Yahweh’s dramatic self-revelation to Moses features the expression “slow to anger” (ʾerek ʾappayim) in the context of divine mercy, grace, kindness, and fidelity (Exod 34:6). The phrase came to function proverbially and rhetorically. Israel’s leaders and psalmists invoke it in prayer, as if to remind God to demonstrate grace (Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15). The psalmist employs it to enjoin praise to God (Ps 145:8); prophets recount it to inspire repentance (Joel 2:13; Nah 1:3). Jonah brilliantly turns the phrase against God in his resentment for Yahweh’s demonstration of mercy toward Nineveh (4:2). When the Epistle of James calls persons to emulate this quality (1:19), it follows the example set in Proverbs (14:29; 15:18; 16:32; 19:11).

“Slow to anger” epitomizes the larger biblical disposition toward anger. Anger is dangerous and to be avoided. Generally, it serves mortals poorly. God’s self-control demonstrates divine graciousness; however, “slow to anger” holds in reserve the fearsome prospect that God’s anger may, and does, confront mortals. If anger poses dangers in the hearts of mortals, how much more ought mortals fear the anger of God?

Language.

Hebrew employs several terms related to anger. The prevailing images for anger involve heat and burning. The two most common Hebrew words that connote anger, ʾap and ḥarâ, often function together. The frequently occurring phrase wayyihar-ʾap literally means “and his nose burned,” which the NRSV renders, “and his anger was kindled” (e.g., Exod 4:14; Num 11:1, 33; 22:22). Human and divine anger alike are related to burning, either the somatic heat mortals experience when angry (as in Num 22:27) or the devastating effects of divine fire (thus, Jer 4:4).

The Greek orgē and thymos are near synonyms. Revelation refers to “the wine-cup of the fury [thymou] of his wrath [orgēs]” (16:19) and to the “wine press of the fury [thymou] of the wrath [orgēs] of God Almighty” (19:15). One might differentiate the terms by associating thymos with passion or emotion and orgē with effects such as judgment or punishment, but the two terms largely function interchangeably. For example, Mark 3:5 employs orgē to describe Jesus’s emotional response. The two terms appear together in lists of vices (Rom 2:8; 2 Cor 12:20; Col 3:8), while Ephesians calls believers to “put away” both thymos and orgē, along with bitterness, wrangling, slander, and malice (5:31). Luke uses “filled with rage” (thymos) to describe hostile assemblies (Luke 4:28; Acts 19:28); on the other hand, God’s wrath (orgē) plays a significant role in the argument of Romans (1:18–3:8). The New Testament never employs mēnis, the term associated with the rage of Achilles and of the gods.

Ethics and Mortal Anger.

In Genesis 49:7 the elderly Jacob condemns Simeon and Levi: “Cursed be their anger [ʾap] for it is fierce, and their wrath [ʾebrâ], for it is cruel!” Jacob’s final words concerning these sons recall the story in Genesis 34, in which Simeon and Levi avenge the rape of their sister Dinah against Shechem, his family, and their city. Jacob, more concerned that his sons’ violence exposes him to danger from the region’s inhabitants than about the harm done to his daughter, scolds his two sons (34:30). Jacob’s words also capture the complicated status of anger within biblical traditions. Anger is dangerous. God’s anger is righteous and terrifying. Mortals may rightly express anger, but the wise exercise great care. The Epistle of James admonishes readers to be slow to anger, for anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness (1:19–20).

Moses provides perhaps the Bible’s best representative of righteous anger. Having endured Pharaoh’s stubbornness on several occasions, Moses departs in a “burning of anger” or with “a heated nose” (Exod 11:8). Moses’s nose heats up again when he encounters the golden calf the Israelites manufactured during his encounter on Sinai (32:19). Aaron implores him, “Do not let my lord’s nose burn” (32:22).

