Ariel Sharon's stroke: God's punishment?

Unjustified comment?

According to televangelist Pat Robertson, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's near-fatal stroke might well be God's punishment for dividing up God's land. According to the book of Joel, Robertson says, God is jealous for His land. In reaction, officials in Israel have announced that they are refusing for Robertson to be involved in purchasing land for building a Christian tourist center in Galilee. Robertson has sent a letter of apology for his remark, but it is doubtful that he will be allowed back into the business deal.

Certainly God is able to punish whom He wills; He has definitely done so in the past, time and again. Look, for instance, at the case of Uzziah, whom God struck with leprosy because he unlawfully offered incense in the temple (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). New Testament examples include Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and perhaps some of the Corinthian Christians (1 Corinthians 11:27-33).

Strokes strike the aged

It is hard to establish, however, that a massive stroke suffered by a 77-year-old is a special judgment from God. Many people that age suffer the ill effects of the increasing infirmities of the flesh; this includes the righteous as well as the wicked. According to a 1993-94 study, for example, each year 2.6 out of 1,000 white males in the age group of 55 to 64 suffer a stroke. Among 65-74-year-old white males, however, the number more than doubles to 6.7 per 1,000. For the age group of Mr. Sharon, 75-84, it nearly doubles again at 11.3 per 1,000 ("Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2006 Update, Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, online edition 1/11/2006, p. 22). A few days after Mr. Sharon's stroke, on January 20, 2006, Canadian film star Tony Franciosa died of a stroke, also at age 77. We wonder what sin Mr. Franciosa was guilty of. In fact, Mr. Robertson himself, at age 65, should beware of suffering a stroke himself.

Fulfillment of prophecy?

Robertson's reasoning that God may have punished Sharon because of his willingness to give up some land to the Palestinians is flawed, both because of his use of the prophet Joel and also on more general grounds concerning the place of modern Israel in biblical prophecy.

The pertinent passages in Joel are in chapter 2, verse 18 and in chapter 3, verse 2:

The LORD will take pity on His people and be jealous for His land.

I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land.

Robertson has taken these verses out of context in a cavalier fashion that is sadly typical of much modern interpretation of biblical prophecy.

Context of Joel's prophecy

Joel spoke to a national crisis in his own day, perhaps the sixth century BCE. After the people suffered a severe drought, wave after wave of locusts consumed what little remained of the crops. The prophet blames this devastation on his sinful people and challenges them to do some radical repenting. "Tear your hearts, not your garments," he says, promising that when they do, God will restore what they have lost to the drought and the locusts. What's more, He will grant them a spiritual renewal as well. Joel 2:28-32 predicts how the Lord will pour out His Spirit "on all flesh." Peter on the first Pentecost after Christ's resurrection, saw the events of the day as the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy.

Now if 30 CE (or thereabouts) was the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, when was Joel 2:17 fulfilled? The answer must be—just after the people of Joel's day repented. At least the evidence indicates that it would have been fulfilled after the people repented and before the first post-resurrection Pentecost. This must be the time-frame for the Joel 2:17 fulfillment, if there is any fulfillment at all.

Conditional nature of biblical prophecy

I say, "if at all," because biblical prophecy has a strong conditional element in it. This is clearly explained in Jeremiah 18:1-10. The conditions need not be explicitly stated to be implicit in the prophecy, as demonstrated by the prophecy of Jonah against Nineveh. The original recipients of prophecies understood their conditional nature, as demonstrated in 2 Samuel 12:14-23 and Jonah 3:3-10; 4:1-2.

When Joel promises a restoration of what the drought and the locusts have consumed, when he reveals God's jealousy for His land and His defense of the land against those who would divide it, that is all conditioned on the repentance of his people. If you look up "land" in a concordance you will find that God has sometimes defended his people so that they possess or retain the land, while at other times, He Himself drives them off of it (e.g., Deut. 1:8; 2 Chron. 7:19-20).

The context indicates that even Joel 3:2 anticipates a fulfillment in ancient rather than modern times, for ancient peoples are mentioned, including Tyre and Sidon, Philistia, and the Sabeans (3:4, 8), and ancient weapons are formed by reshaping farm implements (3:10).

Deflected from another message

To play this fast and loose with biblical prophecy is wrong. To do so before a worldwide audience is presumptuous, self-serving, and foolish. Mr. Robertson should be enough of a Bible student to know better than to do such a thing.

What's worse: for Robertson to speculate about the stroke being a possible punishment from God deflects everyone's attention from another message God has, both for Mr. Sharon, and for the rest of us as well. His message is: "You are mortal! Death is headed for you at 100 miles per hour. Are you prepared?"

Steve Singleton,
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