Anger is one of the anthropomorphic characteristics that is frequently attributed to the Biblical God. Many of us are taught the image of an angry God who often vents His wrath upon His people like some fire-breathing dragon. We may recall examples of His expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, or when He sends the flood, or when He destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, or when He denies Moses the holy land.
Fire and brimstone! “Yep, that’s our God,” we think. The Hell and Damnation preachers like Johnathon Edwards or John Calvin have, for centuries, given us good warning of the hair-trigger temper and lightning-bolt wrath of our God.
So to get a good fix on God’s anger, let us go back and review each of these instances as reported in the Bible and see exactly how these instances are reported. These notes will use the English Standard Edition as being one of the most literal translations, but the points are well preserved in most of the other translations.
No More Garden
We all know how mad God got when he found out Adam and Eve had disobeyed him and eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Let’s see how this anger is described in Genesis 3.
16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
21 And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.
22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”
23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.
Oops. Where’s the anger? Hmmmm. Nowhere does the account say that God is angry or mad at Adam and Eve. And the account explicitly states the reason that God sent them out of the garden in verse 22: God simply could no longer trust them to stay away from the forbidden tree of Life. It was because of their untrustworthiness that God was forced to make the garden off-limits. Nowhere does Genesis say that He was punishing them; rather they forced him to protect the tree of Life by keeping them away. As a result, they were out in the wild where the thorns and thistles grew, where fruits were scarce, and where they had to toil to make wheat into bread.
Like a parent who tells their youngster to stay in the shallow end of the pool and the tyke is caught paddling towards the deep end… no more playing in the cool, refreshing pool. You’ll have to play in the sandbox, instead. It isn’t anger on the part of the parent, it is love and protection of the child.
Note that verse 21 says that God even made clothes for them before he sent them out. Is this the act of an angry God or of a loving God who even regrets the necessity of his actions?
And how harsh is it out in the wild? Anthropologists studying the extant hunter-gather tribes in the Kalahari Desert or the Amazon rain forests estimate the males have about a 22-hour work week. The females spend their days in social groups gathering fruits, nuts, and berries. It was only the discovery of agriculture (more fruit from the tree of Knowledge) that resulted in the sun up to sun down sweat and toil of the early farmer.
Well, maybe God was mad; and the Bible just forgot to state it clearly. Fine. So moving on along, we next encounter Cain’s fate for murdering his brother Abel. Let us see how angry God gets at Cain.
God Deals with a Lying Murderer
Cain is jealous of Abel and murders him and then lies to God about his role in Abel’s disappearance. But in Genesis 4 God speaks.
10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
Again there is no statement describing God’s anger. In fact, God is merely telling Cain that he will encounter the natural consequences of the ground’s having to receive his brother’s blood. Notice also that God is merely foretelling Cain’s future “You shall be a fugitive…” He did not say “I shall make you a fugitive…” Read carefully the next passages.
13 Cain said to the LORD, “My guilt is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Clearly it is Cain, who out of his own guilt, is pronouncing his own sentence of having to hide from God’s face. And God corrects him. “Not so!” In fact God marks Cain to protect him from death so that he can live out his own self-imposed sentence of life-long guilt. Cain goes on to found a city and many descendents who become herders, musicians, and metal workers.
So maybe God was not punishing Cain out of anger after all. Maybe God just let Cain punish himself. But the FLOOD… now surely that is a sign of an angry God.
World Wide Wickedness
Ok. So Maybe God wasn’t mad at Cain and let him punish himself with his guilt. But surely God worked up a mighty wrath to wipe out every living creature except Noah and his passengers. Let’s see what the Bible says in Genesis 9.
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
9These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
Wait! There’s no mention of anger here. In fact God is said to be sorrowful and that “it grieved him to his heart.” In his sorrow and grief, God is determined to “Blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth.” But then God sees Noah and changes his mind because Noah is good and righteous.
After the flood subsides, God tells Noah and his passengers to be fruitful and multiply and even promises them that he will never do the flood thing again. An angry God? A wrathful, vengeful God? Or a sorrowful, grieving God who wants to give mankind a second chance? From the words in Genesis, it would be hard to reject the latter conclusion.
