Using the Old Testament and three semi-modern and ultimately misanthropic novels; Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Camus’ The Stranger, and Kafka’s The Trial, this paper will explore the connections between the rhetorical devices used to justify crime and divine action, the issues of crime and punishment (through the Camus novel) and the use of blessings and curses. Special focus will be given to the way in which God’s rhetoric is used to defend and justify the often absurd and even criminal actions and decisions he makes in relation to the themes listed above and through using these texts, relations between the Old Testament and modern times will be established. This thesis statement for The Old Testament and these three novels will also defend the position that God is not, by any means a silent or uninvolved observer of human events, but is a dramatic force in the lives of everyday people, for better or for worse. Along with this idea, the issues surrounding God’s implication in crime and wrongdoing is also broached, which should prompt the reader to pay close attention to the points involving the modern texts and how there seems to be a double-standard in what is viewed as right and wrong, rhetorically speaking.
The books of the Old Testament are at once valuable religious and historical documents that attest to God’s will and works through a number of episodic scenes of the greatest relevance. In many of these sections, there are a number of themes that run throughout the text including; the use of rhetorical questions and devices to justify action, the issue of crime and punishment, and the idea of God’s blessings and curses. It is useful to examine these themes in a more contemporary manner by putting them in the context of other literature and while there are millions of possibilities for drawing parallels, it seems most fitting to view the Old Testament in relation three misanthropic texts that each, in their own way, corresponds to the themes mentioned. While the Old Testament is not, at its core, a misanthropic text, there are elements of this seep through at key moments and these are the passages most worth looking at, especially if one wishes to discuss the relevance of the Bible in modern times. This earliest biblical text, when juxtaposed with more modern literary examples, presents readers (as such, not only as believers or non-believers) the opportunity to explore the nature of God as well as humankind. Without taking an entirely and perhaps overdone approach to examining these issues, viewing the Old Testament as an inherently misanthropic and often confusing work seem much more in order than discussing the many known positive messages included in it. While there can be no questioning of the fact that the Old Testament is a code for living a moral life for millions of people, there seems to be a lot of use to explore the ways in which it presents a more unfavorable view not of God, but of his human “subjects" as well.
When taken out of its religious context for a moment, the bible stands alone as piece of ancient literature, thus making it open to a kind of literary analysis that at once values it as literature while sidelining (and not forgetting) that it is also a work of spiritual use. That said, when viewed simply in terms of literary value, one of the most important issues that arises, as with any work of literature, is the use of language. In the case of the Old Testament, it is important to notice the way rhetorical devices and questions are invoked and deployed in order to form a code of justification on the part of God. In the Old Testament God is shown to have a complex, yet very simply described process of reasoning and it is only on rare occasions that the reader is able to decipher his rhetoric he uses to justify his actions. While there are several examples of God using rhetorical devices to justify his actions, one of the first and most prominent deals with Noah and God’s decision to wipe out humanity—save for a few select humans and beasts.
In Genesis, when God has grown angry at his creation, he suddenly decides to obliterate everything and begin again with the chosen, Noah, and his family and the appointed wildlife. In terms of description, this seems to come out of the blue. The section begins with God being angry that the hearts of men are corrupt, and then, there is what seems like the very rash and unexplained action of destruction to follow. The question becomes, does God need a reason for this action? Without warning, the reader is thrust into one passage about his displeasure, and “the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and the beast, and the creeping things, and the fouls of the air; for it repented me that I have made them" (Gen. 6:7). According to God’s rhetoric and subsequent justification for his acts, it is his creation; therefore he may do what he wishes with it. There doesn’t seem to be any lengthy explanation, only the simply rhetoric of what amounts to, “I’m God and I can do what I want." Unlike in other sections of the Old Testament, there is little reason given, and this makes God seem not only completely misanthropic, but more importantly, a fickle judge who is prone to making snap decisions that cause widespread damage. Rhetorically speaking, the only justification he deems to offer the reader (and presumably Noah and the rest of humanity that he so quickly wipes out) is that since he is God, this is his right. This might have provoked a different response if there was narration involving the lead up to the rhetoric of justification. Throughout Genesis, there are lengthy sections devoted entirely to describing how much time has passes, but with God’s rash decision, there is no such perspective, thus the ultimate result is the rhetoric of justification to back up mass murder.
While it may seem a bit over the top to call God a mass murderer (gasp from the audience), one cannot help but relate his rhetoric of justification to that of another literary murderer, Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Although questionably repentant to some degree at the very end of the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his unprovoked murder of the old pawnbroker as a utilitarian act—as something he did for the ultimate good of humanity. While in the story of Noah’s Flood in Genesis, God’s rhetoric was firmly rooted in the idea that since he was God and since this was his creation, then that alone was enough to sanctify the mass murder of everyone on earth. In much the same way, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov has the same ideas and states in one of the important quotes from Crime and Punishment, “All people are divisible into the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary.’ The ordinary must live obediently and have no right to transgress the law—because you see, they’re ordinary. The extraordinary, on the other hand, have the right to commit all kinds of crimes and to transgress the law in all kinds of ways for the simple reason that they are extraordinary" (Crime and Punishment 256). Here it is clear that the same rhetoric (of the self-proclaimed God) is used to justify the meaning of law—both human and divine—in determining the righteousness of actions. While certainly is more palatable for readers to view Raskolnikov as a cold-blooded killer, it seems a bit hypocritical to not view God in the same way since they were both murderers and they both justified their actions by rhetorically invoking what could be called the “superman clause". In other words, as this thesis statement for Crime and Punishmentand the other texts suggest, both actions could be justified through language based solely on the claim that due to status, murder was absolutely permissible.
