The Wrath of God (1)

There are two things that I believe about wrath: that the phrase “the wrath of God” refers to something real but also that, as Julian of Norwich taught, “there is no wrath in God”.

The film “Clash of the Titans” (either version) contains a good demonstration of the pagan understanding of sacrifice. Andromeda is a princess of Ethiopia, and her mother has offended the gods by saying that Andromeda is so beautiful. Disaster descends upon the city in the form of a famine, and in order to work out why there is a famine, they go to the oracle and the oracle says, ‘It is because you have offended the gods by describing Andromeda as being so beautiful. Therefore you have to sacrifice Andromeda to the gods, then all your troubles will be over.” This is what happens – Andromeda is chained to the rock so that the Kraken can consume her. Of course if you’ve seen the film, you’ve got Perseus coming along with the head of the Medusa which turns the Kraken to stone…

This is what Scripture sees as the pagan understanding of sacrifice: there is an angry god who has been offended and needs to be appeased, the people therefore have to give up something precious in order to appease that angry god. This is not the Hebrew understanding of sacrifice. The Hebrew understanding can best be understood by going through the ritual of the Day of Atonement as it happened in the first temple period.

The Day of Atonement can be understood as the moment when the people were reconciled with God and their sins were wiped away. At the centre of the religious devotion was a particular ritual which the High Priest carried out which expressed and accomplished that reconciliation. To begin, the High Priest entered the Temple and sacrificed an ox as propitiation for his sins. Having made that sacrifice the High Priest is regarded as ritually pure and cleansed of sin. To signify this change of state, the High Priest then put on a bright white robe, because he was adopting the persona of God, of YHWH. In effect, the High Priest ‘became’ YHWH for the remainder of the ritual: he acts in the name of the Lord, becoming an angelic figure also called “the Son of God”. The High Priest then took two goats, and by process of lot, i.e. chance selection, one was chosen to represent the demons (Azazael) and the other one represented God – so the two goats represented the holy and the sinful. The High Priest then sacrificed the ‘God’ goat over the ‘mercy seat’, the central part of the Ark in the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred area of the temple and represented God in his essence – beyond space and time, beyond creation.

After this the High Priest came out from the Holy of Holies past the curtain which divided the Temple area in two. This represented God engaging with the creation, so when the High Priest came out he was wrapped in a robe made out of the same material as the curtain. At this point the High Priest is no longer representing God in His purity but God engaging with creation, God incarnate. The High Priest then sprinkled the blood of the goat around this area and around the people gathered there, and this signified both the healing of creation and the cleansing of the sins of the people. Once this is done, the High Priest and the other Priests lay hands on the second goat, the scapegoat, and they drive that goat out from the Temple area into the desert. This represented the sins being driven out from the community, restoring the people to a healthy relationship with God.

The essential contrast to grasp is that, in the pagan understanding, the motion is from sinners towards a god, that the sinners do something to appease the god. In contrast, in the Hebrew understanding, it is God who is active, who moves towards the sinners. God takes the responsibility to overcome sin and estrangement in the world. That may seem simple, but it makes all the difference in the world. When the High Priest goes through this journey, this ritual enactment of God’s activity in reaching out towards creation, he goes into the Holy of Holies, which represents God in himself, and it is God’s initiative that is being carried out. In other words, God is benign, God is not angry, God is the one actively reaching out in love. This is where our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice comes from, because this is what Jesus is doing. Jesus is the great High Priest who is acting in the stead of God, He is doing this work and rather than sacrificing a goat at the beginning of the process, He is himself the sacrifice.

So if God is not wrathful in the sense of a pagan angry deity what does the language of wrath in Scripture refer to? to be continued…

5 thoughts on “The Wrath of God (1)

  1. Thank you for clarifying what you meant, Sam. I look forward to part 2.

    Interestingly, one of Rob Bell’s earlier presentations (available on (presumably region 1 NTSC) DVD is entitled “The Gods Aren’t Angry.” From the synopsis on the site it appears to argue a similar line to the one you are taking.

  2. Where do you get the son of God idea from? It’s not in Leviticus 16, but if the High Priest is called son of God somewhere, that would be interesting.

  3. “In contrast, in the Hebrew understanding, it is God who is active, who moves towards the sinners. God takes the responsibility to overcome sin and estrangement in the world.”

    This sort of makes it sound like hell is God’s own failure. But I’ll have to wait for part two…

  4. I think you’re attacking a straw man here, Sam, because when you talk about wrath here (a pagan god is offended because humans have described a woman as beautiful) you aren’t talking about the same thing Paul is talking about, for instance, in Romans 1. And to pick out the Day of Atonement ritual right from the middle of Leviticus and ignore all the other stories around it in the Pentateuch about how the anger of God burned against the sins of the children of Israel seems very arbitrary to me.

    Still, I’ll look forward to part 2, where I hope you’ll address the brief point I made at the end of my blog post on Rob Bell’s book – that a God who is not angry at evil doesn’t seem to me to be very admirable.

  5. Hi Tim – not sure if I’ll address those in the next few parts, but if I don’t I’ll happily come back to them. I’m just not sure that human anger is the right analogy to use when considering divine wrath…

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