Les Miserables: Reconciling God’s attribute of Justice with Mercy

The Tanakh (OT) teaches that the ultimate Lover is He who combines in a perfect blend, justice and mercy (also called loving kindness or grace – unmerited favour).

In Hebrew the word transliterated as ‘elohim’ (often just as God), means ‘God of Justice’ and the word for God that can’t really be transliterated  at all, YHVH means ‘God of Mercy’.

Thus in Exodus we see the Creator of the Universe being described by as the embodiment of both justice and mercy:

“And Elohim (God of Justice) spoke unto Moshe saying: I am YHVH (God of Mercy)” – Ex 6:2

Quoting Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum: The verse (Exodus 6:2) seems to be contradictory. How can the God of Justice declare Himself to be the God of Mercy? Justice seems to be strict and unyielding. Mercy seems to be lenient and bending.

(This very challenge is addressed in the play, now just out as a movie, Les Miserables – more on this later).

The ancient pagans were confronted by that very problem. How could there be Justice and Mercy co-existing in the world. They concluded that there must be more than one god: gods who constantly struggled for supremacy. The Egyptians in the time of Pharaoh envisioned the great fight between Set, the god of justice, and Horus, the god of mercy.

G-d tells Moshe that there is only one G-d. He has both attributes and each one is constantly present. It is only our lack of perception that has difficulty uniting Justice with Mercy. This concept sums up the very basic philosophy of Judaism. “Hear O Israel! YHVH (the G-d of Mercy), our Elokim (the G-d of Justice), G-d is One” (Devarim 6:4)…

In our own families we play a G-d-like role. We too must temper our Justice with Mercy. Justice and punishment can never be inflicted in a state of anger. Such a punishment will convey the wrong message. Justice can only be served when the punishment is carried out in a state of love…

I once saw a small child run out into the street. A car was rushing by. The driver slammed on his brakes, screeching to a halt inches in front of the child. The mother, who had seen the whole incident from the porch, came running out to her child. She picked up her precious youngster. She hugged him dearly; then she slapped his hands hard. She had tears in her eyes. She screamed at him, “Don’t you ever run out in the street again.” She shook him hard. “Never, ever run out in the street. I love you, poor baby.”

That was Justice and Mercy.” – from http://www.torah.org/learning/outsidethebox/5764/vaera.html

Judaism understands that love is this perfect blend of justice and mercy. When those of us who are parents reflect on how we best deal with our children, perhaps this can teach us this fuller meaning of love. As a parent we learn to give, we learn to put our children’s needs before our own, to recognize that often, their needs must come first, but as they grow we also learn how vital it is to exercise fair judgment with them, to demonstrate and practice justice as well as grace/mercy if we are to raise well-balanced and capable children.

In his famous discourse on loving kindness, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler states that: ‘Giving leads to love’.

Gila Manolson writes:

“True giving, though, as Erich Fromm points out, is other-oriented, and requires four elements.

The first is care, demonstrating active concern for the recipient’s life and growth.

The second is responsibility, responding to his or her expressed and unexpressed needs (particularly, in an adult relationship, emotional needs).

The third is respect, “the ability to see a person as he [or she] is, to be aware of his [or her] unique individuality,” and, consequently, wanting that person to “grow and unfold as he [or she] is.”

These three components all depend upon the fourth, knowledge. You can care for, respond to, and respect another only as deeply as you know him or her.” – see http://www.aish.com/d/w/48952241.html

Consider how well these 4 attributes are actualized by our Father, the Creator of the Universe. He cared enough to create this world for us and to create us. He takes responsibility for it on a daily and moment by moment basis and yet is also able to delegate some of this responsibility to us, even giving us greater and greater responsibility as we grow and become more capable of handling it.

Also, no-one could possibly respect each and every one of us as our heavenly Father does!  He knows oh so intimately how unique and gifted each of us are because He made us that way and gave us the environment to allow our potential to grow and unfold.

Finally His knowledge of us, is superior to our own. So superior in fact that He calls us to know Him, rather than seek to know ourselves[1], because it is through knowing Him that we may grow to fully be all the reflection and image of Him that he planted within us, and in doing so, come to know who He meant us to be.

In fact, Jeremiah summed up these attributes of the Almighty very well when he wrote:

Here is what Adonai says: “The wise man should not boast of his wisdom,
the powerful should not boast of his power,
the wealthy should not boast of his wealth; instead, let the boaster boast about this:
that he understands and knows me —
that I am Adonai, practicing grace,
justice and righteousness in the land;
for in these things I take pleasure,” says Adonai.’ – Jeremiah 9:22-23

If we strive to be like Adonai, then surely we will heed the call of Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23.

Which leads me back to Les Miserables. The brilliant teacher, Rabbi Benjamin Blech has written a great article on Victor Hugo’s examination of the challenge of justice and mercy in his play.

I heartily recommend a read of his article ‘Les Miserables and the Bible’ – see

http://www.aish.com/ci/a/Les-Miserables-and-the-Bible.html

Clearly, if we desire to gain the full mercy of our Father we need to learn to repent[2]. I also recommend this article that I have quoted a little from:

“On Rosh Hashana (Yom Teruah), which is a day of judgment mitigated by mercy, a person must establish his right to be present in the next world by answering the objections of the prosecution. One must pass through the dark corridors of justice before he can bask in the sunshine of mercy. On Yom Kippur one is armed with the benefit of the decisions of mercy before he is subjected to the harsh scrutiny of justice.” – from http://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/theme/48955531.html

I also love these words from a brother on Facebook recently:

Repentance is the key, a return to God and His Torah (instructions) through Yeshua the Messiah. Repentance is not just a mantra, is not empty words recited by a preacher and repeated by the penitent. Repentance is not just a passive emotion and a resolve to do better. It is not a new year resolution. Repentance is an attitude change, a change of perspective and direction, an active work, a setting right of wrongs done to God and our fellow man, a hunger for justice to be done, a choice to live in obedience to Torah(instructions) given to us by God. Repentance bears fruit, works and deeds of kindness, it produces a gentleness and a zeal for God, a separated life. Repentance changes one personally and can change a society corporately. A person or people bearing the fruits of repentance will enjoy the blessings and protection of our heavenly Father.” – Leon Hargreaves (FB Post – 26/12/2012)

Shalom, Paul


[1] “The aim of Hebrew religion was Da’ath Elohim (the Knowledge of God); the aim of Greek thought was Gnothi seauton (Know thyself).  Between these two there is a great gulf fixed.  We do not see that either admits of any compromise.  They are fundamentally different in a priori assumption, in method of approach, and in final conclusion…
The Hebrew system starts with God.  The only true wisdom is Knowledge of God.  ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’  The corollary is that man can never know himself, what he is and what is his relation the world, unless first he learn of God and be submissive to God’s sovereign will.  
The Greek system, on the contrary, starts from the knowledge of man, and seeks to rise to an understanding of the ways and Nature of God through the knowledge of what is called ‘man’s higher nature’.  According to the Bible, man had no higher nature except he be born of the Spirit.
We find this approach of the Greeks no where in the Bible. The whole Bible, the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, is based on the Hebrew attitude and approach… “  
- Prof. Norman H. Snaith  “Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament”

[2]The ability to recognize our sin, to take responsibility for it and to repent is at the core of what is meant by the idea of a Messiah.… the courage to admit guilt, to take responsibility, to change. This is the lesson that the Messiah will one day teach the world. Man controls his destiny. No matter what mistakes he has made, man can fix them.” –  Rabbi Ari Kahnhttp://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48914512.html

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451 thoughts on “Les Miserables: Reconciling God’s attribute of Justice with Mercy

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