Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?
Justice would seem to dictate that people should never get a greater punishment than they deserve. As such, verses which appear to imply that the nation, at times, might actually get more than its fair share of retribution pose a theological challenge.. For instance, in the rebuke of Vayikra 26, Hashem repeats four times:1
וְאִם עַד אֵלֶּה לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְיָסַפְתִּי לְיַסְּרָה אֶתְכֶם שֶׁבַע עַל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם.
And if ye will not yet for these things hearken unto Me, then I will chastise you seven times more for your sins.
A simple understanding of this verse suggests that Hashem is warning the nation that if they continue to sin, they will get a seven-fold punishment, i.e. seven times what their crimes warrant.
In Yeshayahu 40, we similarly read:
(א) נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. (ב) דַּבְּרוּ עַל לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֺנָהּ כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י"י כִּפְלַיִם בְּכׇל חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.
(1) Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, Saith your God. (2) Bid Jerusalem take heart, And proclaim unto her, That her time of service is accomplished, That her guilt is paid off; That she hath received of the Lord's hand Double for all her sins.
The prophet comforts the nation, telling them that their punishment is finally complete, for they have already paid double for their iniquities. Why, though would Hashem have made Israel suffer disproportionately for her sins? Is that not unjust?
The two verses discussed above have very different contexts. Vayikra 26 is replete with rebuke and warnings for disobedience, while Yeshayahu 40 is a prophecy of comfort. The former constitutes a threat of potential punishment, while the latter speaks of punishment already received. Though neither chapter is explicit regarding the specific sins which will merit / merited the manifold punishment, Vayikra speaks of general disobedience and repeat offenses, and alludes to the non-observance of the Sabbatical year laws. Yeshayahu, in contrast, is totally silent on the issue.2 Can the varying contexts of the verses shed any light on the theological question raised above? Is manifold punishment limited to specific circumstances or to certain crimes (perhaps those of a repeat offender, as might be gleaned from Vayikra)?
Related Philosophical Issues
The problem of manifold punishment is related to several other philosophical issues:
- Divine providence – To what extent is the world run by natural order and to what extent via Divine providence? How often will Hashem actively intervene and perform miracles to either protect or punish?
- Retribution and the World to Come – What is the nature and purpose of the next world? Is it meant only for the soul, or for the body as well? Do individuals get their just deserts in this world or only in the next? Is there a difference between national and individual recompense?
- "צדק ורע לו" – How does the case of disproportionate punishment relate to the well known problem of "צדיק ורע לו"? While the latter is normally discussed in reference to individual suffering, our verses speak about the punishment of the collective of Israel. How significant is this distinction? Should it matter whether it is one person or the whole nation which is suffering unduly?
- Collective and vicarious punishment – Instances of collective punishment appear to abound in Tanakh,3 suggesting that they are a central part of Hashem's mode of justice. Hashem further says of Himself that he is "פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים", implying that such vicarious punishment is just. Is our case of manifold punishment parallel to either of these phenomena? Can any of the approaches taken to these issues be applied to our question?