"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).
God had told them in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy how to carry the ark, but maybe they forgot, or perhaps they hadn't been meditating on those books recently, so they didn't know how Yahweh wanted the ark transported.
Actually, it would have been difficult to forget how the ark was meant to be carried, because it had two rings on each side for the poles, so that every time they looked at it they would be reminded that Yahweh wanted it to be borne on the shoulders of the priests. We know that they knew the correct way to carry it, because three months after the tragedy with Uzzah, they carried the ark all the way to Jerusalem just as God had told them to transport it (2 Sam. 6:13). The Chronicles version of the incident makes it clear that Yahweh was angry because they weren't carrying the ark properly (1 Chron. 15:11-13).
The timing of Yahweh's anger is also significant here. The text repeatedly informs us that "all" Israel was present (2 Sam. 6:1, 2, 5); a crowd of 30,000 people was watching this parade. With an audience of the entire nation, Yahweh did not want to send the message that obedience was optional, since it was disobedience that earlier led to the loss of the ark and the slaughter by Philistines of 30,000 Israelites (1 Sam. 4:10). Anger displayed in situations of disobedience gets people's attention.
Yahweh's extreme display of anger certainly got the attention of David and the rest of the nation. After the incident with Uzzah, the ark was always carried the right way (2 Sam. 6:13; 15:29; 1 Kings 2:26; 8:3). So it makes sense that Yahweh was mad, because the Israelites should have known better. While Uzzah's death seems harsh, Yahweh had warned them. He told them that if anyone touched the ark, he or she would die (Num. 4:15). Uzzah should not have touched it.
Throughout the Old Testament it was always serious and even dangerous for individuals to come close to the presence of Yahweh (Ex. 3:5; 19:16; 33:20; Judges 6:22-23; 1 Kings 19:11-12; Job 41:10; Ps. 76:7; Mal. 3:2). If Israel's disobedience were the only reason for Yahweh's anger, we might think that he was being petty and harsh, but the next two reasons for Yahweh's anger help explain the severity of the crime.
Riding in the trunk. The second reason Yahweh became mad is that their decision to transport the ark on a cart was not only disobedient, it was also insulting. To understand how a method of transportation could be insulting, we need to recall what the ark represented: the presence of God (Ex. 25:22; Lev. 16:2; 1 Sam. 4:4). Therefore, it warranted extraordinary care. What the law prescribed for the conveyance of the ark was basically a litter (a chair or throne for a distinguished person supported by people carrying poles on each side). Royalty was frequently honored by this method of transport, going back to ancient China and Egypt. King Solomon was carried around on a litter (Song of Sol. 3:7), as was the Syrian ruler Antiochus V (2 Macc. 9:8). It was important for Yahweh's symbolic presence to be treated in a royal fashion because he was their God and King. David needed not to forget that even though he was king over Israel, Yahweh was sovereign over him and the nation.
Litters were for rulers, but carts or wagons were for things (offerings: Num. 7:3; tabernacle equipment: Num. 7:7-8; grain: Amos 2:13)—never for royalty. Placing the ark on a cart was an insult. They were celebrating its return, but by putting the ark on a cart, they were in essence saying the ark was cargo. Also, it was the Philistines who came up with the idea of the ark cart (1 Sam. 6:8-11), so instead of following God's law, they were following the example of their enemies. It shouldn't surprise us that God was mad.
When I was in college, if my friends and I were going to the movies and we didn't have enough spaces in cars, sometimes I would ride in the trunk. I usually found it relatively comfortable (trunks were bigger then). I liked to crack open the trunk and hang a limp hand out the back to get a reaction from tailgaters. (I no longer recommend this behavior.) Why don't we put people in the trunk? Trunks and carts are for cargo (or dead bodies). Front seats are for humans. Litters are for kings and the ark of Yahweh.
What would it be like if the U.S. President were to come to a town for a parade and the city council asked him to ride in the trunk of a car? He or she would be offended and almost certainly angry. That's basically what Israel was doing with the ark. They should have known better. It was an insult to Yahweh, so he became mad. They needed to treat the ark not simply as a box, because it had a profound symbolic meaning as the presence of God in their midst. It deserved respect. But the ark represented even more than that.
Losing the ark. Third, Israel's lack of respect toward the ark was symptomatic of a lack of concern for their relationship with God, and that made him mad too. The ark symbolized not only the presence of Yahweh, but also the covenantal relationship between God and his people. Scripture frequently calls it the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh (Num. 10:33; 14:44; Deut. 10:8; 31:9; Josh. 3:3, 11; 1 Sam. 4:3, 4, 5; 1 Kings 3:15; 6:19; Jer. 3:16).
