"Whenever you read from the Old Testament, God is always crabby and snarky to everyone, but the New Testament isn't about anger at all—it's about love."
This observation is made by Sam to her mother (Boopsie) in a 2009 Doonesbury comic strip (May 31) after she heard Rev. Sloan reading from the Bible about the wrath of God. Sam's statement captures the essence of the supposed conflict between the anger of Yahweh in the Old Testament and the love of Jesus in the New Testament. As we look at Old Testament passages focused on anger and love, we will have to decide whether Sam listens badly, Rev. Sloan reads badly, or Yahweh behaves badly. So, is the God of the Old Testament really angry, crabby, and snarky?
Yahweh is primarily concerned with love, but the Old Testament also speaks frequently about Yahweh becoming angry and sometimes even killing people in his anger. Doesn't that undermine the idea of Yahweh as loving? How do we deal with the tension between divine love and divine anger? We might not completely resolve the problem, but by looking at relevant Old Testament passages we will better understand why Yahweh becomes angry, and how his anger makes sense.
Why Did Yahweh Smite Uzzah?
Support for the view that Yahweh is a God of anger can be found in the story of Uzzah and the Ark. The Ark of the Covenant had fallen into the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4-5), and David was finally bringing back the lost ark to Jerusalem (bold and italics mine):
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.
And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. And David was angry because the Lord had burst forth against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. (2 Sam. 6:1-8, ESV)
The festivities basically included a big parade with dancing, celebrating, and a marching band. Suddenly, the cart carrying the ark shook as the oxen that were pulling it stumbled. Uzzah, one of the men walking alongside it, reached out to stabilize the ark, but Yahweh got angry at Uzzah and instantly killed him.
What prompted this divine display of rage? Wasn't Uzzah doing a good thing by protecting the ark from tipping over? Surely whatever he was doing didn't deserve a death sentence. Why did God have to kill him? Even David, a man after God's own heart, got mad at Yahweh for the outburst. Stories like this give the God of the Old Testament a bad reputation.
While the story of Uzzah and the ark is deeply troubling, as we begin to examine the causes of God's anger it becomes more understandable. Yahweh was angry here for three main reasons.
Carrying the ark. First, Yahweh told the Israelites how to carry the ark, and they weren't obeying. Yahweh told them that they were not to transport the ark on a cart, but it was to be carried by the priests on poles through rings on the side of the ark (Ex. 25:10-15; Num. 4:15; 7:7-9; Deut. 10:8). Yahweh's directions were not found just in one obscure text; he made it very clear throughout the Law how the ark was to be transported. Previously in the narrative, the ark had always been carried the right way by Israel (Deut. 31:9, 25; Josh. 3:3, 15, 17; 4:9, 10, 18; 6:6; 8:33; 1 Sam. 4:4).