In this discussion of God’s wrath, I want to emphasize that it is not an isolated view of this or that biblical author in the Hebrew Bible. It is a highly pervasive view. God punishes those who disobey him, and he destroys anyone who might lead his people astray into disobedience.
Here is how I talk about God’s active role in suffering in my book’s God’s Problem (Harper One, 2008)
The thematic idea that God punishes disobedience drives the narrative of all five books of the Pentateuch. In some ways it comes to a climax in the final book, Deuteronomy. The title of this book literally means “Second Law”; in fact it is not a second law that is given in the book – instead, the book describes the second time the Law was given to the children of Israel by the prophet Moses. The way the narrative sequence works is this. In the book of Exodus God saved Israel from its slavery in Egypt and miraculously allowed it to escape the pursuing armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (or sea of reeds). He then led the people to Mount Sinai where he gave them his Law (Exodus and Leviticus). The people were to march north and enter the Promised Land. But when they came to the edge of the land, they sent out spies who came back warning them that they would not be able to conquer the land because the inhabitants were too fierce (Numbers 13-14). Because the people refused to believe that God would be behind them to do what he commanded – take the land and destroy its inhabitants – God punished the children of Israel by refusing to allow any of them to enter the promised land (sin brings punishment). As he tells Moses: “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt…and have not obeyed my voice shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors” (Num. 14:22-23).
And so, God had the people of Israel wander in the wilderness for forty years, until the entire generation (except for the one faithful spy, Caleb, and the new Israelite commander, Moses’ successor Joshua) died off. After forty years, God ordered Moses to deliver to the people – who were not there the first time around – the Law he had received on Mount Sinai forty years earlier. The book of Deuteronomy narrates Moses re-giving of the Law.
Near the end of the book, after he has delivered the commandments and ordinances, Moses tells the people in clear and forthright terms that if they want to succeed and prosper under God’s guiding hand, they will obey the Law. If, however, they disobey, they will be cursed to experience horrible and excruciating suffering. Deuteronomy 28 is key to understanding the entire theology of the book, for here the “blessings and cursings” are set out in graphic terms, as Moses tells the people:
If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you… Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock; blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in and blessed shall you be when you go out. (Deut. 28:1-6)
Moses goes on to indicate that if the people obey the Law, they will defeat all of their enemies in battle, they will have bounteous crops, they will prosper and thrive. On the other hand, if they disobey, they can expect just the opposite:
“Cursed shall you be… The LORD will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do until you are destroyed…. The LORD will make the pestilence cling to you until it has consumed you…. The LORD will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought, and with blight and mildew…. The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; … Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the field…. The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind. (Deut. 28: 15-28)
And so there it is. Why does disaster strike God’s people? Why do they experience epidemics and disease? Why are there drought and failed crops, and military defeat and mental illness, and all the woes experienced by the people of God? God is punishing them for disobedience. This is the prophetic view of suffering put into a historical narrative.
Other Historical Books of Scripture
Not only is this prophetic view found in the book of Deuteronomy, it also dominates the great bulk of the other historical narratives of the Old Testament, most of which were highly influenced by the theology of the book of Deuteronomy. Six large narratives following Deuteronomy – Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings – are referred to by scholars as the Deuteronomistic History, because as has long been known (or at least thought), these books were written by an author (or authors) who accepted the basic perspectives found in the book of Deuteronomy and allowed these perspectives to guide how they described the history of the people of Israel in the centuries following the days of Moses (roughly 1250 BCE).[i]
As I previously indicated, these books narrate how the people finally conquered the Promised Land (Joshua), how the tribes of Israel lived as separate communities before a king was appointed over them all (Judges), how kings Saul, David, and Solomon came to rule over all of Israel (1 and 2 Samuel; 1 Kings), and then how the kingdom was divided in half after Solomon’s death, up until the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and then the destruction of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (1 and 2 Kings).
These six biblical books, then, cover the history of Israel over a seven-hundred year period; but there is one perspective that dominates the entire narrative. It is the perspective of sin and punishment: when Israel obeys God, follows his will, and keeps his Law, it prospers and thrives; when it disobeys, it is punished. Finally (at the end of 2 Kings) it pays the ultimate price of disobedience: it is destroyed by foreign armies.
[i]. For a good discussion of the Deuteronomistic History, see Steven McKenzie, “The Deuteronomistic History,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 2, pp. 160-68.