Does the president, and the press, get theodicy?

There’s an old joke preachers tell about the man who was depressed and opened the Bible randomly to a page to see what God would say to him. He put his finger on a verse and read, “And Judas hung himself…” Horrified, he opened the Bible again at random and saw the phrase, “Go and do likewise.” Dejected, he opened the Bible one final time and came to the verse, “What you must do, do quickly.” I was reminded of that story after reading about a lost Bible discovered in tornado debris last week in Shawnee, Okla. As a local NBC affiliate reported,

Storm chaser, Brandon Heiden, shot video of the storm as it pummelled [Lance] Carter’s home.

Heiden stopped for a moment to make sure everyone was ok, and found a Bible in the debris. He shot this picture, and hoped the owner would be re-united with the good book again someday.

Meanwhile, Gage Ross, a friend of the Carter family came by the property to help with the clean-up effort. Ross stumbled across that same family Bible; it was still open to the very same page, Isiah chapter 32 which reads, ”A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.”

“The Lord must be with us, I guess.” Ross remembers.

While the Bible only traveled about 100 feet (it belonged to a neighbor who lived on Mr. Carter’s property), the story made it all the way to the White House.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama visited Moore, Okla. to assess the damage done by the recent deadly tornado. According to the transcript of his speech, he said:

On Sunday, the first deadly tornadoes touched down about 40 miles from here. And I mentioned this the day afterwards -- there was a story that really struck me in the press -- in the rubble was found a Bible, open to the words that read: “A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.” And it’s a reminder, as Scripture often is, that God has a plan, and it’s important, though, that we also recognize we’re an instrument of his will. And we need to know that as fellow Americans, we’re going to be there as shelter from the storm for the people of Moore who have been impacted.

There isn’t anything unique about quoting from the Bible to explain natural evil; Christian pastors do it after every natural disaster, including the recent tragedy in Oklahoma. But for a president to comment on theodicy is different, and at least somewhat newsworthy. So how has the media covered the remarks?

Many of the articles about the president’s speech fail to mention the line at all. And of those that did, few provide any context.

The blogs of Time magazine, NPR, and the New York Times never say where the passage is from (the New York Post and NBC News both mention it’s from the book of Isaiah). But none of the outlets question whether the verse means what President Obama implies -- or if it does, if the president really believes what he said.

Let’s look at the verse before the passage about the wind (taken from the New King James Version, the translation the president quoted):

Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, And princes will rule with justice. A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, And a cover from the tempest, As rivers of water in a dry place, As the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

What is this referring to? As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote in his Explanatory Notes, the “king” refers to “Hezekiah, a type of Christ, and Christ typified by him”; a man -- “each of his princes”; a hiding place -- “Unto the people under their government”; the wind -- “From the rage and violence of evil men.”

John Calvin offered a similar interpretation in his own commentary on Isaiah:

He means that God will still be gracious to his Church, so as to restore her entirely; and the best method of restoring her is, when good government is maintained, and when the whole administration of it is conducted with propriety, and with good order. ... How great is the importance of well-regulated government the Prophet shews plainly by these words, when he calls that king a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the rain; for mankind can never be so happy as when every one voluntarily abstains from every kind of violence and injustice, and when they conduct themselves peaceably and without restraint.

Now consider that context in light of what the president said:

... God has a plan, and it’s important, though, that we also recognize we’re an instrument of his will. And we need to know that as fellow Americans, we’re going to be there as shelter from the storm for the people of Moore who have been impacted. ...

Since the passage from Isaiah refers to the king and princes (an embodiment of government), does it mean that President Obama is referring to himself and his administration as the “instrument of [God’s] will” and the “hiding place from the wind” (i.e., a protector against violence)? If so, then the president is expanding the meaning of the scripture to apply to natural evils as well as the evil that men do.

The media doesn’t seem to understand what the passage means -- believing it to be shelter from a natural storm -- and probably assumes that Obama shares their misinterpretation. Perhaps President Obama (and his speechwriter) have indeed misunderstood Isaiah’s meaning.

But what if he didn’t? What if he clearly understood the context? What then should we make of his speech? Was it a throwaway line or is it revelatory of President Obama's theological understanding of theodicy and his role as chief executive?

Historians may someday seek answers to those questions and be dismayed that there were no biblically literate and enterprising journalists around in 2013 to ask.

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