If it is fair for literary critics to examine whether or not his rhetorical justifications were sufficient to explain away a brutal murder in Crime and Punishment, then why can’t a modern reader wonder the same things about God; whether his rhetorical justifications were enough to warrant an act that he (and Raskolnikov) view as completely utilitarian? Just like God, Raskolnikov wanders through the dirty and sin-filled streets of St. Petersburg, growing ever more disgusted and disassociated with humankind. God has this same essentially misanthropic conception of the earth when he looks upon his creation before deciding to wipe it out. The Old Testament says, “The earth was also corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence" (Gen. 6:11) and this, as in the case of Raskolnikov’s disgust with the streets and other people, leads to an act of violence. This rhetorical reasoning for murder seems quite insufficient in explaining away a crime, and to both of the criminals, God and Raskolnikov, this is all justified through their verbally (textually) expressed views on their status as above all others. Just as God justifies his action with the statement on the corrupted hearts of men as the cause, he realizes that since he is God, his action is permissible. Raskolnikov too believes in his power and in walking around, observing the mess of St. Petersburg poverty, he thinks, “The great mass of people, the raw material, the stuff exists on this earth solely for the purpose of eventually—through some effort, some mysterious process, some crossing of races and species—straining and bringing forth the man out of a thousand who is at least to some extent independent" (Crime and Punishment 260) To Raskolnikov—he is that special one thus his murderous action is redeemable as a utilitarian service. To God, the same is true; since he was chosen (albeit in a different way since who chooses God) he has the right to use paltry and insufficient logic and rhetoric.
Interestingly, as a side note, both God and Raskolnikov repent, but even their remarks of guilt are tinged with the rhetoric that they were still in the right by their actions. They seem to know they’ve made a mistake, but there is never any resolution as to whether or not they truly believed they were wrong. Raskolnikov seems sorry and is more redeemed and repentant because of the love of a woman, but God on the other hand simply states, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of men’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). Is this to be taken as an admission of wrong? Is the reader to believe that God may find some fault in his own rhetorical reasoning?
God’s rhetoric and willingness to inflict damage comes up again in the Book of Job, wherein God and Satan contrive to test the poor man by putting him through a series of painful trials in order to test his faith. Satan implores God, “But put forth thine hand and touch all the he hath and he will curse thee to thy face" (Job 1:11). This is quite absurd when looked at closely since Satan is setting up a two-fold curse (or so he thinks). On the one hand, he is provoking God to put a curse on a man while at the same time expecting for a resulting curse to ensue on the part of Job. It almost seems strange that God “takes the bait" on Satan’s proposal, but then again, the reader, in realizing this is a spiritual text, is supposed to have the implicit thought that God had some sort of reason to take the bait, that somehow it was for the ultimate good. While God’s rhetoric isn’t completely clear in this section, other than in the sense that he embarks with Satan upon the act of testing, the fact remains that he is using this notion of ultimate authority in order to bestow blessings and curses for selfish purposes. Throughout the Old Testament, there are countless cases of blessings and curses being doled out, sometimes with great reasoning behind them, but most of the time, it seems like another rash decision based on the fact that God simply likes someone and feels they are worthy of his attention. Instead of direct rhetorical justification (other than God stating that they gave him outstanding loyalty) there is a lot of circular logic and rhetorical questioning as to his decision to bless or curse. Of course, in the case of Job, it is clear that curses are designed as a test, but it will be worthwhile, in a moment to look at the rhetorical questions posed by Job in the face of his many curses.
The extremity of both the blessings and curses endowed in select persons in at times, almost absurd and can best be equated with the issues Josef K. confronts in Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial. In Kafka’s novel, a normal, everyday man who is not outstanding in any particular way, but otherwise is a good citizen, is accused of a crime that he doesn’t even know the name of. This leads him to come into contact with the “court" which is a strange bureaucracy that functions under some high judge, who no one seems to know or understand. The court and laws do not make sense, but the feeling is, if you are accused or chosen by the court as being someone generally guilty, then you become powerless and are subject to its nonsensical and incomprehensible laws. This ordeal can be considered Josef K.’s curse, and it is put to him through the power of some unknowable and unseen “God"—in this case, the high judge. Eventually, he is executed, but the novel is more concerned with the absurdity of Josef’s curse and the nature of authority than it is with the final outcome