God’s Wrath and God’s Love

A wolf snarling - God's wrath shows itself as protection of the innocent

Divine Inspiration

Divine inspiration comes from many sources. In Ancient Greece, there were the muses. According to the tradition of some religions, God spoke directly to their founders. For instance, there was the Mesopotamian author of the Atra-Hasis; Muhammad, who wrote the Quran; Joseph Smith of the Latter Day Saints; Báb and Baháʼu’lláh, authors of the Baha’i scripture; and Helen Schucman, who claimed that, when she wrote the Course of Miracles, she was receiving dictation from a voice who identified itself as Jesus.

Although neither Jews nor Christians assert that God dictated their scriptures, many consider the Bible to be God’s spiritual word, if not the literal one. If nothing else, they assume their holy books contain the truth.

But what truth? Though some passages of scripture seem clear, even those, when examined in context, convey something different than a cursory reading would indicate, and many of the stories, history, poetry, and proverbs that make up the Bible are as confusing as a Buddhist koan. Indeed, if I really try to make sense of the contradictions that lie within, or seek enlightenment from passages that seem outright horrifying, I feel my head might explode. How can we hold as whole, and true, and right, and good every disparate and inconsistent aspect of the divine revealed in these sacred texts?

For instance, we read that Yahweh is merciful and forgiving, but he is also full of wrath. At times, his anger seems like an over-reaction. Is the biblical God simply a reflection of our humanity, like the Greek gods of old?

Is God Good?

If not, if I am to see Yahweh as divine, good, wise, and worthy of respect, I must make sense of the times he appears over-sensitive, capricious, and unreasonable. After all, he let loose a flood that drowned every person on the planet except for one family, only to end up promising he would never do such a thing again (Gen 9:12-16). Later, he hardened the heart of Pharaoh just so he could rain down plagues on him and his people (Ex 6:3). Then he let himself be sucked into a competition with Satan that left Job and his family shattered (Job 1:6-12). How is this holy? We need not understand these stories literally or historically to wonder what Yahweh was thinking.

For instance, what about Yahweh’s wrath? From where I sit, his anger looks cruel.

In the Bible, the term “wrath” connotes righteousness. Divine retribution is always deserved and never impetuous. Yet when God punishes people and nations for what look like negligible sins, I wonder how this is the same God who loves everyone and everything, who called creation good, and who showers us with mercy.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has wondered this. Some people give up on scripture entirely or choose bits and pieces to hold as sacred, ignoring everything else. Maybe they blame the devil for all the bad they see. Some leave the faith. Liberation, feminist, and black theologians seek to understand the political and cultural influences behind the Bible stories. They lift up hidden voices and shatter assumptions, creating new meaning out of old words.

Still others, such as Martin Buber, are content to reinterpret texts, such as through midrashim. Yet what really matters to thinkers such as Buber is experience and relationship.

Love and Anger Are One

The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is a relational God. He created a covenant with a scraggly band of underdogs, and he loved them fiercely. Indeed, so fierce was his love that his wrath became inseparable from it.

This was Buber’s belief. According to Buber, Maurice S. Friedman explained, “God’s anger and His seeming withdrawal are a part of His love” for us. [1] In Buber’s words, “we experience His anger and His tenderness in one.” [2] At least for God, where there is love, there is anger, and where there is anger, there remains a core of love.

Yet how do we know this? For Buber, the knowing is less something that comes because he has examined scripture, and more because of his experiences, like an opening in the fabric of space and time that leaves us breathless with awe and connects us to some sacred and timeless force that words cannot explain. The relational God gives us answers if we listen.

But why bother? Since I didn’t grow up with religious teachings, or bibles, or rituals, it’s easy for me to dismiss scripture as the work of men. If a story shows God in a bad light or has been used to justify abuse and oppression, I can ignore it.

Being a chaplain who works in a fundamentally Christian nation, however, I find I need more than ignorance to get me through. So I have learned to take the Bible seriously. What if I were to wrestle with those especially difficult passages? What if I struggled with them the way Jacob wrestled with the angel?

