Why – not when – bad things happen to good people: biblical and scientific speculations
By Gerald Schroeder December 2021
A better title would be: Why God lets bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad persons- “BG”) since if God is not part of the discussion / equation, then there are no bad things and no good things since what is bad for one person may be very good for another.
When we ask: why – not when – bad things happen to good people, the reply rests totally on theology. Without a theological concept of a creating God that is interested and active in the universe It created, then what is good and what is bad is totally our subjective interpretation / evaluation of the moment’s situation. In a Godless world, one person’s good quite often is another person’s bad. There are no absolute values, and that is the absolute truth.
This essay explores why Biblical theology coupled with scientific discoveries expects that occasionally bad things will happen to good people (and visa versa: good things happening to bad people).
In a world created by a God that self-describes as “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in loving goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6,7), I might ask, quite logically, that if all that abundance of expressed love and divine concern is true, then why do bad things occasionally happen to good people? Why doesn’t our loving creating God protect the good and save the bad for the bad?
The Talmud is a 1600-year-old compendium (5000+ pages) of opinions and debates related to intricacies within the text of the Hebrew Bible. These opinions were reached by persons for whom understanding the Hebrew Bible was central to their lives.
At one place we read therein that Rabbi Yohanon and Rabbi Jose declared that if a person is 100% righteous, that person will never suffer. There are two problems with their theory: one is that being 100% righteous is likely never attained; and two, they do not bring a proof for their ideal evaluation of life.
Elsewhere, an exact opposite opinion is stated: Raba claimed that length of life, the blessing of having children, and one’s personal financial wealth are all the result of “mazel” – ‘the luck of the draw’ to quote Rabbi Shlomo (Steve) Riskin (referred to in the popular USA media as Stevie Wonder for the revolution he produced in Orthodoxy). And unlike the pervious opinion, Raba brings the following proof: Rava and Rav Hisdah were both so righteous that when they prayed for rain, rain came. In the region of the world where I live and they lived, the region of Israel and the Middle East, rain is a crucial blessing that is devoutly prayed for during the rainy winter season. And their righteous prayers brought rain. Rava lived to the age of 40 and was abjectly financially poor. Rav Hisdah lived to 90 and was extraordinarily wealthy, yet both were righteous.
Based on the lives of Rava and Rav Hisdah, Raba’s evaluation of life’s vicissitudes seems to have been correct. Our creating God does not run the world like a vending machine. Putting in good deeds does not always result in an easy life popping out – but it may result in a personally meaningful life.
Let’s see what the Bible has to teach us about this. Do we find places in the Hebrew Bible that indicate that much of life is the ‘luck of the draw’?
The answer is a very strong yes.
In the opening book of the Bible, Genesis, by chapter 4 the “good guy” is murdered and God let it happen.
Adam and Eve’s first child, Cain, decided to bring an offering to God. Cain’s younger brother, Abel, must have liked Cain’s idea and so he too decided to bring an offering. God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. Cain was very displeased by God’s rejection. God warned Cain to control his anger but when Cain and Abel were alone in a field, Cain murdered Abel. In black and white terms, no grays: Abel’s offering to God accepted – he is the good guy. Cain’s offering is rejected – he is the bad guy. There are 187 chapters in the Five Books of Moses. By chapter 4 out of those 187 chapters the good guy is murdered – and according to the exact Hebrew text, God let it happen:
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And He [the Lord] said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground’” (Genesis 4:9, 10).
This New King James Version/translation of the Hebrew text is correct except in one crucial place. The word translated as ‘blood’ is “bloods” in the Hebrew text, plural. Many bleeding wounds as Cain was trying to murder Abel. Over and over Cain stabbed/beat Abel. Wound after wound. Abel clearly did not die with the first stab. And since Abel’s offering to God had recently been accepted by God, to whom would Abel be screaming for help? – obviously to God. And who does not come to help? – God.
By chapter 4 of the 187 chapters, we learn that bad things occasionally happen to good people even when God is somewhere in the picture. In our magnificent universe, created by a loving caring God, tragedy, apparently unearned tragedy, may happen.
