The Apotheosis of Rage


Divine Anger and the Psychology of Israelite Trauma


In: Biblical Interpretation

Recent psychological research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has demonstrated that one of the most common symptoms of the disorder is heightened or even uncontrollable anger. In the past decade, various works in biblical studies have assessed the effects of trauma on the ancient Israelites and on the texts of the Hebrew Bible, but these have not fully explored either the connection between anger and PTSD or that between anger in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite trauma. This article seeks to demonstrate the close relationship between trauma and rage, and argues that biblical authors often locate their own traumatized rage in the figure of Yahweh. The emotional response of Yahweh toward the Israelites is frequently presented as one of rage, blame, and contempt – a trio of socially distancing emotions. This depiction of Yahweh results in a “theology of distance” wherein Yahweh’s furious emotionality negates the sympathy of audiences toward the traumatized Israelites.


  • 5

    Orth and Wieland, “Anger, Hostility, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Trauma-Exposed Adults: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 74.4 (2006), pp. 698–706 (698).

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  • 6

    Orth and Wieland, “Anger, Hostility, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Trauma-Exposed Adults: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 74.4 (2006), p. 704.

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  • 7

    See, for example, D. G. Saunders, “Posttraumatic Stress Symptom Profiles of Battered Women: A Comparison of Survivors in Two Settings,” Violence and Victims 9 (1994), pp. 31–44; D. S. Riggs, et al., “Anger and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Female Crime Victims,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 5 (1992), pp. 613–25; Okawa and Hauss, “Trauma of Politically Motivated Torture,” p. 42; B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane, and L. Weisaeth (eds.), Traumatic Stress: The Effect of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society (New York: Guilford Press, 1996); R. W. Novaco and C. M. Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment,” in V. M. Follette, J. I. Ruzek, and F. R. Abueg(eds.), Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies for Trauma (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 162–90, and “Anger and Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 15.2 (2002), pp. 123–32, as well as other works by the last two researchers. The two preceding works cite a large number of studies demonstrating anger problems among Vietnam War veterans suffering from PTSD.

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  • 8

    Novaco and Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma,” p. 166. The study Novaco and Chemtob cite is that of J. Krupnick and M. J. Horowitz, “Stress Responses Syndrome: Recurrent Themes,” Archives of General Psychiatry 38 (1981), pp. 428–35.

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  • 12

    See, for example, Novaco and Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma,” p. 166. Chemtob, et al., write: “Anger is almost always a central feature of posttraumatic response because it is a core compoent of survival response in humans” (“Anger Regulation Deficits in Combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 10.1 [1997], pp. 17–36 [34]).

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  • 13

    Orth and Wieland, “Anger, Hostility, and Posttraumatic Stress,” p. 698.

  • 14

    Novaco and Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma,” p. 169. See also C. M. Chemtob, et al., “A Cognitive Action Theory of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2 (1988), pp. 253–75.

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  • 15

    Novaco and Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma,” p. 170.

  • 16

    Orth and Wieland, “Anger, Hostility, and Posttraumatic Stress,” p. 698.

  • 17

    Orth and Wieland, “Anger, Hostility, and Posttraumatic Stress,” p. 699. The “fear avoidance theory” was initially developed by E. B. Foa and her colleagues. See, for example, Riggs, et al., “Anger and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder”; Foa, et al., “The Impact of Fear Activation and Anger on the Efficacy of Exposure Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Behavior Therapy 26 (1995), pp. 487–99; and N. C. Feeny, L. A. Zoellner, and E. B. Foa, “Anger, Dissociation, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder among Female Assault Victims,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 13 (2000), pp. 89–100.

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  • 19

    Novaco and Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma,” p. 174; Chemtob, et al., “Anger Regulation Deficits,” p. 19.

  • 20

    Novaco and Chemtob, “Anger and Trauma,” p. 167.