Wrestling with Angels

Jacob, the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham, was heading back to the land of his fathers, his family and servants following along. He had sent them and his possessions on ahead, so was alone for the night. A man showed up after dark and wrestled with Jacob until dawn. At that point, the man, realizing he could not break free of Jacob’s hold, touched Jacob on the hip, wrenching the bone from its socket.

Even then, Jacob refused to release the man until he received a blessing. The man gave Jacob the name Israel “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Gen 33:28 NIV). Then the man blessed him and left.

The story does not tell us who this being was. Although the term in the text, ish, means “man,” it’s doubtful he was human. For instance, after the stranger disappears, Jacob names the place where they fought, calling it Peniel, “because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Gen 33:30 NIV).

Did he wrestle with God himself? According to the prophet Hosea, Jacob “strove with the angel and prevailed” (Hos 12:4 NRSV). So was it God, or an angel, or something else entirely?

This is just one of the many questions raised by this story. Who was the man, why did he come, why did he injure Jacob’s hip? What did it mean that he saw God, that he survived, that he named this place?

Wrestling with Texts

We can’t know for sure. That’s the beauty of these tales. We can dig, explore, and interpret forever without discovering everything they contain. As we mature, so does our understanding. Passages that meant little to us twenty years ago can mean much to us today. Our interpretations evolve as we do, yet sometimes the effort it takes to understand can itself precipitate an evolution.

It took Jacob an entire night to prevail against the stranger. Even then, he did so only because the angel had to leave. He could not stay out during the day. We don’t know why. Was he a demon who would shrivel in the light, or did he need, for some reason, to remain anonymous?

We don’t always know who we’re struggling with. Angel, demon, prophet, pharisee. Who is telling the story? Who wrote it down? What do we know about those who listened, about their culture? What did they think about women, children, strangers, politics, faith, life? How did that affect the words used and the meaning hidden within?

Once we answer these questions, more questions will arise. Whatever truth we uncover could fade away when day breaks, leaving us to try again. If we persist, though, we might uncover a blessing within the text, some truth to which we can hold, a message that could change our lives. Like Jacob, if we refuse to let go until the blessing appears, we might find that even the most daunting stories contain the seeds of goodness, justice, love. No matter how much we struggle, we can walk away empty-handed. On the other hand, what we learn from the fight might leave us wounded, yet blessed. Forever transformed, we will have earned a new name, a new life, a new home.

A wolf snarling - God's wrath shows itself as protection of the innocent
Photo by Philipp Pilz

Love Is Not Warm and Fuzzy

Wrestling is never easy, and the outcome is not guaranteed, but it is likely to change us, at least a little bit. We cannot look upon the face of God without being made new, though when God touches us, we are likely to walk away with a limp.

That is because God’s love is not warm and fuzzy. Human love is passionate. It can arouse feelings of jealousy, abandonment, betrayal, outrage, sadness. Sometimes, we feel rage and vow vengeance. God, it seems, is not so different.

Thus, when Israel worships others gods, Yahweh brings his wrath down on his own chosen ones, as in Exodus when he says, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me” (Ex 20:5 NRSV). Not only does God feel the sting of jealousy, but he holds onto his hurt for a century or more. Is that a reflection of how much he loves?

His love also causes him to hate injustice. Through the prophet Amos, he promises to punish Israel because her people “sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals,” and they “trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground, and they deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7 NIV).

In his article about the book of Amos, Ethan Schwartz explains that God’s wrath is intimately tied to God’s compassion. Indeed, God only feels angry because he has “compassion for those who need it most: the weak and marginalized.” [3] God gets angry because he cares.

It’s All Idolatry

Does he not also get angry for other reasons?

Kaufmann Kohler explains that ingratitude, rebellion, and oppression of the poor make God mad, but Maimonides claimed that whenever God gets angry, it’s because of idolatry. [4] That seems hard to believe, yet perhaps all the little things that distress God could be likened to a worship of false idols.