In Deuteronomy, God tells us explicitly that in battle, each individual must “watch his/her back”, even if God is on their side:
“And it shall be, when you plural are on the verge of battle, that the priest shall approach and speak to the people. And he shall say to them plural, ‘Hear, O Israel: Today you plural are on the verge of battle with your plural enemies. Do not let your plural hearts faint, do not be afraid plural, and do not tremble plural or be terrified plural because of them; for the Lord your plural God is He who goes with you plural, to fight for you plural against your plural enemies, to save you’ plural. “Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying: ‘What man singular is there who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him singular go and return to his house, lest he singular die in the battle and another man dedicate it. Also what man singular is there who has planted a vineyard and has not eaten of it? Let him singular go and return to his house, lest he singular die in the battle and another man eat of it. And what man singular is there who is betrothed to a woman and has singular not married her? Let him singular go and return to his house, lest he singular die in the battle and another man marry her” (Deuteronomy 20:2 – 7).
Upon a simple reading, this is all very strange. God tells the priests to tell the soldiers that the Lord their God will fight for them to save them: to fight for you plural against your plural enemies, to save you plural.
Unlike English, Hebrew differentiates between ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural. In these verses, God’s promise is to save the army, to guarantee victory to the army as a group, hence the use of the plural form of “you”. But as we read immediately after this promise for the army as a group to be saved and have victory, the individuals are warned that as singular individuals there is no guarantee that each one of them will survive the battle.
This is exactly what the renowned commentator Nahmonides (ca. 1250) discovers in the subtle wording of Genesis 18:19 –
“ For I have known him [Abraham), in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.”
Nahmonides wonders why the text tells us that God knows Abraham. Doesn’t God know everyone? Nahmonides continues: “The correct interpretation appears to me is that He (God) is alluding that God’s knowledge which is synonymous with God’s control/interaction (Hebrew: hash’gakh’to) in the lower world, is to guard the group (Hebrew: ha’clal’iim) and even the children of men are subject to chance occurrences (Hebrew: mik’ra’iim) until their time comes. But as regards His pious He puts His heart to know each one individually that His guard is attached there constantly.”
Maimonides in his brilliant Guide for the Perplexed (ca. 1190) part 3:51 makes a very similar analysis of God’s (limited) control in the realm of humankind.
Although what I write now is not popular among many teachers of Biblical theology, the Biblical text makes it clear: God’s protection is to the group. God has a goal for the group. The individual chooses how much he or she wants to be in that group, how much he/she wants God in her/his life. (The way I say this to students is that the train leaves the station; it is your choice to get on the train or not to get on the train before it leaves the station.) This is actually personally very empowering: each of us chooses how much of God we want in our personal lives and to some extent, how much we want our lives to be the result of chance occurrences (Hebrew: mik’ra’iim).
In Exodus and in Deuteronomy we read of an interesting scenario in which we learn that to attain the goal that God has set for us, both the actions by God and the efforts made by us are required, something along the idea of “there is no free Divine lunch.”
In Exodus we read: “And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased, and you inherit the land” (Exodus 23:28 -30).
In Deuteronomy this is repeated almost verbatim: “Moreover the Lord your God will send the hornet among them until those who are left, who hide themselves from you, are destroyed. . And the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you little by little; you will be unable to destroy them at once, lest the beasts of the field become too numerous for you” (Deut 7:20 -22).
This is rather bizarre. God controls the hornets and sends them to help us drive out the enemies. But why doesn’t God also control the beasts, why the “lest the beasts of the field become too numerous for you”? Clearly the creating God has the power to control the beasts of the field just as God controls the hornets. But God makes it clear in these two passages that we must also contribute to gaining the Divine goal of possessing the Promised Land. We have to make the choice and then make the effort to join in the glorious partnership that we have with God.
In the following quote from the book of Deuteronomy, God explicitly states that we have the free will to make these choices that shape our lives:
“I [God] call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19).
The future is not fixed beforehand. Our free will choices contribute to the flow of history.
In God’s dialogue with Cain, this power of ours, this freedom of our will to choose the good over the bad and life over death, is stated in detail:
“And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is toward you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:3 – 7). (Ernest Hemmingway, in East of Eden, was intrigued by the wording of these verses.)
Note very well here: evil is outside of us and it is our choice whether we allow it to enter and influence us or to keep it out. Our souls are pure, but our choices may not always be!
And the extreme range to which this freedom of our will extends is powerfully documented in the Biblical account in which the prophet Balaam attempted to curse the Hebrews who had recently been freed from Egyptian bondage.
Balaam was a valid and successful prophet of God. He had a track-record that proved this, as King Balak, who was hiring Balaam for his abilities, stated:
“Please [Balaam] come at once, curse this people for me …, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).
When prophet Balaam blesses, there is blessing; and, when prophet Balaam curses, there is a curse. And King Balak hired Balaam because Balaam’s prophetic power was well-known. Balaam is one of only three persons in the 5 Books of Moses to have the explicit statement that “the spirit of God” rested upon them. And note that Balaam was not a Jewish prophet. The message here is that all nations have the potential for prophesy.
