Divine anger in biblical literature

by Grant, Deena, Ph.D., NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, 2008, 788 pages; 3342410


In this work, we examine the nature of biblical anthropomorphism as it is depicted in divine anger. Most studies on divine anger focus narrowly on justifying God’s anger without examining the social and cultural understandings presupposed by expressions of divine anger. This study locates divine anger within the larger cultural context of human anger and explores similarities as well as differences between human and divine anger. The literary contexts of divine anger throughout the Hebrew Bible are examined in order to identify the specific reasons, outcomes and purposes of Yahweh’s anger.

Chapters One and Two explore how the Bible uses its conceptions about human anger as the backdrop against which to depict divine anger. Chapter Three focuses on the relationship between Yahweh’s anger and war, the most prevalent literary context of divine anger throughout the Bible.

In Chapter One, it is observed that human anger is expressed, almost exclusively, by those in positions of authority who direct their anger at subordinates threatening their domestic or political authority. Drawing on this notion from human anger, the Bible regularly accompanies descriptions of Yahweh’s anger with vivid characterizations of Yahweh as Israel’s human patriarch or political leader. For example, when Yahweh expresses anger at Israel, imagery of Israel as a child or spouse comes to the fore and indicates the relationship nature of divine anger.

At the same time, there are significant differences between the depictions of human and divine anger. Human anger functions to assert authority by annulling a threat (either by eliminating or disempowering a provoker). However, Yahweh’s expressions of anger function to reassert divine authority by persuading Israel to renew its loyalty. This is the case whether Yahweh’s anger is directed at foreign nations are Israelites.

In addition, the Bible portrays human anger as an experience that compels an individual to commit a destructive action, but it often equates Yahweh’s anger with the destruction itself. The anger of Yahweh is often figured as weapons that attacks nations or Israel. As such, terms of anger applied to humans emphasize the experience of the angered party. However, when these same terms are applied to Yahweh, they emphasize the effects of anger on its victims. It is proposed that this focus on the victims of Yahweh’s anger and not on Yahweh’s own experience of anger is to show that Yahweh is undiminished by His provoker.

Chapter Two argues that the consequences of human anger depend far more on the relationship between an angered party and his provoker than on the nature of an offense. The outcome of human anger at foreigners tends to be lethal, while the outcome of human anger at kin tends to be temporary and/or benign. For example, when an individual angers his kin through a sexual violation the provoker generally receives no punishment, but when a foreigner provokes anger through an analogous sexual violation, the provoker is usually killed. These widely divergent outcomes of anger are related to the perceived importance of kinship in preserving the survival of a community.

These notions about the outcomes of human anger inform the biblical portrayals of the outcomes of Yahweh’s anger. Just as the consequence of human anger is governed less by the nature of an offense than by the relationship between a provoker and his victim, the consequence of Yahweh’s anger is governed less by the magnitude of an offense than by the characterization of Yahweh’s relationship to his provoker. As such, biblical authors depict Yahweh’s anger at foreign nations as completely destructive, and Yahweh’s anger as Israel His “son,” “daughter,” or “wife,” as temporary and/or restrained. Chapter Two explores how these differing characterizations of Yahweh’s anger at foreign nations and Israel interact with divine anger’s consistent rhetorical aim to repair Yahweh’s relationship with Israel.

Chapter Three probes how the link between Yahweh’s anger and war is articulated differently in Israel’s various biblical collections, including Israel’s early poetic material, prophetic literature and deuteronomistic history. We suggest that the Sitz im Leben of human war, most notably the Babylonian invasion, informs a wide range of literary expressions of divine anger that include Yahweh’s fiery anger, poured out anger, and a cup of anger.

AdviserDaniel Fleming
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsBiblical studies; Theology; Judaic studies
Publication Number3342410

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