Anger of the Lord (in Joshua)

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A number of OT texts characterize the Lord as “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2; Nah 1:3). That slowness seems not to diminish the occurrences of divine anger in the Bible. The motif appears in three chapters in Joshua (7:1, 26; 22:18, 20; 23:16). The expression anger of the LORD is used forty times in the OT, including five times in Deuteronomy (6:15; 7:4; 11:17; 29:20, 27) and ten times in the DtrH (Josh 7:1; 23:16; Judg 2:14; 2:20; 3:8; 10:7; 2 Sam 6:7; 24:1; 2 Kings 13:3; 24:20). A variety of Hebrew words are used to express divine anger (Deuteronomy: ’np in 1:37; 4:21; 7:4; 9:20; 11:17; 13:17; 29:23, 26, 27; k‘s in 4:25; 9:18; 32:16; ḥrh in 7:4; 11:17; 13:17; 29:27; 31:17; qṣp in 1:34; 9:7, 8, 19; ḥmh in 9:19; 29:27; Joshua: ḥrh in 7:1, 26; 23:16; qṣp in 22:18, 20; for a full list, see Latvus: 25-26). In Deuteronomy and the DtrH, God’s anger highlights Yahweh’s role as “the real ruler of the world (instead of political powers or other gods)” and initiates a response of divine justice that corresponds to the violation of the relationship between God and Israel (Latvus: 90).

“Why are the gods angry?” is a question common to many ancient cultures and texts. In the ninth century BCE Mesha Inscription (Moabite Stone), a commonly cited example with a similar worldview (Pritchard, ANET 320-21; see the essay “Mesha Inscription” in the commentary), King Mesha of Moab looks back on Moab’s recent past and on how Israel, under Omri, has colonized Moab for many years, “for Chemosh was angry at his land.” The Mesha Inscription offers no rationale for Chemosh’s anger. Joshua 7 makes it clear, however, that God’s anger is not arbitrary: it derives from a violation of a divine command, which has ruptured the relationship (my covenant, 7:11; cf. 7:15). Failure to rectify the violation results in divine abandonment (7:12). Restoration requires that the proscribed objects be returned to God and the one who has taken the objects be devoted to destruction (ḥerem; 6:18, 21). Achan is a scapegoat: he represents all Israel. He takes the fall for the community. God’s response is not merely a reaction to being disobeyed, nor simply an example of retributive justice, but derives from the violation of the covenant relationship.

The covenant concerns God’s choice (election) of Israel to mediate God’s blessing to the nations (Gen 12:3; 22:18; Exod 19:6). Israel’s faithfulness to that relationship is an active participation “in God’s world-sustaining activity” (Kaminsky 1995: 92). The covenantal dimension of Joshua 7, therefore, provides the context for having the whole community experience the consequences of Achan’s action (Kaminsky 1995: 94). Most remarkably, in the light of the community’s covenantal rootedness, Joshua complains to God at the first point of experiencing those consequences (7:6-9). This introduces an opportunity to read this text against the grain, not only by siding temporarily with Joshua in his having taken offense at God, but also by recognizing that Joshua, too, is concerned for Israel’s survival and for the survival of God’s reputation.

Many of the divine anger texts are rooted in God’s jealousy for Israel’s exclusive loyalty. When Israel forsakes the Lord and serves other gods, the consequences include some kind of retributive justice (e.g., punishment, exile). But when Israel loves and serves only the Lord, Israel will experience blessing and enjoy the fruits of the land (Latvus: 76). These emphases are particularly evident in Deuteronomy, where love between God and Israel is depicted (the Lord as subject: Deut 4:37; 7:8, 13; 10:15, 18; 15:16; 23:5; people as subject: 5:10; 6:5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). It should be noted, however, that in all twenty-seven passages in Deuteronomy where the divine anger motif occurs, only 29:23 refers to the destruction of non-Israelites (cf. Deut 1:37; 4:21, 25; 6:15; 7:4; 9:7, 8, 18, 19, 20, 22 11:17; 13:17; 29:20, 23, 24, 27, 28; 31:17, 29; 32:16, 19, 21, 22; Latvus: 73). None of the warfare against the indigenous population in Joshua is linked with divine anger. That is reserved only for Achan and for potentially recalcitrant Israelites, whose apostasy will result in exile from the land.

