Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship with a Ruthless God

God as He is depicted in the Bible, especially throughout the Old Testament, is seen as a wholly merciless being. On multiple accounts, God kills and tortures the innocent, asks of incomprehensible feats and favors, and devices seemingly unfair agendas against humanity. Some of the most famous Biblical stories feature God wreaking havoc against man (Passover and the seven plagues, The Binding of Isaac, Noah and the flood, Job, etc.)  In other interpretations of God(s) in the greater canon, there too trends a pattern of the divine ruling ruthlessly over humans, quick to punish the wretched and look down upon the disgraced (Oedipus and the God-given prophecy, etc.) In the story of Adam and Eve for example, the original sinners are punished significantly after eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil. For the entirety of humankind, women would bear children in pain and men would have to struggle and sweat for their existence, all because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience against God’s word. In addition, Adam and Eve are turned mortal and are thrown out of the Garden of Eden indefinitely; justice is reinstated through God’s harsh disciplines. It is quite clear that God intends to follow through on His word to punish Adam and Eve as it reads in the Bible, “So the Lord God banished [Adam] from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24-3:25) The way in which the banishment process is worded makes it sound as though God banishing Adam and Eve from Eden is just another day, that God has no personal interest in the well being of his creations.

Despite the fact that Adam and Eve’s sins will affect the entire existence of humanity, God offers no second chances or shots at redemption.

Indeed, in many famous Bible stories the relationship between man and God is not a friendly one. Throughout The Book of Job, it is clear that society expects that God works in a predictable and morally righteous manner: God rewards those who are good, and punishes those who are evil. It is because this way of thinking is so thoroughly engrained into people’s minds that Job becomes seriously bothered by his (what should be his drastically and horribly unfair) treatment by what should be a morally upstanding God. Job, and others who fall into Joban traditional works, so adamantly insist that there must be some sort of explanation as to why retribution is enacted on the good and the pious because of this societally deep-rooted mindset Job begins to become more and more frustrated without explanation until God Himself appears to Job and rewards his exasperation with the returning of Job’s health and earthly possessions unto him in double. God scolds Job’s three wise friends for attempting to form some sort of explanation to his action and clarifies straightly to Job that he must essentially accept the mysterious ways of his Lord, and trust that questioning is elusive and inessential.

Suffice to say, the Abrahamic God, at least as how He is described throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, is not exactly “friendly” in any way whatsoever. He is seen brutally punishing Adam and Eve (and therefor the rest of humanity) with no chance of redemption in Genesis, and He is seen cruelly punishing Job even though he is an innocent man. The relationship between God and the people in these two stories is hostile and unbalanced. When he speaks to both Adam and Eve and to Job, He condemns, scolds, and berates not like a loving God, but more in line with a cruel tyrant. It is surprising to me for this reason why Iranian, Islamic, Christian, and Secular traditions emphasize a loving relationship with God so intently. It seems as though the “loving” and “friendship” aspect of these traditions developed later- perhaps with the introduction of the Prophet Muhammad in Islam, or with Jesus Christ in Christianity, but still these religions have strong basis and ties with the Old Testament and the God in which exists in that particular context. Indeed, these traditions promote the ideal of having a close, loving relationship with God. Friendship is emphasized heavily as being not just important but a cornerstone in the traditions.

Zoroastrianism emphasizes knowledge above almost everything, and believes that maintaing strong friendships are one of the most affective ways to grow as a person. As Zoroaster is cited saying for example, “Oh God, will you bestow upon us a gifted power to maintain peace at our land in reciprocation to our order and good thoughts?” In Zoroastrian text there exists an idea that in order to obtain true (romantic) love,  there must exist some foundation of friendship; “A good woman has good nature and is friends with her husband”. This quote really shows the emphases put on friendship, as even the romantic love that is needed for marriage should deeply encompass friendship.

In Islam, knowledge and wisdom from friendship is valued in a similar means as in Zoroastrianism. Islamic tradition indeed emphasizes the idea that to truly know ourselves, there must exist friendship, and to truly know our relationship to God friendship must be present. In Christianity, Augustine believed the path to friendship “begins with a perception of ordo, experienced as the trinity of memory, understanding and love in the soul….that then, unrolls in a common life of loving, learning, and recollecting.” (Heyking 132). In Islamic and Zoroastrian tradition, love and friendship is practiced in order to obtain a relationship with God, where according to Augustine, a relationship with God must first exist before one can experience love and friendship in their daily life. However, all three traditions heavily emphasize the idea of love and friendship in accordance with worship and prayer, and therefor generate an intense and loving bond between themselves and God.

It is surprising to me that these traditions so readily emphasize a loving relationship with God. It’s incredible to me that despite the differences in practices, ideals, etc. that the linchpin between the traditions is the idea of love and friendship being tied with God. Without love and friendship, a relationship with God either doesn’t exist or is not fully formed in all three of these traditions. Despite the fact about what we know about God through the story of Adam and Eve and in The Book of Job, God is still viewed as friend and mentor for all of humanity.


Von Heyking, John and Avramenko, Richard, eds. 2008. Friendship and Politics, Essays in Political Philosophy. Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

King James. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Genesis 2:4-3:24.

King James. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. The Book of Job.

Leave a Reply