But Balaam actually chose death over life. Balaam was hired by King Balak to curse Israel but God forces Balaam to bless rather than to curse. In this process “the spirit of God” rested on Balaam. Although God forced Balaam to bless Israel, and bless he did, after all his blessings, in order to get honor with King Balak, Balaam tricked Israel into cursing itself. This prophet of God, a person with whom God had spoken, actually chose to seek honor from King Balak rather than to keep his faithfulness to God. The result of his trick was that 24,000 Israeli men perished (Numbers 25:9). (The Israeli women did not fall for Balaam’s trick and did not take part in the transgressions.) The result for Balaam and his trick was that this prophet who had experienced “the spirit of God” was killed in the battle that ensued (Numbers 31:8, 16).
A prophet that had spoken with God, chose, by his own free will, to abandon God! God has truly given into our hands the path we choose.
Can God over-ride our choices, limit our free will? I imagine that is the case but in the 5 Books of Moses that is not seen. Even in the case in which Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews and then refuses to free them following 9 disastrous plagues, Pharaoh retains his will.
We read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, which might imply that God had cancelled Pharaoh’s free will but this hardening of the heart did not cancel his freedom of will. This we read clearly in Exodus 10: 1- 8
“Now the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, … So Moses and Aaron came in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: ‘… Let My people go, that they may serve Me. Or else, if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory … and they shall eat the residue of what is left. … They shall fill your houses …. And he turned and went out from Pharaoh.
“Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” So Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh, and he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God. Who are the ones that are going?”
Notice that God had hardened the heart of Pharaoh and the hearts of his servants. All had hardened hearts and yet the servants with their hardened hearts chose to plead with Pharaoh to free the Hebrews and Pharaoh chose to accept their plea, not-with-standing his hardened heart. Unfortunately for him and for his Egyptian people, when Moses explained to Pharaoh that all the Hebrews would be going, Pharaoh reneged, refusing to let all go. Only when the punishment for not allowing the Hebrews their freedom became devastating, did Pharaoh finally choose to obey, even with his hardened heart.
Pharaoh’s free will remained, as did his ability to choose between the blessing and the curse, between life and death. In a dreadful error he chose the curse and death. We can never overestimate our abilities to make foolish choices that are not in our best interests.
We must ask: from where does our powerful free will, our ability to choose life or death, blessings or curses, arise? Doesn’t God “run the show?” Apparently not all the time, at least according to what we previously read from Nahmonides and Maimonides.
God has granted a slack in the Divine control of nature as well as in humans. The origin for both is found in two pivotal verses in Isaiah within which we learn the essence of creation:
“I am the Lord, and there is no other;
I form the light and create darkness,
I make peace and create evil;
I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:6, 7).
I form the light and create darkness; If you have formed light and now want darkness, you must now remove that light.
I make peace and create evil; If you have made peace and harmony but now want the discord of evil, you must now remove, cancel, that peace.
In both phrases, the act of removing or cancelling that which has been brought into being is termed “create”. The act of creation, an act only done by God, is an act of removal or contraction. The Hebrew word for this is tsim’stoom, meaning to contract.
Each act of creation yielded a reduction (a tsim’stoom) in God’s manifest presence and control over the creation It had brought into being.
With each act of creation, each Divine tsim’stoom, God allowed a further freedom to that which has been created.
The first creation, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1), “shattered” the undifferentiated Oneness that preceded creation. In its place differentiation emerged: light and dark; space and matter/energy; evening and morning.
This first tsim’stoom resulted in a slack in God’s control of the physical world. In scientific terms, what this means is that at the most basic level of matter, identical causes do not always result in identical results. Quantum mechanics, an aspect of the Divinely created laws of nature that underlie the functioning of essentially all hi-tech development, our cell phones, Kindles and TV’s included, embodies what is technically known as quantum uncertainty – the end can not always be precisely predicted from the beginning!! There is a slack in how the divinely created laws of nature actually control nature. When Albert Einstein made his famous quip questioning the reality of quantum uncertainty: “I can not believe that God plays dice with the universe”, he was correct. God does not play dice with the universe, but God allows the universe to play dice!
In a discussion that Dennis Prager and I had a decade or more ago, we reached this exact conclusion, summarized as: although God can bring floods, not all floods are brought by God.
