Critics of the Bible often complain that the God we see depicted in the Old Testament is an angry, vindictive deity. They’ll aver that Yahweh appears to be more than a bit temperamental — indeed, he seems constantly ready to fly off the handle and smite people in judgment. They point to episodes like the flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and declare God to be a genocidal tyrant. And they respond to this angry, judging God by getting angry themselves and judging the Bible to be unworthy of their time or their belief.
Other readers accept the Bible as an important — even sacred — text, but they, too, have difficulty accepting what the Old Testament says about God. So they minimize it or try to unhitch from it. And still others turn a blind eye to the violence in the Bible, accepting it all at face-value — maybe even turning it into tame little children’s books.
I don’t think any of these is the right way to approach the difficult depictions of God we read about in the Old Testament. Rather than dismiss them out of hand, and even rather than simply accept that God is angry and say that’s fine because he’s God, I think the best response — the most faithful response — is to take a closer look at the text of the Old Testament to determine if perhaps we’ve read something into it that isn’t there.
Perhaps we unthinkingly make God out to be far more easily angered and more wrathful than he actually is.
After all, if you search specifically for the places in the Old Testament where God is explicitly described as being angry, you might be surprised to discover that they’re actually not as common as you may think.
Oh, and this is all leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that Jesus himself expressed anger and even took violent action at times when the circumstances called for it… But that’s a discussion for another time! 🙂
For now, let’s focus on the Old Testament. What’s interesting is that some of the biblical stories people often point to as evidence of God’s explosive temper or terrible wrath — episodes like the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the conquest of Canaan — actually contain no mention of God being angry!
In the case of the flood account, we’re told that in fact God was sorrowful, grieved at how wicked humanity had become, and that he acted out of moral necessity rather than anger (I’ll say more about the flood in a future post — stay tuned!).
With Sodom and Gomorrah, Scripture says in Genesis 18:20-33 that God judged the cities 1) only because of the massive injustice and perversion of social order taking place there, 2) only after thorough deliberation and careful evaluation to determine if judgment was truly necessary, and 3) only on the condition that the overwhelming majority of the population truly deserved it.
In other words, the Bible practically takes pains to spell out for us that God did not judge out of anger or caprice, but from a concern for justice and order in his creation.
Interestingly, the first place the Bible mentions God becoming angry is with Moses, in Exodus 4:14. After God has made absolutely clear what he wants Moses to do, Moses makes excuse after excuse for not doing it, to the point where he sounds insolent. Even so, as Daniel Hawk points out, “Yahweh’s anger, however, does not lead to punishment but to an accommodation that addresses Moses’ trepidation” (The Violence of the Biblical God, 72). God doesn’t fly off the handle or respond in a fickle manner like any old Near Eastern deity; he stays patient with his stubborn human messengers.
So, keep in mind: the first mention of God’s anger is in the context of an interpersonal relationship, where emotional give-and-take is part of the expected dynamic. And it’s followed not by immediate wrath, but by grace.
Later on in Exodus, as God is leading the Israelites into the wilderness toward Mt. Sinai, the people complain and test God multiple times. Yet, just like with Moses, God stays patient and even accommodates their requests. And at Sinai, he enters a covenant partnership with Israel, inviting them to become his unique vassal nation. He offers them the privilege of having the holy God of the universe camp in their midst.
It is after Israel immediately turns around and spurns God by making and worshiping an idol (the golden calf incident — Exodus 32) that references to God’s anger become much more frequent. Hawk helpfully points out that one of the key reasons for this is the nature of a covenant relationship:
“The nation is to show all the deference and respect that a vassal shows to a suzerain and is to live obediently according to the dictates of the high king. These expressions of fidelity will ensure that Israel will stay in the good graces of the cosmic Sovereign and enjoy the benefits that the high king has the power to bestow. Alternatively, if Israel treats the Sovereign with disrespect, curries relationships with other monarchs, or refuses to observe what the king has decreed, it can expect the kind of response from Yahweh that rebellious vassals commonly receive from their suzerain” (p. 93).
This is why God’s anger in the OT is most often directed at Israel! Particularly in the book of Numbers, where God is frequently depicted as acting out of anger, his divine wrath needs to be understood in its narrative context. It’s a context in which God has already shown extensive patience with people who continue to test his limits by violating the covenant relationship he just spelled out to them! It’s the idea of “to whom much is given, much is required.”
God is overwhelmingly patient and understanding, but he will also take it personally when people who know better act with defiance. This is precisely the idea we find encapsulated in the most central revelation of God’s character in all the Old Testament, Exodus 34:6-7 (CSB):
“The Lord — the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.”
There are situations — especially in a deeply-committed covenant relationship built on trust and mutual faithfulness — where disloyalty and rebellion should provoke a proper response of anger. This is exactly how the Bible presents God. He is not a passive, impersonal cosmic force; he is a personal Creator who enters into real relationship with people. And such relationships can and should entail emotional responses — including anger.
I could go on and on.
We could talk about how the Old Testament prophets speak of God’s righteous anger at injustice and idolatry.
We could ponder the fact that God gets angry at anything that harms and dehumanizes people.
I could mention that the only law that makes reference to God’s anger is Exodus 22:22-24 — “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (NRSV). “Oppression of the powerless is the one instance, among all the laws, that is said to provoke Yahweh’s anger” (Hawk, 94).
There is so much more than can fit into a single blog post. My only humble hope is that this quick survey prompts you, dear reader, to reconsider the anger of God as it is actually depicted in the Bible.
The God we meet in the Old Testament is anything but a temperamental, capricious deity, waiting for us to slip up so he can smite us. No, the God of the Old Testament is a patient king, a wise judge, and a loving creator. He truly is compassionate and slow to anger. Nevertheless, he is also a God who, when necessary, will say “That’s enough!”
Because that’s the only kind of God worthy of worship.
If you couldn’t tell from all the quotes, my thinking in this post was greatly stimulated by L. Daniel Hawk’s book, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith. I hope to have a review of it up soon — in the meantime, let me just say it’s a thought-provoking work, worth a careful read, though not without some flaws.
See you down the path.