Reward and Punishment
A concept that accounts for suffering, but also contributes to the problem of its existence.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The idea that God rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress them is one that runs through the whole of the Bible. The book of Deuteronomy speaks of God’s love for Israel and the corollary that He wishes to reward them for keeping His laws but that He will not fail to punish them if they fall short of His demands on them:
“Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is God, the steadfast who keeps His gracious covenant to the thousandth generation of those who love Him keep His commandments, but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him--never slow with those who reject Him but requiting them instantly” (Deuteronomy 7: 9‑10). This theme runs throughout the biblical record.
The biblical writers are not unaware of the difficulties inherent in the doctrine of reward and punishment. The righteous often suffer and the wicked prosper. These difficulties are faced fearlessly in the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job (the whole book being devoted to the problem), and in other parts of Scripture, but while this certainly implies that the question was far from simple for the biblical writers, their basic belief in recompense and retribution was not really affected. And while the majority of the biblical passages speak of national reward and punishment, there are sufficient references to reward and punishment for the individual as well.
The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18) not only dwells on individual recompense and retribution but rejects the idea that an individual is punished for the deeds of his ancestors. The talmudic Rabbis recognized that in this, Deuteronomy and Ezekiel are in conflict, and they tried to resolve the contradiction.
The biblical references are all to divine recompense and retribution in this world, in terms of material prosperity and suffering here on earth. But a remarkable shift of emphasis took place, it is generally held, at the time of the Maccabees, when righteous men and women were being slaughtered because of their loyalty to their faith.
In the face of such direct contradiction to the notion of reward and punishment in the here and now, faith could only be maintained by affirming that recompense and retribution were to be the fate of humans in the Hereafter, in the World to Come, as it is called by the Rabbis. In the Rabbinic literature, while this‑worldly formulations are not unknown, it is in the World to Come that the doctrine is made to receive its chief application.