(Super?)Natural Disaster in Haggai: A Theological Question

The book of Haggai speaks of a drought, the cause of which is attributed to the divine judgment of Yahweh (Hag 1:11; 2:17). The people have been hesitant to reestablish the religious cult of Yahwehthe temple lies desolate—and their hesitancy has angered their God. As a result, the prophet conveys God’s wordthe land will lie desolate. This is a case of lexical talionis, חרב for a חרב. Our modern scientific worldview teaches us that the (in)activity of temple building is not naturally tied to local weather conditions or agricultural fecundity, and this raises a challenging issue for the person who approaches the book of Haggai with faith-convictions.

Studies in Syro-Palestinian agriculture demonstrate that this geographical locale is susceptible to periods of low rainfall, and for such periods drought and famine are relatively common natural disasters. (According to one estimate, drought-caused-famines in this region occur with such frequency that every generation experiences at least one.) Perhaps the simplest faith-based solution to the challenge posed by this text is to posit that the disasters recorded in the first chapter of Haggai are unique, that they are supernatural. The God who created the heavens and the earth is certainly capable of suppressing their dew and produce, and anyone short of espousing a truly atheistic worldview should be willing to concede as much.

Is this the only faithful way forward; is it even the best way forward to those who seek to read this text with the eyes of faith? I contend that such an understanding raises its own unique concerns, and these concerns invite alternative ways of understanding the text.

The prophet Haggai emphasizes a purpose exists behind divine judgment, that God’s disaster is not an end to itself but a means by which God shapes God’s people (cf. Jer 18:1-10). The purpose of Yahweh’s punishment in the events recorded in the book of Haggai is revealed to the people by the prophet: “Before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of Yahweh, how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares Yahweh” (Hag 2:15b-17). Haggai echoes here the words of Amos who made use of similar rhetoric centuries before to emphasize the covenant faithlessness of Israel (Am 4:6-11). If these are instances of direct divine activity, it is significant to observe that they are accompanied by the prophetic word: “Does disaster come to a city, unless Yahweh has done it? For the Lord Yahweh does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Am 3:6b-7).

Amos is speaking hyperbolically; though he is often interpreted far too literally, as though God actually micromanages the cosmos. A more holistic reading of the Hebrew Bible will discover that God can bear responsibility for what transpires without having directly determined every course of action. There exists in the Hebrew Bible the concept of the created moral order, what Terence Fretheim describes as a “loose causal weave of act and consequence. . . . Generally speaking, the relationship between sin and consequence is conceived more in intrinsic terms than forensic terms: consequences grow out of the deed itself rather than being a penalty imposed from without” (2010: 49; cf. Ps 7:12-16; Isa 59:17-18; 64:5-9; Jer 6:11, 19; 7:18-20; 21:12-14; 44:7-8; 50:24-25; Ezek 22:31; Lam 3:64-66).  The judgment of God is as much the natural repercussions to sinful living as to direct divine intervention. It is important to recognize that this conception is a loose causal weave; that many forces are at work, including “time and chance” (Eccl 9:11), renders insufficient a mechanistic view of the created moral order (cf. Job 1-42; this becomes a theological conundrum for those who understand God to be a cosmic micromanager).

Nevertheless, the created moral order is a component of a theistic worldview enabling people of faith to speak of certain events, many of which belong to the natural order, as instances of divine activity. Thus, one need not look to miracles alone to find the activity of God. I have made this connection as of late regarding the unbridled use of fossil fuels and the unintended consequences of global warming, the latter potentially leading to an all too literal day of Yahweh (cf. Isa 13:6-9; 34:8-12; Jer 46:9-12; Eze 30:1-9; Obad 15-19; Joel 1:1-2:27; Zeph 1:14-2:15).

Is the created moral order operating in the book of Haggai, or should these events be interpreted as exceptions to this ordera penalty imposed from without? Certain faith traditions which recognize such an order believe that God is not bound to work exclusively within it. My own tradition, the Christian faith, sees an unprecedented act of God in the resurrection of Jesus. It serves as a preliminary confirmation to the Judeo-Christian conviction that God is committed to righting the wrongs that go unchecked “under the sun” (Eccl 8:12-13; 11:9; 12:14; cf. Gen 18:25; Ps 58; 98; Mal 3:14-18; Matt 25:31-46; 2 Cor 5:10). This act demonstrates the divine capacity for supernatural intervention, but it does not establish an arbitrary precedent for such activity. God intervenes God’s own order in an effort to uphold the principle of justice to which God is ultimately committed. This is a unique event in history that proclaims God’s eschatological commitment. If one asserts that Haggai describes God as acting in contradistinction to the created moral order, one need also address the question of why in this instance God would subvert God’s own order. What it is that God accomplishes in this unique act of punishment? That God is able to act in this way does not explain why God would choose so to act.

I contend that a good case can be made that the created moral order is operating in the book of Haggai. A close reading of the text will discover that the disasters recorded in the book are subject to both divine and natural agents, a hermeneutical clue to the operation of the created moral order. There is a chiasm in the book worth nothing in this regard.

