Many people are interested by the concept of God’s wrath, and even more are troubled by it.
Anytime God is seen associated with violence, people get worried. And for good reason. Violence seems to be out of character for what we know of God. While sometimes he is described as vengeful and just, he is most often described as merciful. In fact there are two passages that stand as a focal point for our understanding of God: the Shema—the central theme of both the Old and New Testaments—which upholds the virtue of love, and the Lord’s proclamation of his own name in Exodus 34:5-7 where he says that he is foremost a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Moreover, our clearest glimpse of God is in the man Jesus Christ, who repeatedly called his disciples to pacifism (cf. Matt. 5, 26; John 18) and was killed in the ultimate demonstration of non-violence.
Yet a violent side of God is undeniably found throughout the pages of the Bible. In the book, we see God using foreign armies and plagues, Israel’s militia and his own hand to wipe out people groups. And while many have attempted to do so, it is incredibly difficult to reconcile this image of God with one of pure mercy.
One specific instance of God’s wrath that people find particularly troubling is the practice of herem warfare in the Pentateuch. This method of warfare calls for the children of Israel, when conquering the Promised Land, to devote certain cities to destruction.
This devotion requires killing everything that breathes (Deut. 20:16-18)—so not only men, but also women, children, and animals. This isn’t much worse than normal war to begin with, but understandably people are offended by it since it calls for the death of the innocent.
Due to the incongruity between God’s violence and mercy—and specifically God’s hand in herem warfare, one of my professors offered the following four responses. They are not his but different lines of questioning from people through the ages. Knowing that something is wrong but not knowing what, four different pieces of the problem have been addressed.
One of the first responses to the problem was to question God, or at least the different depictions of him. The heretic Marcion is known for doing this. He claimed that the God we see in parts of Scripture isn’t the real God at all—and so he took out those parts. So option one is to dissociate that god from the true God.
Probably the most widely accepted among orthodox groups has been the response to question morality. Specifically, people such as St. Augustine have questioned our sense of morality, that killing is always wrong or some sort of “ultimate evil.” One could make the case that this response is the most biblical since the most straight-forward reading of the text is: God is merciful; God occasionally, in his justice, ends life. Humans should thus learn to accept these two ideas equally.
One of the more obscure but nonetheless consistent responses has been to question Scripture. Ptolemy the Gnostic, in his epistle to Flora, seems to be the earliest to do this, though today many Christian scholars would agree. In this line of questioning, the whole of Scripture is seen as under progressive revelation. This means that God may have worked in accommodating ways in the past but strove through time to show his people a better way. (In support of this, some point to the fact that in Numbers, the people ask to commit herem.) In its most radical form, this response would simply say that the violent instructions are not from God.
And finally, in more modern scholarship, there has been heavy questioning of inspiration. What is meant by this is that the sections with out-of-place material are understood as metaphorical or having some etiological purpose (e.g. the Israelites didn’t really do that, it is just a convenient way to explain their presence in the land). In doing this, the genre of the previously historical text is redefined and the literal meaning is abandoned.
There’s a lot of difficulty with all these, different pros and cons for each and a degree of grayness between them. Nonetheless, I hope that these will enlighten and help others as much as they have me.
I borrowed these questions from another source, and I am not sure I like the titles. The first could probably be grouped with the third and titled: questioning inspiration. The last should be questioning Scripture.