Although God can exercise anger or wrath against those who violate Israel (Ezek 25:14; Nah 1:2, 6), most occurrences of divine anger concern Israel (e.g., Ps 106:40; Jer 4:8; 12:13; 23:20; 25:37; 30:24; 51:45; Lam 1:12; 2:1; Ezek 5:13, 15; 7:3; 16:26; 43:8). Similarly, Joshua’s references to divine anger must be read in the light of Deuteronomy’s use of divine anger—in the context of the people’s being threatened with destruction or perishing from the land (6:15; 7:4; 11:17; 29:27). Joshua 23:16 echoes Deuteronomy 11:17, where the Deuteronomic context is shaped by the priority of covenant commitment (“love”) and obedience (Deut 11:1; cf. 11:8, 13, 18, 22). The motif of “perishing off the good land” reverberates throughout Deuteronomy both as a threat and also a reality in retrospect (4:26-27; 28:63-64; 29:27-28). In 29:27-28 the “anger of the LORD” is occasioned by Israel’s having “abandoned the covenant” and having “turned and served other gods” (29:25-26; cf. Josh 23:16). In consequence, “The LORD uprooted them from their land in anger, fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is now the case” (Deut 29:27-28). Deuteronomy 6:15 is even stronger, with its consequence that the Lord will “destroy you from the face of the earth.”

The clearest Deuteronomic allusion to the Achan story is Deuteronomy 13:12-18, which concerns the discovery of “scoundrels” who have enticed a town’s inhabitants to “worship other gods” (13:13), which is “an abhorrent thing.” (Two different words are used: “outrageous thing,” root nbl in Josh 7:15 and Deut 22:21, which states that they must “purge the evil from your midst”; and “abhorrent thing,” to‘ebah in Deut 13:14; 17:4.) If such persons are found, then all the inhabitants of that town shall be put “to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it” (Deut 13:15). The remainder of the text reflects a scenario similar to that of Joshua 7 (except that Achan, his family, and his livestock are stoned; v. 25). The town is “devoted to destruction” and is to be burned (Deut 13:15-16; so is Achan’s household). Moreover, explicit instruction is worth noting: “Do not let anything devoted to destruction stick to your hand, so that the LORD may turn from his fierce anger and show you compassion” (13:17). All of that depends on “obey[ing] the voice of the LORD” (13:18a; cf. Josh 5:6). Achan, like these “scoundrels” (Deut 13:13), is a threat to the well-being of the community because of his disobedient grasping. Although covetousness (Josh 7:21) is a serious problem, the “far more compelling demand” hinted at is “the danger of idolatry and alien cult” (Clements 2000: 117). What endangers the community most are not things themselves, but the threat of alien religious practices (cf. Deut 7:25). One way of reading Joshua 7–8, along with Deuteronomy, is to understand it as a fearful response to the Other, characterized by a “violent anti-Canaanite, anti-idolatry stratum of Deuteronomic thinking” (Clements 2000: 119). Achan’s story warns all of the link between greed and idolatry (cf. Col 3:5; see the essay “Idolatry” in the commentary).

Yet Joshua 7 may offer another image. The chapter ends with the note that the Lord turned from his burning anger (v. 26). The restoration of the holiness of God’s space also restores God’s presence. This final note also resonates with the warning against idolatry in Deuteronomy 13. There the admonition not to let any of the proscribed things “stick to your hand” is “so that the LORD may turn from his fierce anger and show you compassion, and in his compassion multiply you, as he swore to your ancestors” (Deut 13:17). Anger masks a relational disruption. Authentic relationship works toward compassion. Israel’s love for God marks God’s deepest desire for the relationship (Deut 6:5; Josh 22:5). Unfortunately, the DtrH (and Deuteronomy itself) is also marked by a tragic awareness that God’s compassion has not yet run its course. Perhaps exile will open a way.

