by S.M. Chen | 6 April 2023 |
I lived in an Islamic country for two years in the late 1960s. I have a small prayer carpet I got there, in the front hallway of my house. It contains deliberate flaws in its geometric pattern.
There is a Muslim saying: “Only Allah is perfect.” The carpet, whose red hues come from pomegranate juice, bears witness. Some take a while to detect. You’d have to study it for a time. Or, as some of the denizens of some Middle Eastern countries might be inclined to do, hunker.
There are examples in Holy Writ where the Almighty acted in ways that might run counter to what most humans might think appropriate. Rather than demonstrate His imperfection, however, it reveals ours.
The following compendium is not meant to be exclusive; you may have your own examples.
The Moses and his followers
The children of Israel and their vast throng (600,000 men were said to have participated in the Exodus) had been enslaved by Egypt for 430 years—a long time for wrongs to have been perpetrated, for cruelty to be manifest, for masters to mistreat slaves.
Indeed, Moses himself, author of the Pentateuch, fled Egypt when it was discovered he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster and hidden his body. It was not from the Egyptians Moses heard about it. It was from ostensibly sympathetic Hebrew slaves. And, fearing for his life, Moses left the country.
The way it is recorded, the Egyptians were clearly in the wrong. There seems no moral ambiguity here. They had enslaved the Hebrews in a manner people have enslaved and mistreated others for a long time.
The lack of moral ambiguity of reminiscent of the invasion of the sovereign country of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022.
In addition to being cruel, the Egyptians were hard headed. It was not until the last plague, that of the firstborn being slain by the Angel of Death, that the Egyptians practically begged the Hebrews to leave. “For we be all dead men” was the reason.
So the Hebrews departed. Some probably thought they were free of Egyptians at long last.
But it wasn’t long before recriminations started. What have we done? Thought the Egyptians. Did we not know when we had a good thing? Have we not just dropped a boulder—preferably one of those of the pyramids—on our foot?
So they pursued the Hebrews, who were blocked by the Red Sea, hoping to bring them back.
Then it was there that another miracle (besides those of the plagues) was wrought. Moses stretched forth his staff, and the waters of the sea parted. The vast Hebrew multitude crossed on dry land.
The Egyptians pursued them. If the waters would part for the Hebrews, maybe they would stay parted for their chariots.
Perhaps they had forgotten the staff of Moses would not remain stretched out forever. (How soon had the plagues of Egypt been forgotten!)
Moses lowered his staff and the waters of the Sea returned to their original position. The Egyptians’ chariots mired in the sand and the drivers, probably laden down with armor, perished en masse.
Readers might well have rooted for the Hebrews. Who wouldn’t have? An oppressed people if there ever were such a thing.
Pharaoh and his cohorts had gotten their comeuppance. The underdog had emerged triumphant—not unlike how David had conquered Goliath.
It is said celestial angels were not permitted to celebrate. For, to look at things another way, were not the Egyptians the children of God, too?
Mark Medoff’s 1979 play was brilliantly entitled “Children of a Lesser God.” But the God of Moses was not a lesser god. He was a greater God in every sense of the word—including His capacity for grieving at the loss of some of His children—those who mistreated others, those hardheaded and hardhearted.
Yet the Egyptians were his children nonetheless, and He would not countenance celebrating their passing. Rather, He would bow His head in a moment of silence. And His minions would do likewise.
They might feel inclined to celebrate, but they would not.
Manasseh’s father, Hezekiah, was thought a good king, but in the pantheon of good and bad kings, he was a bad one. In addition to his other evil acts (apostasy and killing of the innocent), Jewish tradition says he may have been the king who killed the prophet Isaiah. Not content with a conventional death, he had him sawn asunder, we are told.
There were no power saws in that day. Death would not come quickly. Slow and very painful.
Throughout the history of man, man’s capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man has known no bounds.
One might think Manasseh would similarly lack redeeming qualities. Surely given his family, if anyone deserved abandonment, he did. Yet, when he was captured by the Assyrians, from his prison cell he prayed and the Almighty heard him.
No spot on Earth can entrap prayers. Like the legendary prestidigitator Harry Houdini, they can escape anything.
Had I been in a position to do something, I might have been tempted to turn a deaf ear to Manasseh. But the Almighty did not. He knew Manasseh like I could not have. (Which is why I am one of those deliberate imperfections woven in the carpet, like the one in my hallway.)
Then there was the minor prophet Jonah.
Did he lack what it takes to be a major prophet? As we read the short, fascinating book titled with his name, he appears too human, lacking in redeeming qualities. As well as being hard headed (that was what led to his spending three days inside a whale, from which place his supplications were heard by the Almighty), he was hardhearted.
He set himself on a spot overlooking the Assyrian city of Nineveh, where he preached impending destruction. He had no way of predicting that the king of Nineveh would actually repent, and instruct his citizens to do the same.
The people may have listened to him because of the alterations to his appearance from being inside a whale. Some say the creatures stomach acids would have bleached his skin.
The city was not destroyed. But was Jonah happy? Not at all. He was more worried about his reputation—that he was going to be considered a false prophet, because what he predicted did not come to pass—than the lives of 120,000 Assyrians.
The Assyrians were also God’s children, by the way, no less than the oppressing Egyptians had been.
The Almighty tried to teach Jonah a lesson with a gourd and a worm. But even that failed to soften the heart of Jonah.
It seems he was destined to be a minor prophet.
And there was Saul. The man who held the garments of those who stoned to death Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who zealously persecuted early Christians. Surely Saul deserved the wrath of the Almighty?
But no. Something happened to him on the road to Damascus. A bright light struck him blind.
The Almighty had seen something below the integument. He knew Paul (born Saul) would become a great lion for Him. He knew he would pen some of the most sublime words on love ever to be written, such as 1 Corinthians 13.
Why is this important? Why should we care? Because we, too, deserve worse than what we get. We deserve death; every one of us.
Instead, we are given life. And that, dear reader, makes all the difference.
S.M. Chen writes from Southern California.