Think about what makes us angry. When our pride is wounded, for instance, or our effort to grasp some prize is thwarted, we may become furious. We get mad at people we fear and fight against those we think are going to take our jobs or our homes. When we feel threatened by people whose values are not our own, our anxiety easily turns to outrage.

To some degree this is because we care about our friends and family, and we want them to be safe. Mostly, though, we get angry because we fear loss, we feel an emptiness we cannot fill, we lust for status and wealth, long for security, seek something to give us meaning.

We might say that behind all these worries and frustrations lies a desire for love. Instead of looking to the one source that can completely ease that desire, instead of seeking the holy, we worship idols. Golden calves are not the only false idols in the world. All the trappings of society fail to satisfy. Those things we make into gods, like money, status, power, trinkets, distractions, addictions, leave us empty, lonely, and afraid. In response, we rebel against God, we get lost in transitory pleasures, we oppress the poor and vulnerable. Idolatry could indeed be the root of all evil.

It’s All About Injustice

So God doesn’t hate idolatry because he’s jealous. He hates it because, when we turn toward idols, we lose our capacity to care. We treat others with contempt; we sell the poor and oppress the stranger. To maintain our own comfort, we oppress others.

Yet we can’t admit to this. We can’t accept that what we’re doing is unjust. No. Instead, we manipulate the definition of justice so it includes good things for us and bad things for our enemies. Isn’t that what the Bible teaches? If God helped the Israelites destroy their enemies, surely God won’t mind if we destroy ours?

To be a self-satisfied tyrant, we need to maintain the fiction that some people are born to suffer, and that their suffering is proper and good. It’s not hard to convince ourselves of that. Truly, we can talk ourselves into believing just about anything. After all, we live inside our own bodies and see the world from our point of view. Therefore, we must be the righteous ones. If we unleash our wrath on the world, we have good reason to. If destroy people who get in our way, neglect the poor, mistreat the vulnerable, oppress the “other,” torment the weak, it’s only what is fair and right.

The way we tell our stories, the labels we put on people who are different, the anger we feel at the rabble or the rich, allow us to believe justice is injustice and injustice is grace.

Behind it all lurks idolatry, that love of that which is not God. When we lust after the things of this world, we eventually treat one another like objects. That is idolatry, and it leads to injustice, and God will not tolerate it.

Seek Relationship

If we forsake idolatry, we are left with relationship. Instead of seeking that which leads to injustice, we seek God. Instead of treating one another like objects, we treat one another as the sacred beings we are. We see and know and care for.

Buber called this distinction the I-It versus the I-Thou way of interacting. Adam Kirsch notes that he understood the world and everything living on it to be holy, because it is here that we encounter God, and in this encounter, we develop a dialogue. We become an I relating to a Thou. [5]

This was the basis of Buber’s faith. He distinguished between the Christian emphasis on “faith in a proposition,” a belief that alone will earn us salvation, and the Jewish emphasis on faith that focuses not an idea or even on a deity, but is an “unconditional trust in the grace which makes a person no longer afraid even of death because death is also of grace.” [6]

This is why God’s wrath is inseparable from his love, because grace is there no matter what happens. The slaughter of innocents is not acceptable. No matter who causes it, a holocaust is not acceptable. It is not justice. It is, however, a part of the grace of life and love, and as such, even it is holy. Death is holy because it is of grace.

Justice as an Idol

According to Thomas Merton, justice is logical and consistent. That, at least, is the idea behind our courts and our laws. We think we can force justice to fit within certain parameters, ones we can measure. Yet this consistent and ordered world is one “without God,” says Merton. [7] At least, it is a world whose God is not a Thou, but an It, a god made to fit “into our world scheme,” as Merton puts it. [8] This god has no wrath, because it is controlled. We feel more comfortable with such a god, for it is predictable, and it accepts our definition of justice. Unfortunately, this god is another idol, and the justice it believes in is cruel.