Joshua 23 reflects the exilic reality that is only hinted at in Joshua 7. In chapter 23 all of the Deuteronomic motifs come together: perish from this good land . . . given you (v. 13); all the bad things . . . destroyed you from this good land (v. 15); If you transgress the covenant . . . and serve other gods, . . . the anger of the LORD . . . ; you shall perish quickly from the good land that he has given to you (v. 16). The only difference between those motifs and Deuteronomy is the assumption in Deuteronomy 29:28 that this has already occurred: “as is now the case.” Deuteronomy 29:28 anticipates the expression of that anger in 2 Kings 22:16-17, an anger that brings about “disaster on this place.” Joshua, standing between Deuteronomy and Kings, can be read as a “flashback” to a time before “as is now the case.” The reader knows from Joshua’s speech in chapter 23 that the warning of Deuteronomy 29:28 has already become a reality. Therefore Achan’s story in Joshua 7 is a telling tale of how such things tend to come about, through simple acts of “coveting” and “taking.” In a sense, the story of Achan is the story of the fall of Israel, even as the seeing, delighting, and taking in the garden is humankind’s fall from relational dependence on God (cf. Gen 3:6). And as Adam and Eve are representative humans, so Achan represents Israel. That may be why Joshua 7 emphasizes the plural, and why God’s accusation accuses Israel of having sinned, taken, and stolen (7:11).

Though the parallels between Deuteronomy and Joshua 7 are inexact, the bundle of theological intersections is almost identical. In Deuteronomy, things devoted to destruction are equivalent to “other gods.” Hence, Achan’s act is Israel’s first departure from covenant loyalty in the land (Josh 7:11, 15), as it is perhaps remembered in Hosea 2:15 (cf. Josh 7:26). It is an act that allows the reader to move from chapter 7 to Joshua’s speech in chapter 23, to the exilic reality at the end of the books of Kings. Ezra 10:1-17 reflects a similar reality: the people have also been unfaithful (ma‘al, 10:2, 10; cf. Josh 7:1). After the people repent and confess (todah, Ezra 10:11; cf. Josh 7:19), the anger of the Lord is averted (Ezra 10:14; cf. 9:14; Josh 7:26). In addition, the property of the unfaithful people has to be devoted to destruction (ḥerem, Ezra 10:8; NRSV: “forfeited”; NJPS: “confiscated”). These two passages share a common worldview (Latvus: 50). Yet Ezra, though dealing with a different kind of taking (wives), has transformed the notion of ḥerem.

The paradigmatic self-confession of God in Exodus 34:6-7, which is echoed throughout the OT, suggests that although divine mercy does not cancel the consequential justice of divine anger, mercy is by far the more enduring and relationally motivating (cf. Pss 30:5; 78:38; 103:8-9; Isa 12:1; 48:9; Hos 11:9; 14:4; Jon 3:9; Mic 7:18; Zech 10:3). Thus the full biblical conversation transforms divine anger by severing the assumed link between God’s anger and human mediation of that anger. Divine slowness to anger provides a check on human retributive justice without precluding that divine justice allows human beings to experience the consequences of their actions.

Bibliography

  • Baloian, Bruce. “Anger.” In New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, edited by William VanGemeren, 4:377-85. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
  • Clements, Ronald E. “Achan’s Sin: Warfare and Holiness.” In Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Right? Studies on the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw, edited by David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt, 113-26. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000.
  • Kaminsky, Joel S. Corporate Responsibility of the Hebrew Bible. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 196. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995.
  • Latvus, Kari. God, Anger and Ideology: The Anger of God in Joshua and Judges in Relation to Deuteronomy and the Priestly Writings. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 279. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998.
  • Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

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Gordon H. Matties