National Theodicy

Christopher A. Rollston, Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literature at George Washington University, has a very interesting article on national theodicy titled “‘We’re Bad and God’s Mad’: Epigraphic Windows into Ancient Israelite Conceptions of National Theodicy.” By national theodicy, Rollston means how the nations of antiquity explained national disasters, such as defeat in wars.

Rollston uses archaeology to show how nations explained their defeat against their enemies. Rollston shows how the writers of the book of Kings explain the conquest of Samaria in 722 by the army of Sargon II, king of Assyria and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

Rollston also shows two other examples of rationalization for national defeat which are preserved in the archaeological record. One example is how the Mesha Stela explains the defeat of Moab by Omri and the other is how the Cyrus Cylinder explains the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great.

Below is the introduction to Rollston’s article:

Context is everything. This is true in the modern period and it was true in antiquity. Therefore, among the most useful resources for understanding the contents and perspectives of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are inscriptions from the ancient Near East, that is, textual data from the broader cultural context of Ancient Israel and Judah. Among the facets of the ancient world which I have long found rather fascinating is “theodicy.” Often this term is used in discussions that attempt to account for calamities that an individual has suffered, and this is certainly a leitmotif of the book of Job (e.g., the solutions proposed by Job’s friends). But it is “national theodicy” on which I wish to reflect at this time, that is, the attempts of ancient peoples to come to terms with national disasters. And it is national disasters associated with military defeats that will constitute the primary focus of this brief discussion.

The article is very illuminating and it is worth reading. Read the article by visiting The Bible and Interpretation online.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


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