But now we come to God raining fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Now here’s some professional, Jonathon-Edwards-strength anger at work!
A reading of Genesis 18 seems to tell us that God was off minding His own business when He was petitioned by His people to do something about all the bad citizens in Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
So God sends two agents to check up on Sodom and they stay with Lot. The evil townspeople try to abduct them, thereby confirming their evil ways. So God’s messengers tell Lot as follows:
12 Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. 13 For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”
So twice we are told that God is only responding to an outcry of his people; which he verifies and responds with the destruction of the cities. Nowhere is it said that God is angry or mad; it is as if he is merely doing his job as a just, responsive ruler of all his people.
A Golden Calf Finally Does It… Or Not?
Let’s remember that God goes to great lengths to safeguard the Israelites’ escape from slavery by the Egyptians. He destroys the Pharaoh’s army, he feeds them manna, and safeguards them in numerous ways. And he helps Moses govern them by providing the Ten Commandments, one of which clearly proscribes any sort of idol worship.
So what do they do as soon as His back is turned; of course, they make a golden calf idol. And this is the last straw for God. As told in Exodus 32:
7And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
So now they’ve done it. And God’s wrath is finally about to manifest itself for the first time ever as he is about to turn them all into crispy critters for breaking his commandment. Or does he? Moses intervenes:
11But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
So the Bible for the first time tells us God gets angry and is about to unleash for the first time his wrath, but that he is forestalled by Moses’ plea for mercy and does not consume the people by fire. .
This was a close call, and a plague is sent upon the people, but most survive. So far the only instance where we are told that God is about to act out of anger or wrath is when his chosen people ignore him as their God and worship an idol in direct violation of his first commandment.
God is obviously very upset by their idol worship. He tells them to keep going, but that he cannot stand to be around them. God implies that he would not be able to control himself if he journeyed with them and would probably burn them all up. He is, indeed, mad about this idol worship business. It really sticks in his craw, and he just needs to go away from them and cool down. But in spite of it all, God says that he will keep his promise to Abraham. As told in Exodus 33…
1The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey, but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Reviewing things to this point, we have seen disobedience, murder, and wickedness result in consequences, but none of these offenses brought about God’s anger or wrath.
But worshipping a false god finally does it.
And Then There is Leviticus
In Leviticus God lays out a number of laws and the man-enacted penalties for breaking them – stoning for a death or other offense, and an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But these are laws enforced by the people against the transgressors. And God lays them out dispassionately.
But in Leviticus 26, he tells us what his limits are.
For initial disobedience, God may send you a panic, a wasting disease, and enemies to eat your harvest. If these measures do not straighten you out, he then makes your land fallow and your trees fruitless. If you persist, he then sends wild beasts to eat your children and your livestock.
But if you still keep at it…
23″And if by this discipline you are not turned to me but walk contrary to me, 24 then I also will walk contrary to you, and I myself will strike you sevenfold for your sins.
And here he tells you he will send a pestilence and break your supply of bread.
It is not until the seventh escalation of your ignoring God that he finally gets mad:
27″But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.
So finally after six successive warnings and punishments, God, at last, is provoked to “fury.”
But this chapter on disobedience concludes with God’s assurance of his intention of keeping his promises in spite of it all:
44Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God. 45But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.”
So far, we can only find idolatry and seven successive unrepentant acts that invoke God’s anger or fury.
These are rather radical acts. Recall that mere disobedience, lying, murder, and wickedness may bear consequences, but they do not necessarily invoke God’s anger. What other acts might invoke the wrath of God?
Don’t be an Ingrate
Numbers 11 brings clarity to one aspect of God’s temperament: he doesn’t like ungrateful whining complainers; they can make him very angry.
1And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. 3So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.
Apparently the people still don’t quite get it, and they complain about having to eat manna. Manna, manna, manna. They gripe about this monotonous diet and whine for some meat. This angers God and he instructs Moses to say to the people:
18… ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”‘
Talk about punishment by over satiation! You want meat? I’ll give you some meat!