When we as a people, a nation, a civilization, misbehave, God can decide to step back, “hide God’s face” (cf. Psalms 30:6 ,7 ;; 81:13), and in doing so, remove the Divine protective shield, with the result that global pandemics, for example, can occur. As God told Cain, the evil is always out there waiting to get in (Genesis 4:7). Only our choices and God’s protective shield keep it out.
The second act of creation, the second tsim’stoom, does not occur until the 5th day of Genesis: Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let winged creatures fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” So God created great reptiles and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged creature according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:20, 21).
Note that in verse 20, the abundance of animal Iife is described. Therefore, since we already have the animal life, we must ask why do we need the creation of verse 21? Verse 20 brings the physical bodies. But animal life also has the ability of choice, less than humans but much greater than the still life of rocks and water and air, and greater than that of plant life. This creation verse 21 is the introduction of the level of will in animals, held in the nefesh, the soul of animal life.
The third creation, the third tsim’stoom, relates to the creation of the first humans, described on day six of Genesis: Then God said, “Let Us make adam in Our image, according to Our likeness; ….”So God created the adam in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1: 26, 27).
As with the animals of day 5, first we find a statement of making adam, verse 26, and then the act of creating the adam, verse 27. ‘Making’ in Biblical terms is producing something from already existing materials. Biblically, the act of ‘making’ takes time and requires material. So, prior to the creation of the adam of verse 27, verse 26 adams were made from the physical material already existing in the universe. Perhaps they were homo sapiens sapiens with all the brain power and physical shape of modern humans but lacking the creation of day 6 verse 27. These people (they were not humans) invented farming 5,000 years before adam. But they lacked the creation of verse 27, the neshama, the soul of humanity that makes us aware that we are part of a community that extends beyond our immediate clan or gene pool. Only with the neshama could peoples come together to form large cities. The British Museum in London brings archaeological data for the timing of this transition from pre-human homo sapiens sapiens to human homo sapiens sapiens that matche the Biblical timing of this transition. (When a science book states that people first appeared over 100,000 years ago, the book is correct by its definition of people – homo sapiens sapiens, beings that looked like you and me, and had brains like you and me. The Bible is correct when it states that humans first appear a bit less than 6,000 years ago – homo sapiens sapiens that look like you and me, and have brains like you and me and have a neshama, the human soul.)
By the time we reach the first humans (not the first homo sapiens sapiens), Adam/Eve, there were three statements of creation, three acts of Divine tsim’stoom (Genesis 1:1, 21, 27). Enough leeway had been granted in God’s manifest control so that one brother (Cain) could choose to murder another (Abel). And God allowed it to happen (as discussed previously)!
With God’s acts of creation in our magnificent universe – God’s acts of tsim’stoosm – the leeway or slack of Divine control is inherent. Free will exists. We can choose to err, to do things that are not in our best interest.
tsim’stoom is why bad things and good things can happen to good people and to bad people, sometimes by chance (Hebrew: mik’ra’iim), sometimes by Divine will (Nahmonides ca 1250; Maimonides ca, 1190). To make sense out of the workings of the world, it is well to remember that although God can bring floods, not all floods are brought by God.
A question remains as to whether tsim’stoom must always be part of the act of creation. Can God create a universe with no slack in divine control, filled only with puppets?
Would God want to create a universe filled only with puppets?
The slack in God’s control over nature
The slack in God’s control over nature due to the inherent tsim’stoom within the act of creation is hinted at in Genesis 1: 11, 12;
 Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so.  And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind.
The renowned biblical commentator, Rashi (ca. 1050), observed that in verse 11, God wanted the earth to bring forth fruit trees that yield fruit. That is, the tree itself, such as the bark should be a food as well as the fruit that grows on its branches. The cinnamon tree, with its edible bark, is an example of a fruit tree but not one that also yields fruit. In verse 12 we read that the earth brought forth trees that yield fruit, but not fruit trees that also yield fruit. The earth did not full-fill God’s command. In the words of Rashi, the earth rebelled!! According to this insight, the physical, non-living world has an aspect of choice. On the wall of the Searle Science Building of Bowdoin College, Maine, USA, is written “nature’s laws are God’s thoughts.” If the laws of nature are God’s thoughts in the world, then in line with the quantum uncertainty in the physics at the level of the quanta, there is a slack in how God controls the physical world. Rashi is correct. The earth went against the will of God.
All of this resulting from the first creation, the first tsim’stoom in Genesis 1:1.
Life and death, blessing and curse (Deut 30:19)
With the results of our choices so high, life or death, it behooves us to learn how to choose life. The verse following the above verse gives an outline:
“… love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them” (Deut 30:20).