We cannot truly understand the biblical prophets without pausing to reflect on the idea of divine anger without prejudice.
No matter how foreign or familiar this concept appears to contemporary readers, divine anger was a consuming reality for the biblical prophets and their audiences.
The reality of divine anger was, and remains, a largely unquestioned assumption of traditional piety.
Divine anger is an odious or absurd concept for everyone else, whether they be religious progressives, the cultured despisers of religion or simply that great unwashed congregation of those who don’t care.
But you cannot have divine love – the projection of a positive human feeling onto Ultimate Reality – without the rest of the emotional spectrum. And many of us have become quite attached to the concept of divine love.
But there is a good reason why many modern persons of faith have bid adios to this Señor, the stern patriarch. It is because the specter of divine anger has been so abused by authority figures happy to control behavior with implicit and explicit threats to send miscreants to the principal’s office.
Divine anger is an idea many of us left behind in theological kindergarten.
But at least two propositions worthy of our respect are hidden inside the archaic, folksy, storytelling, personalizing motif of “divine anger,” and the biblical prophets cannot be understood unless we suspend judgment and attempt to understand what it was about the Deity that caused them to tremble.
The first is a core article of faith for theists: Ultimate Reality cannot be less than personal.
The qualities that make existence emphatic and sublimely engaging – consciousness and identity – must have some relationship to the character of Whatever Is Most Real, to the being who is the fount of existence, the I AM.
All expressions of personhood, then, are fair game for storytelling about God. For Bible readers, there is no escaping the implications of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s contrast between Aristotle’s doctrine of God and the thinking of the prophets: the Lord is “the Most Moved Mover.”
A second truth contained in the idea of divine anger is this: actions have felt consequences.
It is as if the filaments of the infinitely complicated web of causality and circumstance that make up reality have nerve endings, which register the pleasures of kindness and the pains of abuse.
Though it makes no literal sense at all – the ground crying out when innocent blood falls upon it? – it makes perfect sense in idiom, in song, in story. The entire cosmos pulses and pangs; in Saint Paul’s words it “groans” (Romans 8:22).
The Judge of the quick and the dead, the Supreme Justice who oversees the system of tough love that makes life meaningful, feels outrage when the strong oppress the weak. The administration of divine justice is impassioned.
In the mid-20th century, the theologian Paul Tillich formulated the phrase “the God above (or beyond) God.”
Tillich’s words remind believers that, in Jewish terms, at the heart of monotheistic faith is the enigma of “I am who I am,” that in Christian terms, “we see through a glass darkly,” and that in Muslim terms, even the 99 names for Allah do not suffice.
The God of the cosmos, a universe eons old and light-years big, is only hinted at in human theologies, however accurately.
But there’s no getting around it. Human beings are storytellers and pattern-tracers, and the philosophic formulations of scholars like Tillich lack the detail and color necessary to sustain virtue and give order to our lives. We need stories and personifications.
Who sings about “the God beyond God” in the shower or at the gravesite? So, provisionally, with fingers crossed, people of faith walk in the light that their traditions offer, happy for the truth and clarity, the consolations and motivations, they receive.
This type of storytelling and these types of personalizing characterizations, which so fill the portrait of God sketched by the Hebrew prophets – that God loves and hates, remembers and forgets, cares and ignores, hardens and softens, caresses and strikes – have a kind of energy, the power to inspire courage, tenderness, justice and hope, that cosmological and philosophic abstractions cannot match.
At any rate, whatever its ultimate validity, divine anger was an inescapable reality for the biblical prophets.
Gregory Mobley is professor of Christian Bible at Andover Newton Theological School. This column is an excerpt from his book, “The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible” (Eerdmans, 2012). It’s available on Amazon.com.