In their frequency, severity and devastation, natural disasters (floods, wildfires and earthquakes) and human disasters (suicide bombings, drone airstrikes and gigantic oil spills) have become all too frequent in recent times. Their frequency tends to muffle the hard philosophical and theological questions that these events should bring to the public forum: Where is God in these disasters? Why do innocent persons suffer in them? Can anything good come out of these tragic events?
Here is a book by a veteran biblical theologian that bravely takes on these difficult questions in the context of the God and the world we meet in the Old Testament. Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, considers how we might speak of God’s relationship to natural disasters and the suffering and death related to them both in biblical times and now. Writing as an exegete and biblical theologian, he deals with the biblical texts as they stand in the Bible, though he is thoroughly conversant with the debates regarding their historicity. He insists that in dealing with natural disasters and suffering we not let God off the hook. After all, it is God’s creation that we are talking about.
In treating the biblical creation narratives in Genesis 1–2, Fretheim contends that God created the world as good but not perfect (in the sense of a finished product, wrapped up with a big red bow and handed over to creatures to keep it exactly as it was created). While God did bring order out of chaos in the act of creating, the creation God gave us still has elements of “messiness” about it. That is because God has given a certain amount of freedom not only to us humans but also to all the forces in creation. The God revealed in Genesis 1–2 uses already existing creatures as material for creating new creatures, invites nonhuman creatures and the divine assembly to participate in creation and gives to humans an important role in further creating activities. Natural disasters happen when those factors collide and produce further “messiness.” Nevertheless, natural disasters may also then be an integral part in God’s way of bringing an ever new creation into being.
The account of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6–9 raises the issue of the role of human sin in natural disasters. Here again Fretheim is primarily concerned with the characterization of the God who has entered into genuine relationship with the world and uses natural agents (like flood waters) to carry out his acts of judgment. This God is also deeply and personally moved by these events, regrets what has happened with humankind in resisting God’s will for creation, changes his strategy and charts new directions for dealing with the problem of sin and evil. He observes that the flood story shows that though human wickedness can make natural disasters worse, such disasters and suffering may come simply because God’s world is quite dynamic and sometimes unpredictable, random and wild.
We often skip over the fact that many of the causes of suffering for Job and his family are natural disasters like windstorms, lightning and fires, and disease. When looked at through the lens of natural disasters and communal suffering, the book of Job deals with human suffering in the context of the complex natural order that God has created. This is the fundamental point of God’s speeches from the whirlwind in Chapters 38–41. They emphasize that humans are finite, that God has created a dynamic (and sometimes turbulent and unruly) world and that God uses natural agents in creating the world. These speeches force Job to revise his legal, retributive justice-oriented view of God’s creation and to rethink how God works in and through the world.
The textual analyses of Genesis 1–2 and 6–9, as well as the book of Job, lead into more general considerations of suffering and the God of the Old Testament. Here Fretheim insists on the importance of suffering people asking the “Why?” question and explains several biblical responses to it: Suffering is part of God’s good creation; the consequence of sin and evil; the tragic effect of sin over time; and/or the effect of vocational choice (the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah and Jesus of Nazareth).
In the final chapter, devoted to faith and prayer, Fretheim argues that in the context of natural disasters and human suffering prayer may be considered an aspect of the gift of the relationship that God has established with humankind, whereby God and humans can meaningfully interact with one another. He maintains that this relationship is fundamental to thinking about the God of the Bible and the association of God and the world. In this context, prayer (especially lament and intercession) has an effect on the one who prays, on the relationship between the one who prays and God, on God and on persons or situations for which one is praying.
In dealing with the serious questions that emerge from natural and human disasters, Fretheim resists the temptation to find a single and/or easy answer. Rather, he forces us to rethink (like Job) who God is and how God relates to us and our world. For him, relationship, interdependence and freedom are the ways in which the God of the Bible shares his creative activity with his creatures, human and otherwise. He concludes that God has not created a world free of vulnerability and has chosen not to manage the world so that no one gets hurt. Indeed, the potential for suffering, he says, on the part of humans and animals is the cost of living in such a creative place.
While creation is ultimately in God’s hands, in the meantime we are called to genuine engagement with God and the world in the conviction that the decisions we take will have significant implications for the future of this untamed creation and even for the nature of God’s future.