Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Grant, Deena E., Divine Anger in the Hebrew Bible (CBQMS, 52; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2014). Pp. ix + 200. Paperback. US$15.00. ISBN: 0-915170-51-5.

Scholars long disdained emotions as irrational and unworthy of study. Across the humanities, though, researchers increasingly see emotions as central to the human experience, and they have arrived at intriguing conclusions. Deena Grant contributes to this growing field of research by exploring two related questions with substantial repercussions for biblical hermeneutics and theology: “[W]hat do biblical authors mean when they describe God as angry? To what extent do they envision his anger as resembling human anger and, conversely, to what extent do they see God's anger as uniquely divine?” (p. 1). This book is an edited form of Grant's Ph.D. dissertation, which she wrote at New York University under the guidance of Daniel Fleming (advisor), Mark Smith, and Lawrence Schiffman.

After an introduction reviewing prior research, the first chapter provides a lexical survey of terms for anger in the Hebrew Bible. The second chapter characterizes human anger in the Hebrew Bible, arguing that it arises from disregarded authority. This chapter contends that individuals typically express anger through lethal violence when this anger is directed at foreigners, but not when it is directed at kin. Subsequent chapters examine the similarities and differences between God's anger and human anger thus described. Chapter 3 argues that divine anger, like its human counterpart, arises due to disregarded authority. Chapter 4 claims that “Old Poetry” (Exod 15; Ps 18; Hab 3; Deut 32) conceives of divine anger as an actual weapon, whereas chapter 5 makes the case that divine anger in the classical prophets becomes manifest in invading armies, fires of war, and the spilling of blood. Chapters 6 and 7 examine classical prophets, Deuteronomy, and Historical Books, arguing that God's anger is tempered when directed toward Israel but lethal when directed toward foreign nations. The concluding chapter summarizes the book's findings, maintaining that in the Bible divine and human anger is deadly when directed toward those outside Israel, but less so when aimed at those inside Israel.

This book gives readers much to consider regarding its methodology, its interpretation of particular passages, and its overarching claims about the nature of biblical anger. This book admirably tackles a great deal of the Hebrew Bible. With any work of this nature, some readers will wonder why particular texts receive more attention than others. Others will criticize how individual texts are interpreted. At times, conclusions appear to reflect some pieces of biblical evidence more than others.

Methodologically, the author chooses to examine explicit references to anger (p. 11). Such a move allows this project to be well defined. However, many biblical texts appear to have anger implicitly present, even though a lexical term for anger is missing. The psalms of complaint would be a key example: those praying appear to express anger toward God, asking accusatory questions, even though they may not explicitly say, “I am angry.” Were Grant's book to include implicit references to anger, different conclusions may have been reached. Complaint psalms suggest that anger is not typically a response to insubordination or disregarded authority, but rather a response to a perceived wrongdoing by God or people. Moreover, the task of ascertaining where anger is implicitly present is not as subjective as it first may sound. Hebrew words for anger tend to show up in particular situations, leading to particular outcomes, often appearing alongside a specific vocabulary of anger-related words. When these elements are found elsewhere, interpreters can make the case that the text implies the presence of anger.

Another methodological issue: this book chooses to look at representative texts rather than provide an exhaustive analysis of every text using a term for anger (p. 13). Again, such a move helps this work stay well-defined, preventing it from becoming bloated and boring. However, the book could have better established the criteria by which one text should be designated as more representative than another. For example, the book claims that Cain's violent anger towards his brother is “exceptional and shocking,” contrasting it with Esau's anger, which dissipates (pp. 64–65). However, both Gen 4:1–16 and Gen 27:41–45 make clear that anger toward a brother can have the potential for deadly violence. This potential undercuts the emphasis in this book on anger toward kin being non-lethal. Because there is a defined set of explicit references to anger in the Hebrew Bible, one could compile statistics to demonstrate which texts are typical and which are atypical.

At the same time, Grant is to be praised for analyzing texts like Gen 4 that at least initially do not support her conclusions (see also, e.g., her treatment of Jonah 3–4 on p. 146, where divine anger at foreigners is not lethal). However, the book's interpretations of these potential counter-examples will not persuade all readers. For example, while emphasizing that anger toward a family member is not typically lethal, she describes Saul's anger at Jonathan in 1 Sam 20:33, where the father throws a spear at his son. She writes, “[I]t seems more likely that Saul throws his spear as a benign sign of frustration, rather than as an attempt to kill his own son” (p. 60). The Hebrew, however, uses the word להכתו (“to strike him”) to describe Saul's intent. While Grant points to two cases where the verb נכה does not entail a lethal strike (Deut 25:3; 1 Kgs 20:35), the word refers to violence even in those cases, and most of the time it means simply “to kill.” Furthermore, the MT of 1 Sam 18:11 uses language nearly identical to 1 Sam 20:33 to describe Saul's desire to impale David against a wall. While readers might assume that Saul would be able to hit Jonathan if he really wanted to, we know from the king's interactions with David that Israel's leader has poor aim.

A key conclusion reached by this book is that divine anger is lethal when directed toward foreign nations, but tempered when directed toward Israel. Grant is highly persuasive when describing divine anger at foreigners, and she rightly points to God's hesitancy to pour out anger upon Israel. At the same time, this book could have done more to acknowledge that God's anger at Israel is often lethal. Thus, when the verb הרג (“to kill”) appears with a term for God's anger, those killed or threatened are always Israelites, not foreigners (Exod 22:23[24]; Ps 78:31; Isa 10:4; Lam 2:4, 21; 3:43; cf. Exod 32:12; 2 Chr 28:9). In some texts, only the death of Israelites can turn away God's anger (e.g., Num 25:4). At times, God throws off all restraint in exercising fury against Jerusalem (e.g., Ezek 9:8–10). Much of the Hebrew Bible provides a theological explanation for the Babylonian invasions of the early sixth century, explaining that the Babylonians were God's instruments of wrath on a sinful people. Consequently, it is not surprising that divine anger is often described as causing the death of those in Judah.

The above examples illustrate places where some readers will experience reluctance in agreeing with the book's claims. However, it is worth calling to mind the words of Pulitzer Prize-recipient Murray Kempton, who compared critics to those who “come down from the hills after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.”[1] While I do not agree with every methodological decision, interpretive move, or overarching conclusion, I recognize the inherent difficulties of Grant's project, praise her for undertaking it, and believe that she has made important advances. In particular, she concisely covers a great deal of the Hebrew Bible, adroitly combining her vast knowledge of the Hebrew language, text-critical issues, and historical background. Deena Grant has proved herself to be a solid scholar, and I look forward to reading her publications in the future.

A post-script: the copyeditors could have done a better job. Readers encounter errors in the English (missing word on p. 1, n. 1; missing punctuation on p. 50, n. 37; p. 111), in transliteration (p. 11; p. 23, n. 9; p. 31; p. 36; p. 153), in the Hebrew text (haplography on p. 136; missing spaces on pp. 154, 155, 162; missing word on p. 154; extraneous words on pp. 136, 147, 149; mistaken letter on p. 132), and in versification (p. 55; p. 65, n. 77).

Matthew Schlimm, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

[1] Quoted in Charles N. Wheeler III, “Ends and Means,” Illinois Issues: A Publication of the University of Illinois Springfield (July/August 2012), reference