Friday, May 7, 2021
They were there on the mountainside out of deference to their esteemed Rabbi from Galilee.
Catastrophes invariably provoke variations on one basic theological question: What did God have to do with this event?
One week ago, on Friday, April 30th 2021, an awful tragedy occurred on a mountainside in northern Galilee at an annual nighttime festival called Lag Ba’Omer. Forty-five men and boys were accidentally trampled to death after they fell onto the metal floor of a narrow passageway which had been constructed near a tomb-turned-shrine. No, nothing malicious occurred. There was no bomb. There was no terrorist attack. It was simply a freak accident. It was just far too crowded on the mountainside that night. Too many of their fellow festival-attendees were rushing ahead and pushing through the narrow passageway at once. Someone must have lost his footing; and then a tragic domino effect occurred. The sheer momentum of the crowd crushed forty-five of them.
So why were there so many people there on the mountainside last Friday night? Every year on Lag Ba’Omer thousands of Orthodox Jewish men and boys make a pilgrimage to Mount Meron to venerate a second-century Rabbi named Shimon Bar Yochai, also known as Rashbi, because Mount Meron is where his tomb is located; and Lag Ba’Omer is the anniversary of Rashbi’s death.
Incidentally (and of special interest to me), Lag Ba’Omer translates from Hebrew into English as “the 33rd [Day] of Omer.” The omer are the sheaves of grain that symbolize the 49 days between the end of Passover and the Day of Pentecost (see Leviticus 23:9-21 for a scriptural description of the period). Of course, the end of Passover and the Day of Pentecost are very important holy days for Christians, as well, as one happens to be Resurrection Day, and the other the anniversary of the Founding of the Church. Christians might also find it curious that Mount Meron is considered a possible site for the Transfiguration, when and where Jesus was transfigured into a glowing figure who spoke with the two long-departed Old-Testament figure-heads, Moses and Elijah. This event — this splendid, glowing Transfiguration — happened in view of three of his awestruck disciples — Peter, James, and John (see Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 17:1-13; and Luke 9:28-36). But the whereabouts of the Transfiguration is contested by scholars. Did it actually occur on Mount Meron? We don’t know. New Testament scholars cannot be certain as to where the Transfiguration occurred, because the three Gospel accounts simply say it occurred on “a high mountain.” Still, based on Jesus’ textually-indicated route from Point A (Caesarea Philippi) to Point B (Capernaum), it might well have happened somewhere in between, which would be Mount Meron.
From henceforth however, Mount Meron will be remembered as the place where 45 Orthodox Jewish men and boys were crushed on April 30th 2021 in an awful accident. Predictably, in the week hence, lots of people in Israel are asking just whom to blame for the accident. Someone even wrote an Op-Ed article saying no one person bears the blame, besides God. Although it may sound blasphemous, it is legitimate to ask if the Op-Ed writer was right. Should God be held responsible for the accident? Please ponder the matter with me before you answer that.
Whenever an event like this occurs, people ask the what-about-God question. They ask if God had anything to do with it or not. Theologically speaking, this is called the Problem of Evil, because instances of evil (perceived or actual) leave us wondering why God decreed it or allowed it to occur. Technically speaking, the Problem of Evil is reduced to just a single word: theodicy.
At the risk of sounding far too detached and clinical, over the years theologians (like me) have compiled a number of answers to the theodicy question. A six-point list may seem especially callous. But in the final analysis, detached logical reasons can actually help people grapple with such questions. So here are six possible theodicies — six theological explanations for any given catastrophic event:
- Individual Judgment. God is using this catastrophic event to express some measure of displeasure with a person.
- Corporate Judgment. God is using this catastrophic event to express some measure of displeasure with a defined group of people.
- Individual Testing. God is focusing this catastrophic event instrumentally on an individual basis. That is, God wants to see how an individual person will respond to this circumstantial test. The person’s response will determine growth in his/her character, and may well determine his/her future.
- Corporate Testing. God is using this catastrophic event instrumentally on a corporate basis. That is, God wants to see how a group of people will respond to this circumstantial test. The group’s response will determine growth in their corporate culture, and may determine their future course.
- Cause and Effect. God is not directly involved in this catastrophe, insofar as it was not divinely ordained as judgment nor testing. However, God did not intervene to prevent its occurrence, either. The catastrophic event in consideration is best explained as a cause-and-effect situation.
- Divine Non-Involvement. God had nothing whatsoever to do with the catastrophe in consideration. God neither ordained nor allowed the catastrophe to occur; but it occurred nonetheless. (However, given what the Bible reveals about the Sovereignty of God, I do not believe this can ever stand as a genuine theological option.)
At this juncture, I have a question: Are there any other possible theodicies that I have not listed here? If so, please feel free to let me know what possibilities you might suggest.
As for which of the six explanations fit last week’s Mount Meron accident, I will simply shrug. But if pressed, I would say I think it is probably a combination of the first five explanations — but not the sixth. I do not think the sixth explanation is viable for anyone who believes in the foreknowledge and sovereignty of God.
As a Christian theologian, I do wonder if this catastrophic event will prompt further questions about the irreconcilable claims of two Jewish Rabbis from Galilee, one of whom is buried on a slope of Mount Meron, the other of whom is not.
3 thoughts on “Two Rabbis from Galilee”
The problem of evil is a massive and troubling topic to unpack. And no answer quite feels satisfactory. That said, you did a great job of summarizing the key theological frameworks to wrestle with the question. I cannot think of any other points to add off-hand.
In most instances of suffering, I typically look at it through the view of point #5, but keeping in mind the possibility that one of the previous points might also be behind it. Thanks for your thoughtful post!
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Hi Jacob, I appreciate your comment. I think one key takeaway from the Book of Job is to be very, very slow to say that a given catastrophe must be God’s means of punishment.
I have to agree with Jacob as well. A couple of related thoughts:
1. The problem of evil and suffering are as different as the commonalities they share. The harder we try to explain suffering and risk playing the blame game, the harder it will to fully love our neighbors. Read John 9 for an example of how Jesus responds to the blame game
2. Our minds and cognitive abilities are very limited in comparison to God. They have been from day one. Yet rather than flaunt His limitlessness and draw near to us like a helicopter parent would, He chose to give us freedom because of His love for us.
As I’ve gotten older and in a strange way I’m finding comfort and reason to praise when I realize I have no clue what God is up to.