Yet, Merton writes, “justice is not the final word.” [9] The real world, the one in which so much is unknown and unpredictable, is not a world of justice, but a world of mercy. It is a world of grace and beauty and of a love that strikes without warning, a love inseparable from wrath.

We want God’s wrath to be manageable, reasonable, just in a way we understand justice to be. But if it were, it would not be wrath. It certainly would not be love. Instead, it would be a pretense, an image of something alive, but the life would be gone. Empty and vapid, it would become, again, another idol.

After the Holocaust

To be in relationship with God, we must accept that God’s justice is not our justice, God’s love is not our love, and God’s wrath is not ours. The I-Thou relationship cannot be measured or even understood. How do we explain this experience, this intimacy with a divine so entirely other, yet so completely the same?

We can’t describe this I-Thou relationship. Buber barely could. We know, however, what it is not. It is not, for instance, the Holocaust.

Buber wrote his book about a dialogical relationship with God in 1923, before the Holocaust. Afterwards, it was harder to speak of relationships between people and the divine. So much that we accepted before, we doubted afterwards. According to Kirsch, Buber “preached the importance of saying “you,’ but the Holocaust represented the ultimate triumph of the ‘It,” reducing human beings to mere things.” [10] For some people, this made I-Thou impossible.

The world has lived through holocausts, genocides, terrorism. Every day, in small and large ways, we treat one another like things. This is wrong.

Yet every day, we also enter into the I-Thou, not because we are trying to create justice in the world, though if we live within that I-Thou realm, we will know what is just and what is not in each moment. Nor do we enter into the I-Thou because we are trying to control God’s wrath. We enter into it because we learn to let go of expectations, of justice, of life. When we can trust in love, and wrath, and grace, the I-Thou is there.

Grace Will Set Us Free

So it’s not hopeless. Even when we get caught up in idolatry and commit horrible acts, God’s redemption remains. Friedman writes that this redemption shows itself “through the very evil which tries to destroy it, for even the power of destruction derives originally from God.” [11]

We can arrive at this realization by wrestling with texts, for entering into a text, truly living with it, connects us with the holy. We also get there, though, by wrestling with relationship, for to wrestle with another being forces us into the I-Thou. One way or another, we are touched by whatever we struggle with.

Regardless of how we reach the I-Thou, though, once there, we will be wounded. We will also be transformed. Then we will understand that justice is not what it seems and wrath is not so frightening, and we will know, in our hearts, that we can do better, always better.

But if we have faith in the relationship, we will also have faith in grace. Then, we will find the courage to turn from idolatry and enter into the I-Thou. First, though, we must let go, and that is hard enough. Yet we can figure it out. Then wrath and love will touch us as one, and grace will set us free.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Friedman, Maurice S., “Martin Buber’s View of Biblical Faith,” Journal of Bible and Religion, Jan., 194, Vol. 22, No. 1, 3-13, 8, https://proxy.multcolib.org:2094/stable/pdf/1458716.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3A120253c8f8b88768019d752edac83ec7, accessed 6/2/21.
  2. Buber, Martin, Two Types of Faith, Goldhawk, Norman P., trans. New York: MacMillan, 1951, 163.
  3. Schwartz, Ethan, “Amos: Challenging the Wrath of God’s Justice,” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/amos-channeling-the-wrath-of-gods-justice/, accessed 5/21/21.
  4. Kohler, Kaufmann, “Anger,” Jewish Encyclopedia, https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1523-anger, accessed 5/31/21.
  5. Kirsch, Adam, “Modernity, Faith, and Martin Buber,” The New Yorker, April 29, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/06/modernity-faith-and-martin-buber, accessed 6/4/21.
  6. Friedman 329.
  7. Merton, Thomas, “To Each His Darkness,” Raids on the Unspeakable, New York: New Directions, 1966, 27-33, 31.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Kirsch.
  11. Friedman 177.

Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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