World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


Argument With God

Where God is known and experienced as a real Person, one who loves and cares for human beings as his children, the seeker after God may not be satisfied with love expressed only as devotion, obedience, or blind trust. He may desire an encounter that is more dramatic and definite: a stand, a confrontation, an argument. The fact that almighty God will countenance such arguments is an indication of his profound love for humanity. This is not the argument of the doubter or the atheist, nor the complaint of one with little faith,1 but an encounter motivated by a burning desire for deeper insight into God's Truth and experience of his compassionate Presence.

Job argued with God because conventional wisdom said that his suffering must be the just punishment for his sins. Yet he knew himself to be innocent of any crimes, and he wanted to meet God face to face rather than accept platitudes which he knew to be untrue. Although God did not quite grant his innocence as he had conceived it, Job was more than transformed by the encounter itself. In the Ramayana, Sita went through an ordeal by fire to prove her innocence to her husband, the divine Rama, who had spurned her without cause. She submitted to the fire to prove her faithfulness; thus she was proved herself and was reconciled to her Lord. The great bhakti saints such as Basavanna had such pure and ardent devotion that they could argue for the integrity of their relationship with God. The Hebrew prophets often interceded with God in attempting to change his mind and win pardon for their people; thus Abraham interceded for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, challenging God to show his mercy rather than his wrath. In a similar manner Muhammad, on his heavenly tour during the Night Journey (Mi`raj), argued with God and won a reduction of the number of obligatory prayers incumbent on all Muslims. A well-known passage from the Talmud depicts the sages arguing with God to illustrate how much God values human free choice.

1. On not complaining, see Bhagavad Gita 3.31-32, p. 162; Sun Myung Moon, 9-11-72, p. 772; Job 2.9-10, pp. 707f.; Var Majh, M.1, p. 707; John 18.11, p. 707; Book of Songs, Ode 40, p. 707.

Let me have silence, and I will speak, and let come on me what may. I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand. Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope; yet I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that a godless man shall not come before him. Listen carefully to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears. Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated. Who is there that will contend with me? For then I would be silent and die. Only grant two things to me, then I will not hide myself from thy face: withdraw thy hand far from me, and let not dread of thee terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and do thou reply to me. How many are my iniquities, and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin. Why dost thou hide thy face, and count me as thy enemy?

Judaism and Christianity. Job 15.13-24

Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; he would give heed to me. There an upright man could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand I seek him, but I cannot behold him; I turn to the right hand, but I cannot see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.

Judaism and Christianity. Job 23.3-10

After the death of Ravana, Rama sent for Sita.... When Sita eagerly arrived, after her months of loneliness and suffering, she was received by her husband in full view of a vast public. But she could not understand why her lord seemed preoccupied and moody and cold. Rama suddenly said, "My task is done. I have now freed you. I have fulfilled my mission. All this effort has been not to attain personal satisfaction for you or me. It was to vindicate the honor of the Ikshvahu race and to honor our ancestors' codes and values. After all this, I must tell you that it is not customary to admit back to the normal married fold a woman who has resided all alone in a stranger's house. There can be no question of our living together again. I leave you free to go where you please and to choose any place to live in. I do not restrict you in any manner."

On hearing this, Sita broke down. "My trials are not ended yet," she cried. "I thought with your victory our troubles were at an end...! So be it." She beckoned to Lakshmana and ordered, "Light a fire at once, on this very spot."

Lakshmana hesitated and looked at his brother, wondering whether he would countermand the order. But Rama seemed passive and acquiescent. Lakshmana gathered faggots and got ready a roaring pyre within a short time. The entire crowd watched, stunned, while the flames rose higher and higher. Still Rama made no comment. He watched. Sita approached the fire, prostrated herself before it, and said, "O Agni, great god of fire, be my witness." She jumped into the fire.

From the heart of the flame rose the god of fire, bearing Sita, and presented her to Rama with words of blessing. Rama, now satisfied that he had established his wife's integrity in the presence of the world, welcomed Sita back to his arms.

Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 118-20

I do act as I talk And live up to my words in deed; Take a balance and weights in your hands Oh my Lord! If my words and deeds Should differ slightly By even a barley grain, You kick me and go, Oh Lord Kudala Sangama!

Hinduism. Basavanna, Vachana 440

I am the cattle; you are the herdsman. Before I am caught and thrashed as the beast, O Lord Kudala Sangama! Please see to it that you are not blamed: "Who the heck is grazing this one here!"