The ark contained a copy of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 10:1-5), which told Israel what their covenant with Yahweh involved: to love God and to love their neighbor. In general, the Old Testament tells the story of a one-sided relationship, in which one partner (Yahweh) is more committed than the other (Israel) to the covenant. Often God is patient and doesn't punish instantly, but eventually he may need to take drastic measures to get their attention. Because of their perpetual disrespect for the ark of Yahweh and the public nature of this transportation ceremony, this was a critical time and the transgression warranted sudden punishment. Yahweh valued the covenant with his people so highly that he wanted to communicate the message that he would not tolerate disrespect for the object that symbolized that relationship.
Yahweh's people had just lost the ark to the Philistines because of their evil deeds and their careless attitude toward the ark. Yahweh didn't want them to lose it again. His display of anger toward Uzzah was effective. For the remainder of the monarchy, they not only carried the ark the right way, but there was never a "sequel" of the incident of the lost ark.
From the Uzzah incident, we learn that Yahweh gets mad to protect his law, his honor, and his relationship with his people. Would you want to follow a God that wasn't passionate about his relationship with you?
Slow to Anger
Anger plays an important role in the story of the Exodus. At the beginning of the book, Israel has already been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt, and Pharaoh begins to undertake a draconian birth-control measure for the Hebrews: male infanticide (Ex. 1:8-22). In the midst of this brutal oppression, the Israelites cry out to Yahweh (Ex. 2:23). The text tells us that God hears their groans and remembers his covenant with Abraham (Ex. 2:24-25). Yahweh then begins the process of rescuing his people from their bondage by choosing a leader for the task, Moses.
During their interaction at the burning bush, Moses offers a series of five objections to Yahweh:
1. Who am I? (Ex. 3:11)
2. Who are you? (Ex. 3:13)
3. The Israelites won't listen to me! (Ex. 4:1)
4. I can't speak well! (Ex. 4:10)
5. Please pick someone else! (Ex. 4:13)
So, how does Yahweh respond to Moses' reluctance? He listens to the first four objections and responds graciously, but eventually he gets angry (Ex. 4:14). We need to note three things here about Yahweh's anger.
First, Yahweh didn't smite anyone in his anger. Sometimes Yahweh smites, but often he doesn't (for example, Job 42:7; Ps. 78:21; Isa. 12:1; 54:8). Yahweh expressed his anger and Moses was certainly aware of it, and his anger achieved the desired result. After Yahweh's outburst, Moses offered no more objections, and he dutifully headed back to Egypt to start the process of deliverance (Ex. 4:18-20), which leads to the next point.
Second, Yahweh became angry because he wanted to deliver his people, but Moses didn't want to help. The Israelite nation was struggling under oppressive enslavement, but Moses didn't want to get involved. God was not only mad that his people were slaves, but also that Moses didn't seem to care that his own extended family was suffering. Later, on Mount Sinai, Yahweh told Moses that his people were not to oppress or take advantage of widows, orphans, or aliens, because they had been aliens in Egypt, and if they did, Yahweh's wrath would burn hot against them (Ex. 22:21-24).
In the book of Amos, Yahweh got angry at Judah for similar reasons, so angry that he roared like a lion (Amos 1:2; 3:4, 8). In Amos, Yahweh's wrath targeted the things that someone with a concern for justice would ideally want targeted: oppression (Amos 1:6, 9; 2:12; 3:9; 4:1; 8:4, 6), violence (Amos 1:3, 11, 13; 2:7; 8:4), and injustice (Amos 2:6-7; 5:15; 6:12). Compared to the things that cause me to get mad (someone taking too long in the bathroom or eating the last of the mint-chip ice cream), Yahweh's reasons for wrath seem more legitimate: the elimination of oppression, violence, and injustice. Ultimately, in these contexts God's wrath came from his compassion. This is a good thing. I should get angry about injustice like Yahweh does.
Third, it took Yahweh a long time to get angry. He didn't get mad after the first, second, third, or even fourth objection from Moses; only after the fifth did he finally mad. Yahweh was slow to anger.
The "Long Nose" of the Lord
The idea that Yahweh gets angry slowly is emphasized throughout the Old Testament. Yahweh is repeatedly described as "slow to anger" (literally, "long-nosed"—one of the few similarities between God and myself). This description of Yahweh is not limited to a specific Old Testament book or Old Testament section but is found across the diverse genres of the Old Testament. It appears in historical contexts (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17), prophetic contexts (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3), and poetic contexts (Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8).
