Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Does God Tempt People to do the Wrong Thing?

Or put another way the question is: does God as depicted in the Bible entice, seduce, or lure us humans into improper behavior? I know the question may sound strange, until you recall that one petition of the Lord's Prayer is usually translated as "do not lead us into temptation" (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4; Didache, 8:2). Each week the Lord's prayer is recited in Christian congregations around the world. It is believed by the faithful to be a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. I have often wondered, did Jesus himself pray such a prayer?1 And when the prayer is offered at funerals and church meetings for what exactly is a person praying when s/he says "do not lead us into temptation"? Why would anyone suppose God would entice us to do something we should not do?

            Some translations attempt to resolve the situation by translating the petition used in the prayer as "do not put us to the test," or "do not bring us to the time of trial," as, for example, the New Revised Standard and Revised English Bible translate the word. The Greek word used in the prayer (peirazō), however, according to the lexicons can be used both ways, as either a temptation to do something wrong, or as a test to prove someone. The Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon prefers the translation of an "attempt to make someone do something wrong, temptation, enticement to sin" for both Matt 6:13 and Luke 11:4.

            The Greek word peirazō is used a number of times in the New Testament where it is clear that the situation depicted concerned an enticement to behave improperly, as for example, when the devil is tempting Jesus (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; see also 1 Thess 3:5 and Jas 1:13-15). In other instances, the situation clearly involves a testing: 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Cor 13:5; Rev: 3:10.

            In the Hebrew Bible God is frequently depicted as testing the Israelites. For example, God tested the faith of Abraham by telling him to offer his only son as a sacrifice (Gen 22:1-2). The stated reason was that God wanted to test his faith (Gen 22:12).2 There are also other passages where the Israelites tested God,3 although God specifically said they should not put the Lord to the test (Deut 6:16).

            I know of only one passage where God is involved in a situation clearly deceiving people in order to tempt them to improper behavior (1 Kgs 22:19-23). The prophet Micaiah had a vision of the Lord on his throne surrounded by the host of heaven. In the passage the Lord wanted to deceive King Ahab and solicited a "lying spirit" to "entice Ahab so that he would go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead" (1 Kgs 22:20). One Spirit came forward saying "I will entice him" (1 Kgs 22:21). And the Lord said, "you are to entice him and you will succeed, go forth and do so" (1 Kgs 22:22).4 One might well suspect from this passage that the ancient Israelite belief included a God who tempted them to improper or hurtful conduct (of course, believing a thing to be so does not make it so). At this point one may recall comedian Flip Wilson's immortal line: "The devil made me do it," which is the prevailing view amongst the faithful: the devil is our tempter. But still the Lord's prayer in most translations petitions God not to tempt us. Why?

One might also well suspect that God should have known the probable outcome when he placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, telling them there was only one tree whose fruit they must avoid (Gen 3:1-7). Of course, it was the serpent that actually tempted Eve (2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14), but one might make a credible case that the enticement was actually caused by God who set Eve up for her lapse, particularly since the popular belief is that God always knows what is going to happen. What was the serpent doing in the Garden of Eden, if it wasn't by divine design in the first place?

And this brings us back to where we began; for what exactly does one pray when one utters the words of the Lord's prayer: "lead us not into temptation"? Did Jesus think that God brought people into temptation in order to test them? Why not, if God also tested them in other ways? What is temptation if not simply another way of testing the faithful? So how should we pray that one line of the Lord's prayer?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See R. Funk and R. Hoover, The Five Gospels. What did Jesus Really Say? (Polebridge/Macmillan, 1993). The Jesus Seminar colored this line of the petition Grey, meaning for the Seminar that Jesus did not say it.

2Here are other instances where God tested the Israelites: Exod 17:2, 7; Deut 8:2, 16; 13:3; 33:8; Jdg 2:21-22; 3:1, 4; 2 Chron 32:31; Ps 26:2; Ps 78:41.

3In some passages The Israelites tested God: Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; 2 Kgs 20:8-11); Ps 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; 106:14; Isa 7:10-12.

4The same Hebrew word is used also in the following instances, where enticement seems the better translation: Exod 22:16; Jdg 14:15; 16:5; Prov 1:10-11; 16:29.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Seems to me that these are, again, examples of humankind projecting its own interpersonal dynamics onto the universe. In this case it would be worst interpersonal dynamics. Even as a lowly human it seems outrageous to me that I would in any way consider tempting my child to do the wrong thing.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

So what do we do with the Lord's prayer? What did the earliest followers of Jesus think they were praying-for?

Anonymous said...

I would think that a monotheistic religion with a creator god would need to account for “evil” (or improper conduct) and the temptation that comes with it being part of the nature of its god. Isaiah 45.7 (JPS): “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe – I the LORD do all these things.” Where else would “temptation” originate, but from a “creator?” Christianity compromises monotheism by what amounts to personifying “sin” and largely outsourcing “evil” and temptation to Satan or the Devil. Certain sects of the second century and later arrived at a different solution, a flawed creator god who created all, including evil, and an “all good” supreme god unknown until Christ.

A Stoic position typified by Hierocles, early 2nd c. (On Duties: How to Conduct Oneself Toward the Gods) suggested that the gods were “the causes of good and what is useful,” never evil, but that people “surround ourselves with voluntary evils.” Vice (lack of self-control and lustfulness, which brings about maladies) was the primary cause of evil, which was punished by the gods with misfortunes. If one takes “God” out of the equation, this seems to correlate somewhat with the Buddhist concept of life’s suffering being caused by “cravings” or desires, attachments.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

The Lord's Prayer isn't the only place where the gospel writers present Jesus as one who thinks that God tests/puts on trial (Gk: peirasmos) the allegiance of his disciples. Mk 14:38//Mt 26:41//Lk 22:40: Right before his arrest Jesus exhorts the disciples to pray that they be exempted from God's testing (of course they were tested and failed by deserting).

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.