So, as promised, the Lord sends a wind that brings a great multitude of quail near the campsite, which the people greedily gather up and begin eating.
33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague.
So we now have found three acts – idolatry, sevenfold persistent sin, and whining ungratefulness – that anger God. But leave it to Miriam and Aaron to discover how to add to this short list.
Numbers 12 tells about the fate of Miriam and Aaron when they gossip about God’s faithful servant Moses for having married a Cushite. God calls a meeting with the three of them in front of the tent and says:
8 “With [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” 9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. 10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.
After some pleading by Aaron, Moses asks God to relent. God then tells Moses to banish her out from the camp for seven days – the same punishment that a father may mete out to a disrespectful daughter. Fortunately for Miriam, Moses was kindly disposed to intercede on her behalf; but God had made his point – gossiping about his faithful servants will kindle his anger.
Cowardice and Mistrust?
As we read further in Numbers, we see that the people are near the end of their journey; they are on the threshold of the “Promised Land” – the land that flows with milk and honey. God instructs Moses to send scouts into this territory to assess the numbers and strength of the inhabitants and how their cities are fortified. After scouting for forty days, they return; and two of the scouts – Caleb and Joshua – inform the people that the inhabitants can be easily defeated. All of the other scouts, however, say that the inhabitants cannot be defeated and that the people will be slain if they try to attack. The people, fearful of defeat and ignoring God’s promise of victory, try to stone Aaron, Moses, Caleb, and Joshua and even begin to plan to return to Egypt!
God asks Moses how long will these ungrateful people continue to despise me? God tells Moses he will wipe them out with the pestilence and disinherit them.
Moses reminds God of his promise (Exodus 34) when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments:
17And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
Again, God relents and while it might not be characterized as dispassionate, his response could not be characterized as anger when Gods merely foretells that although pardoned, the behavior of these men will not enable them to see the Promised Land. It can be characterized more as a natural consequence of not trusting God.
20Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.
So be forewarned, ignoring God’s calling and being cowardly and mistrustful of God’s ability to deliver on His promises is not the correct behavior to exhibit when pursuing the fulfillment of these promises. Take particular note of how God makes a positive example of Caleb who is trusting and who follows God’s word:
24But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.
As we saw in the case of disobedience, displaying mistrust and timidity result not so much in angering God, but in our own lack of spirit that is required to actualize God’s promises to us. We must be like Caleb with a different spirit and follow God fully.
So Reviewing to this Point…
Perhaps it is time to summarize what we have discovered so far in our search for an angry God.
The first point is stated in Exodus 34: God is a loving God who is slow to anger.
Secondly as he promises in Exodus, very few types of disobedience result in angering God. Most of our disobedient actions merely result in adverse consequences. There are many petty acts whereby we ignore God or refuse to acknowledge the reality of his creation – like ignoring the ice on our sidewalk which results in an injurious fall or failing to wash our hands before a meal and getting a stomach bug. These are examples of instances where we fail to respect God and His creation.
The etymology of the word “respect” is from “re” which means to “do again” as in repeat, retie, retry, and so on; and from “spec” which refers to a scene or view as in spectacle, or spectacles as eyeglasses, or spectacular, or inspect – to look closely. So “respect” has the sense of something that is worthy of a second look – something that bears closer examination.
In many cases, disobedience or disrespect causes God grief not anger, and we must suffer natural consequences. Examples are:
- the disobedience of Adam and Eve,
- the murderous jealousy of Cain,
- the wickedness that brings on the Flood
- the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah
- cowardice or mistrust of God’s word by the scouts
However, other acts do cause God to become angry and incite his fury. These include:
- seven-fold repeated disobedience after punishments
- ingratitude toward God
- gossip against God’s servants
We can now parse these two sets of behaviors and look for the common threads that run through each set.
(to be continued)
Exodus 34: God is a loving God who is slow to anger.
Never distrust Him. Caleb is a great role model.
Thank you for the clear exposition of God’s nature. I am keenly interested in your conclusion, if there has been one.
Exodus 34: God is a loving God who is slow to anger.
Never distrust Him. Caleb is a great role model.