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    Ibid., p. 460. See also R. W. Novaco, “Anger and Psychopathology,” in M. Potegal, G. Stemmler, and C. Spielberger (eds.), International Handbook of Anger: Constituent and Concomitant Biological, Psychological, and Social Processes (New York: Springer, 2010), pp.465–98, esp. pp. 466, 469.

  • 23

    Fischer and Manstead, “Social Functions of Emotion,” p. 460.

  • 24

    Fischer and Manstead, “Social Functions of Emotion,” p. 460. Fischer and Manstead see contempt as having an even stronger distancing function than anger does.

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  • 25

    Fischer and Manstead, “Social Functions of Emotion,” p. 460.

  • 26

    Fischer and Manstead, “Social Functions of Emotion,” p. 460.

  • 27

    Fischer and Manstead, “Social Functions of Emotion,” p. 460. See also L. Z. Tiedens, “Anger and Advancement versus Sadness and Subjugation: The Effect of Negative Emotions Expressions on Social Status Conferral,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2001), 86–94. While this research was performed in western contexts, its conclusions seem to apply also to ancient Israelite culture with its intense concern over social status, the perpetuation of social hierarchies, and the avoidance of shame. On shame in Israelite sources, see T. M. Lemos, “Shame and Mutilation of Enemies in the Hebrew Bible,” JBL 125.2 (2006), pp. 225–41, esp. p. 227 for the citing of relevant biblical scholarship. On hierarchies and status construction/negotiation in ancient Israel, see, for instance, S. M. Olyan, Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); J. Berquist, Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002); D. R. Knight, Law, Power, and Justice in Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011); T. M. Lemos, “‘Like the Eunuch Who Does Not Beget’: Gender, Mutilation, and Negotiated Status in the Ancient Near East,” in J. Schipper and C. R. Moss (eds.), Disability Studies and Biblical Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 47–66.

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  • 29

    See Shaver, et al., “Emotion Knowledge,” pp. 1061–86, esp. p. 1067; and D. J. Sharpsteen, “The Organization of Jealousy Knowledge: Romantic Jealousy as a Blended Emotion,” in Salovey (ed.), The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy, pp. 31–51, esp. p. 32.

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  • 32

    Bowen, Ezekiel, p. 29. William Morrow, “Deuteronomy 7 in Postcolonial Perspective: Cultural Fragmentation and Renewal,” in Interpreting Exile, pp. 275–293 (283, 289), briefly discusses how the threat of annihilation posed by the exile “increased aggression” but does not discuss anger more specifically or the anger of Yahweh.

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  • 33

    O’Connor, “Reclaiming Jeremiah’s Violence,” pp. 46–47; see also O’Connor, Jeremiah,pp. 55–56.

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    See, for example, O’Connor, Jeremiah, pp. 23, 59–62. Her treatment of numbing is not very convincing in my view; the verses she cites do not seem to me to exemplify psychic numbing.

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  • 35

    Poser, Das Ezechielbuch als Trauma-Literatur (Leiden: Brill, 2012), esp. p. 640.

  • 48

    O’Connor, Jeremiah, pp. 22–24, 31, 135.

  • 51

    Baloian, Anger in the Old Testament, p. 5.

  • 52

    See van Wolde, “Sentiments as Culturally Constructed Emotions,” p. 18. Van Wolde’s article is perhaps the strongest treatment of anger in the Hebrew Bible to date. It presents, however, a methodological problem worth addressing. Van Wolde contrasts modern views of anger that emphasize emotional control with Israelite views that see anger as “‘in charge’: it exerts control over a person” (p. 17). While the article has much to recommend it, I believe that a broader sampling of modern cultures would have led van Wolde to abandon her distinction between modern and ancient views of anger and to stress instead cultural distinctions alone. For example, contemporary Brazilians conceive of emotions in general and Brazilian emotionality in particular as being powerful and sometimes all-consuming. The cultural focus is not on emotional control. See Andrea Stevenson Allen, “We Are Phantasms: Female Same-Sex Sexuality, Violence, and Ideology in Salvador, Brazil” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2010).

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