Hinduism. Basavanna, Vachana 53

Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 118-20: Although Sita had remained chaste while in Ravana's captivity (see Ramayana, Sundara Kanda 19-22, pp. 764-65), Rama still was unwilling to take her back. Rama is God incarnate; why would he not know of her chastity and fidelity and accept her? The text says that he was swayed by the suspicions and scruples of the crowd, and that he momentarily doubted his true identity as Vishnu. Thus it is up to Sita herself to prove her innocence through an ordeal by fire. Vachana 440: The sage is so full of self-confidence that he can challenge the divine Judge. Kudala Sangama is Basavanna's personal name for Lord Shiva; it is the name of a temple where he studied in his youth. Vachana 53: Just as the herdsman should be vigilant enough not to let his cattle go astray and graze in another's field, so God should save his ardent devotee for the sake of his own good name.

The Lord said, "Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know."

So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near, and said, "Will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you still destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake."

Abraham answered, "Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?"

And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there."

"Suppose forty are found there."

"For the sake of forty I will not do it."

"Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there."

"I will not do it, if I find thirty there."

"Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there."

"For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it."

"Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there."

"For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." And the Lord went his way when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Judaism and Christianity. Genesis 18.20-33

God said, "When I conquer, I lose. When I am conquered, I gain. I conquered the generation of the flood. But did I not lose, for I destroyed my world? So, too, with the generation of the Tower of Babel. So, too, with the men of Sodom. But at the sin of the golden calf I was conquered; Moses prevailed over me [to forgive their sin], and I gained, in that I did not destroy Israel."

Judaism. Midrash, Pesikta Rabbati 32b-33a

"When the angel raised me [through the heavens]," said the Prophet, "then God prescribed for my people fifty prayers [a day]. As I came back with this regulation, I passed near Moses. 'What has God prescribed for your people?' he asked. 'He has prescribed fifty prayers,' I replied. 'Go back to the Lord,' said Moses, 'for your people will not be strong enough to endure that.' So I went back into the presence of God, who reduced the number by half. Then when I came near Moses, I said to him, 'They have been reduced by half.' 'Go back to the Lord,' he said, 'for your people will not be strong enough to endure that.' I went back into the presence of God, who reduced the number again by half. Coming back to Moses, I told him of this new reduction. 'Go back to the Lord,' he replied, 'for your people will not have the strength to endure that.' I went back into the presence of God and He said to me, There will be five prayers then, but they will be worth fifty in my eyes, for nothing can be changed of what has been spoken in my presence. I went back to Moses, who said to me again, 'Go back to the Lord.' 'I am ashamed before the Lord,' I replied."

Islam. Hadith of Bukhari

Pesikta Rabbati 32b-33a: On Moses' intercession for Israel, see Deuteronomy 9.11-29, p. 641.

On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward all of the arguments in the world [in favor of his position on a certain matter of ritual cleanliness], but they [his colleagues] did not accept them from him.

He said to them, "If the law agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it." The carob tree leaped a hundred cubits from its place in the garden. The sages replied, "No proof can be brought from a carob tree."

He said to them, "If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it." The stream of water began to flow backwards. The sages replied, "No proof can be brought from a stream of water."

Again he said to them, "If the law agrees with me, let the walls of this schoolhouse prove it." The walls began to shake and incline to fall. Rabbi Joshua leaped up and rebuked the walls saying, "When disciples of sages engage in legal dispute what is your relevance?" In honor of Rabbi Joshua the walls did not tumble. In honor of Rabbi Eliezer they did not right themselves, and are still inclined even to this day.

Again Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, "If the law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven." A divine voice came forth and said, "Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, for in all matters the law agrees with him!"

But Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet again and exclaimed, "'It is not in heaven.'"

Some time later, Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah and asked him, "What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do when rebuked by Rabbi Joshua?" Elijah replied, "He laughed with joy, saying, 'My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.'"

Judaism. Talmud, Baba Metzia 59ab

Hadith of Bukhari: This is a portion of the hadith of the Mi`raj, Muhammad's Night Journey. For more of this hadith, where Muhammad flies through the seven heavens, see pp. 360f. Baba Metzia 59ab: Rabbi Joshua's rebuke of the divine voice is a quotation of Deuteronomy 30.12. It implies that God has left the divine law in human hands and open to human interpretation regardless of God's position. The report of Elijah is based upon the tradition that, having been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2.11), he lives with God and enjoys his confidence; see Sanhedrin 98a, p. 1104.


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