A Created Order as Subject: “The heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.” (1:10)

B Yahweh as Subject: “I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.” (1:11)

B’ Yahweh as Subject: “I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail.” (2:17)

A’ Created Order as Subject: “The vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing.” (2:18)

The instances in which Yahweh is the subject of the verbs of destruction are framed by similar language that identifies the created order as the destructive agent (contra KJV in 1:10).  In addition to this, the questions posed to the priests regarding the law (2:10-14) falls in the center of this chiastic framework. Haggai inquires as to the sacred contagion of holy and unholy objects, suggesting that the people and the work of their hands are like the latterprofaning everything with which they come into contact. Far from seeing God as an agent disrupting the natural order of act and consequence, the prophet Haggai portray’s the people’s ritual uncleanliness as directly infecting their environment, albeit at the ritual/symbolic level.

This then raises the issue with which this discussion began. Our modern scientific worldview teaches us that the (in)activity of temple building is not naturally tied to local weather conditions or agricultural fecundity. Scientific causation does link certain sins with certain consequences (e.g. the unbridled use of fossil fuels with global warming). While the created moral order does operate in this way, the issue we face is whether or not causation must be scientific in order to be legitimate. The problem is particularly poignant to a scientifically sensitive society. Yet we must remember that Israel (and later Judah/the Judeans) did not belong to such a society. This does not mean that they were unconcerned about science, but that their cognition was less constrained by scientific pursuits and entertained greater ingenuity. The way in which Haggai rhetorically connects act and consequence and the people’s response help to demonstrate this. We could consider their perspective naïve, but this would betray unwarranted faith commitments to science. Extra-scientific realities are fundamental to a theistic worldview. Along these lines, the created moral order need not operate exclusively at the scientific level. For Haggai and the Judean people, there was a rhetorical/ritual/symbolic connection that linked their inactivity to that of the heavens and the earth. Scientifically, we might be inclined to see this as a convenient coincidence. To the eyes of faith, it was the judgment of God!

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7 thoughts on “(Super?)Natural Disaster in Haggai: A Theological Question

  1. It would seem though that there must also be something of the “covenant” in this judgmental framework for interpretation. This is one of the reasons we cannot carry things over in such a general way for all people everywhere always. There is a particularity in the covenantal relation between YHWH and Israel that plays out in relation to the land, people, temple that does not simply automatically apply to modern society, fossil fuels, global warming, etc. One must be careful to move from the specific to the general in this manner.

  2. @Joseph: Great thoughts! Do you see God’s refusal to intervene in the natural order as something that the ancient Israelites would have seen as God’s active judgment? In other words, yes these cycles came and went naturally, but if Israel was being obedient to the covenant God may intervene, yet he was not, so he was judging them?

  3. @Rick, I understand the covenantal argument. My friend John Meade (LXX Studies) is going to raise the same issue when we get around to talking about this. But I think it worth considering that the covenantal structure between God and Israel carries with it paradigmatic implications for God and humanity. Much of my thinking about this was motivated by the need and desire to understand Haggai in light of the present day and how we might learn from Haggai to develop a theological worldview. I’m not convinced that the relationship between God and Israel was so unique as to have no modern analogues apart from a brief period in the first century BCE when Jesus, the apostles, and the early church were performing a few outstanding miracles. Either hyper-pentacostalism is correct, or we have been misreading the Old Testament. I hope the BioLogos group will begin addressing these concerns; they hinted as much in today’s blog post.

    @Brian, Again, I think it is important to recognize not *that* God can intervene, but *why* God would be motivated so to do. In this respect, I think James 1:2f is telling. Trials are opportunities for spiritual growth, an inevitability in a world where free moral agents are capable of wreaking havoc on their own lives and the lives of those around them. If God chooses to remove such trials, I would expect for their to be a reason beyond “I’m in covenant with this person/people.” If that were the case, the world would have turned Christian long ago!

  4. Rick makes a valid point, famine is almost exclusively connected to the covenant to Israel. However, I found a passage of interest:

    “7 All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.

    8 “‘“If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand. 9 So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’”

    Not only is militaristic judgment conveyed but naturalistic as well. Since God established the decree that all nations serve Nebuchadnezzar for the time being, then the nations kicking against the goad would result in a judgment on micro-cosmic proportions. I am curious as to how you understand the cataclysm of the flood as well or even the final day of Yahweh.

    1. While famine is a significant component of the covenantal relationship, it is also inherently a part of the created moral order. If Job teaches us anything about reading the Old Testament, it is that moving from sin to covenantal curse is much safer than moving from covenantal curse to sin. For this reason, I would be hesitant to take every occasion of a covenantal curse as an indication of covenantal breach (particularly if it is not accompanied by the prophetic word). In a similar vein, I would be hesitant to assume that every covenantal curse is a supernatural activity of Yahweh. Again, Yahweh’s covenantal relationship with Israel is paradigmatic for the relationship God seeks with the nations of the earth. In this sense, one would expect that adherence to some kind of natural law (Amos 1:1-2:3; Rom 1:18ff) is a component of the created moral order, and as such is in force for Israel as much as it is for the other nations. In this respect, the flood narrative is very informative as it is not rooted in the covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Israel.

      And lest we forget this reality, sometimes natural disasters *just happen*(cf. Eccl 9:11). This is no less true in the ancient world than it is in our world today.

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