I heard a sermon a few weeks ago on anger. It was at a Catholic church that I attend. Much of what the priest said was standard: there is right anger (righteous indignation) and wrong anger (which is selfish and hateful). The priest also said that parents should never discipline their kids while they are angry. He probably said this because parents can go overboard when they act out of anger; once they let the anger pass, however, they are more likely to be fair and levelheaded in their discipline. When he made the latter statement, a thought entered my mind: “Didn’t God discipline people when he was angry? Is God’s justice always (or ever) dispassionate?”
The question occurred to me because of something I read in Jeremiah not long ago. In Jeremiah 42, Jeremiah speaks to the people who were remaining in the land of Judah after the Babylonian invasion. In v 10, Jeremiah says in God’s name, “If ye will still abide in this land, then will I build you, and not pull you down, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up: for I repent me of the evil that I have done unto you.” When I first read this verse, I interpreted it as follows: “Okay, I went a little too far in my punishment, I’ll admit. I was angry. But I’ve changed my mind. I’m willing to give you people a second chance right here and right now. You don’t have to wait 70 years for your nation to have a new beginning, as I originally promised. I’ll work with you right now.” But the story turns out to vindicate God’s original plan to destroy Judah (at least for a season). Even after God makes the Judahites a promise of immediate blessing, they distrust him, reject his word, and disobey his command, for they flee to Egypt rather than staying in Judah. So God’s first instincts were correct! It would take a lot more discipline before the Judahites were ready for restoration.
This is not the first time that God acknowledges he may have gone too far. In Genesis 8:21, God says, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.” Here, God seems to be saying, “I just can’t keep wiping out all of my creation whenever humanity gets too sinful! If I do that, then I’ll be destroying it on a regular basis, since human beings are inherently wicked. I guess I’ll have to put up with them and work with them any way I can.”
The strange thing, however, is this: Although these passages present God as acting out of anger, the biblical narrative as a whole does not portray God as impulsive. God put up with humanity’s corruption for several years before he sent the flood. For centuries, he endured Israel’s flagrant transgression, until he finally decided to do something about it. So God is not exactly like a parent who gets mad at his child and starts spanking her until she bleeds. God had time to deliberate about what he was going to do.
At the same time, God seems to regret his punishment of the sinners. Perhaps that’s because it was only theoretical to him when he was talking about it, but he saw how horrible it was once he actually did it and observed its effects. Initially, God was saying, “I am so mad at you! I will do such and such to teach you a lesson!” But once he did such and such, he saw how disastrous it was and regretted his action.
But was God wrong to punish sinners? I don’t think so. What else could he have done? Had he allowed the generation of the flood to continue in its sinful ways, humanity would probably be worse today than it actually is. And what else could God have done to Israel to turn her from her sins? He had already sent famines, and those weren’t producing any repentance. God had to shake her dramatically before she came to her senses.
Some may say that God does not resemble my portrayal of him because the Bible has a lot of anthropomorphisms, which are descriptions of God in human terms to make him more understandable. I’ll address this tomorrow. Have a nice day!