We might expect explicit reflection on anger in the wisdom traditions of Israel and early Christianity. In these contexts caution prevails in response to anger. The book of Proverbs characterizes anger as a flood, perhaps not as dangerous as jealousy (27:4). Wise people manage their anger (Prov 14:29; 15:18; 16:32); indeed, “Jealousy and anger shorten life” (Sir 30:24 NRSV). According to Proverbs only a fool manifests anger openly, while Ecclesiastes asserts that anger “lodges in the bosom of fools” (7:9). As a result, the wise person will avoid those prone to anger (Prov 22:24). This tradition may inform our reading of Matthew, in which Jesus counsels that one who harbors anger toward another faces judgment (5:22), even though Jesus’s disciples and opponents alike demonstrate anger (20:24; 21:15; 26:8). Anger frequently appears in New Testament lists of vices to avoid (2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; Jas 1:19–20), while Ephesians counsels effective self-discipline regarding anger: “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26).

Despite the danger that attends mortal anger, biblical texts often acknowledge it as a fact of life. When their honor is challenged or when they feel themselves insulted, people predictably respond with anger (e.g., Gen 30:1–2; Judg 9:30; 1 Sam 11:6). When young David visits the battlefield, his brother Eliab has many reasons to be angry (1 Sam 17:28). Ephraimite warriors respond with burning anger when Amaziah rejects their military help (2 Chr 25:10). The anger of King Ahasuerus drives the plot in Esther (1:12; 2:1; 7:10); after all, a king’s anger is much to be feared (Prov 19:12; Heb 11:27). In one instance Yahweh arouses the anger of Judah’s enemies so that they function as agents of divine vengeance (2 Chr 21:16–17). Anger resides among villains, heroes, and everyone in-between. One must be wary, lest one provoke a powerful adversary to anger (Prov 20:2).

Acts and Revelation occasionally identify persecutors as angry or enraged. Twice Acts employs the phrase “they were enraged [dieprionto] and …” when introducing violent opposition toward the Way (5:33; 7:54); once Acts uses “they were full of wrath [thymou]” (19:28; see Luke 4:28). Paul recounts how his own rage motivated his activity as a persecutor (Acts 26:11). The book of Revelation alludes to the rage of both the “nations” (11:18) and the Dragon, Satan (12:17).

On rare occasions mortals demonstrate anger in response to, if not directly toward, God. The book of Jonah mocks the prophet’s anger when Yahweh extends mercy toward Nineveh (4:1–9), but some texts sympathetically depict reasonable anger toward God. Distressed by God’s rejection of Saul, Samuel becomes angry and cries out to God all night (1 Sam 15:11). When Uzzah touches the ark to secure it, Yahweh’s anger bursts forth and kills him—provoking David’s anger in response (2 Sam 6:6–8; 1 Chr 13:9–11). Neither Samuel nor David voices his anger directly at God. Remarkably, Job never expresses anger toward Yahweh, though Yahweh belittles Job: as a mortal he lacks the capacity to expresses effective anger against the proud and the wicked (40:10–12).

Divine Anger.

Divine anger creates problems for theologians. One approach relegates divine anger to the status of obsolete anthropomorphism. According to this logic, humans create God out of their own experiences and characteristics. Therefore, depictions of God’s anger resemble the wrath of human authority figures or of our own frustrations but have nothing to do with God’s own nature. However, if we explain away divine anger as a case of anthropomorphism, how shall we account for depictions of God as loving or just? Since theological language always entails a measure of anthropomorphism, by what criteria do we discern that anger somehow corresponds less directly to the divine reality than does love or justice?

Heschel’s interpretation of divine wrath (1962) continues to influence theologians and biblical interpreters. Heschel argued against divine impassivity, maintaining that God responds to worldly events with a range of what we would call emotions. Heschel’s God is not fickle; wrath expresses God’s moral judgment against human injustice and idolatry. Indeed, Heschel saw anger as a correlative of divine love: while God’s love endures forever, wrath lasts but a moment. In their appropriations of and qualifications to Heschel’s work, contemporary interpreters such as Moltmann, Fretheim, Brueggemann, and O’Brien take seriously the possibility that biblical depictions of divine anger might do far more than project human frustration upon the cosmos. Many interpreters also refer to divine wrath as a means of characterizing the execution of divine justice in a world marked by violence and oppression. Both Paul and John of Patmos pause to defend the justice of God’s wrath (Rom 3:5; Rev 15:1–4; 16:5–6).

