, 1983. 3-32.

Levenson, Jon D. Creation and the persistence of evil: The Jewish drama of divine omnipotence. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.

Polkinghorne, John. Quarks, chaos & Christianity: questions to science and religion. New York: Crossroad, 1996.

Rohr, Richard. Job and the mystery of suffering: Spiritual reflections. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.

Sobrino, Jon. Where is God? Earthquake, terrorism, barbarity, and hope. New York: Orbis Books, 2004.

Speiser, EA. Genesis: Introduction, translation, and notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

Wisner, Ben, Piers Blaikie, et al. At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability, and disasters. New York: Routledge, 2003.

 

 

 


[1] Jon D Levenson, Creation and the persistence of evil: The Jewish drama of divine omnipotence (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), p. 12.

[2] EA Speiser, Genesis: Introduction, translation, and notes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 12-13.

[3] cf the common translation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – rendered as an independent statement, rather than a prepositional clause.

[4] Psalm 74 incorporates a Canaanite myth, in which the god Baal defeated the sea. Innocuous though the word ‘sea’ appears to us in English, in Hebrew it is yam, which is a reference to Prince Yamm, another primordial power. The other powers referred to in the passage are Leviathan and ‘Tannin’ (‘the monster’, above), who were also all defeated by Baal. By incorporating this myth, the Hebrew God takes the place of Baal. Levenson, Creation and the persistence of evil: The Jewish drama of divine omnipotence , p. 7-8.

[5] Ibid., p. 14.

[6] Terence E Fretheim, Creation untamed: the Bible, God, and natural disasters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), p. 14.

[7] Ibid., p. 15.

[8] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Creation, un-creation, re-creation (London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2011), p. 135.

[9] Levenson, Creation and the persistence of evil: The Jewish drama of divine omnipotence , p. 10.

[10] Perhaps a ‘social contract’ is the best metaphor to describe God’s covenant with God’s people – i.e. God offers protection from chaos in exchange for the people’s obedience to God’s laws and statutes (the ‘terms’).

[11] Fretheim, Creation untamed: the Bible, God, and natural disasters , p. 16.

[12] Ibid., p. 49.

[13] Ibid., p. 50-51.

[14] Blenkinsopp, Creation, un-creation, re-creation , p. 136.

[15] Samuel E Balentine, 'For no reason', Interpretation 57.4 (2003): 349-369., p. 362.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard Rohr, Job and the mystery of suffering: Spiritual reflections (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 33.

[18] Fretheim, Creation untamed: the Bible, God, and natural disasters , p. 75.

[19] Rohr, Job and the mystery of suffering: Spiritual reflections , p. 33.

[20] Tom Are, 'Between text and sermon: Job 38:1-7', Interpretation 53.3 (1999): 294-298., p. 297.

[21] Fretheim, Creation untamed: the Bible, God, and natural disasters , p. 82.

[22] John Polkinghorne, Quarks, chaos & Christianity: questions to science and religion (New York: Crossroad, 1996), pp. 46-47.

[23] K Hewitt, 'The idea of calamity in a technological age', in Interpretations of calamity, ed. Hewitt (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983).

[24] See e.g., Ben Wisner, Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon and Ian Davis, At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability, and disasters (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[25] Jon Sobrino, Where is God? Earthquake, terrorism, barbarity, and hope (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 3.

[26] Ibid., p. 16.

[27] David K Chester, 'Theology and disaster studies: The need for dialogue', Journal of volcanology and geothermal research.146 (2005): 319-328., p. 324,

[28] Fretheim, Creation untamed: the Bible, God, and natural disasters , p. 51.