Slowness to anger is so much a part of Yahweh's character, he includes it in his name. When Yahweh reveals himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, the text says Yahweh proclaimed his name to Moses, "Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ex. 34:5-6). In the Bible, names mean something significant, representing one's essence and character. Yahweh is God's first name in the Old Testament, but his full name speaks of his graciousness, patience, and slowness to anger.
Ironically, Yahweh had just become furious at his people (Ex. 32:10), which doesn't seem very patient of him … until you read the rest of the story. Yahweh's slowness to anger can be understood only in the context of the deliverance of his people from hundreds of years of oppression.
If I had just been freed from a lifetime of enslavement, I would hope it would put me in a permanent grateful mood, like a year-round Thanksgiving. But as soon as the Israelites get out of Egypt, they start complaining. When they see the approaching chariots, they complain that Yahweh brought them out to kill them (Ex. 14:11). They complain about bitter water, about a lack of food, and about a lack of water (Ex. 15:23-24; 16:3; 17:2). The needs that the Israelites have for protection, food, and water are certainly legitimate, yet in each complaint they assume the worst about their God—that Yahweh is secretly plotting their deaths. Their grumbling betrays a lack of trust, despite all that Yahweh has done so far to rescue them. But Yahweh shows great patience toward his people. Before Mount Sinai, the only people in the book that he gets mad at are the Egyptians (Ex. 15:7-8).
God does get mad at Israel eventually, but this reaction is reasonable given the context. The fifth complaint of the Israelites is addressed to Aaron about Moses' lengthy absence, with a request for Aaron to make gods for them, so he makes them a golden calf (Ex. 32:1-4). Aaron apparently sees nothing wrong with this behavior, despite the fact that he and all the people just promised to follow all Yahweh's commands (Ex. 24:3, 7), which include specific prohibitions against the creation of and worship of idols and other gods (Ex. 20:3-5).
The Sinai covenant was like the wedding between Yahweh and Israel, in which they committed to be faithful to each other (Ex. 19:5-6; 24:3-8). But on their honeymoon, the Israelites had sex with someone else. That seems like a legitimate cause for anger. So Yahweh's anger burns hot against his people, and he tells Moses that they will be destroyed (Ex. 32:10). Fortunately for Israel, Moses convinces Yahweh to change his mind (Ex. 32:11-14).
The Exodus pattern seems to generally fit the entire Old Testament: Yahweh delivers the Israelites. They complain. He is patient. They promise to obey. The first opportunity they get, they disobey. Yahweh eventually becomes angry and punishes them. The name "slow to anger" for Yahweh seems appropriate.
The Abundant, Enduring Steadfast Love of Yahweh
As noted above, the description of Yahweh as "slow to anger" first appears in the context of a divine name revealed after the golden calf incident (Ex. 34:6). In the rest of the verse, Yahweh is also said to be "merciful," "gracious" and "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."
While all these descriptors sound positive, one in particular stands out: "steadfast love," or hesed in the Hebrew. Other translations render hesed as "lovingkindness," "kindness," "love," or "mercy." It is difficult to fully comprehend all the possible connotations of a word in another language, but hesed is the best kind of love one could imagine. It is the love of a devoted parent for a child, from infancy to adulthood and beyond. It is the love of a committed spouse to her or his partner over decades of marriage. It is not a word used lightly for a relationship. We can make three observations about the hesed of Yahweh.
First, hesed in the Old Testament usually describes the behavior of Yahweh. The word occurs frequently in the Old Testament (251 times), and the vast majority of these are descriptions of Yahweh (179 times). Many of the occurrences appear in the Psalms (123), but Yahweh is characterized by hesed generally throughout the Old Testament and specifically in most Old Testament books. While Abraham had to wait for a son, while Jacob was fleeing his fratricidal brother, and while Joseph was languishing in prison, they were all shown hesed by Yahweh (Gen. 24:27; 32:10; 39:21). God gave Abraham a son in Isaac, he protected and blessed Jacob, and he made Joseph prosper, eventually promoting him over all Egypt. Yahweh is a God of steadfast love.
Second, not only is Yahweh loving, but his hesed is abundant. In the other eight Old Testament verses that describe Yahweh as "slow to anger," the immediate context includes formulaic language echoing Exodus 34:6-7, with the repetitions of the following words or phrases: "abounding in steadfast love (hesed)" (7 times), "merciful" (6), "gracious" (6), "faithful" (1), "forgiving" (2), "relenting from disaster" (2). Interestingly, the description for Yahweh that is most commonly linked with "slow to anger" is abundant hesed (Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Yahweh's own name declares that he can be characterized by overwhelming hesed. Yahweh's abounding hesed combines with a variety of other positive attributes—mercy, grace, faithfulness, and forgiveness—making him a deity worthy of worship.