Isaiah 54:8 may encapsulate the prophetic image of divine anger. It describes a temporary “flood of wrath,” then emphasizes Yahweh’s “everlasting love” and “compassion” (NRSV). The revelation to Moses that Yahweh is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6 NRSV) constitutes the dominant biblical perspective on divine wrath. As he comes to terms with the gospel’s lack of acceptance among Jews, Paul draws upon this tradition. Paul posits that, though some are “objects of wrath that are made for destruction,” God has already demonstrated patience toward them. Moreover, God has already prepared “objects of mercy” for future glory (Rom 9:22–23).

God expresses wrath most frequently in response to affronts against the divine honor, particularly idolatry. Two Hebrew terms reflect this pattern: many texts depict how God’s “anger was kindled” (e.g., Judg 3:7–8), while others attest that God’s wrath is “provoked” (e.g., Deut 9:7–8; Judg 2:12). In Hebrew the language of “kindling” focuses on a potential within the divine being, while provocation suggests a response to human behavior. We should not make too much of this distinction, as Psalm 106 invokes both kinds of language (vv. 29, 40).

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, along with some of Jesus’s teachings and the Epistle of James, caution against anger on the part of mortals but tend not to depict divine anger. Other wisdom texts, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, reflect the influence of apocalyptic thought and do emphasize divine wrath (e.g., Wis 5:17–23; 19:1; Sir 5:6; 18:24; 36:8–12). Proverbs 11 suggests that a “day of wrath” awaits the wicked but not the righteous (11:4, 23); here divine wrath constitutes a predictable consequence of human wickedness. Job’s friends, whose speech mixes truth with misperception, explicitly reflect upon the prospect of divine anger (4:9; 20:23 36:33); it is difficult to discern whether Job’s reflections on divine anger—its implacability, irreversibility, unpredictability—reflect the book’s larger point of view (9:5, 13; 21:17).

Prophetic and apocalyptic traditions are notable for imagining divine anger and its consequences. References to divine wrath are especially dense in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation along with the Psalms. In Ezekiel Yahweh frequently speaks of “pouring out” the divine wrath (e.g., 7:8; 9:8; 14:19; 20:8–34; 30:15), language also encountered in Isaiah (1:24), Jeremiah (6:11; 10:25); and Hosea (5:10). Revelation attributes anger to God, the Lamb (6:16), and the devil (12:12, 17) alike. Depictions of cups or bowls of wrath, such as we encounter in Revelation’s bowl judgments (cf. Isa 51:17), conform to this tradition. We also encounter admonitions to fear the “day of the Lord” in Amos (5:18–20) and Zephaniah (1:7—2:4). The Q source depicts John the Baptist preaching the “wrath to come” (Matt 3:7; Luke 3:7), while Paul refers both to the “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5) and the “coming wrath” (1 Thess 1:10).

Jesus rarely speaks of divine anger, though some of the characters in his parables act in anger and are often taken to represent God in some sense (Matt 18:34; 22:7; Luke 14:21). Jesus himself demonstrates anger in Mark 3:5 (also in Mark 1:41, by a likely solution of a text-critical problem). It is less clear whether readers should infer anger at other points of the Gospel narratives, such as Jesus’s dramatic action in the Temple.

[See also APOCALYPTICISM; DAY OF THE LORD; GOD AND GODS; HOLINESS; IDOLS AND IDOLATRY; JUSTICE, JUSTIFICATION, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS; MERCY AND COMPASSION; PROPHETS AND PROPHECY; REPENTANCE; REWARD AND RETRIBUTION; THEOPHANY; and WISDOM LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Brueggemann, W. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
  • Fretheim, T. E. “Theological Reflections on the Wrath of God in the Old Testament.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 24 (2002): 1–26.
  • Heschel, A. J. The Prophets. Perennial Classics. New York: HarperCollins, 2001 (1962).
  • Moltmann, J. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Translated by R. A. Wilson and J. Bowden. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
  • O’Brien, J. M. Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
  • Schlimm, M. R. “Different Perspectives on Divine Pathos: An Examination of Hermeneutics in Biblical Theology.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 (2007): 673–694.

Greg Carey