Third, not only is Yahweh's hesed abundant, it is also enduring. The phrase "his steadfast love endures forever" occurs 42 times in the Old Testament to describe Yahweh. While 26 of these occur in one psalm (Ps. 136, the hesed psalm), the other 16 are scattered around the Old Testament (1 Chron. 16:34, 41; 2 Chron. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ps. 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 2, 3, 4, 29; Ezra 3:11; Jer. 33:11). When Yahweh declared his name to Moses, he stated that while he punishes for three or four generations, his hesed continues for thousands of generations (Ex. 34:7). A similar idea of thousands of generations of steadfast love for obedience is expressed in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:6) as well as in three other texts (Deut. 7:9; 1 Chron. 16:15; Ps. 105:8). A thousand generations would last a long time (about 30,000 years). So, if you are a descendent of King David (he had quite a few, the main reason for all the "no vacancy" signs in Bethlehem during Jesus' birth), you are still reaping benefits from his steadfast obedience three millennia ago.
So Yahweh gets angry slowly, and loves abundantly and enduringly, but you might be wondering about the Canaanites or the Egyptians. Did Yahweh abundantly love them?
Did Yahweh Abundantly Love the Canaanites and the Egyptians?
While establishing the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:12-21), Yahweh informs him that his descendants will be slaves for four hundred years. (At that point I might have asked Yahweh, "So how is this covenant a good thing?") In this context Yahweh also mentions the Egyptians and the Canaanites. He tells Abraham that judgments will come upon both the nation that oppresses Abraham's descendants (Egypt) and the idolatrous people who live in Canaan (the Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, and so on).
While I understand why people advocate on behalf of the Egyptians in Exodus (Why did God harden Pharaoh's heart? Why did God drown them in the Red Sea?), when asking these questions we need to remember the big picture. Egypt was the most powerful nation on the planet and at the top of the Egyptian power "pyramid" stood Pharaoh. He was worshiped as a god. The Egyptians were the ones enslaving and oppressing.
Why did God allow his own people to suffer so long under Egyptian oppression? Because he is a God that is slow to anger. He waited four hundred years. My belly doesn't like to wait two minutes for the chili to heat up in the microwave. It's hard to imagine waiting four hundred years for anything. One of the main purposes of delaying divine judgment is that it gives people opportunities to repent. Because Yahweh delayed the judgment on Nineveh, they eventually repented, and he turned away from his anger (Jonah 3:5-10).
Yahweh also waited to punish the Canaanites because, even though they were guilty already, their sin was not yet finished (Gen. 15:16). So God waited four hundred years to punish the Egyptians and the Canaanites, and during this period his own people paid the price. Because Yahweh is slow to anger, his people were not only homeless but also slaves and victims of oppression. Eventually, Yahweh got angry at the crimes of Egypt and Canaan, and he finally delivered Israel from enslavement and provided them with a homeland. However, for four hundred years in Egypt, they paid the price for Yahweh's slowness to anger.
I can't discuss all the places in the Old Testament where Yahweh gets angry, but I've tried to focus on a few of the more problematic passages. I encourage you to look at some others on your own. Studying the divine anger sections of the Old Testament may not make us feel warm and fuzzy inside like meditating on Psalm 23, but it's important not to avoid these texts. It can be embarrassing for those of us who teach the Bible when other people talk about a story of God getting mad and we didn't even know it was in there. But beyond personal embarrassment, it will take some work to interpret these divine anger texts correctly. Fear of tough texts won't help. If we avoid them, they won't go away. The only way to understand them is to read, study, discuss, and teach them.
If you are troubled by passages in the Old Testament in which Yahweh got angry, here are three pieces of advice. First, ask why Yahweh got angry. Be open to finding a legitimate reason for his anger. Second, read the whole context. Yahweh did get mad at Israel in Exodus 32, but only after he had freed them from slavery, rescued them from the Egyptian army, fed them with manna, provided water for them, and met with them at Sinai. He was mad because they committed adultery on the honeymoon. Given the context, it makes sense that Yahweh got mad. Third, have reasonable expectations. You won't be able to resolve all the problems. But some work will help you understand these passages better and save you embarrassment over your lack of biblical knowledge and over the behavior of God.
Adapted from God Behaving Badly, by David T. Lamb, chapter 2, copyright(c) 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press; PO Box 1400; Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
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